As I look back in NBA history I’m struggling to find a one-man show that has taken the NBA title. Maybe some of the historians out there can weigh in on that. But whether it has been a Big 3, a Big 2, or just a really good team with lots of depth – to beat the best you generally gotta have something or somebody to take the heat off your main guy.
Enter the King.
I’m not going to play like I thought the Cavs were okay after the Kyrie Irving injury. Nevertheless, I’ve still had trouble piling onto the Warriors’ bandwagon (I took them in seven and didn’t budge) because LeBron James (40 points, 13-of-34 FGs, 10-of-12 FTs, 12 boards, eight assists, four steals, two blocks) is the basketball equivalent of Neo from The Matrix.
Opposing teams bend and break around him. Typically his squad is desperately relying on him to save the day. If LeBron ever figures out what he is truly capable of, which he has almost done for three straight games (for 3.5 quarters at a time), then he can take a bunch of castoffs and make them champions.
If it happens, it will instantaneously vault James into the Greatest Player of All Time debate, but this time his crown and credentials will be earned and not advanced.
It helps that these castoffs – Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov – are much better than the parts he had in Miami last year. It also helps that they all know their roles and they match up very well with the Warriors.
As it would go, the Cavs shocked much of the basketball world by taking a 2-1 lead after last night’s 96-91 win, though nobody should have been shocked by that development once we saw how the Cavs held up in Game 2.
Cleveland flashed their plan of trapping and switching all things Stephen Curry in that Game 2 win and the Warriors showed no inclination to adjust. They continued to run Curry into pick-and-roll traffic, they continued to show poor shot selection, and collectively they did not give Curry the chance to take an overmatched Dellavedova off the dribble.
It’s the classic trap of postseason basketball – not changing because changing would risk the identity of the squad under immense pressure. Executing a different style of play requires everybody to buy into the change all at the same time. Indeed, it is risky business to both admit a weakness and test out the antidote in real time against the best.
Up until this point the Warriors have made their living off of up-tempo and democratic play, taking the first shot available behind a pick-and-roll attack predicated on off-ball movement that usually results in a barrage of threes.
But these Cavs have three wings that can cause trouble on the perimeter in Delly, Smith and Shumpert, a roamer/stopper in James, and two bangers in Thompson and Mozgov that have put the clamps down on the Warriors in impressive fashion. Offensively, they have slowed the game to a crawl with a battering ram attack behind James that limits turnovers and fastbreak opportunities.
As we would see last night, the trapping action has reduced Curry to a frustrated passer and put the offense in the hands of players that in a three-game vacuum aren’t getting it done. You’d need more than two hands to count the passed up threes, dunks and open drives to the hoop by guys like Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala in this series.
There is a way around this, and that is isolation basketball with Curry and physical play everywhere else. After all, the Cavs only have so many fouls they can give before Mike Miller and Kendrick Perkins play big minutes. Getting into the lane, which Curry can do against Dellavedova with ease, and drawing fouls in general should be priority number one.
With all the switching being done by Cleveland to keep up with Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors should also be playing matchup basketball by pulling the ball out against a strong matchup after a switch, and then hammering it until the Cavs are forced to fight over screens. This opens up the drive and kick game that has been the key to firing up the engine.
But all of this would require a total departure from who they are and how they got to the Finals.
As I said in my podcast in much greater detail before last night’s Cavs win, I couldn’t rule them out in this series. I figured the Warriors wouldn’t want to make this change and by the time they realized they had to make the change it would be a tight series. And for all of the adjustments Steve Kerr and Co. have made this season, they’ve struggled to make adjustments quickly in the playoffs and they haven’t been able to kick the bad habits of turnovers and poor shot selection at this late juncture.
Heat check threes and home run plays are a helluva drug.
The Warriors made a big adjustment by ignoring Tony Allen when they were in trouble against the Grizzlies, but they needed to go down 2-1 before they made some pretty obvious adjustments to go with that big checkmate.
Against the Rockets, they constantly crowded James Harden on defense despite J.J. Redick showing them that giving him space was a much better play – which makes sense because Harden is a walking foul call that you want to keep your hands away from at all costs.
Neither of those opponents have a player like LeBron James that wields the proverbial hammer, and only Memphis had the talent to put a legitimate scare into them.
Last night, the Cavs trapped the ball out of Curry’s (27 points, 10-of-20 FGs, 7-of-13 3PTs, six boards, six assists, three steals, one block, six turnovers) hands nearly 20 times and the result was outright bad at least 3/4s of the time.
Green (seven points, 2-of-10 FGs, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal) passed up multiple wide open threes and three times he drove unsuccessfully into Timofey Mozgov when he could have stopped at any point along his path for an open mid-range jumper. It was revealed after the game that he’s dealing with a locked up back, but minor injuries aside, he is getting beat on both ends of the floor due to middling effort, poor focus and a lack of confidence. Thompson (10 points, 13 rebounds) is eating him alive on the glass and able to hang with him defensively both in space and in the trenches.
Andrew Bogut (four points, 2-of-3 FGs, six boards, one assist, one block) was often the recipient of a Curry dumpoff pass since pick-and-roll is often used against opposing big men, but his confidence is shot and he lasted just 17 minutes. Mozgov is outplaying him. Festus Ezeli (five points, 2-of-6 FGs, seven rebounds, two blocks, 18 minutes) picked up plenty of dump-offs once Bogut was out and touched the ball way too much.
Harrison Barnes? He missed all eight of his shots and there are little chalk outlines all over the floor from where LeBron toasted him on the other end.
Klay Thompson hit 6-of-16 shots for 14 points, five boards and not much else, as he continues to play sloppy basketball marred by poor shot selection. His lack of overall success last night bled into the defensive end once again. Matthew Dellavedova turned the ball over six times in Game 2, largely because Thompson manhandled him with the ball pressure, and it’s no coincidence that he was humming on offense at the time. He’s a young player but that’s his Scarlett Letter from this year’s playoffs – letting one end of the court affect the other.
Tonight there was little to no ball pressure on Delly, and by the end of the game Thompson was traveling under screens and turning his head. Delly went 1-of-2 from deep on those lapses in the fourth quarter, and the one he banged in was huge to say the least.
Andre Iguodala wasn’t a world beater in the 4-on-3 game after Curry was trapped, but he checked in once again as the Warriors’ most valuable player. Aside from being the only defender that has a fighting chance on LeBron – and he fought him admirably once again – he went 6-of-12 from the field for 15 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Iguodala has earned that much-maligned contract in these three games and everything else is icing on the cake. Kerr has refused to give him the outright assignment on James and he paid big for it last night, as Shaun Livingston, Barnes and Green were destroyed nearly every time they got the call, many times with Iguodala covering somebody else. Kerr should give strong consideration to having Iguodala shadow James’ minutes, which would mean changing his starting lineup and rotation to suit the whims of David Blatt and the King.
By the way, Blatt’s offense can go flat at times and I’m not on board with everything he has done in these Finals, but so far he’s winning the coaching matchup and nobody is talking about it.
Kerr made an adjustment to give David Lee (11 points, 4-of-4 FGs, four rebounds, 13 minutes) some run and it was successful in that the offense needed a jump-start, but as usual Lee gave up nearly as many points on defense as he created on the other end. When the Cavs trapped Curry with Mozgov or Thompson, Lee was able to slip the screen and get into the 4-on-3 game with typical efficiency in some wide open spaces.
Lee has been expendable because the offense has never been a problem for the Warriors this year. His unique proposition here is that he can neutralize surging Timofey Mozgov (six points, five boards, one steal, four blocks, 32 minutes) at the center position. Mozzy can’t keep up with the Curry/Lee pick-and-roll and he’s not a guy that you want to use in volume offensively, even against Lee. Countering Mosgov with Lee would theoretically address the Warriors’ lack of pace and force one of Cleveland’s big cogs off of the floor, if successful.
The Cavs can counter that by playing Tristan Thompson at center or even James at center, and the combo of Lee and Green will struggle to control the paint, so the Cavs have options for anything Kerr does with Lee. The former All Star probably isn’t good for more than 15-20 minutes but if the Warriors don’t take a different tact with Curry and the offense he’ll be needed.
Cleveland will be an easy read from here on out. James is going to go for insane numbers every night and Iguodala is the only guy that can slow him. Guys like Shumpert (three points, 1-of-2 FGs/3PTs, three steals, 32 minutes), Smith (10 points, 4-of-9 FGs, two threes, 32 minutes) and Dellavedova (20 points, 7-of-17 FGs, two threes, five boards, four assists) need to bury their open looks.
Shumpert looked like he knocked his shoulder out of place and played through the pain last night, and for a while it looked serious. Dellavedova was taken to the hospital in an ambulance due to severe cramping after yet another Rudy rerun. The Cavs can’t sustain another injury hit within this cruel subplot.
Mozgov is diving anytime his man doubles on LeBron and he’s the only option the Cavs have that will cut to the hoop, but he’s doing it with enough proficiency to give Cleveland some semblance of balance.
The show will run through LeBron until he can’t stand anymore and in the end they’ll score between 90-100 points night in and night out.
Where this series will be determined is on Golden State’s offensive end. Are they buying into the false hype that Dellavedova – who is having a spectacular series and playing great team defense – is somehow a Stephen Curry stopper?
Dellavedova hasn’t really covered Curry for two straight games now while the backside coverage and trapping on the pick-and-roll has been the real story. I challenge folks to index more than 5-10 instances in the last two games in which his defense was the key contributing factor to a win against Curry. It's just not there. Where he has been great is against everybody else not named Curry and of course in the 50/50 game. He held up in the post a few times on switches last night and one sequence against Festus Ezeli was outright surgical. He knows what he’s doing and deserves credit, but Iman Shumpert is still Cleveland’s preferred go-to defender on Curry as was the case last night down the stretch.
At the same time Dellavedova has turned the ball over and been unable to orchestrate reliable offense. He has been beat defensively on many occasions and made some ridiculous plays that he won’t be able to reproduce over the long haul. He too is going to be subject to fatigue as he runs through a million screens, including a bunch from Lee last night that doubled as football hits.
I doubt the Warriors view Dellavedova as a stopper and with all sorts of bad body language Curry appeared to be disengaged at times. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows the offense is cluttered with all the pick-and-rolls but he too is married to the original team philosophy. He doesn’t lack confidence, but going agro in isolation hasn’t been his style since his teammates have emerged to form an elite playmaking unit.
I think this engine has stalled organically and it has slowly snowballed into a media fairy tale, but sometimes perception can be reality and a team with practically no Finals experience may very well let that stuff seep into their psyches.
This series is far from over and I don’t believe there is a massive home court advantage. But with LeBron James bending the basketball court to his will, a Warriors loss in Game 4 would give the King and his men a puncher’s chance at a title for three straight games.
It’s a calculus that cannot be ignored by Kerr or Curry.
Take the blue pill and their story could very well end. The Warriors wake up on Thursday and believe whatever they want to believe and stick to their guns. They do what they did to get themselves here and let the cards fall where they may.
Or they take the red pill. They explore the big adjustments they’ve been willing to make in the past, albeit a little slowly, and realize that it’s not the spoon that bends – but that they need to actually bend themselves.
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