A major part of being a championship team isn't just talent, something the Golden State Warriors have in abundance with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
It's playing smart. They did that in Game 3 to come back to stun the Cleveland Cavaliers to take a 3-0 lead with a chance to close them out Friday at Quicken Loans Arena to win their second NBA title in three years.
"They're going to get tired," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he told his team about LeBron James and Kyrie Irving who combined to score 77 of their team's 113 points Wednesday. "Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role."
Cleveland's two best players took low-percentage shots in the final three minutes of a game they had in hand, allowing Golden State to close on an 11-0 run to steal it.
This isn't 1980s or '90s basketball, when there was more emphasis on one-on-one because the rules dicated doing so. Being able to play through isolation is a key chip to have in your back pocket in a pinch but it's not the primary way you want to play in 2017 to consistently win.
The Warriors resist the temptation to do it. That's why they won 67 games this season, 16 more than the Cavs.
The Cavs won a lot of battles with James and Irving isolating in this series only to lose the war. How many times has someone recited James' individual statistics or plus-minus ratings to prove his excellence in the series?
And while he has been special -- and this isn't to suggest that he deserves most of the blame -- James' returns diminish quarter by quarter for good reason. It's fool's gold.
Everyone can be wowed by his stats (39 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists or 29 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds or 28 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists). Irving's finishes in traffic, especially when he converts in a 1-on-4 fast break, are breathtaking. But this is a team game and like the Sixers with Joel Embiid these Warriors trusted the process. They're willing to live with certain shots as long as they can make them difficult for Cleveland's stars. They stay on script.
"We just felt like the way they play, Kyrie and LeBron had it going the whole game, but that's pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game," Kerr said. "That takes a lot out of you. And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it's ... going to take its toll."
It's a Bill Russell view of the game. Wilt Chamberlain had better stats than Russell in their head-to-head matchups, but it was the Boston Celtics' center who ended his career with 11 rings -- 10 more than his nemesis. Who cares if Chamberlain averaged 50 points? And who cares, other than those who overvalue boxscores , that James could end up averaging a triple-double? The Warriors won't and that's why they're in this position.
The Cavs were the most isolation-heavy team in the league during the regular season and generated more points (1,040) than anyone by far. In the playoffs, they've relied on it even more.
Cleveland has gone from 11.9% usage of isolations in regular season to 15.2% of the time in 16 playoff games. It has produced 287 postseason points which leads by a wide margin (Wizards are No. 2 with 136).
Compare that to Golden State, however, which has played in isolation just 6.4% of the time in 15 playoff games. That's 15th out of 16 teams in terms of frequency. In the regular season, the Warriors were 27th in isolation play frequency at just 5.7%
Even before Durant's arrival, this is who they were and it's a large part of what lured him to the Bay Area. In Oklahoma City, it felt like almost every play with then-teammate Russell Westbrook debilitated into iso-ball. There was little movement. One watched while the other did his thing. That's how they blew a 3-1 lead in the conference finals a year ago.
Can Curry or Durant isolate and get their own shots more frequently vs. Cleveland? Of course. The Cavs are a mess defensively compared to the Warriors who have elite players such as Klay Thompson and Draymond Green who can switch from smalls and bigs. Curry and Durant can create whatever shots they want.
James, who hasn't been a two-way player for several years, hasn't been able to defend Durant well. Irving can't defend Curry, period. And despite that, the Warriors' stars -- both of whom have been league MVPs -- still avoid a one-on-one pick-up game. Against such a poor defensive team as Cleveland,, think they couldn't combine to score 77 points? And what about Thompson who once scored an NBA record 37 in a quarter?
Instead, these Warriors keep their eye on the bigger picture which is to wear out the defense with ball movement and spacing until they break its will.
Isolations are great to use in case of emergency, with the shot clock running down, or when a play set falters on an inbound or to exploit a mismatch during a big moment.
It just shouldn't be Option 1 so often which can make a quality team such as Cleveland so predictable down the stretch as was the case in Game 3.
The Cavs had this flaw for 82 games in the regular season against lesser teams. They've done it throughout the playoffs but failed to realize the Warriors aren't the No. 8 seed Indiana Pacers.
And James failed to carry with him the lessons he should've held onto in 2011 after his Miami Heat, who had three stars with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, were upset by the Dallas Mavericks with one star in Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs understood that they were outmanned in that sense but the ball moved faster than anyone on the floor including James.
Nowitzki, the MVP, had 21 points in the close out Game 6 to win the championship. His best output in a win was 29 points. He didn't average a triple-double. He didn't produce any Irving-like wizardry off the dribble. His performance was memorable, however, because of what he did in the fourth quarters and how his team's better IQ prevailed against the odds. They saw defense as five vs. five and not one-on-one.
The Cavs needed too adjust their approach but didn't, or couldn't, believing their 12-1 record coming into this series put them on par with Golden State's 12-0.
Those numbers lied, which happens frequently when the game is viewed primarly through a one-dimensional lens.
The Cavs have been had, suckered by their own hubris, their own worst enemy in a series that would have a significantly different tone tonight had they made it 2-1.
The only question is how much of a fight they'll show in Game 4, or will they abandon any sense of a unified front, retreat to their individual corners and isolate themselves as the inevitable unfolds.