We’ve had time to process the unforgettable storylines from a wacky, scintillating Game 1 — one it sort of felt like the Cavs needed after becoming the rare opponent to hang at Oracle Arena in Game 1:
• An absolutely magisterial performance from LeBron James. This dude is operating on another plane of existence. He is thinking one and two steps ahead of the league’s smartest defense.
When LeBron forced the Warriors to switch Stephen Curry onto him, he bulldozed.
When he forced them to switch centers onto him, LeBron drove around them or stepped back for jumpers. Early in the third quarter, he dusted JaVale McGee, spotted Draymond Green sliding off Kevin Love in the near corner, and tossed a no-look bounce pass through his own freaking legs to set Love up for an open 3.
(Love missed. The Cavs went 6-for-20 on wide-open 3s. There is the sense that everything but the officiating went right for Cleveland in Game 1, that they lost anyway, and that an avalanche is coming in Game 2. That may be.
But they can hope for a reversal in two trends: their own 3-point shooting, and Golden State’s low number of turnovers. Golden State came close to a 50/40/90 game — around their average, unbelievably — with just seven turnovers, and still required overtime to win. Unfortunately, Cleveland is a passive, unathletic defense that rarely forces turnovers. Their hope for more amounts to hoping the Warriors have one of those silly games where they vomit the ball all over the floor.)
I’ve seen it suggested the Warriors switch less. In some cases, that is fair; they gave in without battling. On other trips, they fought. Do you think they want to expose Curry to LeBron’s bludgeoning? Very often, the Cavs forced the switch. They forced it with canny, unpredictable screening, but also by leveraging the paranoia LeBron inspires with even one quarter-step advantage. Want Kevin Durant to fight over picks? Cool. Know that if said screen so much as nudges Durant, LeBron is gone. Want Curry to hedge more violently? Remember this, from last year’s Finals?
When LeBron sensed the Warriors overeager to switch, he faked toward a pick, baited both defenders into lunging that way, and bolted the other direction.
When the Warriors (a little surprisingly) risked some Shaun Livingston-on-LeBron minutes while Durant rested, LeBron pancaked him.
He made 10 of 11 free throws. He loped into 3-pointers. It was almost a perfect offensive game. More than that, it was brilliant — a combination of physical ability, anticipation, and mental dexterity no player has ever matched.
And they lost.
• J.R. Smith‘s brain fart, maybe the stinkiest brain fart in NBA history considering the stakes.
• The shaky officiating. The Cavs justifiably will never get over the officials deciding to review whether LeBron’s feet were in the restricted area, even though anyone with functioning eyes could tell they were not — and even if the officials landed on the correct call in the end. At least the league didn’t suspend Love for Game 2. That would have been criminal.
Beyond that, here are two X’s-and-O’s areas to watch in Game 2:
Kevin Love’s defense
The Cavs came in with a sound game plan:
• Start big, with both Love and Tristan Thompson.
• Switch almost everything, on and off the ball, so LeBron doesn’t have to defend Durant the entire game. If that Houston-style switching coaxes Durant into some stagnant post-ups against Smith and George Hill, live with it. Invite it.
• Avoid switching Love onto Curry in the pick-and-roll — trap instead — but be ready to adapt if that fails.
And it kinda failed. Asking a bad defensive team to obey a long and sometimes conflicting set of rules usually does. On multiple early possessions, the Cavs appeared confused over how they were supposed to handle Curry targeting Love:
Thompson seems to expect a switch when Jordan Bell screens for Curry. But Love stunts out to Curry, chest parallel to the sideline, as if to cut Curry off and recover back to Bell. Thompson sees that, and hovers nearby — leaving nobody on Bell for an absurd length of time.
Cleveland eventually gave up and decided to switch everything.
At first, Love gave Curry too much space. This is death:
Any big man who tries to stay in front of Curry will fall into this trap of backpedaling below the 3-point arc when Curry jab steps. The solution is not to even try and stay in front of him:
The Spurs pioneered this: Attach yourself to Curry’s side, and force him to drive. Curry is elite at that, too. By the end of game, he stopped dancing with Love and just blew right by him. (Side note: I wonder if the Warriors should let Curry do that, without any screen, when the Cavs guard him with Jordan Clarkson/Crawford or Jeff Green.) But Golden State almost always has two nonshooters on the floor, allowing opponents to clog Curry’s driving lanes by sending help off of those guys.
The Warriors have enough playmakers to pass and cut around this gambit.
Still: It is often the best of bad choices.
The Cavaliers need Love’s shooting and garbage buckets. As I wrote in previewing the series, there is some appeal in cutting Love’s role to go all defense with a lineup of Hill, Smith, LeBron, Green and Thompson. But that lineup won’t score enough to keep up, and with Smith and Green, it isn’t good enough defensively to work as some sort of Warriors stopper. Tyronn Lue played it for two minutes of Game 1. He played Love at center for 13 minutes, usually with Hill, Smith, Green and LeBron — a group that brings the possibility of two-way play.
Love did his best on defense, and provided 21 must-have points despite missing seven of eight 3s. The Warriors weirdly opened the game with Kevon Looney on Love (and Draymond Green on Thompson). Slotting a center onto Love weaponizes both the LeBron-Love pick-and-roll, and the off-ball dance Love has mastered with Kyle Korver and (to a lesser extent) Smith. Steve Kerr switched to Green on Love in the middle of the first quarter, and that seems like the better matchup.
(Speaking of Looney: Livingston did not get enough time, at least in regulation, alongside Golden State’s four stars — i.e. in the Coma Lineup.)
Cleveland’s switch-most-things scheme lured Golden State into some of the same shots that vaporized the Warriors’ rhythm against Houston. Durant settled for fading jumpers and one-dribble pullups against Smith and Hill. Those are not bad shots, really. But they are long 2s launched without puncturing the defense
Golden State is impossible to guard when both the on-ball and off-ball action is dynamic — when the ball is moving fast, and bodies on the other side of the floor are moving fast at the same time. It’s too much to track. But when the ball stops, the off-ball motion suddenly looks slower. It’s easier to follow when it’s the only thing to follow.
And when Durant starts cooking, the Cavs can show help from those same nonshooters.
There are few better nonturnover outcomes for the defense than a slowdown Durant isolation leading into a Draymond Green triple. Green hit this one. So be it.
Minus a few gaffes and minor rotation decisions, the Cavs should feel comfortable running back a lot of what they did in Game 1.
This is the pressure of playing Golden State for everyone but Houston: You need to win the possession game, probably by so much that you have to take risks on the offensive glass, but woe to those who gamble too recklessly — or suffer too many unfortunate bounces. It is not enough to be perfect. You have to be perfect and lucky.
Cleveland dragged the pace down to about 92 possessions per team — five possessions slower than the league’s slowest team in the regular season. They snared 19 offensive boards, compared to just four for the Warriors, and turned the ball over on only 11.8 percent of their possessions — a number that would have been the league’s lowest, per NBA.com.
And yet: They weren’t perfect, so they lost. They yielded a ghastly 28 fast-break points to the league’s deadliest fast-break team. Overzealous crashing caused some of that bleeding. You cannot have this against the Warriors:
Keep an eye on Love in the left corner as Tristan Thompson spasms around the paint. Love drifts toward the corner, making himself available for a kickout pass. That leaves four Cavs bunched below the line as Thompson spits the ball up — one too many to have any chance at stopping the impending assault. The Cavs there had four biggish players in the game at once in LeBron, Jeff Green, Thompson and Love. Big players live around the hoop. Those giant lineups generally have not worked.
Early in the third quarter, Love similarly rushed in from above the arc as Thompson went up for a putback — and just as Durant snuffed that putback. Again, four Cavs around the paint:
Suboptimal floor balance is unavoidable in modern offenses. When someone drives with shooters in either corner, there will be three offensive players below the foul line. I’m not sure what the Cavs can really do about possessions like the ones below, beyond banning Smith from attacking the rim or posting up:
Part of the value of playing Love and Thompson together (or Love and Larry Nance, who was wonderful in Game 1) is to have two nasty offensive rebounders mashing guys under the rim. You probably don’t want to dissuade either from joining the fray when the shooter is the only other person in the paint. Also, that is a really nice gang rebound by Curry — an underrated skill of his.
You probably live with this, too, and hope Smith just makes a better pass:
But when there is a fourth player — another big guy loitering near the rim — one of those corner shooters has to loop back on defense faster than either did here:
The Cavs have to maximize their best organic offensive rebounding chances — possessions when Golden State’s switching and rotating give Thompson or Love a size advantage.
Without Andre Iguodala, the Warriors had to defend Tristan Thompson with smaller players when they slid Draymond Green to center. Normally, that job would fall to Durant or Green. With Iguodala out, Golden State needed Durant on LeBron and Green on Love.
Given that sort of advantage, Thompson and Love don’t need any help beyond a friendly bounce and a loose whistle. One or two other Cavs rushing in for backup probably don’t boost Cleveland’s chances of snagging these kind of boards by enough to compensate for the resulting vulnerability in transition defense.
The mental demands on Cleveland’s best rebounders are arduous: be aggressive, but not too aggressive, and please mind how many other people are also being aggressive — and which five Warriors are on the floor.
These guys aren’t machines. They aren’t watching from a bird’s-eye view, on replay. They will make mistakes. The ball will take funky bounces. They just have to do the best they can to be perfect, and pray to the basketball gods. Such is life playing these Warriors.