Through 48 minutes and 42 points in game one of the NBA Finals, LeBron James did everything humanly possible to shake the Golden State Warriors from their foundations; bullying defenders in the post, hitting floaters and hooks from improbable angles.
Against almost any other team it might have been enough.
But these 2014-2015 Warriors are nothing if not an exercise in trust, their foundations built upon a rock. The groundwork was laid last summer when, upon accepting the Warriors’ head coaching position, Steve Kerr reached out to each player individually and communicated how he would use each one to the benefit of the collective.
Trust the system, trust the process, and trust each other. Eventually the odds will shift favorably.
The open lines of communication and Kerr’s clear vision allowed for a culture where Andre Iguodala, a former All-Star, accepted a role off the bench. It’s how David Lee, the team’s highest paid player, has not once publicly complained over never leaving that bench. Their regular season dominance and a gritty series against the Memphis Grizzlies have only cemented that culture.
“We’re not really too worried about individual accolades right now,” Andrew Bogut said. “We have a lot of guys that have given up stats for the greater good.”
Perhaps chief among them is Iguodala, who ceded his spot in the starting lineup to allow the younger Harrison Barnes to thrive in a complementary role alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson while balancing out the second unit with Iguodala’s own defense and playmaking ability.
Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kerr asked Iguodala to sacrifice his body and some pride in defending LeBron James one-on-one. In their defensive schemes, no Warrior is ever truly alone. No team rotates and recovers with the same precision as Golden State, and Iguodala could pressure James knowing he had help behind him, but there would be no double teams coming.
“It’s pick your poison with [LeBorn James], he’s a great player,” Kerr said. “Everyone knows that, and he does so many things for them he’s difficult to stop.”[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”2015-NBA-Playoffs” title=”More 2015 NBA Playoffs” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Before the series there was plenty of speculation on how the Warriors would approach James, with one of the prevailing theories being to allow him relatively free reign with the ball while choking off his support. It is one thing to say pick your poison, however, and an entirely different matter to willfully ingest it knowing the immediate discomfort sure to follow.
The thought process for the Warriors heading into the Finals is to allow James do his damage, hopefully diluting the effects of said poison long enough to build an immunity to it over the course of a seven game series. It’s not a new concept, but few teams have enough bodies to throw at James, or enough trust to stomach the pain.
And for a quarter that pain was considerable.
The Cavaliers came out with incredible precision in executing their defensive game plan, using an extra defender to string out Curry pick and rolls while rotating in unison behind it. There are no good options when defending the Warriors, only varying shades of difficult choices; and through the first quarter the Cavaliers’ defense managed to funnel the ball to the right shooters in the right places that inflicted the least damage.
Golden State shot just 27.3 percent in those first 12 minutes, hitting only 1-5 from three. Their inability to control the glass early against the tandem of Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov (getting outrebounded 17-9 in the first quarter) prevented the Warriors from leaking out in transition. The Cavaliers further dictated tempo by pressing after made baskets, not allowing them to flow into their offense with momentum.
“We were prepared and we had a game plan that we followed well early,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. “But the NBA game is a long game; a lot of stops, a lot of changes in momentum.”
Because of their explosive scoring ability, it’s hard to think of the Warriors as a team that grinds you down, but that’s exactly what they do. James started the game on a tear, scoring 12 points on nine shots in the first quarter as the Cavaliers built a lead as high as 14. His outside shot, absent for most of the playoffs, found the bottom of the net, and his physicality helped him find his way to the free throw line. According to NBA.Com’s SportsVU recap, LeBron James scored 20 points on 26 isolations, and creating six other points via assist. Still, the Warriors refused to budge from their game plan.
“Well, we’ve done a great job all year not panicking. We know how talented our roster is. We’ve been down 20, 25, we still come back and win, so we’re never out of it,” Klay Thompson said. “And Steve [Kerr] told us, it’s going to be a long game and he was right. We have plenty of opportunities to get back into it, and our bench did such a great job by coming back in and playing with great energy and increasing the tempo. So we went down 14, we didn’t panic.”
The Warriors have had their share of slow starts these playoffs, but overall have met little resistance. Even at the height of the Cavaliers’ defensive prowess, cracks were evident. Klay Thompson and Green would run a fake dribble handoff as misdirection for Thompson setting a screen for Curry, who’d turn the eventual dribble handoff with Green into a makeshift pick and roll opening a Barnes corner three-pointer.
Such plays aren’t always in abundance early, but the Warriors persistence in running similar actions chips away at opposing schemes. Defenders start rotating earlier or clinging to their man tighter until actions that once created shots over closeouts end in a cutter with a free lane for a dunk.
When the Warriors couldn’t bend the Cavaliers defense with a pick and roll, they turned to Maurice Speights (eight points in roughly as many minutes) to puncture it with post-ups and jumpers, or Iguodala (15 points on 6-8 shooting) off the bounce and in isolation. Even within their individual accomplishments, the Warriors are structured in a way that every threat eventually feeds into another.
For the Cavaliers, there’s just feeding James, or when healthy, Kyrie Irving.
“We knew our defense was doing a decent job. We just couldn’t score in that first quarter. We knew the buckets would start to fall for us,” Bogut said. “They were going a little isolation-type stuff, so we knew over the tenure of the game that we had a chance to get back into it and they would be worn out.”[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”2015-NBA-Finals” title=”More 2015 NBA Finals” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
James has often been credited with an eidetic memory when it comes to basketball, but he won’t have to dig too deep to recall where he’s seen this before. This is the same methodology the San Antonio Spurs used a year ago to unseat his reign in Miami. He scored 25 points in the second half (including overtime), but only two other players (Mozgov and Irving) contributed points during that time while everyone else combined to take just six shots.
“LeBron really took over for us in the second half, getting to the free throw line, getting to the basket, and we were still in the game,” Smith said. “We didn’t need anyone else to score. He was doing enough for us offensively.”
For a night, LeBron James was almost enough. And yet, he wasn’t. Nearly everything fell into place just right for the Cavaliers, from the Warriors’ slow start to Tristan Thompson controlling the glass and Irving show know ill-effects from his knees; scoring 23 points and as admirable a defensive performance as anyone could expect against Curry.
All of these things, combined with James’ dominance, gave them a shot to win the game in regulation. James missed an off-balance fade away jumper over Iguodala, and Iman Shumpert almost ended things with a long rebound and shot of his own.
Make that shot or come through in overtime and perhaps the narrative heading into game two would be different. But here’s the thing, the Warriors wouldn’t be. They’d continue along the same path, trusting their offense to wear down any defensive scheme and their defense to ultimately just wear James down.
Throughout the course of a seven game series there will be random fluctuations in play. Smith, taking the same awful shots he attempted on Thursday night, will hit 10 three-pointers instead of missing them. Matthew Dellavedova will find a way to contribute some scoring off the bench after being held without a single attempt.
But the methodology? This is who the Cavaliers have been throughout the playoffs. And with Irving’s status in question after another knee injury in overtime, it’s hard to see what they can better.
In game one James did everything humanly possible to break the Warriors foundations and barely moved them. What else can be done?