Warriors, Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors square off for the third time in as many years.

By Shane Young

Trilogies are beautiful in any form.

In cinema, some trilogies warrant criticism for straying too far away from the original, but it’s usually a thrilling experience with anticipation levels skyrocketing before each release.

Francis Ford Coppola brought us the first two Godfather films in the early 1970s, before finishing off the series in 1990. George Lucas was the mastermind behind the original Star Wars trilogy that spanned seven years. Christopher Nolan took the mid-2000s by storm with an extraordinary action-based trilogy of The Dark Knight, Gotham City’s savior. All three have turned into historical and influential franchises that still dominate film conversations today.

As viewers, we’re set to have one of the most enthralling sports trilogies of all-time. One that will certainly leave the same impact on its industry.

At no point in NBA history has two teams met three consecutive times to battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Over the last three years, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are a combined 72-13 in their respective conference playoffs. Only one of those losses has come in 2017, with the Warriors sweeping their way to the Finals and Cleveland only slipping up once to the scrappy and spirited Boston Celtics.

Still, the level of decimation between both runs is beyond what any of us calculated before the season:

 

Under the supervision of Mike Brown, Golden State is defending like demons. Giving up just 99.1 points per 100 possessions, the Warriors have somewhat relied on that end of the floor to carry them through cold streaks. While 38.9 percent from the perimeter would be a blessing for most teams, it’s the Cavaliers who have shot better from deep throughout the playoffs. Andre Iguodala’s subzero nights from three are the main hinderance, with Golden State’s sixth man shooting a lamentable 3-of-27 (11.1 percent) from long-range during the playoffs, a huge difference of 25.1 percentage points from his regular season shooting.

Regarding the Warriors’ two-point effectiveness, it’s truly frightening they’re still above 56 percent despite Klay Thompson turning into a victim of the basketball gods. Thompson shot a distasteful 9-of-30 (30 percent) from inside the arc during the entire Western Conference Finals, and is barely shooting more efficiently from the field (38.3 percent) than the three-point arc (36.4 percent) for the playoffs.

For the first Finals matchup in 2015, both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured and couldn’t provide Cleveland the offensive help it needed. In 2016, it was the Warriors fanbase that manufactured excuses after the title was snatched out its hands. Draymond Green was suspended for a critical home Game 5, after leading the series 3-1 with a total margin of +30. Stephen Curry was coming off an MCL sprain and it was unclear if he had fully recovered.

Now, everyone is injury-free, and no player is toeing the line for accumulated flagrant points. Instead, we have seven of the top NBA’s top 25 players featured in one epic showdown. The storylines for this third installment are a bit different, however, as it’s an even steeper mountain to climb for the Cavaliers. Last year’s Warriors had a “death lineup” of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green, and Harrison Barnes. Cleveland now has to figure out defensive coverages for a group that replaced Barnes with Kevin Durant, the most efficient volume scorer in NBA history.

Durant may have taken the “easy way out” in order to reach his second Finals, but you can’t fault him. He’s having the time of his life, working in an offense that prioritizes movement over isolation, playing with actual three-point snipers that prevent virtually any double team, and still earning over $26 million.

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On the other side, LeBron James is attempting to knock off another group that seems immortal, which would be the icing on the cake for his legacy. If he demoralizes a team entering the Finals 79-15 (.840) after upsetting the 85-14 (.859) Warriors last June, it will become a two-year stretch that even Michael Jordan takes a backseat to. The competition now is tougher to gameplan for, athletes are physically more impressive, and the degree of shooting has reached uncharted territory. Winning this Finals is all James needs to become the greatest human to play basketball. The level of difficulty this time around warrants the lofty reward.

In the two head-to-head matchups this season — Christmas Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the Warriors led for roughly 95 percent of the 95 minutes played. It was one-sided for the most part, aside from James hitting four monumental threes on Christmas and Kyrie Irving clawing out a Cavs win by hitting the most difficult shots imaginable.

Christmas was shades of the Finals, where the better overall team lost to two otherworldly stars. The January meeting, however, featured the Warriors taking a 35-point victory at home. It was one of Kyle Korver’s first games with Cleveland, and J.R. Smith was still out due to injury.

Combining the two regular season matchups, Golden State scored 110.2 points per 100 possessions against the Cavs, and only allowed 94.8 per 100. A lot of those minutes were during garbage time in January, but LeBron did play in 75 of the 95 minutes.

It’s always a struggle to decide if regular season meetings hold any weight as the playoffs roll around. Last year, it looked like they would, especially when it was a 3-1 lead. This year, DeAndre Liggins had to play 22 minutes for Cleveland on Christmas, making it hard to believe the Cavs were in synch.

Still, it’s not wrong to use the regular season as a measuring stick for how teams match up against each other.

Even if you don’t believe concepts can be taken away from December and January games, we can all agree on one thing. After 90-plus games this season, it’s evident this is a Finals matchup between two very different teams, style-wise. That’s what the theme around this series should be. It’s similar dominance achieved in different manners.

The Warriors generate most of their offense off screens, cuts, and constant off-ball variations. During the regular season, they nearly tripled the Cavaliers in “off-screen possessions,” which are usually tallied when a possession ends in some form of shot or turnover coming off screens. Golden State relied on these the most throughout the league, while Cleveland was in the middle of the pack:

There are a few unbelievable and ridiculous parts to this.

Not only did Golden State utilize 725 more of these possessions during the regular season, but they also shot a higher percentage than Cleveland, and scored more points per possession. Greater volume — to this degree — rarely equals higher efficiency. While the Cavs were still top-tier in converting off screens, the Warriors take it to a different level considering they encourage movement on every single play.

The defensive acuity of Golden State shown in the bottom chart is what boggles the mind. They are already exerting a ton of energy offensively to get their own shots coming off flare and pin-down screens. It’s followed up by the toughest defense in the league in those same situations. Allowing only 0.86 points per possession off screens, the Warriors make it a headache for ball-handlers and roaming shooters to find comfortable looks.

This is a product of Golden State’s philosophy to switch everything defensively, eliminating a lot of the time it takes to recover through (or over) a screen.

It’s worth taking a look at the recent playoff data, to examine if anything has changed over the last 12 games:

On the Warriors’ side, it has stayed consistent with 10.4 percent of the Warriors’ offensive possessions ending in these off-screen situations, while Cleveland’s is almost half that figure. Defensively, Durant and Green cause terror on the perimeter, allowing 0.73 points per possession when opponents come off screens. This is due to Green — likely the Defensive Player of the Year — contesting 14 shots per game during the playoffs. He repeatedly gets challenged at the rim, sticks with guards in the mid-range and closes out to contest three-point shots off pick-and-rolls.

What has changed, however, is Cleveland’s effectiveness off screens. The Cavaliers are running teams out of the gym, shooting a 64.2 effective field goal percentage directly off screens. One could say it’s due to the smaller amount of possessions, but their hot streak can’t be denied.

Cleveland’s biggest cause for concern stems from these type of possessions, in addition to cuts. Winning a playoff series is all about figuring out ways to make your opponent uncomfortable, or to strike them with a different form of basketball than they’re used to.

The Cavaliers are up against a different animal when it comes to player movement and nonstop action. Their defensive discipline will be tested far more than it was last year, and the stylistic differences make you wonder if Tyron Lue’s roster has enough positive defenders. LeBron, when locked in during June, is a tremendous defensive player. But he can’t be everywhere at once, tracking multiple assignments.

Irving will have to split his time guarding Curry and Thompson, which didn’t work out too well this season. Kyrie’s reputation on defense wasn’t helped last year during the Finals, when he blew coverage after coverage during Games 1, 2, and 4. While he has always shown that he can be an average or slightly above-average defender when he’s focused, that’s mainly against other teams — those that don’t run as many complex actions as Golden State, pass the ball over 300 times per game, or cut relentlessly. It’s incredibly tiring and frustrating as a defender, especially one like Irving, who needs most of his energy for offensive purposes.

Too often, Irving leaves defensive possessions incomplete against Golden State, letting deadly shooters break free after they get rid of the ball. Here, Thompson keeps moving after he hands off to Durant, causing multiple Cavaliers to help in the paint. Kyrie loses sight of him, and it’s an open corner three:

Thompson is also stellar at creating space when his man is attached to him. It may be an illegal push-off (refs aren’t calling something that weak in the playoffs), but the Warriors have an art of forcing bad defenders into the action:

Klay has always reminded me of Rip Hamilton when it comes to off-ball motion, except a 10 times better shooter. He’s a pain to chase around for 30-plus minutes, and it’s easy to lose sight of him during transition.

The Cavaliers have always had a defensive communication issue, from the stars to the role players. Here, Channing Frye has to pick up Thompson as the matchups get twisted. Thompson realizes he can get free by starting a hard baseline cut, zipping to the corner and using an Iguodala cross-screen if he needs it:

Frye and Irving don’t communicate until it’s too late. This demonstrates exactly why Golden State is a nuisance to guard. Every off-ball defender (like Kyrie above) has to be extremely alert of all the moving pieces. Even if it’s not your man, you better be able to sniff out what the weak-side cutters are doing. Your team defense has to be on a string, tied together mentally with preparation and then physically with reactions. Thompson missed this — his second wide-open miss — but those looks will be crucial for him heating back up.

Off missed shots, the Warriors are always in attack mode. One of the scariest things they do is have Curry push the break toward one of the wings, with Thompson following him to the nearest corner. This makes a scattering defender (Kyrie) choose between which option to focus on:

You see Irving get caught ball-watching, while Thompson has more than enough space in his favorite spot. Thompson shot 33-of-68 (48.5 percent) from the right corner three during the season, and 45-of-112 (40.2 percent) on left corner threes. Cleveland needs to buckle down and make sure he can’t rediscover his rhythm.

Those fastbreak possessions are increasingly important against Cleveland. The biggest way for Golden State to take advantage of this series quickly is to win the possession game. Pace will be a huge factor in determining the champion, considering the Warriors would prefer each game to be played with 102 or 103 possessions (fast), while the Cavaliers would hope to stay around 96 or 97 — how they’ve played during the East playoffs. If Cleveland commits a ton of turnovers in this series or goes cold from deep, the Warriors will feast off long rebounds and transition buckets.

Sometimes — even scarier — they get open transition threes off missed layups, as it’s tough to account for every shooter on the court. Cleveland will have to do a better job at getting back, and step up its transition defense to limit these:

Looking closer at Thompson, he also thrives off simple cuts to the rim, when he notices a defender playing him at a wrong angle:

Once again, there’s no communication between Irving and a Cleveland big (Tristan Thompson), which allows Klay to attack off the dribble.

Some of the Warriors’ best offensive action generates off dumping the ball into the post, letting an experienced player survey the floor, and then send multiple cutters through the lane. This is what David West has been used for:

Thompson usually gets two points out of this — either from the field or foul line — which is a huge part of why they averaged 1.17 points per possession this season.

West’s favorite passing target has become Thompson, because he knows Klay will keep the Cavs’ defense working every second. When post-entry feeds are made, the Warriors don’t stand still. Thompson keeps the pressure on defenders (Shumpert below) and has developed a nice chemistry with West on these give-and-go sets:

The Warriors are absurdly crafty, so all West has to do is stay patient in the post. They have the young bench players making the right plays, too, as Ian Clark makes hard cuts just as frequently:

With this possession above, you can see how Golden State will cause stress on any defense. Clark initially sets a screen for Thompson, getting Cleveland to believe something is being run for Klay. Directly after setting the screen, he slips it and dives straight to the rim. It’s hard to react any quicker.

As expected, the Cavaliers fell apart defensively this year when LeBron went to the bench.

For the regular season:

  • Defensive rating with LeBron — 107.1
  • Defensive rating without LeBron — 109.9

For the playoffs:

  • Defensive rating with LeBron — 102.2
  • Defensive rating without LeBron — 117.7

The prodigious difference in the playoffs can’t be a good sign for when LeBron needs rest against Golden State. He’ll either have to work himself past the point of exhaustion, or the Cavaliers’ role players will have to improve significantly.

The last defensive breakdown shown occurred with LeBron on the bench, as does this one, with Draymond Green taking advantage of Cleveland’s defensive miscommunication on a switch:

For the Warriors, the secret weapon to redemption this year starts and ends with Curry. When he plays well, they don’t lose. The problem is, he hasn’t played well in majority of the meetings versus Cleveland since 2015.

During this 12-0 playoff run, it’s Curry that has made the biggest difference augmenting the Warriors’ dominance:

With Curry on the floor, Golden State is outscoring opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions. Now, we shouldn’t expect that to continue to the same degree against Cleveland, but he is the main reason they’re impossible to guard. When Curry sits, they have been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. The difference of 28.2 is even higher than LeBron James’ 26.3, which is absolutely crazy considering how star-studded the Dubs are minus Curry.

The two-time MVP still makes a huge impact when he’s not shooting the ball particularly well. This is due to his willingness to screen for teammates, and play within the offense Kerr installed almost three years ago.

Curry moves off the ball early during most possessions, setting cross, flare and down screens for Golden State’s other shooters to lose their defenders. In the Finals, he’ll look to cross-screen Irving and Cleveland’s guards, specifically those chasing Thompson through the lane:

Curry’s screens force rotations, which helps the Warriors even if the intended shot (a Thompson three) isn’t available once the play materializes. That’s what Golden State will aim to do: Force Cleveland to rotate, then hit the open man who gets left during the scramble. Cleveland’s toughest task will be to handle the death lineup minutes, as those are when Curry’s screening becomes chaotic for a defense.

Another concept the Warriors have mastered is how to utilize misdirection, or getting the defense to pay attention to the wrong things.

Here, they have Thompson run a baseline route to come toward the ball. Simultaneously, it appears as if Curry is coming to set a down-screen for Thompson to break free. Instead, the entire play is designed to bring defenders (Cleveland’s best) to the opposite wing, while the important action takes place on the weak side:

Curry, who defenders are scared will flare to the perimeter for an open three, has the most important role in the play above. He’s supposed to set a back-screen on Kevin Love so that Green can dive to the rim. Love turns around, but Curry impedes his progress anyway. Simple but nifty cut.

The Cavaliers do have the ability to defend better than their regular season outings suggested. They’ve been more impressive during the playoffs, albeit against weaker competition. But the discipline and crisp rotations are possible for this team, even when Curry and Durant are on the floor:

This play ends in Cleveland fouling a jump shooter at the end of the shot clock, but it shows you how tied together they can be at at times. For what it’s worth, Irving wasn’t on the floor at that moment. When the Warriors zip the ball around and pass inside-out, they’ll need to switch on instinct. If you give the Dubs a window of a couple seconds being out of place, you’re screwed.

The glaring differences between these teams are also shown through isolation usage.

For as much as a modern offensive juggernaut Cleveland has turned into — hitting over 1,000 threes this season — the isolation tendencies are much higher than any other team.

Naturally, most folks believe this is a bad thing. When faced against one of the smartest and most versatile defensive teams ever, most believe it’s a really bad thing.

Not necessarily.

It’s what ultimately gave Cleveland a title in 2016, because they have two unstoppable shot-creators that work well off each other — one being a rim-attacking locomotive, and the other being a miniature Kobe Bryant with his implausible expertise of hitting contested shots.

There will come moments when the Cavaliers need James and Irving to be better “bucket generators” than anyone on the court. They’ve shown they can do so:

Much like the Warriors’ gigantic edge in off-ball movement and shooting off screens, the Cavaliers have been world-beaters on isolations. They ran 531 more isolations than Golden State in the regular season, and more than twice the amount in the postseason.

And it’s efficient basketball for them!

Over 15 percent of the Cavs’ offense ends in these possessions, but they shoot an effective field goal percentage of 59, and score 1.16 points per possession. There’s something about playoff time that elevates Irving’s one-on-one game to another level.

Individually, let’s take a look at the current isolation leaders for the postseason, ranked by total possessions of those in the Finals:

  1. LeBron James — 89 possessions, 1.20 points per possession, 61.0 effective field goal percentage
  2. Kyrie Irving — 87 possessions, 1.24 points per possession, 63.3 effective field goal percentage
  3. Stephen Curry — 22 possessions, 1.14 points per possession, 55.9 effective field goal percentage
  4. Kevin Durant — 20 possessions, 0.95 points per possession, 47.4 effective field goal percentage

Cleveland’s duo has wrecked opponents with clear-outs, and tallied 134 more isolation attempts than Golden State’s duo. This isn’t a surprise, considering how much the Warriors try to avoid this type of offense.

The Cavaliers can use this to their advantage, much like the Chicago Bulls did throughout the 1990s. While there was a triangle offense installed, a lot of the possessions ended with Jordan wanting everyone to get the hell out of the way.

When you have someone that can knock down shots like this late in the fourth quarter, it becomes demoralizing to the opponent:

Irving has made a career out of getting switches, and then making a scoring decision once it happens. He’ll shoot over anyone, and James encourages it, since Irving shot 13-of-26 (50 percent) on pull-up threes in the East Finals.

He’ll also find the smallest window to get into the lane, and he’s convinced me there is nobody you should trust more with contested layups:

The crazy english (or spin) he puts on the ball in these situations — in heavily congested spaces, at full speed — and sometimes with his non-dominant hand — makes him a special finisher. These type of plays completely suck the life out of a defense, because there’s nothing you can do.

Luckily for the Warriors, they have a defensive system that makes it tougher for players to attack off isolations. Cleveland’s path through the playoffs has yet to feature a two-headed python like Golden State.

In NBA history, there have been 168 teams to score at least 9,000 points in a regular season. However, only 25 of them have also recorded at least 700 steals and 500 blocks. Golden State is one of them, and just the first Finals team since the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers. They are the most active in passing lanes, have the most versatile rim-protectors (Durant included), and feed off live-ball turnovers.

In the two regular season meetings, only two Golden State lineups were used for more than 15 minutes against Cleveland. They were the starters (Curry-Thompson-Durant-Green-Pachulia) and the starters-bench combo (Livingston-Thompson-Iguodala-Green-West). The bad news for Cleveland is Kerr didn’t feature much of his death lineup in the regular season, so the Cavs have no great way to prepare for it.

Now, Mike Brown needs to go with Green at center more often than ever. Out of the three Cleveland teams they have seen in the Finals, this one is the most vulnerable defensively. Even in the injury-plagued 2015 Finals, the Cavaliers had more plus-defenders on the floor to help LeBron. Golden State should use the death lineup frequently this time and force the Cavs to make tougher lineup decisions.

One major component that will be the difference in this Finals (compared to last year) is how much quicker and easier the Warriors can eliminate their scoring slumps.

They replaced Harrison Barnes in the death lineup with a guy that scores 20 in his sleep, then wakes up and gets an extra 15 for breakfast. We saw exactly how beneficial that could be in the West Finals, as Durant would go on spurts of scoring 10 straight points whenever Curry and Thompson couldn’t find their shot. Barnes wasn’t that type of stress-reliever.

The offense will come much easier this time around, and it’ll be hard to imagine Golden State only mustering 90 points in a road Game 3, or 89 points in a home Game 7 again.

The time, when Curry has a rough night, or he’s simply just not getting open within the offense, they have an answer:

This new team is able to fix broken plays in a much better way, as you see above with Curry’s flare to the right wing being stopped by Cleveland. Durant will take things into his own hands.

Additionally, more free throw attempts is a huge reason why the death lineup is harder to guard. Last year during the playoffs, the Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Green lineup only had a free throw attempt rate of .218. This year, with the only difference being Durant instead of Barnes, that has jumped to .579, meaning they generate over half a free throw attempt per field goal. This screams easy points.

General keys to winning the series

Cleveland:

  • LeBron needs to be in a groove from the perimeter. In the last three years, the Cavs have played Golden State 18 total times (including playoffs). When LeBron hits at least three 3-pointers, they are 5-1. When he scores at least 35 points, they are 5-2.
  • Tristan Thompson has to be incredible. He already has been during the playoffs, with better field goal and free throw shooting than last year. It’s his defense that needs to matter, as it did during the 2016 Finals. When switched on to Durant or Curry, he has to hold his own. When a screen comes to free Durant, the rest of the Cavaliers need to react accordingly.
  • J.R. Smith can’t be a ghost during the first two games again. The Warriors went up 2-0 early last June, as Smith scored eight total points in the first two meetings, on just 3-of-9 shooting. LeBron, Kyrie, and Ty Lue have to make it a priority to get him rolling. Another 2-0 deficit will be the end for Cleveland, since beating this team four times out of five games seems insane.

Golden State:

  • Limit turnovers. So far, the Dubs have played 94 games. When they commit 15 or more turnovers this year, they are 39-11 (.780). That’s an impressive number itself. But, when they stay below 15 turnovers, they are 40-4 (.909). It’s a basic formula for these guys. Don’t be cute and end up looking silly.
  • Keep one of Durant or Curry in the game for every single minute. Staggering minutes shouldn’t be a tough concept, but Mike Brown still rolled with his non-Curry and non-Durant bench lineups a bit too long in a few playoff games. They’ll need to outscore the Cavs by a decent margin (maybe 8-12) in the minutes where LeBron has to rest. If they can do that, the Warriors will be fine.
  • Get to the foul line more than last year. This was already addressed, but for context: Golden State attempted 22 fewer free throws than Cleveland in the 2016 Finals — a series ultimately decided by four points. It matters, and they’re better equipped now.
  • Draymond Green must hit most of his open threes. His 2017 playoff run has illustrated that he may be the most all-encompassing power forward of our generation, with him now shooting over 47 percent from three:

If Green is still taking open shots instead of shying away, Cleveland won’t be able to defend everyone. Human physics don’t allow it. When Green hits at least three triples this season, the Warriors are 13-1. He doesn’t necessarily need to be Curry out there, but putting pressure on the defense is key.

Prediction

The hype for this series is beyond fun. We get to see the most gifted basketball player alive — and maybe all-time — matched against the most skilled roster ever assembled. There will be a third war, with only one side able to splash in the puddles of champagne.

It’s either the story of redemption for the villains, or the conclusive crowning of a king, bringing “The Land” to prosperity with back-to-back titles.

There are just too many weapons to account for in Oakland, a city that will raise its second championship banner of the “Strength in Numbers” era.

Warriors in five, Kevin Durant Finals MVP. 

*All stats via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference*


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Shane Young

Shane is a credentialed NBA writer in the Indianapolis area, primarily covering the Indiana Pacers & Los Angeles Lakers for HoopsHabit.com. After being introduced into the NBA stratosphere at age 11, he's been engrossed in the game at an unhealthy level. Enjoys deep breakdowns and all 82 games. You can contact Shane via email at: syoung@HoopsHabit.com

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