By Shane Young
When Golden State Warriors’ owner Joe Lacob spoke earnestly just minutes after his team clinching its third straight NBA Finals trip, many thought the Cleveland Cavaliers could use it as strong bulletin board material.
Joe Lacob said he wants Cleveland: "We were the better team but they did win. We need a chance to go in there and prove that."
— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) May 23, 2017
Lacob’s words could be considered a very lukewarm take, since most of America probably agrees Golden State had the better overall team in last year’s Finals. They went cold at the wrong time and had no (fully healthy) isolation superstar to get them through hard times while Cleveland rode its two scoring machines to a Game 7 victory.
This third meeting between Golden State and Cleveland accumulated more anticipation than any Finals matchup I can remember. It also mirrored, in some ways, the 2014 Finals. After the San Antonio Spurs nearly had the trophy within their grasp, an aberrational comeback issued Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich one miserable summer’s worth of nightmares. They returned a year later, desecrating LeBron’s Heat by a combined margin of 70 points in five games.
The Spurs wanted redemption to a degree that was almost scary, with Popovich reminding them all season of the Game 6 meltdown.
Last June, we saw a comparable recovery by the Cavaliers, going down 3-1 in the Finals and proceeding to win the last three games by 33 total points.
The Warriors went about their reclamation in a slightly different manner.
They signed Kevin Durant in the offseason — made possible by the cheap long-term salary they were able to ink Curry for in 2012 — and decided to increase their odds of blowing out every team with offensive finesse and volume.
Since Durant became a Warrior, they’ve enjoyed a 80-15 record (.842) after Thursday’s Game 1 victory, outscoring opponents by 12.3 points per game during that span.
Game 1 of the Finals elucidated Golden State’s glaring advantages on the court, beginning with the general notion that Durant gives them a one-on-one option they didn’t have last year.
Finishing with 38 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and no turnovers, Durant became the 11th player in modern NBA Finals history to score at least 38 points on 26 or fewer field goal attempts. It’s something his new rival, LeBron James, hasn’t accomplished in his 41 Finals games.
Durant got to the foul line eight times in the Warriors’ 22-point drumming of the Cavaliers, which was half of the total free throw attempts Golden State had as a team. It was a point of emphasis in my preview before the series: This team is better equipped to manufacture “easy” points than last year’s Warriors. While Durant thrives on outside scoring, he’s one of the league’s best at drawing contact and putting pressure on weak defenders. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is hack him. This breaks Golden State out of any long drought, which killed them last year in Game 7.
Cleveland picked the wrong night to have its third-worst offensive game of the year, in terms of field goal percentage. The Cavaliers shot 34.9 percent from the floor, only better than two early season games versus Miami and Detroit.
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It was the James and Kyrie Irving show offensively, with the Cavs’ duo shooting 19-of-42 (45.2 percent) for the game. All other Cavs shot 11-of-44 (25 percent). The two-man dominance may have worked out in their favor last year, but this is the wrong animal to try it against. It’s imperative that J.R. Smith (three points on four shots), Kyle Korver (scoreless on three shots), and Tristan Thompson (scoreless on three shots) figure out ways to be effective offensively. The level of difficulty for James and Irving to exert that much energy and carry that much responsibility offensively, and also tread water on the defensive end, is unrealistic.
Cleveland didn’t have too much of a problem scoring in the first half, but they were setting themselves up for disaster. The pace of the first half was a breakneck 108.2, far too up-tempo for the Cavs’ liking. When the Warriors are winning the possession game with speed, turnovers and offensive rebounds, you’re essentially throwing away any chance of pulling out a road win.
Golden State won the transition points battle 27-9, and asserted its will inside the arc with a 56-30 points in the paint advantage. It seems that any way Cleveland tries to attack this, strategy wise, they’ll be outdone by the talent disparity.
The third quarter featured the Cavaliers trying to slow down the pace, but ultimately running into the Warriors’ vaunted half-court defense. Although Cleveland is working best when the pace is slower (around 94 to 97 possessions per 48 minutes), the Warriors held them to a preposterous 84.2 offensive rating in the third quarter.
With their starters on the floor, the Warriors reminded exactly why they haven’t been challenged throughout the postseason. Exceptional rotations on pick-and-roll coverage to protect the paint, followed by sharp closeouts and protecting the rim without fouling, made it easy for Golden State to bust open the game:
Let’s break down how superb this defensive possession was.
- Durant and Pachulia have to guard a LeBron-Tristan pick-and-roll. Pachulia plays LeBron as a driver (as he should), and gives him room to shoot the jumper if he wants it. Durant eventually steps up to take LeBron again.
- Pachulia should have switched back on to Tristan’s roll, but this is why Golden State is right up there with San Antonio in defensive prowess: Their rotations from the weak-side are timely, making up for one mistake. Curry and Thompson rotate to the restricted area, leaving their corner shooters.
- This forces Tristan to become a playmaker on the short roll, dishing it out to an open teammate.
- Draymond Green recognizes the openings on the right side of the floor, and appropriately rotates to J.R. Smith in the corner.
- Durant is the next one to rotate, sliding off LeBron to pick up Kevin Love. This gets LeBron frustrated that his offense can’t generate any open look, and he eventually settles for a deep, uncharacteristic three-pointer.
- Cleveland gets the offensive board, and finds Kyrie on a cut to the rim.
- Curry, realizing he won’t be able to stay with Kyrie, directs a helper (Durant) to rotate to the restricted area.
- Durant uses his rim-protecting verticality to force a missed layup.
Everything is so organic defensively for this group.
Also a tremendous part of Golden State’s defensive Game 1 was their isolation containment. This series features the best isolation offense against the one team designed to take away most of those opportunities.
We got a glimpse of how this series may go if the Cavaliers resort to having James and Irving control the offense with no off-ball movement or passing. While this is what they’re best at — and exactly how they won the 2016 title — I’m strongly doubting this formula will work against a Durant-led Warriors group:
Here, Iguodala guards Irving about as perfectly as any human can, step for step, and gets a deflection. Irving then kicks it out to LeBron with eight seconds left on the shot clock. LeBron takes it to the hole, but Durant continues to demonstrate his increased defensive traits.
Durant’s opponents shot 4-of-11 (36.4 percent) against him in Game 1, including this altered layup by LeBron.
Notice what this type of defense leads to? Curry getting a running start the other way, with James stuck behind the Warriors’ goal. Because of LeBron being out of the picture, Curry had Durant on the right wing for an open triple. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands, pulling up in front of Smith. Golden State’s defense-to-offense completely cracked open the game.
The Cavaliers also struggled mightily defending half-court actions. It wasn’t pretty out there, with a lack of communication resulting in poor pick-and-roll coverage:
Green and Pachulia execute a form of a double-staggered screen for Curry here. While it’s up to Love to switch on to Curry and prevent the open look, it’s also just as important for Tristan Thompson to communicate that from behind the play. Nobody directs traffic and it results in a bloody crash.
Offensively for the Cavs, we did see flashes of quality offense when LeBron took over the playmaking duties.
They confused the Warriors on a few possessions, particularly on this off-ball screen that resulted in Curry losing his man (Kyrie) backdoor:
Still, it felt as if these points were hard to come by, and every quality Cavaliers possession came after four or five poor ones. To beat the Warriors on the road, you need it the other way around.
Offensively for Golden State, they did use part of the third quarter to try finding Klay Thompson open looks. Thompson’s soul is encapsulated in a glacier during the playoffs, having hit just 19 of his last 65 shots. That’s a 29.2 percent efficiency since the start of the West Finals, including a 3-of-16 showing on Thursday.
They ran another famous Curry cross-screen in the paint, with an attempt to have Thompson flare to the left wing for a catch-and-shoot three. Even James Michael McAdoo helped free up space with a second screen on Irving:
Thompson is just gelid right now. The Warriors win by 22 without their second-best shooter finding his shot.
Game 2 needs to go in the Cavs’ favor if they want a chance at defending the title. Going down 0-2 against the Warriors happened to work out last year, but Kyle Korver said it best.
“Things don’t look good for us right now,” Korver said after the game.
Defeating this overpowered unit four times out of six is a devilish task as it is. Four out of five would be a miracle.
- Golden State is now 105-16 (.868) in the last two years when committing 15 or fewer turnovers. They had 31 assists to only four turnovers in Game 1, an assist-to-turnover ratio of 7.75. The Cavaliers had 15 assists to 20 turnovers, a ratio of 0.75. It was the largest difference in NBA Finals history.
- The Warriors attempted 20 more field goals than Cleveland in Game 1. It was the fourth time this season the Warriors took over 100 shots in regulation. They are 4-0 in such games, beating opponents by an average of 23 points.
- Cleveland had zero steals for the game, marking the first time in modern Finals history a team failed to record a steal.
- LeBron is now 1-7 in NBA Finals Game 1’s, despite playing well individually. He’s 4-3 in Game 2’s, however.
- The Warriors start the playoffs 13-0, three wins shy of being the first team in history to go 16-0 in the playoffs
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