By Eric Apricot
LeBron James and the Cavaliers had a ferocious first half in Game 2, but the attack petered out as James seemed to wear down in exhaustion.
Don’t think LeBron got tired in Game 2? 1st half: 5 drives, 8 plays transition, 16 pts paint. 2nd half: 0 drives, 3 plays trans, 4 pts paint. So for Game 3, whether or not the Cavs slow it down or not, they need to cultivate more scoring from non-LeBron players.
Three successful strategies from the 2016 Finals have not worked well up to now. The Cavs have tried to:
- Attack Stephen Curry in the pick and roll. The Warriors have responded with an unusual pre-emptive high tag defense, which we analyzed previously in The New Way Stephen Curry Defends LeBron James. To my surprise, the Cavs have not come up with a standard counter to this gimmicky defense, either by having LeBron attack right on the high tag or have screeners slip smartly. The Cavs went away from this in Game.
- Have Kyrie Irving attack bigs in the pick and roll. The Warriors have responded by having Zaza Pachulia double-team Kyrie Irving, as predicted in How the Warriors Defend Kyrie Irving with Goalies and Traps. Again, the Cavs haven’t found an effective counter.
- Have Tristan Thompson create havoc by rim-running and grabbing offensive rebounds for extra chances. We’ll spend the rest of the article looking at why Tristan has been neutralized, and how the Cavs might unlock him.
How Tristan Thompson Got Neutralized
Tristan Thompson predicted of Game 2, “It’s going to be a wrestling match, like WWE down there.” And yet, he ended up playing only 22 minutes with a disappointing -18 with eight points on seven shots and, worse yet, only four rebounds, including two offensive rebounds, one of them gifted by Draymond Green. This followed a Game 1 where he only totaled four rebounds (three offensive) in 22 minutes.
This is disappointing for a player whose speciality is causing havoc on the offensive boards. Thompson rates fourth in NBA in offensive rebound rate (16.2 percent) for regulars in the playoffs, and 14th out of 372 NBA regulars in in 2016-17 in offensive rebound rate (13.5 percent). His $15 million contract has also caused grumbling among Cavaliers fans.
This is particularly disappointing for a player with something of a reputation as a Warriors killer. He had a good 2016 Finals, capped off with perhaps his finest game, elimination Game 6, where he led the team with +32, dunking in 15 points with 16 rebounds (two offensive).
But since that game, Thompson hasn’t had the same impact. Thompson has quietly had poor games all year against the Warriors, with eight points and eight rebounds for -8 on Christmas Day, and six points and five rebounds for -28 on MLK Day before the poor start to the Finals.
So here is how the Warriors have neutralized Thompson in his three areas of offensive use: offensive rebound, rim-running and as an outlet on double-teams.
Offensive Rebounding: Zaza Pachulia and Gang Rebounding
One obvious change is that Thompson is now guarded by Zaza Pachulia and David West, as opposed to a shaky Festus Ezeli, a psyched-out backup big at best, and Anderson Varejao, who was a sub-replacement NBA player. Zaza Pachulia is a strange figure, mixing the ridiculous with the rugged. He is slow and has been skittish on offense, passing up open layups and letting multiple passes bounce off his body.
However, he has succeeded in his number one goal, which is to follow Thompson everywhere and block him out. The Cavaliers usually send only one or two men to the offensive boards, so long as Pachulia ties up Thompson, the rest of the Warriors can usually get the rebound. For instance, watch Pachulia wrestle at the end of this play:
As soon as the ball goes up, Pachulia doesn’t track the flight. He turns to find Thompson, then puts his body on him, then drives him like a football lineman away from the basket. Notice also the Warriors are gang rebounding, sending four and sometimes five men to the defensive boards.
Here’s another play where, again, as the shot goes up, Pachulia turns to find Thompson, wrestles him and only then looks for the ball. Again, four Warriors rebound.
Here’s another play where you can see how Pachulia turns to find Thompson as the shot goes up, and then wrestles him while letting the others rebound the ball.
Rim-running: Warriors Specially Mark Tristan Thompson
In 2016, Thompson repeatedly ran past the Warriors transition defenders for dunks. Here’s a typical example.
Thompson outran Festus Ezeli and no one on the transition coverage picked him up. This year, the Warriors are picking him up on the break and boxing him out from the start. In these two plays, Draymond Green focuses on making contact with Thompson rather than contesting the drives.
It certainly helps that Kevin Durant now has the primary job of slowing LeBron. Here’s another example of picking up Thompson in transition.
At some point in the game, LeBron stopped waiting for Thompson on the break, and just attacked the basket solo with speed and power. But he couldn’t keep up that kind of pace.
Even on simple cuts to the rim, Green is highly aware of Thompson. For instance, let’s return to the first clip. Do you recognize the action the Cavs run for Thompson?
It’s similar to a Spain pick and roll (a fashionable screen-the-screener action) where Thompson sets a screen when he hands off to LeBron, and then Iman Shumpert comes up and screens for Thompson, who dives to the basket. He is open for a second, but notice how Draymond drops down to cover the entry pass to Thompson, giving up a wide open 3 to Kevin Love. He’s counting on being able to recover a long way to Love instead of giving up an alley-oop dunk.
Short Roll Outlet. Let the Cavs Mess Up.
The Warriors threw numerous double teams whenever Kyrie Irving attacked Zaza Pachulia in the pick and roll. The Cavs did not seem what to do with this move, which is odd. The Warriors have shown that they will double Kyrie, so the Cavs should invite that double and have a counter ready. They occasionally had Kyrie invite the double team and pass to Thompson on the short roll. Now, Thompson is no Draymond Green at running the 4-on-3, but he can make a simple pass. Here’s an 2016 example with excellent spacing.
Back to Game 2, here’s an example with bad spacing, but a lucky result.
Green just messes up his jump and gifts Thompson the rebound and putback. But notice how the 4-on-3 was messed up by J.R. Smith’s bad spacing, which was too far from the basket to allow a pass to a cut, and too close to the corner to force Curry to choose between guarding him and Love. The floater by Thompson is awkward-looking, but he can hit that shot. Then after an overly ambitious Kyrie behind-the-back pass to a rolling Thompson, Kyrie seemed to lose faith in passing to his roll man.
Kyrie often tried to dribble out of the double team, and his teammates encouraged these scoring instincts by not making themselves available. Here’s an example.
On the double, Kyrie has no one to pass to. Love is open, but he cuts to the basket just as Thompson dives. If Love stays at the arc, Kyrie can hit him for the open shot. Also notice the care Green takes to box out Thompson.
Jump Starting Tristan Thompson and Other Adjustments
The most obvious fix for jumpstarting Thompson is to have him be the screener for LeBron or Kyrie and have him rolling to the rim. When he’s rolling, it puts him near the basket for offensive rebounds with his defender trailing behind. However, the Cavs have to space the floor better so the Warriors don’t have easy rotations to stop the roll.
When the Warriors show a double-team on Kyrie, the Cavs should be ready to have shooters space properly on the arc, and invite the double. Force the Warriors to prove they can stop that with Thompson as the roller. If they can, then let LeBron be the screener.
When Thompson is not the screener (or even if he’s the roll man), he can still be cutting to the rim with an off-ball screen. Cleveland could also try cross-screens in the paint which might give Thompson inside position for rebounding. When the Warriors roam off Thompson, he can either dive to the basket, or he can set an off-ball screen to spring a shooter.
There are other adjustments to consider. The Cavs were successful in Game 2 by LeBron’s counter-attacking quickly before the Warriors defense can set. But the pace is too much to do that for four quarters. So if LeBron doesn’t get a layup, the Cavs should pull out and go to slower grind out plays, such as the effective action in Game 2 with Kevin Love setting a pick and rolling straight to deep post position. They could also run set plays such as the Floppy they ran for J.R. Smith repeatedly in 2015. And when all else fails, have LeBron post up, survey for cutters, then bully in for layups and fouls (the 2015 David Blatt strategy)
Game 2 also featured a handful of nice plays where screeners faked down-screens for shooters like Kyle Korver and slips backdoor for layups. Any kind of weak side action would be welcome to keep the Warriors from loading up on the ball.
If Tyronn Lue can make the right adjustments in Game 3 and the Cavs can ride a home adrenaline wave to a big early lead (as in 2015 Game 3, 2016 Game 3, 2016, and 2016 Game 6), the Cavs still have a shot at coming back in the Finals.