By Brandon Jefferson
We once again find ourselves at 3-1. With a sweep seeming predetermined, the Cleveland Cavaliers jumped all over the Golden State Warriors and blasted the series back to Oracle Arena with a 137-116 win.
Cleveland’s Big 3 of Kyrie Irving (40 points, seven rebounds), LeBron James (31 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds), and Kevin Love (23 points) combined for 94 points. The Cavaliers also got impactful efforts from J.R. Smith (15 points on 5-9 from three), and Tristan Thompson (five points, five assists and 10 rebounds). All in all, it was a historic night for Cleveland, but they are not out of the woods yet.
After riding high for the first three games, the Warriors saw their execution take a hit in Game 4. Kevin Durant’s 35-points weren’t enough to make up for poor shooting nights from Stephen Curry (14 points, 10 assists) and Klay Thompson (13 points). Draymond Green posted a double-double (16 points and 14 rebounds) but ended the game with more shots (16) than either Curry (13) or Thompson (11).
With the history of last year’s resounding 3-1 comeback effort by the Cavaliers fresh on everyone’s minds, Game 4 had a bigger impact on this series than getting Cleveland its first win. Game 4 saw the Cavs operate at their highest level, but even if they can’t replicate the 137-point outing, they did discover some new tricks to unleash on the Warriors going forward.
Kyrie Off Ball Activity
Kyrie Irving is one of the best one-on-one players in the world. Putting the ball in his hands often results in a basket for the Cavaliers. However, against the Golden State Warriors, it’s not as simple as giving Irving the ball and moving out of his way.
The Warriors have been the best defensive team in the playoffs and they were the second-best in the regular season. Golden State has a combination of bodies and high-IQ defenders that help create havoc for opposing teams.
During the 2017 NBA Finals–and 2015 and 2016 for that matter–Golden State has used Klay Thompson as the primary defender on Irving. In Games 1 and 2 we saw Irving unsuccessfully try to use his ball handling and crafty shooting to get his game going. The Warriors bent but didn’t break. In the first two games, a lot of Irving’s isolation plays came with the remainder of the Cavs standing around and watching. That plays right into Golden State’s hands, they can wait for Irving to attack and then flood his vision and floor space with help defenders.
These plays were net negatives for Cleveland and Irving struggled to get his footing to begin the series. His combined 43 points in two games were not enough. The Cavaliers saw the series return back to Quicken Loans Arena after being outscored by 42 points.
In Cleveland, the Cavs played with a new wrinkle to Irving’s offense, playing off the ball. With James more than capable of initiating the offense, Cleveland let him bring the ball down the floor and then use off-ball screens and cuts to get Irving separation from Thompson. With that space, Irving was able to attack quickly, usually downhill, and with Thompson off him, it made the Warriors help defender have to stop Irving from scoring and that is easier said than done.
Allowing Irving to attack a defense that’s already shifting makes the game much easier for the 25-year-old guard. Instead of all eyes squarely on him as he goes to work on the wing, Irving is getting the ball with one or two players really locked in on him. Most of the time that second player helping is a slow-footed big and that’s easy work for Irving. If the Cavaliers want to send this series back to Cleveland they are going to need to create more advantageous situations like these for Irving.
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GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Defending The 3-Point Line
The Cavaliers set all types of records in their Game 4 victory over the Warriors and, while it’s unlikely that they repeat any of those accomplishments, there were some troubling signs from the way Golden State played. The biggest one being the lack of focus defensively. As mentioned above, the Warriors have been a stalwart on defense, but oddly enough their defensive rating (DRtg) has dropped (significantly) over each of the four games of this series. According to Anthony Slater of the Bay Area News Group, the numbers are as follows: Game 1 89.2 DRtg, Game 2 105.3 DRtg, Game 3 109.7 DRtg, and Game 4 136.1 DRtg.
Game 1’s number is unlikely to be repeated as is Game 4’s. However, if the Warriors can’t post a number in the low 100s things can get interesting in a hurry.
Game 4 saw Golden State commit a lot of communication errors that we aren’t accustomed to seeing from this team. One of the main ones was leaving Kevin Love and J.R. Smith open for catch-and-shoot threes. Love and Smith are two of the three best shooters on Cleveland, giving them open looks to launch triples is not a sound defensive philosophy.
Unlike 2016, Love has been able to make an impact in other areas of the game. He had six steals in Game 3 and has been rebounding at a high-level throughout the series. Letting him get open looks from beyond the arc is only going to make him have a bigger impact on the game. Limiting what Love does offensively is key. Defense for him is all about effort and trying, Golden State can run him through the ringer on that end, but keeping him from knocking down 3-pointers is big.
Smith was a no-show for the first two games of this series. Since the series moved to Cleveland he’s shot 10-19 from deep. Smith is the ultimate streaky shooter, when he’s playing with confidence he can and will make any shot he takes (see 35-footer in the video above). Taking Smith away is more likely than slowing Kyrie down now that he’s got his groove back.
If Golden State is to end this series tonight they will need to make players like Love and Smith work for their buckets. Running them off the three-point line is where the adjustment begins. Both have the capability to pump fake and put the ball on the floor to retreat back behind the three-point line. Yet, if you can turn them into drivers rather than spot-up shooters half the battle is won. Making the adjustment will give Cleveland the opportunity to get looks for other players if they swing the ball around the arc.