After Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, it was easy to look at the outcome and say just wait 'till Game 6 when we have Draymond Green back.
Then the game actually began.
Game 6 was absolutely miserable because the Golden State Warriors dug a hole for themselves early and panicked their way to the final buzzer as they struggled for answers to recover. Perhaps there was some small measure of hope despite being down 31-11 because we've already seen this Warriors team do the impossible so many times. But the way the Cleveland Cavaliers had played to that point — and in Game 5, for that matter — just made it hard to see exactly how they would solve the problems they were facing.
Others have already gone into detail about what went wrong with the Warriors' start and Adam Lauridsen of the San Jose Mercury's Fast Break blog did a particularly good job of detailing all that went wrong in the first quarter. But as we put
this game the last two games behind us, I'm interested in any positive takeaways from that game...and perhaps there were a few that we can help put us at ease heading into the last game of the season.
And here's where I began my search: the Warriors outscored the Cavs 90-84 over the final three quarters of Game 6. Now obviously, you can't just lop off a quarter and then claim a moral victory — that first quarter changed the way both teams played, from the way substitutions are made to the intensity of the team playing with a lead. But there were a few things that went ...better... over the course of the final three quarters that we could possibly hope the Warriors can build on.
Containing Tristan Thompson
After the Cavs dominated the boards in the first quarter to the tune of 16-7, though they only established a 2-0 edge in second chance points as they shot 57.1% from the field. Nevertheless, not fighting for offensive boards — whether by design or being outplayed — is a problem when you're shooting 22.7% from the field and not getting free throw attempts as the Warriors were. On top of that, the Cavs didn't turn the ball over meaning the Warriors were starved of fast break points.
Yet more than anything else, what that rebounding edge showed was Tristan Thompson's utter dominance of the paint, particularly at Draymond Green's expense. As you've probably heard already, Thompson had seven points and nine boards in the first quarter. Scott Rafferty of Hardwood Paroxysm already did a good job of documenting the specifics of what Thompson did well, but this point accentuating his value to the Cavs is important:
He makes the type of hustle plays that ignite their offense, whether it's by kickstarting a fast break with a block or finding James on a cut to the basket for a thunderous dunk following an offensive rebound. He wouldn't be able to do that if the Warriors could run him off the court like they tend to do with players his size, which is why he's become so valuable to this team.
Thompson's effect was muted over the final three quarters of the game, recording just eight points and seven rebounds. They limited his scoring by not getting beat down the court quite as often; they simply did better of fighting for boards. This wasn't merely a matter of a small ball lineup getting beat — if you're already playing small, you should not get beaten down the floor as often as the Warriors did in much of the first half. Thompson just outworked them in every phase of the game in the first quarter and the Warriors did a better — albeit not great — job in the second half.
Another little tidbit: Thompson picked up all four of his fouls in the final three quarters, three of which came in situations where he was forced to rotate, recover, and help as the Warriors were moving the ball. Without claiming Thompson is just bad without the ball — I'm not — it's much better to mitigate his impact by forcing him to move defensively instead of letting him stand around and dominate the boards.
Containing Kyrie Irving
You're simply not going to stop LeBron James, but the extent to which the Warriors can stop Kyrie Irving might end up being a decisive factor in this series when taken as a whole.
Irving finished with 23 points, including 7-for-7 free throw shooting and a 20-point first half. However, to the Warriors' credit, Irving was held to just 4-for-11 shooting from the field over the final three quarters and just one free throw in the second half.
Let's not discount the possibility that foot pain limited his ability to perform in the second half — he denies it will be a problem in Game 7, but it's not hard to see how that would limit a shifty ball handler like Irving. But if we're looking for positives here, the way the Warriors defended him with bigger players like Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Klay Thompson instead of Stephen Curry — who had an awful game defensively, as explained by Jesus Gomez of SB Nation — made a difference.
Kyrie Irving's shot chart for quarters 2-4 in Game 6.
Bear in mind that those two longer jumpers and the layup Irving made all came in the second quarter — in the second half, the Warriors did a much better job of contesting without fouling on his drives and jumpers as Irving had just three points. And despite attention to the Warriors' traps, those shots they defended came mostly in single coverage situations.
This certainly leads to dilemma for the Warriors in terms of how to defend Irving in Game 7, but they can at least take some solace in knowing that they have a combination of players that can limit Irving somewhat.
Stephen Curry played better, if not at his best
Along with everyone else on the roster, Curry was bad in the first quarter, shooting just 1-for-3 and earning two fouls. But over the final three quarters — and particularly the second in which he scored 15 of his team-high 30 points — Curry came alive with 27 points, including 5-for-11 3-point shooting and (more uncommonly) 8-for-9 free throw shooting.
Make no mistake: Curry is not playing up to the ridiculous unanimous MVP standard that he set for himself, but he's still capable. And that's a good thing for the Warriors — he's still capable of influencing games even though he has clearly been worn down.
Matt Moore of CBS Sports wrote in his look ahead to Game 7 that the key question is, "Can Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry have a better game than LeBron James and Kyrie Irving? (Sorry, Kevin Love.) That's the deal." LeBron is looking unstoppable and when he decides to play like this, there simply isn't much an opponent can do about it. But the Warriors have to find ways to contain guys like Irving and Thompson if they want to win a second consecutive title.
They can do that, as they've shown at times during this series. Now they have to prove that they can do it for 48 minutes without digging a hole to big to escape from the beginning.