A Tale Of Two Defenses
The Warriors had to elevate their defense and rebounding against the Thunder in order to survive that test. The Cavs, so far, have not needed to elevate their defense much to wipe out three very offensively challenged Eastern contenders.
The Cavs actually led 28-22 before the Warriors got serious and went on a run which blew the game open. One consistent difference between the teams during this run (and the whole series) is that the Warriors defense is the best in the league at switching and the Cavaliers look below-average at switching. In particular -- and this feels almost like heresy to say -- the Warriors picked on LeBron James's poor switching on defense.
1. Klay 3, CLE 28-25
Just watch the pretty play.
Here Klay Thompson runs a pretty little elevator doors route. He runs along the baseline and then suddenly cuts between screens by Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. His defender Iman Shumpert crashes into a door and is so out of the play that Barnes and Andre don't bother to close the elevator doors. The usual way to defend elevator doors is for one of the door screen defenders to switch to the passenger. That means Lebron had to switch, but here and in general tonight LBJ was a step slow on switches. (More on Elevator Doors: Explain 1 Play: Curry Rides faraway elevator to 3.)
2. Delly missed layup, CLE 28-27
LeBron gets the screens to attack Klay rather than Andre or Draymond Green. Good choice. However, instead of attacking Klay all the way to the basket, he hits Delly with a pass. Andre expertly closes out, and then the W's show excellent recognition. When Delly has the ball and Lebron is near the basket, the first option is always always Delly lobbing or passing to Lebron. Everyone stays on their man and Klay works hard to deny any kind of pass to LeBron by fronting with energy. The W's have turned Delly into a scorer, which is not a great option in general, and here he gets consumed whole by Andre.
This leads directly to the next play.
3. Barnes layup, GSW 29-28
This flows directly into a lovely little set play where Klay curls around a screen from Harrison Barnes. This is the most common action the W's run for Klay. Except Barnes slips the screen immediately and cuts to the basket. Here they pick on Channing Frye's lack of speed and recognition.
How do I know this is a set play? The first GSW offensive play after a timeout is always a called play. And here, they run the EXACT same play later in the game with the exact same result, except with Draymond slipping the screen, and on the other side of the court, so you get nice video of the play from the other side. Here LeBron gets victimized (again):
Beautiful passes with perfect timing. The W's have been working all year on perfecting these passes to the backdoor cuts. The geometry of this play means that the pass comes right as the defender turns their head away, making it very hard to stop.
4. Klay Steal, GSW 34-30
A couple of plays later, the Cavs run the same formation as their play in #2: Lebron up top, two players on each side. This time, on the right, Kyrie pops out for three. On the left, Kevin Love has Shumpert fake a screen and make a nice backdoor cut. See how successful each side is, and what ends up happening.
I don't remember the Cavs using this play at all in the Blatt days. I like it, but the Cavs don't seem fluent with it. For instance, on the right side, Kyrie is COMPLETELY open for a three because Draymond slips and falls on his face and Barnes is occupied keeping Jefferson from the basket cut. But Lebron has tunnel vision trying to get the ball to Love the whole play. He sees Shumpert's great backdoor cut (Stephen Curry thinks Shump's curling up and he tries to shoot the gap to deny the pass), He sees Klay is forced to switch onto him (very smooth switch!), leaving Curry on Love. Long time readers know that Curry is surprisingly good at post defense against bigs (compare Steph Curry Is Awesome At Defense) and his go-to-strategy is to deny the entry pass like a tasmanian devil. Lebron's forced to lob the entry pass over Curry, but because Klay hasn't cleared the zone to follow Shumpert, he comes back on Love's blind side to deflect the pass.
The Warriors have been the pioneers of the switching defense, and the Cavs are trying to beat the Warriors at their own game. So far, the Cavs just don't look fluent with the switches through some lack of organization, communication or ability. And defense has really been the big difference in this series. The Warriors must be feeling light-headed with the space and air so far after being deep in the infernal pit against OKC.
I do see the Cavs are trying to run some motion offense and not just devolve into isolations. But switching bottles up most simple motion schemes. It's a little late to be installing complicated plays... at this point you are who you are.
Speaking of beating the W's at their own game, Tyronn Lue promised the Cavaliers would run and outgun the Warriors. I think a lot of us thought this was some psychological operations he was pulling, by pushing this completely counter-intuitive strategy. Would he really run and gun with the Dubs, who have spent all of two years tuning their conditioning and culture to fast paced flow? The Dubs who got gunked up repeatedly in the 2015 Playoffs and had to continually evolve new ways to gain pace, including mutating under Cavs pressure into the Small Ball Death Squad? Would he run and gun with LeBron James aging and generally looking wiped out at the end of games?
He did, and it looked okay for a quarter and then it got ugly fast. But I think the Cavs just looked wiped out by halftime. I'm not sure you can have LeBron be the offensive catalyst, the defensive catalyst, playing 40 minutes, and also be running and gunning all game. It's understandable that Coach Lue would be grasping at straws. The Cavs haven't really scored well against the Warriors in many games, and they look bad in the half-court. But Lue sounded surprised at the Warriors skill at pace, which can't be a good sign for future adjustments.
In many ways, Games 1 and 2 have been a near-mathematical proof that the 2015 Cavaliers lineups and approach were the best possible way for that team to attack the Warriors.
I, like most close observers, felt the 2015 Cavs were forced to play the ultimate anti-GSW game: double down on defense, turning the game into a wrestling match, slowing the pace to conserve LeBron James's energy, have him isolate close to the basket where offensive rebounds and putbacks could be had and no long rebounds were there to feed the W's running game. On defense, double team and grab and tackle Curry at all times and force the role players to generate offense. It almost worked, but the Warriors mutated under pressure into the Small Ball Death Squad.
This year, the Cavs seemed to think that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love would help them outscore the Warriors. Many observers expected that Kyrie and Kevin would so compromise the Cavs defense that the W's would be comfortable. But I don't think people expected the extent to which the Warriors defense would completely lock down the Cleveland offense.
One twist I've been waiting for has been to see LeBron more as a screener on the pick and roll, but that's barely happened. I can't understand why, and I'm grateful for its absence.
Let's see what happens in Game 3. I don't really know what adjustments the Cavs make (assuming they refuse to go to LBJ as a screener). I'd say their best bet is to go back to the 2015 bully big ball tactics. You saw CLE unearth Mozgov in a trial run in Game 2 which went badly. Perhaps have Kyrie attack the bench. But the W's seem to have control of Delly, and Lebron does not look nearly as dominant an isolation scorer as he did (however inefficiently) in the 2015 Finals.
So CLE may be running out of options beyond hoping they will just play a lot better at home, holding serve and then trying to steal one back in Oracle.