How LeBron, Cavs can sharpen attack versus Warriors’ dazzling D

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These Warriors are the greatest offensive team in history, but they have made the Finals noncompetitive with their defense.

The Cavs have managed just 97.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked dead stinking last in the regular season. They entered the Finals having scored 120 points per 100 possessions against two average defenses and one very good one this postseason — a number so far above the all-time record, held by these Warriors, as to look implausible when you actually type it out.

We knew the Warriors would score. Cleveland’s hope was to score with them, pray the Warriors suffered a couple of cold shooting games, and ride LeBron’s greatness. Those of us who thought Cleveland would at least be competitive — guilty, having picked Warriors in six — were optimistic about the Cavs sustaining top-level offense against Golden State. They wouldn’t hit that 120 number. Maybe 110 would put them in it late.

Golden State has obliterated everything beyond LeBron’s Game 2 transition attacks — his gorgeous combinations of bulldozing force and tap-dancing, side-stepping footwork. The individual efforts have been outstanding: Green, a snarling, long-armed apparition, when not in foul trouble; Klay Thompson, hounding Kyrie Irving at every turn; and most of all, Kevin Durant, wrapping his best defensive season with two masterpiece performances. (Even so: Can we slow down on the “Durant is the best player in the world” talk? That came in record time.)

The collective is even stronger. Golden State has yielded only 98.8 points per 100 possessions through the playoffs, a full 9.2 points stingier than the league average over the postseason, per research from our crack staff at ESPN Stats Information. That is the largest such gap ever, by a big margin, among teams that have made the Finals under the current playoff format (dating back to the 1983-84 season). The 1987-88 Bad Boy Pistons come second, having allowed 7.8 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average. In other words: Adjusted for competition, Golden State might be the best defensive team ever to advance this far.

The Warriors are moving in sync, downloading every Cavalier movement, appearing in all the right places at all the right times. If the Cavs can’t score, they can’t set their defense, and their transition defense isn’t coherent enough to withstand Golden State’s fast-break attack amid matchup chaos.

I mean, look at this:

That is a relatively complex play — a variation on “Clipper Down,” a set Tyronn Lue swiped from Doc Rivers, in which a big man (Kevin Love) ambles up to set what appears to be a run-of-the-mill ball screen before veering sideways to spring Kyle Korver on a pindown.

This version introduces new wrinkles, including LeBron James acting as a second screener for Korver. Golden State sniffs it out from the beginning. Green, tracking Love, does not overreact to the initial decoy action. Stephen Curry, defending as well so far as the Warriors could have hoped, slithers through both screens almost untouched. Durant digests that, and provides only a flash of help before descending back over LeBron.

Good defense isn’t always spectacular. It resides in the absence of spectacle — mistakes that don’t happen, needless help avoided. Golden State is locked in.

The Cavs have Love at center there. Golden State’s defense has played Tristan Thompson out of the series. The Warriors are not guarding him away from the ball. Golden State strangles lineups with five shooters. Give them one non-shooter, and the floor looks really small.

The Warriors have tossed the Cavs into a vicious cycle: Lineups with their best defensive players can’t score enough, so Lue is turning to all-offense groups, only those have zero chance at stopping the Warriors.

The Love-at-center groups have been fine; Cleveland is plus-8 in 28 such minutes, per NBA.com. Golden State has destroyed every other lineup type — including the all-scoring groups featuring both Love and Channing Frye, plus the super-small lineups with LeBron at center.

Cleveland probably can’t win on those terms. Shifting big-to-small is a talent upgrade for Golden State, and a downgrade for the Cavs. Cleveland needs all sorts of combinations to work, but it really need its best players to play better in heavy minutes. That means more of Love and Thompson together, even against Death Lineup variants with Green at center — a fun big-versus-small clash we’ve seen for only a few minutes.

Love has not been the problem, on either end. He has held up reasonably well in Golden State’s pick-and-roll torture chamber. He can (barely) slide along with Curry, and recover just in time to disrupt Zaza Pachulia around the basket. Things get tougher against Green. Golden State pokes at Love over and over, and breakdowns are inevitable. Curry drilled a 3 right in Love’s face during that third quarter eruption in Game 2. There was nothing Love could do about it, and that’s the point: He can’t jump, he’s not long, and he doesn’t worry Curry even when they are almost chest-to-chest.

But overall, Love has been good enough given what he provides on offense. The Cavs need him.

They need badly J.R. Smith, their best and perhaps only chance at two-way play on the wing beside LeBron. Our Dave McMenamin reported Sunday night that Cleveland might start Iman Shumpert over Smith in Game 3. That makes some sense. Shumpert can hit open 3s, and he can defend Curry, Klay Thompson, or Durant — though Durant would exploit him over time.

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  • But the Warriors will hide Curry on Shumpert, and otherwise ignore him. He is not a threat on Smith’s level screening for LeBron in those pick-and-rolls targeting Curry — plays that weirdly vanished in Game 2. Curry guarded the screener on only five pick-and-rolls in Game 2, down from 13 in the opener, when the Cavs largely aped the game plan that won them the title last season, per STATS SportVU data provided to ESPN.

    Those plays didn’t work as well as they had a year ago. Curry flashed in and out of LeBron’s way, and deflected some passes.

    The help behind him was impeccable; the combined speed and length of Green, Andre Iguodala, and Durant roaming the back line is almost unfair. Durant has been more brazen than most dare in abandoning LeBron and Love to swarm the ball, and he’s so long and fast, he can recover in time. (Boston also took an extra step away from James over the last three games of the conference finals, and James responded with some well-timed cuts. He needs to do that again.)

    The bet here is Smith starts Game 3, and we see more of LeBron hunting Curry. The Warriors feared LeBron would accelerate right into Curry on those plays, engineering a switch, but Curry made it difficult by fleeing the scene fast:

    LeBron may have to be almost reckless charging at Curry to get that switch. Cleveland had more success going the other way: waiting for Curry to retreat, setting a second screen, and having LeBron zoom into Curry’s chest as Curry tried to find his bearings.

    The Cavs should explore that again in Game 3. Either way, abandoning the Curry pick-and-roll barrage on Sunday was too extreme. It is a way to bruise Curry, exhaust him, and drag down a pace that is getting away from Cleveland. Ditto for LeBron post-ups, and it’s unfathomable — without fathom! — that we haven’t seen any of those.

    The Cavs’ slow-down game requires an engaged Smith, and he is lost right now. Klay Thompson clowned Smith one-on-one twice in Game 2, without a screen, and that can’t happen.

    Smith has been the guilty party in so many of those embarrassing miscommunications that end with Curry or Thompson measuring the wind before launching. Those mistakes will happen; they even happened during Games 5, 6, and 7 last year. Cleveland needs to cut them by at least half — without cutting Smith’s minutes much.

    The guys behind him either aren’t threatening enough offensively (Shumpert, Deron Williams) or stout enough defensively (Richard Jefferson, Korver, Williams again) to survive heavy minutes against Golden State.

    The NBA’s new isolation is finding the worst defender on the other team, and having his guy screen for your best ball handler. That is what the Warriors do to Korver and Love, and what Cleveland has done to Pachulia, JaVale McGee, Curry, Ian Clark, and others. The Cavs tried targeting two such players at once — Curry and whichever Golden State center is on the floor — by bracketing Irving and James with screens from their guys:

    It worked on this play! Irving noticed his man (Iguodala, looking healthy again in what counts as a huge development) shading toward Curry, bolted the other way, and crossed up poor McGee. Playing McGee is an invitation for Cleveland to play Frye, and Steve Kerr was smart to give his second-half minutes to Durant in super-small alignments.

    Pachulia is a solid defender, and he’s been quite good in this series. He just can’t stay in front of Irving or James. Going at him represents a way to make Tristan Thompson useful, and if Thompson isn’t useful on Wednesday, the series might be over.

    The Warriors will trap Irving and James, and dare Thompson to make plays in space. He’s not the most fluid at that, but he has generated some nice looks:

    The Warriors will live with that, of course. You can’t milk Thompson for offense. But you have to involve him, and hope his monster screening can produce better things — like switches.

    If the Warriors switch Pachulia onto Irving or James — or more precisely, if Cleveland forces them to — the Cavs are in business. They tried to do that in Game 2 by leveling Pachulia with a separate pick on his way toward the real action — a method of shoving him so far behind, he almost has to switch instead of trapping. It just hasn’t worked; the Warriors have anticipated it, brought the right level of help from each guy, and snuffed it out:

    Even when the gambit punctured the first layer on defense, Green was lurking below to cinch things up:

    That is tasty. Pachulia has been smart about trapping when the situation calls for it, and backpedaling when Klay Thompson can hang alone. Thompson has been quick on his feet, arms spread wide to prevent that pocket pass to Tristan Thompson.

    Irving might do better zipping right into Pachulia on that first screen instead of pondering. He does that the second time around, only Green ditches Love to cut him off. Love should be open, but Green appears there, like a damned ghost, before Love can fire. Green is already on his way back to Love before the pass is out of Irving’s hands. That sounds simple. It’s not. Green is a genius, and Golden State has the highest team defensive IQ in the sport.

    Two more emphatic wins, and they will stamp themselves as perhaps the greatest team of all time.

    A few other nuggets ahead of Game 3:

    • Tristan Thompson can’t float in space far from the rim when the Warriors ignore him away from the ball. He needs to set more flare screens for Cleveland’s shooters, and prep himself for offensive rebounds. The Cavs might also be able to find him flashing for lobs.

    • The Cavs hear the noise about experimenting with Tristan Thompson on Durant so that LeBron can defend Green and play more as a free safety. They might even try it. But they don’t appear to view it as a realistic heavy-minutes option.

    • Food for thought: Did the Warriors, a team generally disinterested in offensive rebounding, see something on film that made them think they could sneak some second chances against Cleveland?

    • We saw one or two Curry-Thompson pick-and-rolls in Game 2. Those plays flummoxed the Cavs — Irving and Smith specifically — in Golden State’s Game 4 comeback last season.

    • The Warriors have also used more Curry-Durant two-man action than they did in the regular season, per SportVU data. Durant in this series, and for most of the season, has been exactly what the Warriors thought he’d be: a star willing to blend into Kerr’s motion offense, and a mismatch destroyer one-on-one when the shot clock winds down.

    • The Cavs tried that bracketing action with LeBron, and it produced one of my favorite plays of the series — a window into the high-level chess match going on, and the Warriors’ incredible defensive intellect:

    LeBron calls up two screeners, including Curry’s man, Korver. Livingston reads that, and switches onto Korver — the more dangerous option for LeBron. LeBron decides to use Korver anyway. Why? Because Livingston has his back to James, and appears pinned to Korver’s chest. There’s no way he can dislodge himself and meet James on the other side, right?

    But Livingston is primed to do just that, and contests James at the rim.

    Great, great stuff. Let’s hope for more in Game 3 — and some crunch time.


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