The NBA Finals are underway and to be honest, game one was a bet meh. It wasn't anywhere near the intensity we were expecting, nobody exploded and after the OKC series, game one was a letdown.
But that doesn't mean that this series is going to be a bad one though. From what I saw in game one, there are so many adjustments and so much room for improvement for both sides to make, not just Cleveland. These two teams who have been juggernauts all season long played at around 70%-80% of their ability that they have shown this season and we need to see more in the Finals.
With that being said, I think there are a few questions that need to be answered in game two and the rest of the series. These are questions that the answer to, could result in the Larry O'Brien trophy for one of these two franchises.
How should Cleveland attack Golden State's defensive strategy?
Don't kid yourselves, this is the question of the finals after what we saw in game one. Cleveland need to figure out ways to take down the rugged, tested and highly intelligent Warrior defense that stymied them in game one.
The Cavs pummeled their way to the finals through hot shooting, great floor spacing and their superstars each carrying their portion of the load, spreading the ball between them in pinball type action that has never been present in any LeBron offense. It was beautiful to see these changes in the Cavs' offense, Ty Lue has done a great job at getting this offense to spread the ball and get easy open looks.
However, the Warriors outsmarted the Cavs completely in game one with their defense of the free-flowing Cavs. They did this through the simple idea of switching everything. A strategy which Oklahoma City deployed on Golden State to eliminate space and shooting, and a strategy that Golden State has implemented here to get the same desired effect.
The reason why every team doesn't do this is because it is incredibly difficult to get right. One slip up on a switch, and your man has an easy backcut for an uncontested layup. But Golden State in this game did it perfectly. With Draymond Green as the quarterback of their defense, no one is ever out of place. A lot of teams can also get exploited if they are not versatile enough (more on that soon), as generally, you don't want someone like a Roy Hibbert chasing around tiny munchkins around the perimeter. But the Dubs are perfect for this, even when they don't go small, they have the personnel to switch with relative ease.
What all of this switching did was it took away all the Cavs' favorite action. Any off-ball or on-balls screens were immediately switched if there was any chance an open shot would be the result. Everything the Cavs love to do to get shooters open, was broken. A prime example of this was Channing Frye, who has been lighting it up ever since he was traded to Cleveland. The Cavs love to have Frye set ball screens for Kyrie Irving and LeBron, forcing the defense to collapse on to those guys, while he gets open look after open look. In this game, a pick and pop with Frye, would usually result in either a contested layup for the ball-handler, or a pass back to Frye, where the ball would be forced to stop because with a man in his face, Frye's entire offensive game is redundant, because he does nothing other than shoot off the catch.
The same thing happened with J.R. Smith. Every time he got a pin-down or got set a flare screen, there would be no room for him to get off a shot. There was no space, showing why he only shot three times in the whole game.
Obviously switching has its pitfalls too, as it provides a lot of mismatches for the offense to try and take advantage of. But all this did with the Cavs was force them into their terrible isos which have little to no ball movement and is so stagnant that even Scott Brooks would shake his head. Mismatches for this Cavs team is like putting a red cape in front of a bull. If you leave them there, the Cavs will almost certainly chase after them. But for the Cavs today, it was like they were a bull without legs.
When a switch occurred, the Cavs immediately broke into their iso sets. If Kyrie had Draymond switched on to him, Irving would size him up and end up taking one of his million contested mid-ranges. Earlier in the game, when the Cavs realized the Warriors were going to switch everything, they had Irving set a ball screen for LeBron and straight after this, they would try to feed him in the post, attempting to back down the guy that looks like he should be in elementary. When the Cavs would use Love as the PnR man, they would immediately turn to him down in the post, again trying to back down a smaller defender.
All of these seem like good things, but they are really terrible. All of them result in one-on-one basketball that for the Warriors is like defending a whole bunch of preschoolers. When you devolve into iso basketball, the rest of your team doesn't do anything and it means that the Warriors can help off of the other 4 guys on the court, to try and stop the one guy trying to bully his way single-handedly for buckets. When Kyrie tried to attack a switch, the other 4 Warriors slowly seep into the lane and are ready for the worst. The same happens for LeBron when he gets a switch and even Love.
Just check this out, Cleveland immediately go to a Love post up after they switch the LeBron/Love PnR. A couple of seconds later, the other four Cavs are all lined up along the weakside, meaning the Warriors can start to get ready for their help defense. After LeBron went to the weakside, Draymond Green decided it would be more beneficial to leave him alone and stop Love's post up, because he knew that if Love did pass out of the double team, he would have enough time to get over to his man. Just check out how the closest four guys to Love are all on the opposing team, this is a major downside of attacking mismatches.
It's all well and fine to just say move the ball more to solve this offensive issue for the Cavs, but that's not going to win them this series. What they need to do is instead of attacking a switch straight up as soon as you see one, if for example Kyrie has a bigger guy on him, but him through the spin-cycle, make him chase you around off-ball, make him chase you around screens instead of making it super easy for the entire Warriors team to defend isolation.
Is Kevin Love good enough to keep out on the floor?
I'll get to the rest of the Cavs' D and their strategy in just a second, but it's time to talk about Kevin Love on his own.
We all knew this would happen, but right from the opening tip, Kevin Love was ruthlessly attacked. Whoever he was guarding would be the guy that they'd set a screen with and if he was guarding a wing player, regardless of how offensively incompetent he is, they'd ask that man to create something.
There's a reason why they do this and I've written it many times before and I'm sure I'll write it again: it's because Kevin Love can't guard anyone. The Cavs' defensive strategy, which I'm going to advise them to stop, is at the moment to trap every Curry pick and roll out on top. They also want to switch a lot, to take away space, just like Golden State. So when Kevin Love is in the game, he has to do this and the Dubs know this. So even though he is extremely slow and isn't going to stop anyone defending on a mismatch, he has to because for everyone else, it's a sound defensive strategy.
People like to say that Kevin Love is still attentive and intelligent when defending, making up for his lack of athleticism, but I beg to differ. In game one, he was truly awful at incredibly simple things like just figuring out who his man was and trying to remember where he needs to be defending the pick and roll. Here's a great example:
Actually, let's look at how that play unfolded for Love after he was 15 feet away from his man with 7 seconds already gone off the shotclock.
WHO GIVES THIS MUCH ROOM TO STEPH CURRY???
Now to be fair, Curry didn't take the shot. Love sprinted to prevent it, but Curry realized this, faked out Love who stood as still as a statue and took it straight to the rack for an uncontested layup (which he missed).
So not only does Love not fit the Cavs' defensive scheme, but he just doesn't know what the hell he is doing out there. The Warriors barely even scratched the surface of attacking him in game one, so imagine what they are going to do to him for the rest of this series.
My question is: why does Ty Lue still keep him around? The answer to this question has always been his offensive game. But in this series, is his offensive game good enough. As mentioned, the Warriors forced the Cavs into a lot of isolation and Kevin Love was forced to try and take advantage of smaller defenders in the post. But he is just not good enough at bullying down low. That isn't his game, he isn't a natural post up threat. In every other situation, the Cavs have him out on the perimeter, attempting to make plays from out there. But Channing Frye does this role like twice as well as Love, as he is a more natural three-point shooter, that is more adapt of a spot-up shooter too.
Is a 7 for 17 performance good enough to compensate for his defensive errors and liabilities? In my opinion, no. I think they should seriously think about bringing in a guy like Iman Shumpert into the starting lineup and use Kevin Love in very short bursts, because otherwise, this Cavs team could get murdered.
Is the Cavs' defense anywhere near what it needs to be?
In the postgame press conference, LeBron James told the media that the offense wasn't where it needed to be to get the win. He seemed pretty chuffed with their defensive performance, which is weird, because I thought they were truly awful on that side of the ball
Skeptics of this train of thought will point out that the Dubs scored just 104 points and they held Curry and Thompson in check, with stingy defense. But if you re-watch the tape, you will realize that some of the shots Thompson and Curry took and missed, were absolutely comical. They were way off and they looked like they had some of the jitters that got them in a hole in last year's finals series. Watch this BBALLBREAKDOWN video to know what I'm talking about:
What you gathered from that video -- I hope -- was that the Cavs defense was quite bad in game one. They didn't really do all too much that was deserving of stopping Thompson and Curry, in fact they struggled to keep up with them at all. Their communication was horrible, their awareness was below par and overall, on any other day, the Warriors would have roasted that kind of lackadaisical defense.
Judging by the 'Splash Brothers' shooting slump, you would've thought that the Warriors may have struggled to win this game, but their bench came up big. Shaun Livingston of all people top scored with 20 excellent points. You can attribute the bench destruction, in my opinion, to two main things.
The first of which is transition. In transition, the Cavs were terrible. They allowed the Warriors to get free lanes to the hoop time and time again, after the failed to recognize who they were guarding in time. In my, as well as a lot of other people's opinions, this terrible transition defense was probably caused by the Warriors' switching defense. All of that switching makes it difficult for the Cavs, when they miss, to figure out who they are supposed to be guarding. On a lot of occasions, the Cavs had to sprint diagonally across the court to just reach their man before he got to the hoop.
The result of this poor transition D was a bunch of simple baskets for the Warriors that made up for the Splash Bros not showing up to battle. To stop this, the Cavs may have to slow the game down, or begin to intentionally foul when it looks as if the Dubs are going to go the full length of the court to allow time for the Cavs to organize themselves.
The second reason why the Warriors were able to win this game without Steph and Klay is the Cavs' defensive strategy. Their main strategy is very similar to that of the Warriors, they switch quite a lot and on pick and roll, they like to throw a trap out there to try and rough the ball-handler up a bit (more specifically, Curry).
But as I mentioned in my preview, the Cavs don't have the personnel to pull off this strategy. When they do this, Kevin Love is often stuck out on an island defending mice on the three-point line, somewhere he is not comfortable at all.
Because they've employed this strategy, it means a lot of cross-matching. The Cavs have decided to throw Love on to Bogut, the least threatening offensive player in the Dubs' starting lineup. It makes sense right? Of course you don't want him guarding Draymond Green, that would be suicide.
But, what this means is that Kevin Love is stuck patrolling the rim. While their primary rim protector, Tristan Thompson, is guarding the three-point line. Kevin Love is pretty much the last guy in the world you'd want defending your rim, he is weak, soft and can't jump high enough to swat anything. Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, had a field day from inside the arc and a lot of this can be attributed to Kevin Love being at the rim. Even Harrison Barnes started the game out hot, finding a new wave of confidence after seeing all he had to do after he got past his defender was to lay it on up over Kevin Love.
The Cavs need to change their defensive strategy. At this point in time, their defense is no where near good enough to contend for this title. To get to that level, they need to figure out not what strategy has beaten Golden State in the past, but what is going to beat them with their current group of players.
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