Cavs Grasp Last Chance For Immortality

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[image-1]The pall has hung over Cleveland more than half a century congealing into an identity. Now frustration and heartache is who we are. Though the times of sand can shift in a moment, Northeast Ohio’s been waiting at the end of the line an awfully long time. But we don’t need to tell you that.

On the brink of long-promised salvation, we want to tip our hat to the journey. All those years of hurry-up-and-wait with their imprimatur of pain and unbending agony have yielded their first true chance of cessation since Jose Mesa. The best thing, it’s said, about banging your head on the wall is the sweet relief once you stop.

What they won’t tell you is how sweet such agony and despair can taste in retrospect. We know that sounds funny, but take it from a lifelong Red Sox fan who personally suffered through 29-painful seasons, beginning in ’75, more than a third of their 86-year drought. Every Spring Training arrived with a mix of hope and dread.

We miss it a little; similar to how Holden Caulfield incomprehensibly missed even that smug prick Stradlater by the end of Catcher in the Rye. This ache became such an integral part of baseball for us, that when Galahad (see, Dave Roberts) grabbed the figurative Grail and vamoosed, we realized no baseball game would never have the same urgency and import. Though we’d gained something, surprisingly, we lost something too.

So before we get into our next-to-last article of the season we wanted to grant a moment of silence to the long festering wounds and indelible scars that can only occur when you want something soooooo badly. After tonight, Cleveland may never want anything as badly again. Let’s relish every awful, awkward moment leading to now, because we believe a homegrown savoir is about to wipe that slate clean.

Stage Set, Curtains Drawn

The great thing about this Cavaliers team is the sense of purpose they’ve brought to the last two games. Heels up against the void they’ve pushed back with poise and haven’t seemed desperate. This cool demeanor seems to have unnerved the Warriors who feel the pressure of the moment that much more keenly. For all the historic triumph of their 73-win season, it will all be very beside-the-point if they can’t win the trophy.

That’s also how Richard Jefferson feels about it: “I'm not playing the underdog role; I'm just putting everything under the microscope and saying that we're in a position to play free and play hard. If we lose this game, no one’s going to be talking about anything on our side. If we win this game, people are going to be talking a lot more about the Golden State Warriors and what they do.”

LeBron also spoke about pressure, “I came back for a reason, and that is to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland, to Northeast Ohio and all of Ohio and all Cavaliers fans in the world. That's been one of my goals. But I don't add too much pressure on it. I go out and trust what I've been able to do, the work I've put into it, and my teammates have put into it. And you go out there and see what happens.”

While the subject of pressure is a ubiquitous media meme every championship no matter the sport, this series it’s more than claptrap. The Warriors haven’t been the same since returning home for Game 5 without the services of Draymond Green, and their performance during those two games feature the utter loss of poise by their leader, Stephen “Flying Mouthpiece” Curry, and brain cramps by a team whose numbers over the course of he series have steadily dwindled, not strengthened.

“You only feel pressure if you fear for the moment,” says sage Cavs vet James Jones. “Jump shots are jump shots; it doesn’t matter when you take them. If you put in the work, you’re confident you can make them in any situation or circumstance. Our guys are vets, and our bench guys, what they do, they do well. We don’t have to worry about that as long as we play our style of basketball: Our style of basketball moves the ball, shares the ball and makes it easy for everyone to get a rhythm and get momentum.”

Lack of Strategic Tumult

One of the odder aspects of the series is the way neither team’s budged much until now with their defensive strategy. (We suspect that might be changing, but more on that in a moment.) Since Game 1 the Cavaliers have been aiming to take the ball out of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s hands, while the Warriors have been doing the opposite. Perhaps chastened by the success of Cavs reserves during the first three rounds, Golden State’s chosen to make James and Irving beat them while cutting off the air to the support players.

Tactics have changed from game to game in that pursuit, but the strategic element has remained the same. It’s really all been about execution of the gameplan all series. Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams (who worked with the Celtics under Head Coach Doc Rivers and the Bulls under HC Tom Thibodeau) concurs.

“I don’t think this series has had a whole lot of adjustments one way or another,” he says. “I think it’s about doing what you set out to do well. So the team that has been the most aggressive has basically come out on top each game.

“Our offense has been very erratic and I think it’s partly about their aggressiveness – give them credit,” continues Adams. “They’re aggressive on stuff, but a lot of that is on us. We start these games with some of these shots [*sighs*] that fuel their transition. I go back to this one stance, that is… if we play with diligence, and that is aggressively defensively... Come with an attitude and basically execute what we want done with the will, and do our offense thing I feel very comfortable. Unfortunately we haven’t done it for two games.”

One of the things that he mentioned which we haven’t heard any other analyst cite was the lead. Not only have all the games been double-digit losses, but it’s been about one team sort of imposing their will.

“The lead is extremely important in this series. They’re a different team when they’re behind than when ahead; they’re much different when they’re ahead,” Adams says. “Last game we were never ahead. So you talk about putting pressure on the other team, there was no pressure. When we’ve gotten in trouble we’ve let down probably in some of the areas of aggression and will, and they probably feel the same.”

The NBA and Officiating

There has obviously been a lot of talk about the officiating and the NBA’s decision to suspend Draymond Green for his actions in Game 4. Adams wasn’t alone in feeling a bit victimized by the process and had some fairly sharp words to say.

“The narratives are driven by the press and the league this series,” he says. “The league can screw you over and the press can get the narrative going in the wrong way that affects your team negatively or helps your team, it depends. It’s really interesting to watch the power of these entities that have nothing to do with the game itself.”

The press these days takes on an outsize importance in large part due to social media. While LeBron James may check out of Twitter, and most players will tell you they don’t read the press, few of them can even front that they don’t work social media daily, hourly, minutely.

“They should do a study of social media and the gyrations with these wins and losses,” Adams says. “This stuff they’re all involved in, and how it affects emotions and preparation.”

While Kerr noted after Game 6 how Curry didn’t get calls, and Cavs fans have said the same thing about LeBron James’ drives, Adams turned things around noting that James never gets called for his fouls playing defense. But he didn't give James' offensive shenanigans short shrift.

“They just started calling charges because Stan [Van Gundy, Pistons Coach] took a stand, got his $25K fine and said this is ridiculous. He’s just running over people,” Adams said. “He’s allowed to push off; he’s allowed to do all the [stuff] he does. LeBron gets away with murder in the league; he’s an instigator. He’s a fantastic player – don’t get me wrong – but to let that happen, probably reasons for it, but to me it’s mindboggling.”

Adams went on to say it goes beyond James. He notes the physical play of Tristan Thompson, who Lue called the “heart and soul of the team” again yesterday. (He said this after Game 6 as well.) Thompson’s ability to switch onto any Warriors player – particularly Klay and Steph – has made the Cavaliers defense much tougher the last two games, particularly during those moments when Kevin Love hasn’t been on the floor.

“Thompson’s been the key guy in this series and they’ve allowed him to foul on almost every screen. Break the screen down and they have allowed him on any Steph Curry drive when he’s on him, to do this [demonstrates an arm bar]. He’s actually been pushing form behind in the last game,” says Adams. “So I’m watching this and saying how can this be? If Draymond Green did that? Automatic Fouls. So I don’t know what that is.”

Adams is a sharp guy and one of the NBA’s best assistants. We find it interesting that he can see it as being so one-sided when Green’s been setting brutal moving screens all year long without seeing appropriate sanction. This is one thing that makes it very difficult to evaluate the officiating. Everyone’s got a complaint.

The Refs’ Thankless Job

The difficulty walking that line where both sides are equally unhappy is exacerbated in the NBA by the level of scrutiny involved. As sports have become bigger business and the instant replay a staple of the broadcast, the focus on officiating has become me searing.

It’s even worse in the NBA of late, which this year has started posting reports of their mistakes. It’s only for the final two minutes of games within five points at that juncture, meaning most games don’t get evaluated. However calling officials out for their mistakes like this has been taken poorly by people around the league who feel it places undue burdens on the refs. 

Adams laments the loss the last few years of a lot of the veteran officials, elevating greener guys from the back tiers toward the front. Institutional memory is lost, he suggests, and the old way of doing things is falling by the wayside with deleterious effects that have been apparent throughout this year’s playoffs, according to Adams.

“What they’ve taken away from officiating. The only thing that’s important about officiating is did I gain an advantage or did you gain an advantage. Advantage or disadvantage. But you’ve got to know the game,” he says. “We know there are a lot of mistakes made and the good officials will make it up in their own way, like the other guys always did, and there’s less of that."

Between the increased media scrutiny, in-game second-guessing from Secaucus, the 2-minute reports, he feels the NBA has put the referees "in a tight box."

“But the number one reason the game is going to Hell in a handbasket because their point of emphasis is not footwork,” he continues. “They had a play where they inbounded to LeBron, he catches the ball and takes two or three steps and dribbles the ball. This is becoming commonplace… They’ve said that that’s not a priority. What I’ve said – as someone that has coached footwork his entire life – is this is a sport. These are fundamentals. You either enforce it, or what kind of sport do you have?”

Cavs Keys to the Game

The whole series has come down to how can the Cavs maintain their composure in the face of the opponents’ hard pressing defense. The level of intensity and physicality each team’s brought has usually been the deciding factor, as Adams notes. However there are a couple other things to watch for.

1. Middle of the Floor/Off the Ball

In the first two games, the Cavaliers frequently attacked the Warriors defense with picks and screens on one side of the ball. In prior series, Irving and James were able to collapse the defense from one side, pulling weakside defenders into the lane and finding their men on the weakside for threes.

The Warriors shut that off by not collapsing so much and playing the passing lanes. Suddenly the Cavs couldn’t get to the rim nor find open guys on the perimeter. They had to start going to the rim with more force, even though they weren’t getting calls. This was how the first two games unfolded.

Then the Cavs started running sets in the middle of the floor such as this horns set with Kyrie that frees Thompson for a roll to the basket. Moving the ball into the middle of the court allowed better passing lanes and helped spread the Warriors defense out. 
They also started running elbow sets for LeBron, similar to the sets the team ran for Kevin Love when Lue first took over (before largely passing out of use). It involves someone triggering to James who posts up at the elbow of the lane.

These sets allowed the Cavs to run action on both sides of the court. Notice how each side on these plays has some sort of screen action allowing James to either find them or take the ball to the hole, now only a step or two away.
These plays have opened up James’ passing skill and made it harder to provide help, as teams have to pay more attention to everyone else on the floor, and can’t tilt the defense as easily to stop him.

2. Transition Play.

The Cavaliers have excelled in transition against the Warriors. Over the last four games they’ve outscored Golden State 68-36 in fastbreak points, and 76-53 in points off turnovers. That’s been a big part of the 48-28 disparity in average points in the paint during the past four games.

The Cavs have not only been running off turnovers but off rebounds. The team has been pushing the pace very effectively all series. They don’t just want to score, but get into the offense quickly, allowing them more time to run the offensive set before settling into Kyrie or LeBron taking a (typically ISO) shot in the shot clock’s gleaming.

Here Thompson simply beats Festus Ezeli up the court (in first part of video). The Warriors looked slow in transition the last game, and this could be something for the Cavaliers to exploit.

3. Tristan Thompson & Physicality

Tristan played like a demon in the first quarter of the last game. The Warriors seemed unprepared for his intensity. As Adams noted, he’s really been the defensive linchpin of the team, with James help, of course.
Not only has Thompson been running the floor, and finding open spaces, but increasingly he’s been the safety valve/trigger man on pick-and-rolls, much like the role Draymond Green performs. His ability to find open guy with the ball will be big. He only has to do it a few times to really cause the Warriors headaches, like these two beautiful passing plays.
We feel that the success of LeBron will dictate the Warriors doing more to get the ball out of his hands. He’s such a good passer that there are limits. But they may choose to pressure the entry pass to the elbow more aggressively. They may also try some new things on Kyrie, such as the zone we saw from them early in Game 6.

Final Analysis

How much is there to say that hasn’t been said yet? Not much about this game. We expect the Warriors to come out with an edge. It will be on the Cavs to maintain their focus and composure. We’ll be looking to see if that initial Warriors blitz gets the Cavs on their heels. We suspect no, but that’s why they play the game. We feel the longer it stays close the more pressure that will put on the Warriors.

In the end, we expect the Cavaliers to triumph in seven games, like we predicted 17 days ago. It’s been a long ride, let’s savor every last drop of what’s likely to be remembered as one of basketball’s greatest comebacks and biggest upsets.

We leave you with one of the most poetic things we’ve ever heard LeBron James say, and a great last thought on how to appreciate this final Cavaliers game of the season.

“You have to be able to figure out how to get away from the thorns and the pricklers of the rose and things of that nature to make the sun shine,” he says. “So we've put ourselves in a position to do something special.”

We’ll be at the Oracle Arena tonight covering the last game of the NBA season. We’ll be posting live video, analysis and snark from the game. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and you can read our final postgame column Monday morning here, in the Scene & Heard section. 
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