Somewhere in the middle of the fourth quarter of Tuesday night's game you could hear Garven Dreis muttering to himself like a Cleveland sports fan: “Almost there, almost there.” The sadness of his heroic run at the Death Star’s exhaust port – culminating with Darth Vader gunning him down – is that he never got to see the victory.
A similar ailment challenges the Cavs follower. How do you enjoy and awe in the moment while negotiating every minor stroke from a bad J.R. Smith foul, the coronary infractions when the refs miss an obvious foul on a James drive, or the stomach-churning acid reflux during the Cavs' recent fourth-quarter floundering.
The hero always is waylaid just short of his goal – it’s called dramatic tension, or "Cleveland," when it reaches 50 years. We’re not telling you anything new, except that the road to victory is the same as the road to defeat for 95% of the journey. Just turns out the last step’s a big one, and the Cavaliers are on the brink of it.
A victory tonight all but seals the deal. No Finals team has ever choked away a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. We’d bet a team led by LeBron James wouldn’t be the first. Which makes this the game for all the Magic: the Gathering cards. Golden State knows it, and you can be damn sure the Cavaliers know it.
If the Warriors have any desire to hold the O’Brien Trophy, they'd better speak up now or forever hold their peace. Expect their best effort yet, though it’s hard to know what that is. The Warriors are distracted at best and downright frustrated at worst by the physicality and resilience of the Cavaliers, particularly on defense.
The Bulls got the Cavaliers ready for the fight and they’ve brought it to the Hawks and the Warriors, whose West Coast finesse ball doesn’t move so freely in a tempo-drained, ISO-heavy, grind-it-out affair. It’s actually something Blatt’s very familiar with – he ran a physical, offense-plodding defense with Russia to secure an Olympic Bronze Medal in 2012.
As was noted on the ABC broadcast, the slow-it-down pace works to the advantage of the Cavaliers' short bench allowing the other players not involved in the pick and roll (PnR) to catch their breath. Getting shots close to the rim limits long rebounds and break out opportunities.
The Cavs were having success with the post-up game in Game 2 when they chose to attack something else. We never got a chance to look into it further because of the long plane flight and quick turnaround. But if the way the Cavs attacked the Warriors was any indication, they decided the Warriors' defenders were more vulnerable off the bounce.
LeBron had 23 drives during the game, according to SportVu’s Analysis, and ended the game with 20 of his 34 shots at the rim. That was more than any game of the series and was emblematic of the better looks he was getting. He still missed quite a few, but these were some of the best looks he’s gotten all series. If he gets those same looks tonight, he could go for 50.
One thing James did that was both interesting and effective was take a couple shots with his left. This involved driving left-to-right as is his general wont, but with him coming back to his left for the shot. It worked very nicely below, and it’s one of those little things to watch for.
The Cavaliers provided a number of different strategies, though mostly it was a kind of 1-2-2 set where LeBron attacks the middle of the lane giving him a chance to go to either hand and use the rim to protect against “weak” side help. (Since James is in the middle, it makes the term nebulous and indeed can make which side the help should come from more iffy.)
A lot of these sets played on the use of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson at the same time, turning James into a point forward. On the below play, the pair create a kind of wall around which James goes too quickly for help to adequately get him, drawing a foul.
At other times they spread the floor after getting the switch they wanted, allowing James to drive. When either Thompson or Mozgov’s man came to help, they would dive to the basket looking for a pass.
Unfortunately Mozgov had his troubles during the game, twice being called for offensive fouls — one a terrible call by referee Derrick Stafford as Moz-erati posted up Iguodala off a PnR switch off James. He got hacked on the arm by Thompson to no call as well, two of those plays occurring during the Warriors big run and prompting him to get pulled.
When used effectively on offense, Mozgov was great. He got Matthew Dellavedova a couple open shots with his picks and was very good with LeBron on many of the rolls to the basket, as here where he punishes a lineup with Golden State’s Festus Ezeli at center.
However the Mozgov/Thompson frontline is a work in progress, in part because Thompson doesn’t understand very well how to help himself and LeBron with better spacing. Too often he follows the driver or his defender as he helps on LeBron when he’d be better served moving to an open space like a receiver finding soft spots in the zone.
Often Thompson’s man just leaves him, especially when it’s Green. It would help if Thompson didn’t play into their hands by standing a few feet away from Mozgov. In the above case Delly has just worked a nice PnR with Mozgov off David Lee only to have Tristan’s man crash the play. This can be taken advantage off with some interior passing, but so far that’s been absent.
It would be nice to see Marion play with Mozgov because his slashing game might be able to take advantage of the Warrior’s help scheme. Perkins might be another option. Something must be done to get Tristan more of a blow during the game.
Through the first three games Thompson’s averaging 3 offensive and 3 defensive rebounds in the first quarter. The other three quarters it’s 2.7 and 5. Perhaps if Thompson caught more of a rest he could maintain that first quarter intensity through the fourth quarter.
The other issue with Thompson is that switching the Curry PnR has turned into a bad thing. While he can stay in front of Curry, Thompson doesn’t seem capable of staying close enough and was key in allowing Curry to get going in the second half. Curry shot 7-9 against Thompson including 4-5 from 3.
After going 2.5 quarters without scoring, Curry broke down Thompson for the kind of shot he wanted. Notice how Thompson is turned around but Curry’s shoulders are square and his head reading the basket.
A few moments later Curry got this shot with Thompson on him. Again TT gets turned around while Curry’s head is up; Curry is sizing up the basket and readying to elevate.
This isn’t what was happening earlier in the game when they were hedging the picks hard with Mozgov. He was stringing the ballhandler out allowing his man (usually Delly) to catchup. They were trying to force the ball out of Curry’s hands and make him work really hard with Delly to get the ball back.
This takes advantage of the fact that Delly’s much better at denying the ball than defending a quick player off the bounce and is emblematic of the fact that there is more than one way to do things — in this case taking advantage of a strength while shielding a weakness.
This was possible all made possible by the lack of credible offense from Warriors center Andrew Bogut, who the Cavs pretty much completely ignored. On the below play nobody is racing to stop Bogut’s uncovered roll to the basket. Klay Thompson hardly looks at Bogut before passing the ball to Curry.
It’s very hard to run a PnR offense where there’s no respect for the capabilities of the roll man. It’s part of a gathering issue with the Warriors where the Cavaliers have exposed the limitations of their players. Where in Game 1 it looked like “strength in numbers,” now it looks like mixed and matched weaknesses.
When the Cavaliers started crushing the Warriors on the boards, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr put in Festus Ezeli, whose offense is more limited than Stephen A. Smith’s command of humility. Not only did Ezeli catch a pass directly in front of the basket only to dribble once and lose the ball to LeBron James, but he also allowed the seven-inches-shorter Delly to defend him on one play.
While much was made about the Warriors' intention to take away the Cavaliers role players, that seems a lot more like something the Cavs are doing to them. The Cavs' attempt to make Thompson and Curry do all the damage has contributed to their overall plan to upset the rhythm of the Warriors' offense.
Finally, Kerr went with one of the last arrows in his quiver of adjustments – he brought in David Lee. A one-time all-star with a lodestone contract, Lee is a good rebounder, fine passer and pretty good scorer with a nifty midrange jumper. But his defense is leakier than a pantyhose soup bowl.
Nonetheless it was a fine move that finally countered a neat Cavaliers trick. As this fine SBNation analysis points out, the Cavs are essentially playing a box-and-1 on Thompson. Thompson’s man never helps the PnR, leaving the roll man with essentially a 3-on-2 break as you can see below.
Iggy’s man, James Jones, rotates, leaving Andre Iguodala with an unchallenged 3 (while he waited for Mozgov to recover back into the lane). Lee was able to make the next pass to get the ball moving and open up the offense, as on this pass to Leandro Barossa, cutting to the basket after his man (Shumpert) left to pick up Lee.
The thing about Lee is he gives up as much as he takes. Here the Cavs worked PnR with Mozgov to get James on Lee, who immediately got help from Thompson. James saw Thompson coming and hit Shumpert with perfect pass for a wide open 3.
Lee will help get the Warriors offense going and perhaps that is enough. But he will also help the Cavs get their offense going as well because he’s such a terrible defender who upsets everything the Warriors like to do defensively. He can’t switch effectively and he offers no rim protection. He’s a pretty good rebounder, though, and the Warriors are happy about that.
They won the rebounding battle 46-43 and grabbed more of their opportunities 78% to 61%. This is a tired team and that’s one place it shows. The Cavaliers should be beating the Warriors on the boards just based on their size, but Golden State is sending the house on the offensive boards. That’s how they beat the Cavs 18 to 6 on the offensive boards.
They got away with it because they hit a much higher percentage of their shots 46% to 40% and 43% on threes to 35% for the Warriors. It’s a sign of their continued slide in the percentage of open shots they hit from 52.3% to 40% to 33% on Tuesday. The Hawks also failed to hit their open jumpers causing one to wonder if even the open shots are impacted by the ferocity of the Cleveland defense. Certainly seems to be the case.
One thing the Cavaliers might do to address the Warriors pounding the boards is to release a guy up-court for an easy breakaway the other way. One or two of those might make them think twice about the number of guys they send to the boards. Obviously Kerr’s playing a bet there because the Cavs don’t want to pick up the pace but could certainly use some easy hoops.
That said, the Cavs shot their best percentage of the series and the drive-heavy, LeBron-initiated offense seems to be working pretty well. Golden State has had a lead for all of 26 minutes in the series and has to be feeling the pressure.
The Cavaliers had particularly active hands all game. They’ll need that and a strong effort on the boards. With Thompson suddenly in Curry’s gun sights, the Cavs might want to hedge Thompson instead of having him switch when he’s in there without Mozgov.
Thompson’s wind may need for Perkins to spell him for a few moments, or just more Mozgov. His protection of the rim combined with the pressure the Cavs have exerted at the arc are a good combination. On offense he has the ability to be a force, though he needs to watch the cheap fouls and stupid turnovers.
We like the fact that Blatt matched up Mike Miller on Shaun Livingston, who isn’t much faster than Miller since his reconstructive knee surgery years ago. He primarily likes to post up players but can’t do that against Miller, reducing him to merely a passer.
Tonight is what it’s all about. You could probably call it a game 40 years in the making. Nothing is set. If the Cavaliers lose, they could be down 3-2 when we next see them and all these good feelings washed away.
We don’t expect that to happen, but we can’t ignore that this is do-or-die for the Warriors. That puts much of the pressure on them. This is the moment where champions are minted. We think tonight will be just that sort of a night, and we’re looking to get one hot off the press.
But as a resident of Northeast Ohio, we also know that nothing is given, everything is earned.
We’ll be at the Q tonight for the game and postgame, posting frequently to Twitter. You can follow @CRS_1ne.