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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Cavs Bring Warriors and Their Admirers Crashing to Earth

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2016 at 8:18 AM

click to enlarge "This is how we do it."
  • "This is how we do it."
There was an urgent knock at the palace door. Inside a thousand poets were busy penning paeans to the Warriors, while a thousand sculptors tinked out marble tchotchke figurines and a thousand ESPN employees designed new statistics to highlight how completely radical, totally awesome and utterly boss the Warriors are.

Amin Elhassan answered trying not to look pissed-off despite his chronic RBF. The youth jumped back startled. “Is there an issue with the Wall of Awe?” Elhassan asked. “Is it the hair fibers on the Steve Kerr Easter Island head? I told them I want platinum! ”

With great effort the boy averted his glance, and finally replied. “It’s Cleveland, sir. The unthinkable, has happened.” The boy paused, as if it was difficult for him to get it out. “The Cavaliers, won…”

Elhassan staggered back a couple steps, and wiped some sweat from his brow. He gathered himself, frowned, shook his head and shrugged. “We were having some issues with the 50-story Splash Brothers waterslides. This will just give our scientists more time to give the water that champagne smell. So they clinch at home. All the better.”

The boy stared at his feet, then at the faux wicker coffee table made from femurs of bad-news bearing messengers. “Sure, that’s probably going to happen,” the boy said. “I mean they only lost by 30 points…..”

*  *  *  *

The Cavaliers returned home and beat the Warriors nearly as badly as Golden State beat Cleveland three days ago in Game Two, winning 120-90 in a game the never even seemed that close.

As much of the press had already RSVP’d the Golden State Coronation party, this outcome came as something of a shock. More than one reporter tried to turn their incredulity into a question, which came out something like, “How can a team beat a team by 33 and then lose by 30?”

This sounds incredibly naïve to us. As we’ve pointed out on Twitter, the ‘84 Lakers beat the Celtics in the finals by 33, then lost the next two games and eventually the series. The next year the ’85 Celtics opened with a 148-114 pasting of the Lakers then lost four of the next five.

“This is how it is,” said Kerr. “Most of the teams in the league are pretty equal in talent.”

There is a reason six of the last seven teams to face each other in the playoffs in consecutive years have split the games; teams like that tend to be very good, and the margins of difference is a lot smaller (barring injuries).

Yet somehow it was incomprehensible that the Cavaliers were in the same league as the Warriors. We spoke to a few local reporters who when we said we thought the Cavs would win the next two looked at us like we expressed interest in felching. (Live with understanding the context unless you really have to know, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Why We Thought the Cavs Would Win

We understand that the Cavaliers didn’t play well in Oakland, but nobody does. The Cavs had the added disadvantage of coming into Game 1 with no rhythm and on the road. Channing Frye pointed out before the game that in prior series, they’d played the first two at home, which helped compensate for the less functional offense and defense while they felt out the opponent.

Suffice to say, feeling Golden State out in Oracle, with their mad runs, is a difficult task. Nonetheless Cleveland held a lead late in the third of Game 1, and played a good defensive first quarter in Game 2. Then the team lost its poise, and kinda/sorta gave up a little in the third quarter and even showed bad body language and effort in the second.

“Through two games we’ve yet to execute out gameplan,” Dahntay Jones said before the game. After the game, Lue noted that, “The only change is playing hard, I think, competing for 48 minutes.”

This mirrored our feeling coming into the game. The first game was closer than the score indicates, and the second game was just one of those games you write off. The Cavs weren’t going to play that bad and Draymond Green and the reserves weren’t going to have as easy a time replicating their success on the road. Indeed, one of the first questions asked of Kerr in the first pregame was about the disparity in performance of his reserves at home and on the road. (That’s common in basketball, was Kerr’s accurate reply.)

While the offense was a mess and the defensive communication worthy of Led Zeppelin, we thought pride would improve some of that, and some home cooking a lot of the rest. They made 35 turnovers over two games and allowed the Warriors to turn that into 50+ points, returns that would make Bernie Madoff blush.

What’s worse is that in Game 2 the Cavaliers forced 20 turnovers but only turned that into 18 points. During the regular season they were the third most efficient team at turning transition opportunities into points (behind the Raptors). This is part of why Coach Tyronn Lue has wanted to run more when he took over. While the most efficient team in transition they were 14th in opportunities.

Last night, they made good use of those opportunities scoring 34 points on 18 turnovers. The Cavs only made 14 turnovers of their own, and only allowed 8 points off turnovers. That 26-point difference is pretty much the difference in the game. But not the only one.

After battling the Cavs to 28-28 tie in second chance points, the Cavaliers finally exposed the Warriors on the offensive boards, getting nine more and outscoring Golden State 23-3. In the paint, where the Cavs struggled to convert the first two games (41-93, 44%) they were deadly beating the Warriors by 22, making 27 of 46 (59%).

What something even more encouraging? After allowing the Warriors to shoot 50% in the first half (including a blistering 12-18, 67% in the second quarter), the Cavs held the Warriors to 34% in the second half while shooting 63% themselves.

“We weren’t ready to play,” said Kerr. “Obviously they punched us right in the mouth right in the beginning. We’re turning the ball over like crazy. Soft, we were extremely soft to start the game, and then they set the tone with their intensity… It wasn’t lineups. It wasn’t substitution patterns. We just got our tail kicked.”

Friday Night

Normally we would go into some game analysis here, but first we want to talk about Game 4, and let those people leave who aren’t here for the in-depth analysis, just the take. Even before the game, we confided to fellow reporter Matthew Medley that we were less concerned about Game 3 than Game 4. We felt the pride and home court advantage would win the day.

The Cavaliers are unlikely to catch the Warriors napping with their intensity lacking. The Cavs hit them in the mouth and put them on their heels, but it won’t be so easy to catch a clean shot as last night when they shot out to a 19-4 lead then manufactured another 19-5 run in the first half of the third.

Game Four is probably going to take a gutsy performance, because the Warriors will know this is this last best chance to steal a game. Eliminating your opponent on the road (see, Game Six), is a mean task, so they’d probably rather win Game Four. Curry (44%FG, 16ppg) and Thompson (37% FG, 12 ppg) in particular should be looking to break out after a poor first three games. They’ll be much harder to contain next time out.

“We’re not satisfied with one game,” said Lue afterwards. “We know Friday we have to play even better. But I think the guys are ready for that.”

We’ll see. The Cavs biggest test of the year comes Friday. A loss and this series is as good as over. But there were several good things to take from the game from the return of the physicality, greater off-ball movement, and hands up at all times. The Cavaliers had 21 deflections to just 9 for the Warriors.

Lue’s Smooth Moves

Lue pantomimed like playing harder was all it took, but he made other acknowledgements of changes in the course of the evening. There were essentially three significant changes in tactics, and one fairly important lineup decision in the absence of Kevin Love, out under NBA concussion protocol.

On defense, they stopped switching off-the-ball which solved a Game 2 mess of Lewinsky proportions. Players were expected to follow their man around picks and not surrender their man and responsibility to someone else. By necessity guys stuck closer to their man, absent the lifeline of, “Dude, where’s your man? No way that’s my man.”

On offense they stopped running so much of their pick-and-roll actions on the wings, tending to operate in the middle of the floor, abetted by better side-to-side movement, and increased off-ball action.

“We’re going to try to do some things to take advantage of that,” Lue said before the game cautioning, “They do a good job switching 1 through 5, and making you play one-on-one. So we’ve got to take advantage of our mismatches and just play the game.”

Operating in the middle of the floor negated some of Golden State’s ability to get back and help, overloading one side. Think about it – when you’re collapsing the defense from one side, the opposite side is wary of the pass. But break it down the middle and not only is there less time to cut off the drive, but the penetrator can attack either side, quicker than they can act or anticipate.

Much of the game the Cavaliers ran their plays in the middle of the floor. Here Thompson gets a nice roll to the basket off the “Horns” set, which involved a sort of bracketed pick, a little like a two tight-end offense. The back can go to either side. Though in here, since the screeners both come from the same side, it opens a lane for Kyrie to attack, while Thompson rolls for a relatively easy hoop.
But the sets were even more about LeBron James, whom the team positioned in the middle of the floor, allowing the team to run action on both sides and have him facilitate. James has a pair of different screens on the floor and finds Smith on the wing for a three. As you can see there are a lot more options than when LeBron is ISO’ed over on one side of the floor.

Though this doesn’t result in a basket, the series of cuts and screens eventually yields a backdoor layup opportunity for Richard Jefferson.
Operating in a similar set from the middle of the floor, LeBron finds Kyrie for another back door.

All these backdoors take advantage of the Warriors plan to force the Cavs off the three and into driving. Starting in Game 3, the Cavs started looking more for backcut opportunities.

Instead of always setting the pick, sometimes they slipped the pick and cut straight to the basket as the defenders made to cover the screen. The idea is much like squeeze plays in baseball – make the other guys have to think, communicate and make a play. It helped expose a Warriors defense that was perhaps a bit overzealous in taking away the three during the first two games. It wound up opening up the three more and the Cavs made 12-25.

“We worked on that the last couple days, just moving, trying to create some confusion,” Lue said. “If they’re going to switch it or not, and if would give our guys a chance to drive the basketball at the same time.”

Father Time Waits For RJ

The other important move, was obviously starting Richard Jefferson. Jefferson solves an issue that Love presented, in that he usually can’t match up with 60% of the Warriors lineup and is constantly put into pick-and-rolls when he’s out there to expose him defensively. Once Curry or Thompson gets Love on them after a series of switches, they take him to the hole or take a pull-up jumper. It’s a problem.

Jefferson has the length to play against anyone and still has the length and smarts to compensate some for his loss of lateral quickness. The ability to switch everything made the Cavs much more efficient defensively. Plus it finally allowed them to put James at the “4” and have him play Draymond Green more-or-less full-time. (He played Green at times in Game 2.)

“He gave us speed,” said Lue. “He gave us the physicality on Harrison Barnes and that we were able to slide LeBron over on Draymond Green which helped us out a lot. We were able to switch pick-and-rolls and things like that.”

Jefferson finished with 9 points, eight boards and a couple steals. He added another intelligent guy on the court and he scored with several backcuts, providing additional offensive off-ball movement.

James was great on Green, holding him to 6 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists and two turnovers. It even seemed that playing against that 6’7” saddle-spur goaded LeBron to even greater heights, as on this facial of Green.

LeBron was a very efficient 14-26, including three long jumpers and just two three-point attempts. (It’s almost like you can tell how serious LeBron is by how many threes he takes.) His jump shot actually looked halfway decent in the third when he led the team on their 19-5 run. He added 11 rebounds and 6 assists.

It was only James’ second 30-point game of the playoffs, the last being his 33-point performance to close out Toronto. We hope this is a developing theme.

Kyrie Makes Two

The biggest issue for the Cavaliers in the first two games was that they couldn’t muster a second option. Given that the bench is likely to remain largely silent by their defensive nature, the Cavs started must produce a scoring complement to James, which mostly falls on Irving.

Last night he was much more himself, scoring 30 on 12-25 shooting with 8 assists. That last part was particularly important. Part of how the Warriors have waylaid Irving is by daring him to beat them with his handle and stroke, not his deft passing. But early on, Irving used his penetration to find Richard Jefferson for a three, giving the Wine and Gold a 9-0 lead.
click to enlarge kyrie_drive_and_dish.png

One of the keys according to Kyrie was that he was attacking quickly. Too often the team would tarry in making their move allowing the defense to get set. Moving quicker puts pressure on them.

“I know that I can’t play in between or be indecisive, especially with guys in front of me,” said Irving. “In the beginning of the game, I just knew where guys were going to be. I’m coming off pick-and-rolls, and we have guys in specific spots, and they just made my job easier coming in and seeing a lot of bodies in the paint, and I am able to just draw some eyes and kick out to our shooters.”
click to enlarge kyrie_dish.png
Sometimes it was a kick down to the shooters, as again Jefferson benefits from Kyrie’s generosity. But it was also about putting Kyrie in a position to succeed. In the first two games the Warriors sagged heavily off Tristan Thompson and dared Irving to take midrange jumpers. The Cavaliers took that dare but made helped make it easier by doing things like this dribble handoff, so Kyrie gets a dribble rhythm into his shot.
click to enlarge kyrie_dribble_handoff.png
But it wasn’t just Kyrie. When Bogut sagged into the lane like that, they used the uncovered Thompson to set screens for their three-point shooters, notably J.R. Smith, who had his best night, going 7-13 and 5-10 from The Abyss for 20 points.
click to enlarge sagging_bogut_jr_3.png
click to enlarge tristan_on_the_boards.png
Thompson also stepped up big with 7 offensive boards and 13 total rebounds. He made strong putbacks (!!) on several of his offensive rebounds. Because of the Cavaliers predilection toward driving and the small lineups the Warriors use, Thompson is often matched up on much small players. In the play to the left it's Harrison Barnes after Green goes over to contest LeBron’s shot on Shaun Livingston. Thompson easily outmuscled him for the ball and scored.

The Cavs controlled the boards 52-32, and between the less turnovers and more rebounds, wound up with 15 more field goals.

Tristan also showed a nice feel on this great feed to LeBron backdooring Iguodala for a slam.
We also liked this take on Iguodala, which told us that LeBron was getting sick of that "Iggy can stop him meme.

Final Analysis

That was a Cavaliers basketball game. They hadn’t played very many in the last three weeks. Nor should anyone forget that five of their last six games have been on the road. They were going to regress to the mean from a very low point and the Warriors were going to regress as well, which equally caught people by surprise. It’s also just occurred to many writers that Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry haven’t done much yet this series, and that this could actually be an issue.

Unfortunately any potential schadenfreude must last no more than 24 hours, because the real test, as we said, is Friday. All the pressure goes back on the Warriors if they can’t win on Friday. Suddenly this idea that they were fated and all that hooey from the high priests of hype would take a fatal shot.

We believe that the Cavaliers have a plan of attack and these little wrinkles are a signal that they’ve considered what they need to do. But they also finally got the right defensive effort from their team. This is on the verge of becoming a series and the Warriors won’t let that happen as easily as last night.

As we’ve said before, we expect to see the team go back to Oakland even. It will be a tough task to make happen but the lack of preparation time is in the Cavs favor, just like the momentum. As Kerr said before the game, every change in venue changes the emotional tenor of the game.

We’ll be at the Q on Friday for Game 4, posting live video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and you can read our postgame analysis here in the Scene & Heard section Saturday morning.

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