Once again, the Cleveland Cavaliers are down 1-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Later tonight in Oakland, they’ll have a chance to turn the tables and knot the series at one game apiece.
Cleveland came within a George Hill missed free-throw followed by an all-time J.R. Smith blunder of winning the first game of the series, but they can’t rest on their laurels and count on the fact that approaching Game 2 the exact same way will lead to a win this time around. Ty Lue and company need to be proactive in finding solutions to some of the issues that led to their falling behind and eventually losing Game 1.
Below, we’ll walk through some of the adjustments available to the Cavaliers, some of which can potentially help them stave of a loss that would almost surely be another step on their way to elimination later in the series.
Lue has already telegraphed one potential adjustment: dusting off Rodney Hood, who has been almost exclusively a garbage-time participant since refusing to enter the game during Cleveland’s series-clinching win over the Raptors in Round 2.
“Rodney has been working hard,” Lue said. “He had opportunities in the first round. He’s been working to play, and he’s going to get opportunities. Just because he didn’t play last night or that much in the Boston series, I’ve always talked to him about being ready, staying ready, because he is a great talent and we’re going to need him. He’s going to get a chance and an opportunity.”
Considering the creation load being shouldered by LeBron James in this series (LeBron took 32 shots and created 23 assist opportunities in Game 1, making him directly responsible for 55.6 percent of Cleveland’s shot attempts), it could not hurt to give him some shot-creation assistance. Hood is one of the few Cleveland perimeter players capable of creating a look for himself off the dribble.
He’s not exactly been good at converting those opportunities during the playoffs, but he is at least capable of doing it, and we’ve seen him have far more success in that area during his career than Jordan Clarkson, for example. Maybe Hood comes out and plays as poorly as he did during the early part of Cleveland’s playoff run, but it’s not like the Cavs are getting a ton from Clarkson or bad-game J.R. Smith or bad-game Jeff Green. He’s another body who could potentially get going and provide some spacing and off-the-bounce spice.
It was surprising to see Kyle Korver play only 16 minutes in Game 1, considering he is by far Cleveland’s most consistent shooter and has been pretty clearly their third-most-impactful player during the playoffs. Korver is a target for the Warriors defensively but the same is somewhat true of most of Cleveland’s perimeter players. He at least has natural chemistry with LeBron, necessitates that Golden State’s off-ball defenders stick closer to the perimeter than to LeBron’s drives, and can work as both a misdirection/decoy actor and a key on-ball piece of the offense.
Similarly, Larry Nance seems deserving of more minutes. Nance showed up with nine points and 11 rebounds in Game 1. He’s probably a liability against Golden State’s best offensive units but his work on the boards is challenging for them to deal with; his energy always seems to infect the rest of whatever Cleveland group is out there with him; and his ability to beat opposing big men down the floor can help Cleveland get early points before the Warriors set their defense.
Conceptually, the Cavs have a few directions they can go:
- LeBron and four shooters. (i.e. Love and any three of Hill, Clarkson, Smith, Korver, Green, Hood, Calderon)
- LeBron, a roller, and three shooters. (i.e. Thompson or Nance; Love; and any two of Hill, Clarkson, Smith, Korver, Green, Hood, Calderon)
- Get weird. (Something along the lines of LeBron-Hill-Smith-Green-Nance, which should theoretically allow the Cavs to switch everything without sacrificing Love or Thompson to the altar of Steph Curry.)
Cleveland did a nice job holding Kevin Durant to an 8-of-22 shooting performance, but the matchups they rolled with for much of the game seem to indicate they were playing with fire. LeBron put in 24 possessions of work against Durant, but the most of the rest of the work went to Green and Smith. KD shot 2-of-11 combined against that duo, which seems rather unlikely to continue. Despite that poor shooting, the Warriors scored 57 points on those 40 possessions, good for a 142.5 offensive rating.
|Durant||Poss||KD Pts||GSW Pts||O-Rtg|
It’s asking a heck of a lot for LeBron to take on the responsibility of defending Durant for the something like the entire game in addition all the offensive responsibility he carries, but it also seems like Cleveland’s only good option. (Moving LeBron onto KD means he’s not guarding Draymond Green, and that presents a different set of issues.)
The Cavaliers had a similarly equal division of labor against Thompson, and it should likely not be surprising that it was Hill who had the most success both individually and on a team level.
|Klay||Poss||Klay Pts||GSW Pts||O-Rtg|
Many of the issues they had defending Thompson involved either matching up in transition or tracking him as he crossed from one side of the floor to the other. It’s important to find him as soon as a shot goes up because of how dangerous he is floating to the 3-point line on the break. Whichever Cleveland perimeter player has the Thompson assignment is likely not crashing the offensive glass anyway, so they have to make matching up as soon as possible a priority. Otherwise, he ends up either jogging into a trailer 3 or sprinting under the basket to the opposite side of the floor and ending up wide-open. The Cavs can’t have them.
Incredibly, there were six players that ended up matched up with Curry for at least 10 possessions. None of them fared well at all, which highlights the struggles the Cavs had with any kind of coverage on Curry’s pick-and-rolls. (More on this below).
|Steph||Poss||Steph Pts||GSW Pts||O-Rtg|
Curry fried almost every matchup the Cavs presented him with, and it was a major problem for Cleveland defensively.
More than anything else, the Cavs struggled to contain Curry in the pick-and-roll.
Love and Thompson too often gave Curry too much space coming around a screen, allowing him to walk into a 3. The Cavaliers too often freely gave him a switch onto Love or Thompson, allowing him to shake into a 3 or drive and kickstart a sequence of ball movement. And when they tried to have the big man slide to the level of the screen, they did not often enough cut off his path to the paint and instead let him get to the rim for layups or drop-off passes.
The best path here is likely the route the Cavs took through the first three Finals matchups: get the ball out of his hands early. That often means blitzing or situationally trapping. If it’s Green, Kevon Looney, or Jordan Bell setting the screen, that should be the preferred option. You can play Draymond to pass and make him finish over the top of size at the rim. You can force Looney to make a play (and be sure to stick with Curry as soon as he makes the initial pass; he’s been sprinting at Looney in order to get an immediate dribble hand-off for 3). You can make Bell prove he can make the right decision every time.
Things get more difficult when it’s Durant setting the screen because he can rise up and shoot from literally anywhere and is basically an automatic basket when you leave him open. The same is true of Thompson. If LeBron is on Durant, switching there becomes the preferred option. If Steph beats LeBron off the dribble, well, there’s nothing you can do. But if Smith or Green or Korver is guarding one of those two guys, there really is no strategy that seems “better” than any other. Blitzing leaves a knockdown shooter wide-open. Switching creates either one or two mismatches. That can work in Cleveland’s favor if the Warriors repeatedly post up Durant and he doesn’t work for the best possible shot; but it can also work decidedly against them if Curry takes Korver or Green off the dribble; or if Durant puts the ball on the floor or draws help before kicking the ball right back outside. Playing the pick-and-roll straight-up is an option, but doing so means risking Curry walking into a 3 or Durant or Thompson slipping into open space for a catch-and-shoot.
On the other end, getting Love post-up opportunities against Looney worked well early on, and is something the Cavs should go back to early and often. The Rockets had some success getting James Harden isolated on Bell last series, and the Cavs would be wise to try to get LeBron the same matchup. Getting Korver working off the baseline pin-downs that worked so well against Boston last series could challenge the Warriors to devote some defensive attention to someone who is not LeBron or Love, which could change the balance of the floor and present the stars with better opportunities to find their shots.