After Sunday night’s Game 2 loss, the Cavaliers are heading back home down 2-0. This deficit was expected, but how Cleveland got there was not. In Game 1, the Cavaliers nearly pulled off an opening game upset comparable to the 76ers win over the Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals to start that series. Similar to the Sixers, the Cavaliers leaned heavily on their lone superstar to give them a chance.
In the end, the chance went begging as the Warriors won in overtime. But Golden State needed a George Hill missed free throw and a peak JR Smith moment to put them over the top. The Warriors didn’t want to tempt fate again so they made drastic defensive changes for Game 2.
Their Game 1 approach, in very simple terms, was finding out if LeBron James could beat them on his own. He almost did, finishing the night with 51-points, eight assists, and eight rebounds while shooting 19-of-32 from the field, three-of-seven from deep, and 10-of-11 from the charity stripe. Clearly, he was capable of taking the Warriors down on his own if given the opportunity.
James got the opportunity in Game 1 because the Warriors decided to switch pick-and-rolls, and then help on his ensuing drives. This turned out to be a poor strategy and often ended up with Stephen Curry, Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, David West, or JaVale McGee on James. From there, James was able to put his mismatch in the torture chamber and either create space for a jumper or get to the rim with ease and make plays like this one.
The issues with this approach are clear. No matter who was in front of James, he was able to get a running start and attack the rim. It doesn’t matter who helps for the Warriors after that, James will find a way to finish – like he did above – or draw enough defenders that a teammate is wide open for him to set-up for an easy look.
James showed that as long as the ball is in his hands, he will make a play, either for himself or his teammates. Steve Kerr, responded to this by going with a strategy teams adopted during Curry’s two nuclear seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16: Blitzing and trapping the ball handler. In Game 2, this worked.
We see one example of the Warriors blitz here as Hill comes up to screen for James, who gets hit with an immediate double-team from Curry and Kevin Durant and is forced to give up the ball to Hill. Hill ends up knocking down the resulting 3-pointer, but he was about three feet behind the 3-point line when he let it go. Those are the types of looks the Warriors don’t mind the Cavs getting, and if they make them they make them. Just tip your cap.
We get another example of the Warriors zoning in on James here.
On this pick-and-roll, Tristan Thompson sets a very good (actually, illegal) screen on Draymond Green. Still, the Warriors don’t give up on the goal of chasing the ball out of James’ hands. Nick Young and JaVale McGee (the same duo who had their own show when they were both members of the Wizards) blitz James. Again, Hill is left open, James finds him and Hill finishes strongly at the rim.
While both of these clips provide examples of the Cavaliers figuring out a way to still score up against this coverage, more often than not they didn’t. The ball getting forced out of James’ hands lead to Tristan Thompson or Larry Nance Jr. being forced to make decisions on the fly last night. While they didn’t do poorly, those two guys making plays is clearly not your ticket to beating the Warriors in this series. They’re probably not your ticket to beating anyone in any series.
Regardless, the Cavs still hung around for three quarters thanks to James still finding ways to make them pay, and Hill taking advantage of some of the opportunities presented to him. Then in the fourth, they faltered, and Curry finished off his incredible night of 33 points and 9-of-17 shooting from deep to put the dagger through the Cavs hearts.
The Warriors will most likely go with this approach again in Game 3, which is a must win for Cleveland. If the Cavs want a shot, they are going to have to change how they respond to the pick-and-roll blitz.
Coach Tyronn Lue did try one wrinkle in the middle of Sunday’s game, setting a double ball screen for James.
It does negate the blitz, which is obviously step one of the counter to this Warriors tactic, and it does keep the ball in James hands which is step two. But, step three is to put James in a scenario where he’s poised to make something happen. The Cavs didn’t get that here as James was forced to make a spinning runner off-the-glass through contact. Again, not a ticket to beating the Warriors, not even for James.
Here’s another example of the Cavs running the double pick-and-roll for James. It results in a 3-pointer for Kevin Love, but it was one he had to launch from almost four feet behind the line. Just like the last clip, this set didn’t bring a good shot for the Cavaliers. It also forced them to start their offense at half-court and even Curry and the Warriors wouldn’t be comfortable setting up from that deep.
Clearly, the double ball screen isn’t the answer for the Warriors pick-and-roll blitz. So what is?
One things the Cavs could go to, which would be brand new for them based on what we’ve seen this post-season, would be to screen for the roll man before he goes and sets a screen for James. Going this route allows them to use their two centers, T. Thompson and Nance, more often. Many NBA teams use this variation of the pick-and-roll. If the Cavs went with this it’d be impossible to blitz James, since there would only be one defender up against the pick-and-roll due to the initial screen before the action.
Another options for the Cavs is actually one they used last night, and they should continue to use this: Have a playmaker set the screen, so he ends up with the ball in a four-on-three situation. Kerr and the Warriors went to this with Draymond Green when teams started blitzing Curry and it let Green show the whole league how great a decision maker he is.
We saw the Cavs do this earlier when Hill set a screen for James and then knocked down a deep 3-pointer. Cleveland needs to improve on this, though, and start the pick-and-roll up high and closer to either wing. This would set Hill up to catch the ball in the most dangerous area of the court while going four on three. In this spot he’d be able to do much more than shoot a deep 3, he could attack and shoot an open pull-up mid-range jumper, drive and kick to an open shooter, or throw a lob to Tristan Thompson or Nance.
While Hill proved in Game 2 that he is the player the Cavs want to use there as often as possible, he can’t play 48-minutes. He will have to rest, which means other players will have to set the screens and take on the role of secondary creator.
The Cavs options are limited here, we talked about how Thompson and Nance did okay in this spot last night but they’re not the guys you want to rely on. Instead, the Cavs should use Love, who’s threat as a shooter off the initial catch would suck the defense in so much that space would open up all over the court.
They could also dig deeper, and use Jeff Green. Green is averaging three assists per-game so far in the Finals (he posted five in Game 1), and when he gets a running start towards the rim – which he would in this scenario – he becomes a solid finisher. He’s, at the very least, worth experimenting with.
Lue could also make the very bold and gutsy move of trying Rodney Hood out in that role. After all, it is gut check time for the Cavs.
Hood has never excelled at setting teammates up. His career-high for assists per game came in his sophomore season with the Jazz, where he averaged 2.7. (That’s the only time he’s ever averaged more than two per-game in a season, and it was also the season he averaged a career-high in minutes-per-game at 32.2, so that explains it.) But he could pose an offensive threat if he gets the ball in the middle of the court with acres of space to work with. Hood knocks down pull-up jumpers from 3-point land or the mid-range and has a solid touch around the rim with both his finger roll and floater.
Lue said Hood will get a chance in the Finals. “He had opportunities in the first round… 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.” If there was ever an opportunity for him, this is it.
The Warriors choosing to blitz James pick-and-rolls may have closed the door on his 50-point nights, but when one door closes another one opens. This door seems to have opened for the likes of Hill, Love, Green, and even Hood. If one of them can seize the opportunity in front of them for Game 3, and make the Warriors pay with their new approach, then maybe the Cavs can get a win and set themselves and the whole world up for an epic Game 4.