One of the most exciting aspects of this year’s NBA Finals will be the adjustments the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors make to one another during their third straight Finals showdown.
Last year, the Cavaliers, in storming back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the championship, made one of the series’ key adjustments by having LeBron James defend Draymond Green.
In doing so, the Cavs were able to switch pick-and-rolls more frequently, putting the much bigger James on Stephen Curry. Green, not much of a one-on-one scorer, couldn’t take advantage of his matchup.
As a result, the Cavs could “hide” weaker defenders like Kevin Love on one of the Warriors’ lesser shooters, like Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala, allowing them to provide more help defence to their teammates.
This year’s Warriors team presents a much tougher challenge — replacing Barnes is Kevin Durant, perhaps the best pure scorer in the NBA. Now the Cavs have nowhere to hide. To beat the Warriors, the Cavs are going to need to be fully engaged on defence, executing switches and hedges nearly perfectly, while hoping for a little bit of luck in the form of missed shots.
James’ defensive assignment may be key, and that should worry the Cavs. James is the Cavs’ best matchup to defend Durant. James has the height and speed to hang with Durant on drives and the strength to prevent Durant from posting up.
But if James is on Durant, it also takes him out of plays when his teammates need help. In other words, if another Warrior shakes loose, it’s not so easy for James to help off of Durant, who will can open shots. SB Nation’s Mike Prada notes a specific play during the regular season when James was tentative to leave Durant to provide help defence on a pick-and-roll.
Guarding Durant doesn’t just pull James away from the action, however. The Warriors won’t simply stop involving Durant in the offence. Putting James on Durant also tasks James with an enormous workload — run the offence and defend one of the best scorers in the world.
However, it’s tough to find a fit for the Cavs with both teams’ regular starting lineups on the floor. If James guards Green, like he did last year, it then means Love has to defend Durant. Good luck. The Cavs could put Thompson, a quicker, more capable defender on Durant, and put Love on Zaza Pachulia, but the Warriors won’t hesitate to to let Durant attack Thompson one-on-one or attack the basket if Love is the primary rim-defender.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on his podcast, “The Lowe Post,” the Cavs simply don’t have anywhere to hide players — everyone has to play defence.
“The best Golden State lineups do not have any player where you can just put Kevin Love. They don’t have two guys — they don’t have a center and a wing that doesn’t do anything where you put Kevin Love and say, ‘OK, be here’ and have LeBron rest.
“When you put starters to starters, my guess is Tristan Thompson will guard Draymond Green, Kevin Love will guard Pachulia … and it’s just process of elimination. LeBron is going to have to guard Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson. There is no sitting around anymore for LeBron on defence. And when the Warriors get smaller and put Draymond Green at center, which I think they will be more aggressive doing … then it gets even harder. Because then Kevin Love has gotta guard Iguodala, Tristan Thompson has to guard Draymond. And can you hang in that alignment?”
Last year, when James defended Green, the Cavs put Love and Thompson on Barnes and Iguodala, Golden State’s two least threatening shooters. Barnes faulted down the stretch, shooting just 35% from the field, 31% from three. Obviously, the Warriors now have Durant, who is shooting 41.7% from three this postseason.
Iguodala has struggled mightily shooting the three in these playoffs, and he shot just 30% from deep in last year’s Finals. But two years ago, Iguodala made the Cavs pay mightily for this strategy, winning Finals MVP in part for his ability to hit the open shots the Cavs granted him.
Even with those two players misfiring from deep in last year’s playoffs, the Cavs ended up only outscoring the Warriors by four points. Who knows the difference if both of those players shot closer to their season averages.
Even wandering away from Green could be dangerous in the Finals. The common defensive strategy against the Warriors is to drift away from Green, a 31% career three-point shooter. In the playoffs, however, Green is shooting 47% from three. As Lowe put it in his Finals preview, if the Warriors’ lesser shooters are hitting their open threes, “you lose.” There is simply too much firepower.
For the Cavs, defensively, their best option may be to remove Love from the court, and go small with quicker, better defenders around James and Thompson. That still may not be the most pleasant option — Love is an important offensive weapon for the team and they don’t pay him $US20 million-plus a year to sit on the bench. Love has been playing some of his best basketball of his Cavs career during these playoffs, and they may simply have to ask him to dig deep on every defensive possession, as he did against Stephen Curry in Game 7 last year.
The best defensive weapon against the Warriors has always been “pick-your-poison-and-hope-for-the-best.” That could still work for the Cavs if any one of the Warriors shooters gets inexplicably cold. In the meantime, however, the task of trying to slow down Golden State grew significantly more challenging with the addition of Durant.
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