As surprising as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2-1 series lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals has been, perhaps the bigger shock is how the Warriors’ explosive offence has been dismantled.
The Warriors’ No. 1-ranked defence has actually done its job — the Cavaliers are shooting just 39.6% from the field and scoring 94 points per 100 possessions.
The difference in the series has been how the Warriors, the second best offensive team in the regular season, can’t score. In the Finals, they’re averaging just 99 points per 100 possessions, an eight-point difference from the first three rounds of the playoffs.
A huge reason for the Warriors struggles has been the ineffectiveness of small ball, in particular, Draymond Green’s struggles. Green, a 6’7″ power forward, is key to small ball, the Warriors’ most devastating weapon. Despite the dual backcourt threats of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Green’s ability to pull defenders away from the basket with his shooting, attack open space, and make smart passes to throw off scrambling defences is crucial to the Warriors offence.
Green is averaging nine points and seven rebounds per game while shooting just 26% from the field and 12.5% from three-point range. In the regular season, the Warriors offence improved with Green on the floor, but in the Finals, they’re scoring less with Green on the court.
The Cavaliers’ defensive strategy has been completely different than the Warriors. While the Warriors are intentionally letting LeBron James pick them apart (to mixed results), the Cavaliers are forcing the ball out of Stephen Curry’s hands and containing him on the perimeter so he can’t shake loose for opens threes and drives. As a result, Curry has to give up the ball, often to Green, the screener, who then has to make plays. He’s succeeded in this role all year, but is now struggling.
The Cavs defend this perfectly — Matthew Dellavedova fights over the screen to tail Curry and Tristan Thompson pushes up on Curry to keep him from firing a three or turning the corner. As a result, Curry makes a great read to a wide open Green. Green just can’t make the shot.
On a crucial possession in the fourth quarter as the Warriors tried to make a comeback, Green’s struggles really hurt the Warriors.
Here, he hesitates on the wide open three, drives to the lane, and meets a wall in Timofey Mozgov, who does a good job of going up straight and not fouling:
The Warriors got the offensive rebound and on the next play, miscommunication between Curry and Green resulted in a brutal turnover:
This isn’t a smart pass from Curry, but it’s also a bit of a habit. Throughout the season, the expectation is that Green would be waiting at the three-point line, ready to launch a three, drive the lane, or find an open teammate as the defence scrambles.
While Curry missed the opportunity to get Green an easy pick-and-roll opportunity, this is also the Cavs defence at work. LeBron hounds Curry and Mozgov lingers ready to contest a three-pointer or a drive. They abandon Green, who, according to NBA.com/Stats is only shooting 2-16 on passes from Curry in the Finals.
Green at power forward isn’t the Warriors’ ultimate small-ball look — they can move him to center, add another shooter or slasher to the court and hope to create even more space. The problem is the Cavs are such physical, relentless rebounders, the Warriors may get destroyed on the glass, reducing second-chance opportunities and failing to finish defensive possessions.
All season long, the Warriors offence has thrived on the principle that if Curry is forced to give up the ball, he can hit playmakers in Thompson, or more crucially, Green, who is a mismatch for almost all big men. When Green is at his best, he takes advantages of defences who double Curry. If defences stop doubling Curry, it allows Curry to do his thing on offence. It becomes a “pick-your-poison” scenario for defences.
If Green doesn’t get untracked, it becomes that much harder for the Warriors to dominate like they have throughout the year.
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