Well, that escalated quickly.
It only seems like ages ago that the Warriors were the ones limping home after back-to-back road playoff demolitions, demoralized and stunned. The champs have turned the tables rapidly, now on a 5-game winning streak and sporting a 2-0 lead over the Cavs in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James made us chuckle and wince at the same time with his comment about adversity last series:
“I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations and I just didn’t believe this was one of them,” James said after the Raptors tied the Eastern Conference Finals 2-2.
Just more shade thrown by a prominent American at our neighbors to the north. But it was true. LeBron has faced way more difficult situations in his career – the 2007 and 2014 Spurs, the 2011 Mavs, the 2010 Celtics. He proved it by making quick work of Toronto in the last two closeout games.
But the Warriors of the past two seasons might take the cake when it comes to LeBron’s career obstacles. He had a crack at them without his co-stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving last season, and now with them for two games. Whatever the composition of his supporting cast, it hasn’t mattered. In fact, the carnage has been worse this season with Cleveland’s full arsenal intact – they lost Games 1 and 2 by a Finals record 48 combined points. The Warriors’ depth, multiple defensive answers for LeBron and transcendent shooting have put the King and his court in exile.
But I’ll be damned if I’m writing off another elite team just because they face a two-game deficit in these playoffs. I learned my lesson after that Thunder-Warriors epic folk tale of a series.
That said, answers seem more scarce for the Cavs here in the Finals. Because, you know, they are not the Warriors. The fact that the other team is means we’re grasping for straws. After much thought, though, here are some suggestions for the Cavs entering Game 3:
Bully ball on both ends
After losing in six games to the Warriors in the 2015 Finals, the Cavs reinvented themselves as a high-scoring, drive-and-kick, 3-point shooting attack. They found success in last year’s Finals by slowing down the pace and letting LeBron attack with big rebounders on the floor. It was a strategy borne out of necessity, after losing both Love and Irving to injury. It almost worked, until Steve Kerr unleashed the Death Lineup at the start of games and ran Cleveland’s bigs off the floor. They were right to try and change their approach this season, with toppling the Warriors being their ultimate goal. However, LeBron’s shot is broken, so Golden State is playing way off him and going under screens. This has killed their spacing and drive-and-kick attack. New-school Cavs like Channing Frye and Love are being exposed on defense, negating any shooting they provide on the offensive end. With Love likely out for Game 3 with a concussion, it’s time to go back to the bully offense. Slowing the game down to a crawl does a couple things: it prevents the Warriors from getting out in transition and it puts the onus on the officials to make calls on multiple deliberate drives to the rim. The Cavs won Games 2 and 3 in lat year’s Finals by playing at a snail’s pace – 91 and 90.9 possessions per 48 respectively – which submarined Golden State’s offensive rating and kept Cleveland in the game. The Cavs have scored 100 points just once in eight Finals games vs. the Warriors (2015, Game 1). It’s just probably not going to happen. We’ve seen the ugly results when the Cavs try running and gunning with the Warriors.
Bully ball needs to extend to the defensive end of the court as well. On their home floor, the Cavs need to rough up Steph Curry as much as possible. The refs have let a lot of off-ball shenanigans go against Curry this postseason. In Cleveland, the Cavs should be able to push the envelope. It may mean benching Irving at times for – I can’t believe I’m advocating this, but desperate times – Matthew Dellavedova. Timofey Mozgov is not the answer, but he does get six fouls. Let him loose on Draymond Green in the paint to see if you can provoke that final flagrant that will get Green suspended. Make all the old pros happy by becoming the 90s Knicks on the defensive end. It’s worth a shot. Nothing else has worked for the Cavs D.
Keep containing Curry and Klay Thompson
The Splash Brothers averaged a combined 27.5 points in the first two games at Oracle Arena. Normally, this is a win for the opposition. Unfortunately for the Cavs, all the other Warriors went bonkers, led by Green and Shaun Livingston. The Cavs need to do everything in their power to continue holding down Curry and Thompson. Switch screens that involve them. Bring double-teams. Stay glued to them on the perimeter. Grab, push, hold, whatever. Obviously Golden State has other guys that can make you pay, but that’s the risk you have to take. Bet on a regression to the mean from Green (7-14 from three!) and that the role players will be worse on the road.
If either of the Splash Bros get off, let alone both, Cleveland doesn’t have any answers. If the other guys beat you, well shit, it wasn’t meant to be.
Find a way to build an early lead
This one is admittedly a bit nebulous. But as OKC showed, it’s so much easier to beat this Warriors team if you force them to play from behind on the road. We’re not talking a 5-point lead; Golden State can make that up in 30 seconds. But if the Cavs can convincingly win a first quarter at home, say 25-15 or even 20-11, that sets them up to dictate the way the rest of the game is played. The Warriors have shown that they can get rattled (see: Games 3 and 4 in OKC). Facing a double-digit deficit, they tend to force things and fall into their nasty turnover habits. They have to rely so heavily on the shooting of Curry and Thompson to make up those deficits – which of course they can do – though the odds drop significantly. Plus, I haven’t looked up the advanced stats on this, but it’s at least 50 percent more likely Draymond kicks a guy in the balls when his team is down 10+. It’s just science.
Now how do you build that early lead if you’re the Cavs? That’s where I run out of answers, especially if they’re playing the slowed-down bully ball I’ve advocated for above. It just feels like we’re due for a JR Smith explosion, as well as a 35-12-10 from LeBron. If James can dominate the first quarter offensively, as he did in Game 1, while Smith simultaneously finds his 3-point stroke, the Cavs can absolutely get a 10-point lead and their home fans frenzied. From that point, it’s just LeBron iso drives and kickouts, rinse and repeat.
This very strategy didn’t work last year, it just won them two games. But hey, this post was just about how they can get back in the series, not how they actually win it. I’m not a genie.