Cavs Can't Get Out of Durant's Way Quick Enough With J.R. Leading the Charge
Like a careless and unwanted houseguest, Bad Habits returned from a long vacation and settled in, dooming the Cavaliers in the first game of the NBA Finals. Perhaps it was the week-long break or the visiting arena. Some of it might have been first-timers finding the moment bigger and faster than them. Some of it, to be sure, was some very poor officiating.
Some of it, let's be honest, was one of the best NBA teams ever assembled doing their thing. But not so much as you’re going to hear this morning, or maybe have been hearing for much of the last week. Calling it a perfect storm doesn’t do enough justice to the challenge the Warriors pose; however, attributing it all to the Golden State’s talent is uncritical, and we’ll show why in a moment.
Let’s first note that LeBron James’ teams have lost the first game of the NBA Finals the last six years, and James has snared the crown three of those times. Let’s also note how hard it is for role players to show up on the road. Then imagine trying to show up strong on the road after sitting for the last seven games. If rust is an enemy of even the best players, what is it for the reserves?
The Warriors’ homecourt advantage made it easier for their role players to step up, but even Golden State started the game tight, missing repeatedly from close range (hereafter referred to as gimmes or cherries). It certainly didn’t help that the Cavs gave them repeated opportunities. The Warriors finished the first half with 39 paint opportunities they turned into 42 points.
Paint points were an issue in part because the Cavaliers played regular season transition defense. During the playoffs, the Cavaliers have been the third best team defending in transition allowing 1.02 points per possession (PPP) compared to the Warriors’ 0.96 PPP. (During the season the Cavaliers were last in the NBA, allowing 1.18 PPP.) Last night the Cavaliers allowed 27 fastbreak points on 16 possessions (or 1.69 PPP). The Cavaliers had 12 fastbreak opportunities and came up with 9 points.
This is indeed one of the causes for hope. Of the Warriors 35 first quarter points, 12 came off offensive rebounds and seven came on fasbreaks, just two off Cleveland’s two first quarter turnovers. Then they added eight more points off turnovers to go with the fact that 20 of their 25 second quarter points came in the paint.
We’re not trying to dismiss the first half. Golden State came out with better energy and were more physical. But let’s also be honest, they didn’t truly kick the Cavaliers ass until that 13-0 run to start the third. A lot of their momentum was built off bullshit calls that accounted for four of the Cavaliers 10 crucial second quarter turnovers.
There will be a lot of confirmation bias this morning as Warriors fans and analysts will trumpet their belief that the space between these team is a Grand Canyon-esque chasm. Yet to us, we see a series of self-inflicted (and ref-inflected) issues that put the Cavaliers behind from the jump, and made it far too difficult to fight back into the game.
We also suspect that a closer first half may have produced a better second half mindset. Despite their shooting troubles, the Cavaliers had managed 10 assists on 17 buckets. Indeed, being behind just 8 points after everything was a huge triumph – between the turnovers and the offensive boards Golden State took 18 more shots.
Most things equalized in the second half. The teams were tied with 14 paint points. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Warriors 31-24, with the five additional offensive boards counterbalancing five more turnovers (8-3 in both cases). After 20 first half assists, the Warriors managed just 11 on their 19 buckets, and they shot just 42-43% in both halves. However, they went 9-20 from 3 in the second half after 3-13 in the first. Meanwhile the Cavaliers shot a suicidal 30% in the second half as one-on-one play smothered ball movement like we've all wanted to do to Jack Nicholson at one time or another.
The larger point remains: The Cavaliers played pretty good defense outside of fastbreak situations and the first quarter offensive boards. They were solid in the halfcourt, just horrendous in transition. They need to be more effective on offense both because it limits the Warriors fastbreak opportunities, but also because the offensive futility seemed to weigh on the team, contributing to losses of focus and flagging effort. (Deron Williams, staring directly at you.)
“When you're playing a good team like this, you can’t give them 20 more shots than you have,” Lue said afterwards. “Having 20 turnovers and not being able to get back and get your defense set, they really take advantage of that, especially at home. And they thrive off turnovers and getting out in transition.”
The Offensive Boards
There was a lot about the Warriors offensive rebounding output in the first quarter that was fluky, and which, like an anomaly, began to disappear over time. Golden State would grab 8 of the first 15 rebounds available on offense; the Warriors got just 6 of the next 43. The Cavaliers had a dramatically higher number of overall rebounding opportunities (106 to 85) – measured as being within 5’ of the rebound – and offensive rebounding opportunities (32-23) yet finished with only one more offensive board.
Indeed, the whole offensive board situation might have gone unremarked were it not for JaVale McGee. The Warriors were only able to convert on one of their first four offensive boards, a Durant miss that bounced directly of backboard into Zaza Pachulia’s stomach, allowing for an easy hook over Kevin Love.
Then Golden State converted four straight offensive boards/extra possessions. With a 20-19 lead and 3:30 left, McGee dunked a missed Durant jumper. Please note the lackluster effort by Deron Williams on the left block allowing the rebound. (We’ll be calling attention to him again later. Williams did all the little things that make you lose in the game.)
Then after Kyrie Irving blocked a Steph Curry drive out-of-bounds, McGee broke to the basket on an inbounds play for another dunk. (JR Smith appears to blow the coverage.) Then with a minute left and the lead still one McGee cleanly blocked a Tristan Thompson dunk attempt from behind, grabbed a missed Curry floated missed the tip, grabbed the board again and found Curry for the three, a five point turnaround, created by the most unlikely Warrior.
Another offensive rebound, by Livingston, created an opportunity for an Andre Iguodala three (Deron Williams with the coverage), as 10 of the Warriors final 15 points in the quarter came off second chance opportunities. Without those points, Cleveland holds a 30-25 lead at the end of the first and perhaps a 52-50 lead at halftime.
Turnovers and Bad Calls
Let’s preface this section by reiterating our belief that officiating tends to even out in the long run. However, like any closed system there could be very influential pockets of entropy. Such pockets could look like the refs are seriously trying to screw the Cavaliers when it’s really just poor vision and a little home-cooking. Nonetheless these series of bad calls masquerading as turnovers is disconcerting.
The pain was two-fold. Not only did it prevent the Cavaliers from creating any kind of offensive continuity, it foiled the Cavaliers best chance to make bones with the Warrriors while Curry and Durant were on the bench. These turnovers were in large part the difference in the game, because without them it could very well have been an even game, as beyond the 5 points (if half the 10 turnovers produce points), there’s a synergistic element to having the offense function.
“Our best defense is going to be our offense, or taking care of the basketball, not a lot of turnovers,” Lue said. “And tonight we had 20, and that's way too many against this team.”
While there are several bad or forced passes by James – including the late pass to the corner on the drive (dude, everybody is watching for that by now), the attempted lob to Love, and the pass off Love’s fingertips at the arc above-the-break (ATB). They were aggressive plays you maybe are willing to live with when not being plastered every other possession by poor officiating. Four of the ten turnovers – including two offensive fouls – are sketchy.
These missed calls include Iggy clearly fouling James on the arm, Green pulling Love’s jersey preventing him from catching a pass, Richard Jefferson being called for a moving screen despite being obviously still until Ian Clark ran into him, and a charging call on James where Durant doesn’t seem to give him room to even take a step on the cross over.
The Warriors only managed two more buckets despite taking eight more shots in the second quarter; it was breathing room Cleveland couldn’t afford to surrender.
Poor Defense Olympics
While we’ve made a number of “excuses” for the Cavaliers that give us hope for Sunday, it wasn’t for nothing that they lost. There were several plays that made you question whether the team had been instructed in how to play defense. On these plays, Kyrie and J.R. Smith (respectively) surrender Kevin Durant fastbreak slams while race to guard the three-point line.
"Our game plan was kind of backwards [presumably focusing on getting to 3 shooters in transition] but when Kevin Durant has the ball, you don't want to leave him and get to shooters," Lue said afterwards. "I thought they got him going early in the game. I thought he got out in transition, got four or five dunks early and it just kind of opened everything up for him."
Deron Williams seemed to be a fuck-up magnet, making bad plays all over the court, whether they be turnovers, bad shots early in the clock or pitiful defense and ball-watching off-the-ball play. Below we have our favorite Williams’ indignity. He apparently isn’t aware that you really need to pay attention all the time with the Warriors. When Williams turns his head to look at Thompson (we have no idea why), Golden State threads the pass to his man for the foul and two freebies.
We aren’t trying to pin the reserves with all the blame either. James made a number of defensive miscues that cost the team points, particularly in the first quarter.
What’s most outrageous is when the team fails to even make an effort. How come nobody even attempts to run out at this Curry three? Everyone just kind of shrugs and concedes it, particularly Deron Williams, who’s man it was. After Curry’s runner (going right by Williams), Deron just stops covering Curry or really doing anything at all. You don’t win NBA Finals when you’re down 3-1 playing like that. Not that Williams would know about that.
The Third Quarter
Don’t even want to talk about the third quarter. The Cavaliers offense was the pits. Quick shots and very little passing. While the defense actually did a decent job on the Warriors, the offense shot 30% and produced just 5 assists on 11 baskets. The shot selection was often terrible, especially early in the third when on several consecutive possessions Cavaliers players took shots after nothing but a screen, or not even that. The quick shots played into the Warriors hands picking up the pace.
The Cavalier must be very careful not to fall into playing the Warriors pace. They want to play more like a Game 7 type game in the eighties and nineties. During the first half they played at a 109 possession/game pace. In the second that slowed down to 97 possessions. Note that the Warriors only had two more shots than the Cavaliers in the second half. They MUST keep better control of the pace.
Another thing that needs fixing is the Cavaliers statuesque weakside offense. We’re not going to pull video because it was present on just about every possession – but whatever’s happening on the Cavs’ weakside offense requires just about zero attention from Golden State. There is almost no movement, and no screening. Every once in a while, a guy will dive into the lane on a shot, but to keep the driving lanes open, guys aren’t even cutting.
"We got to be able to move the ball. We know that," James said afterwards. "But playing ISO ball has helped us get to this point, and it has gave us success in the last three years. So we don't want to have a high steady diet of it, because the defense becomes stagnant and our players become stagnant, but that's part of our package."
Of course, this is a conversation we had last year about the Cavaliers as well. When they get to heavy into the ISO ball and running pick-and-roll every time down the offense stagnates. Lue’s traditional answer is to run more, but that’s not the answer against the Warriors. The team must ACTUALLY RUN OFFENSE, and not simply hunt out mismatches to drive against.
While the Cavaliers should certainly seek out Steph Curry, as they did relentlessly the last half of last year’s Finals, but it really needs to be done within some kind of offensive flow. Nobody else on the team much saw the ball or had any role within the offensive continuity so is it any surprise that everyone that wasn’t James or Irving went 11-44?
The other issue, as Fear the Sword’s Mike Zavagno noted after the game, is that the Cavaliers again fell into the trap of switching token weakside action. Below you’ll see a brief example of what this is. While in the video it seems harmless, that’s because none of those screens are meant to be complicated – but a quick cut can yield an open game-winning three, as it did for Avery Bradley in Game 3 against Boston. Even this time, it confused Kyrie enough to give Curry an offensive board.
Some of you may recall this was an issue for the Cavaliers in Games 1 and 2 as well. The idea that both weakside offensive ball movement and defensive switching of token action could reoccur after producing similar issues last year is a bit mind-boggling to be honest. While the Warriors to offer a large margin of error, you’d think the Cavaliers could at least control errors they’ve made in the past. Talk about rediscovering the wheel (or small lineup!).
Such that it is, the good news is that there’s a new game on Sunday. The Cavaliers didn’t play well, yet didn’t really get blown out until late in the third. That isn’t much solace, but it shouldn’t be. Many of the Cavaliers’ wounds were of the self-inflicted variety. We’re still not convinced that the Warriors can handle LeBron, though his eight turnovers does seem to say otherwise.
First-timers Deron Williams and Kyle Korver did their best garbarge imitations so hopefully with a game under their belt they can bounce back. The Cavaliers are going to need their bench. We feel the starting lineup can match the Warriors, but they will need the Cavs bench to outplay the Warriors. Iguodala looked pretty healthy last night, so that might be difficult. (Then again, he missed two free throws, so maybe put him on the line once just to see how he responds?)
The Cavaliers must play much more deliberately than they did last night, though the slower pace in the second half seems pretty in line with where they’ll be going. Even slower would be better. Indeed, many of the more troubling aspects of the game normalized in the second half, suggesting that Cleveland can stay with the Warriors if they can maintain the consistency and focus they lacked early last night.
Too often they seemed to be pressing, and the ball really didn’t move enough to involve the other players. We feel they’re essential. Deron Williams must figure things out.
The Cavs must also come out with better energy. The Warriors had twice as many deflections as the Cavs (16) and recovered 22 of the 28 loose balls. They can’t win anything without doing better on the 50-50 balls, and demonstrating a more physical presence on both sides of the court. Golden State came out and pushed the Cavs around. They must respond without getting themselves into foul trouble on Sunday. Especially with the Warriors movement offense – bumping those cutters and getting into bodies is key, as well as controlling the boards.
Finally, we wonder if the Cavaliers might need to change up how they use James. Until now he’s been on the ball, up high (above the top of the key, in center of floor), where he’s hard to double. But they’ve done a good job of clogging the lanes, and James might have more success using his gravity in the post to bend the defense, rather than trying to break it down every time. The latter seems to kill the ball and people movement the team needs to keep the Golden State defense and help rotations off-balance.
On the positive side, we really liked what we saw from Kevin Love, and see where his value putting Warriors perimeter players in the post or popping out to the three line as the kind of safety valve J.R. Smith once was. His ability to draw fouls was important – though the Cavs never took advantage of it. (Also like last year’s Game 1.)
We could single out individual bench players but the fact is the entire bench (other than maybe Jefferson who played well in the second half) needs to step it up. Tristan Thompson as well, he needs to make plays when he collapses the defense inside and find shooters on the perimeter. They’re the most talented supporting group James has ever had. They need to play like it.
"We made a lot of mistakes. There's nothing really needs to be said," James offered. "We know we're capable of playing a lot better. We didn't play as well as we know we're capable of, so we look forward to the next one."
It’s just one game. Heck, by now we know not to count these guys out, even down 3-1. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that again.
We want to remind you that we wrote about last year’s title run in the book King James Brings The Land a Crown
, which is available in e-book and hardcover at cavschampions.com
. We’ll be signing copies at the Barnes & Noble in Woodmere on June 10. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne
, and hear us every Monday morning at 11 a.m. discussing the Cavaliers with Michael James on the Defend Cleveland Show on WRUW-91.1.