The Golden State Warriors are forcing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers into straying from what makes their offense go.
There are plenty of things that viewers and analysts can point to as defining points of Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
The dominance of the Warriors bench, Golden State’s backcourt’s off night, and Tyronn Lue’s coaching miscues are definitely headliners. One point that bears a close look, though, is the how Golden State approached the Cavaliers defensively that night, and how it affected them.
The Cavaliers machine is run by LeBron James (and Kyrie Irving, to a lesser degree). They slaughtered other teams by running James into the paint, and dumping to ball to wide open shooters when they would bite and double him. They would also overcommit to Irving, one of the best start-stop tight-space finishers off the dribble in basketball. That usually leads to a barrage of three pointers and clean passes, along with solid inside looks for Cleveland’s top two players.
That’s not what the Warriors did.
Golden State is running a modified version of the defensive game plan they used on a beat-up Cavs team last year, with a few key differences. They’re treating Irving similarly to how they did James last year, sticking a good defender on him and allowing him to go one on one. The issue there is that Klay Thompson (who will get most of the defensive reps on Irving) has enough of a size advantage to stick with the smaller guard on his moves and challenge the sliver-space shots he’s known for.
The Warriors are more than content to oblige Irving’s man to man breakdown tendencies, trusting Thompson to slow him down. It worked in Game 1, with the Cavaliers’ star point guard shooting his way to 26 points on a wildly inefficient 7/28 shooting performance.
The Warriors’ treatment of James this year, however, is different. Last year, Golden State expended a lot of defensive energy “letting him get his”, hoping to force him into inefficiency and betting that his supporting cast couldn’t make the most of his transcendent passing ability. For the most part, they were right. James put on a show, but his shooters let him down. Basically, they played LeBron from a scoring standpoint, because his team play wouldn’t matter as much.
That’s the difference this year. LeBron is famously unselfish, maybe the most so of any superstar in the modern age of basketball. He loves passing nearly to a point of criticism. That’s what made this Cavaliers team so dangerous in the first few rounds; he finally has shooters. When defenders come off to help on him, he’s only too happy to dump the ball to Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, etc.
That’s what makes the Warriors’ strategy this year so interesting: they’re not playing his shooting so much as they’re playing his passing.
By sticking a strong wing defender on him, they’re devoting all their energy to denying him his snipers and trying to push him out of the paint where he’s far less effective this year (successfully so far, since he settled for a lot of jumpers in the second half and the Warriors outscored the Cavs in the paint 54-42). It helps that Andre Iguodala looks to be a solid repeat bet as Finals MVP, capitalizing on strip opportunities for steals and making LeBron’s life on the wing generally more difficult.
By trusting their wings in isolation against LeBron and not biting on double team chances, they’re allowing their guys to stay true on the players who would punish them on open shots. This Cleveland team runs on LeBron-centric inside out play. If they deny him the inside and reduce his escape paths to the outside, all that’s left is LeBron in the mid-range. It’s similar to the Spurs’ strategy against James in the Finals when he was in Miami, but with more off-ball challenges.
Basically, the Warriors are stranding LeBron on an island, and burning all the bridges around him. It isn’t just de-fanging his supporting cast either, it’s generating turnovers.
In Game 1, the Cavaliers turned the ball over 15 times. 11 of those turnovers came from their big three, with James, Irving, and Love logging 4, 4, and 3 respectively. By comparison, the Warriors had 9 turnovers. 5 came from Stephen Curry, and 3 from Draymond Green. The Warriors capitalized too, scoring 25 points off of those turnovers to Cleveland’s 12 off of 9 Golden State turnovers.
The key to beating this Cleveland team doesn’t appear to be cutting off the beast’s head (James). It’s removing the limbs. By forcing LeBron to try and carry the load despite having a good supporting cast by partially neutralizing his best talent, the Warriors look like they’ve adopted an effective plan. Game 1 was a golden opportunity to steal one at Oracle with the Splash Brothers both on an off night.
If the Cavs can’t figure out how to get effective swings to open shooters and stop Irving from getting lured into 1 on 1s, this might be a shorter series than we thought.