Will the Warriors attack match-ups?
Golden State are yet to display an eagerness to target weak points in the opposing defence. It isn’t a part of their DNA — their system predicated on player motion and ball movement often involves all five-defenders, opting to create breakdowns and openings through elaborate sets rather than attack individuals. That, and they simply haven’t needed to.
Their demolition job of the West playoffs field found them well short of competition, and with injuries striking down some of their opposition’s best defenders, they were never forced to adjust to find points.
Cleveland are different — they have particular strong defenders in some positions (Thompson, LeBron) and weaker links at others (Irving, Love). Thompson remains one of the most effective bigs at guarding the switch, especially late in the clock where he is able to slide his feet, use his agility to stay close, then his height to smother the smaller player and force tough contested jumpers.
Love’s defensive limitations are overstated, but very real. Unlike TT, he has little hope guarding Curry (or anyone) on the switch, and the Kyrie/Green mismatch, especially with Green playing downhill, isn’t favourable anymore.
The Warriors shy away from running the conventional P&R and try to baffle and frustrate teams with a shared offensive load, but with such glaring options like these, it’s tough to see them simply overlooking the opportunity in favour of sharing the rock. Slide KD to the 4 and Green to center, and now a new world of possibilities open up. This leaves Love guarding Durant, otherwise known as a basket, or Love again guarding a downhill Green, this time without the rim-protection to cover any mistakes or blow-bys. You can guarantee more times than not that will be enough to force a help defender to bite, and that against the Warriors is death.
The Cavs can fluster the Warriors out of their rhythm, and when the pace slows down and the defence is locked in, the Cavs have such obvious weak-links that are outmatched guarding their position that GS may have to alter their regular philosophy.
Bottom line — the Warriors don’t regularly attack match-ups but with the shots on offer, they just might have to.
Can Cleveland dominate the boards?
Kevin Love is playing the best ball of his Cavs career. His rebounding has taken a big upswing, rebounding 33% of misses in these playoffs when he’s on the floor, close to his Minnesota numbers. That’s encouraging, especially when he is often found out on the perimeter, either shooting threes or defending them. Tristan Thompson holds a career offensive rebound rate that sits second to Dennis Rodman at 17.2 percent. This has bothered teams throughout the post-season, and should be of particular concern to the Warriors.
The Warriors are a great defensive team, but a below average rebounding team. If they are willing to forego rebounding ability and size for fire-power and versatility, the Cavs have to knuckle down and make them pay. They have the personal to do it.
Which hidden trump card will have more impact?
KD and LeBron are the only two major contributors that will likely guard each other on either end of the court, and they are the two best players in the series. Yet it’s the point-guard dual that may present the biggest impact on the series’ result.
Curry may well start on Irving, and he is underrated on that end. He stays in front of his man well enough to not be a totally liability, and as like the rest of his game plays with great awareness; he may not be the most physically gifted defender, but he won’t be fooled into making silly plays. This theory hits a road bump when Cleveland start judiciously hunting down Curry. We saw this to great effect in last year’s finals, and the deadly LeBron/Kyrie pick-and-roll is enough to wear down even the most stout defenders.
The key is in the variability, not just that they run the inverted 3-1 P&R as well as the standard edition, but the range of looks they can generate from it. It simply leaves the defence with an impossible pick your poison — switch and LeBron has a mismatched defender in his wheelhouse, stay conventional and LeBron is rolling to the rim playing 3-on-2. On the invert, Kyrie can pick-and-pop for an open three if the defenders close LeBron’s angle, and if they stay home on Kyrie, LeBron is turning the corner heading downhill, this time with an open angle and a full head of steam. The options are endless.
We saw GS press high on James Harden anytime he got cooking, practically ignoring Ariza when Houston went to this set. It worked in preventing Harden, but did open up Ariza for some open threes and easy drives. If Irving gets into a scoring zone, GS may be out of options. Whilst this is a staple of the Cavs offence, the Warriors have kept the KD/Curry P&R firmly up their sleeves.
Curry screens often within their offence, and alongside Kyrie is among the premier guard screeners in the league. KD however, is known to not be the most keen of screen-setters, opting to slip the pick in most cases rather than take the chest contact. Slipping has its benefits, but doesn’t present the range of outcomes, or the repeatability, of the conventional pick play.
We’ve seen KD as part of an effective duo before, with his old mate Russell Westbrook, so there’s still plenty to suggest the Warriors will give this a run before the series is through. The Warriors combo shares all the same positives as the Cavs pair, with two further advantages, KD is a much better shooter, and Curry is a much better passer.
The Warriors may have the more deadly combination, but the Cavs’ willingness to hunt down mismatches and their demonstrated readiness to rinse and repeat until Steph Curry is totally worn-down will have an increased influence on the result. Don’t be surprised to see both teams look for this set on multiple key stretches.
Can the Cavs hold up without LeBron?
Golden State have the luxury of resting their stars whilst at least two other all-NBA players take the floor, an insane anomaly that hasn’t been seen since the big 3 Celtics era. Even LeBron’s heat were forced to endure the horrible pain of having only one all-star on the court at any time.
The Irving-led bench lineups have been abysmal, accounting for some of their worst 5-man lineups through the playoffs, with a defensive rating of 145.3, which translates to unplayable. Even Boston’s scrubs unit heavily outplayed them. Sub in K-Love for one of the bench guys, and that number comes down a tad, but still too weak to be depended on. The LeBron-only units have performed fine, but he is going to have to sit at some point, and the Warriors may put the foot down as soon as that happens. These units have to be better, even if it’s for three minutes a night. Expect LeBron to play some ridiculously heavy minutes.
Who wins the turnover battle?
Some of the Warriors’ bad habits crept back in during the Spurs series. GS entered the playoffs first in defensive rebound rate and turnover percentage, and finished the conference finals last in both categories. They have a tendency to search for roof-blowing plays whenever they get some momentum; when it works its soul-crushing, when it doesn’t it invites the other team back to the battle. Cleveland need to force more turnovers— turning defence into offence answers to some of their biggest questions and really nullifies the Warriors’ fast break attack, whilst allowing them to set their D, an attribute that changes the face of the Dubs’ game.
If Cleveland can force turnovers, get easy buckets and face up to the Warriors with a set defence, they’ll go along way to shortening the talent gap in this series. If the Warriors win the turnover battle, the series is as good as gone.
Will the Cavaliers change their defensive approach?
Early in the opening round, in an attempt to reinvigorate their fading energy without the ball, the Cavaliers trialled a defensive system tailored around their opposition. The concept was simple — blitz hard on any play involving the other teams best player, trap him anytime he holds the ball, get it out of his hands and dare the role players to beat them. Against Paul George and the Pacers it worked flawlessly. The Raptors presented a slight adjustment with both Lowry and DeRozan able to score, forcing the Cavs to be more selective with their trapping. They alternated between the two, moving them away from their spots and again disposed of them with ease. Boston, though the most talented team, ran the offence most susceptible to the system — Isaiah Thomas was the beginning and end of their attack, and once Cleveland took him out of the game, it was over.
Why do these matter? Every series presented a different question to the Cavs’ predetermined answer. Perfect against the Pacers with one threat. A sound, but relatively easy adjustment to thwart the Raptors. Boston is the most interesting case study — once Thomas went down, the Cavs, without an individual to target, struggled to adapt to the Celtics ball-tactics, even dropping their only game.
This represents the closest sample to what the Warriors might present. The change in lineup happened without time to prepare, and that obviously caught the Cavs by surprise. They’ll know to what to expect against the Warriors, but if the Celtics gave them trouble without their number one option, the Warriors are an all-out assault of primary options.
Against the Warriors’ rotation lineups, the Cavs can look to catch them unsuspecting by throwing a blitz in here or there, but starters-to-starters, double team anyone on the Warriors and that’s the quickest way to light the fuse. The Cavs are going to have to switch, maybe religiously, to even hang with the Warriors on that end, and they have the personnel to do it — Thompson is elite at guarding smalls, LeBron is a Swiss Army knife, and few other can at least hang without getting killed. A hybrid of what they’ve done so far is their best option, but they need to be flexible, adaptable, and play with a hell of a lot more energy.
Make or miss?
The infamous Jeff Van Gundy quote may never have been more accurate than in the current NBA landscape. More than ever, teams are willing to live and die by the three, and these two teams represent two of the top five shooting teams in the league.
Noise around whether the Rockets’ shooting bonanza would create enough variability to possibly swing the result was, well, just noise — they failed to swing a single game. Too often it’s forgotten that this Warriors outfit is the best shooting team in the history of basketball. Up against them, LeBron, who is the greatest generator of open threes in the league. Defensive schemes are going to matter, but both these teams can catch serious heat, and that might be enough to swing the landscape of the finals, which is crazy. With some many sharpshooters on either side, don’t be surprised to see an individual game, or more likely, multiple games, swung by some hot shooting.
Will the Warriors dare to switch?
The Warriors play with defiance, they don’t care about mismatches. They switch meticulously, tempting other teams to disrupt their regular rhythm to try catch them out. It isn’t arrogance, more confidence — they are happy to back their guys to hold their own, willing to help and scramble to accomodate for a potential mismatch. They might have to rethink that strategy slightly against the Cavs, especially after LeBron and co. took full advantage of this tactic last year and ran Curry into the ground.
Going small will negate this somewhat — everyone is then capable of holding their own and the army of 6’5-6’10 flailing arms makes those regular Cavs cross court sequences awfully difficult. Curry is the only weak-link in that instance, and that might force the Cavs’ hand into hunting him down. With James and Irving so good at generating switches, they run the risk of placing Curry in that same predicate that propelled the Cavs to the title.
They have the personnel to attempt to hold conventional on most coverage, and toggling through different schemes can keep Cleveland on their toes, something they’ve been uncomfortable with in the second LeBron era. Still, if they hold to their philosophy, which they’ve shown a willingness to do, this is a caveat the Cavs must attack.
How will Cleveland handle the death star?
The ultimate trick up the Dubs’ sleeve. They’ve been scarce in its implementation, but this is Finals and the Warriors would have learned the lesson of hesitancy last season. Expect the juggernaut Curry/Thompson/Iguodala/Durant/Green, the deluxe edition of the line-up of death, to feature prominently in this series. We know how it will perform, but we don’t know how the Cavs will respond.
The Cavs have options — they can stay big, and hope to close the gap by slowing the pace and dominating the paint and glass. They need to ultra-disciplined to pull that off, punishing mistakes is the whole theory of going small, and a hint complacency will send Draymond Green spearheading a Flying V-formation surrounded by four shooters.
They can go small, hoping to negate the threat by matching player-to-player, which might present their best option. Staying big presents the most variability — they could garner an advantage and force the Warriors to abandon ship, or they could quickly give up a 12-0 run. Small-for-small, the playing field is much more equal, though the Warriors’ talent is far superior.
The aforementioned Kyrie/Bron P&R will become even more deadly if both teams are playing small. Switch Thompson out for Love means an open lane; Love has to be guarded at the 3-point line at all times, opening up gargantuan amounts of space for either Kyrie or LeBron to go to work. The Cavaliers might be too scared to go to the Love-at-center lineup first, in fear of prompting the Warriors to whip out the death star, but they could use it as a counter when they look for answers.
The offence will chug along just fine – having LeBron ensues that – but defensively, the Warriors can cause real problems here.