Okay, what the hell are the Cavaliers doing on defense? Because after three games of absolutely pummeling the Warriors offense, this clearly isn’t a fluke. Here is a partial list of things the Cavs defense perpetrated on Golden State in Game 3:
- So thoroughly shut down every medium-to-large player on the Warriors that Steve Kerr had to rummage around the glove compartment and dig out a near-mint David Lee, still in its wrapper
- Made me consider seriously whether Stephen Curry was still feeling the effects from his banged neck/concussion 16 days ago
- Shook Draymond Green so badly that instead of shooting open threes, he repeatedly tried (and miserably failed) to Mozgov Mozgov
- Reverted Festus Ezeli’s hands back into the stone blocks they were two years ago
- Convinced Klay Thompson that wild, out-of-control drives to the hoops were a good idea
The Warriors offense feeds off of getting out and running, as well three-pointers ... which they often create by running. During the regular season, they led the league with 21 fast break points per game. Tonight they had four. That’s a great defensive accomplishment against any NBA offense; against the Warriors it’s incredible. And strangely enough, it’s made possible in large part by LeBron’s workhorse ISO-ball offense.
Without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, the Cavaliers are mostly just running LeBron James isolations. It’s probably the most efficient offense they can run at this point—besides J.R. Smith, there is nobody on the roster who you would call offensively gifted—but almost as important is how it sets up the defense. See, running iso after iso taxes the Warriors physically, especially whoever is guarding LeBron and getting backed down for 22 seconds. Usually the guys off-ball can relax, knowing the isolated player is looking for their own shot. But LeBron is a supremely talented passer, and the second you relax, he fires an unforeseen pass by your head to an open shooter:
Running iso after iso cuts down on turnovers, especially the most egregious kind. In the fourth quarter, amidst the Warriors’s furious comeback, we saw how good their perimeter defense can be. The Cavs really struggled to just inbound the ball, as the Warriors intelligently swarmed whoever was trying to get the ball. They love prowling the passing lanes, sandbagging just long enough before jumping the route and getting an easy two points. But since the Warriors are mostly choosing not to double team LeBron, it’s hard to get the ball away from that Hulk of a man. And, importantly, when they do, they’re not as often the sort of turnovers the Warriors can run off of. They get the turnover, but they still have to execute a half-court offense on the other end.
But the Cavaliers aren’t merely forcing the Warriors to run a half-court offense; they’re gumming that up too. Matthew Dellavedova is dogged, fighting as hard as humanly possible to stick with Steph Curry. When he runs a pick-and-roll, Dellavedova (and occasionally Iman Shumpert) have clearly been instructed to always chase over the top—denying the three—and not to switch.
While Dellavedova fights his way over the pick, the other Cavaliers defender in the action has mostly been able to prevent Curry an easy lane to the hoop. This is where the screener should be killing the Cavs with threes. Preventing a Curry three and drive to the hoop takes two defenders, leaving (usually) Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes open. But Green is turning down open looks, and Barnes can’t hit his. And besides, the Cavaliers have to pick their poison, and outside shots from Green and Barnes is the least deadly.
To win, the Warriors offense needs to untracked fast. In that regard, there were a few signs of hope in Game 3. Curry went off for 17 points in a 36 point fourth quarter, recovering the shooting stroke and zip on his passes that had been missing for two-and-three-quarters games. He finally hit his open shots, as well as nailing a couple of the “anybody else would be benched for attempting that” ones. If Curry remains hot, it might not matter what defense the Cavaliers play.
For the third straight game the Cavaliers defense fell apart late, as they clearly felt the effect of fatigue. LeBron played 46 minutes—and is at 142 out of 156 for the series—and after the game Dellavedova had to be taken to the Cleveland Clinic to be treated for “severe cramping.” They’re essentially playing a six-man rotation—the starters and J.R. Smith—which is just murder. The longer the series goes, the earlier the Cavaliers will begin tiring.
Finally, the Warriors coaching staff needs to consider making an adjustment. In Game 4 of their second round series against the Grizzlies, a defensive adjustment—having Andrew Bogut guard Tony Allen—took Allen out of the game, and unleashed the Warriors offense. Three games is enough evidence that this isn’t simply a slump that the Warriors can work through, but rather the result of the Cavaliers’s play.
That sound you hear is a thousand basketball writers cracking open thesauruses trying to find synonyms for “gritty.” We thought we were going to get an exciting series full of the NBA’s best offensive talents. Instead, we’re watching LeBron James and a bunch of guys—who, if everybody were healthy, would be sitting on the bench—absolutely imposing their will on the Splash Brothers and co. It has been unexpected, but perhaps even more fun to watch.