– Evan Sally
Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals are over, and there’s a lot to digest. What just happened? Both games have been overtime thrillers. If you’re a neutral viewer, you have to be enjoying the hell out of the Finals so far. If you’re a fan of either team, which I am, Games 1 and 2 have been about as nerve wracking and heart pounding as it gets.
In Game 1 as a Cavs fan, it was a pleasant surprise to see Cleveland be able to keep up with Golden State. You never want to your team to lose, but I was pleased to see Cleveland be able to compete with Golden State, not only because I obviously would love to see LeBron win another title, but purely as a basketball
fan, I want to see a good, long series. Win or lose, I was happy with their performance. That is until we saw Kyrie Irving go hobbling off the court in overtime. The news of him being out for 3 to 4 months with a broken kneecap, compounded with a disaster of an overtime, turned an encouraging game into a gut punch. How does Cleveland recover from something like that? With Love and Irving gone, I was dreading the rest of the series. Counting the LeBron factor or not, beating a team like the Warriors with the skeleton crew Cleveland would be forced to put on the court would be a near impossibility. The Warriors were in the driver’s seat, with nothing but smooth road to the championship.
Until Game 2 happened.
It’s been repeated throughout the year that Cleveland’s defense was their Achilles heel. For as good as they were playing in the second half of the season, their defense wasn’t championship caliber. In the playoffs, the Cavaliers have had the number one defense statistically. And yet, most analysis said that ranking was fool’s gold, considering how weak their opponents were in the East compared to the West. I’m not immune; while I was pleased with the steps the defense had made, taking down the Hawks, Bulls and Celtics is not the same as Steph Curry and the juggernaut Warriors.
Until Game 2 happened.
Game 2 was some pretty hideous basketball for long stretches. I have to think that was by design. The Cavaliers’ entire game plan was to drag the Warriors into the muck, and it couldn’t have worked better. As we outlined in our NBA Finals preview (See it here), the Warriors thrive on movement, both by the ball and by players setting screens for each other, and providing spacing to give openings to attack the rim or get open for a 3. Usually these things happen because opposing defenses are so worried about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson that they send help defenders at them when they have the ball. This gives options for Thompson, and especially Curry, to pass the ball to. The defense is then forced to recover and in the chaos, Golden State ends up with a great shot.
In Game 2, Cavs coach David Blatt decided to not send help defense at Curry and Thompson. Instead, the Cavaliers focused on selling out to deny the Warriors from getting the ball. This is a risky defensive strategy; if defenders are guarding their players too closely, they can easily get burned by a good pass and give up an open layup. Blatt trusted his guys to play sound defense, and it paid off.
No one rewarded Blatt’s trust more then Matt Dellavedova. The scrappy, undrafted Australian got stuck with the impossible assignment of slowing down Curry, and rather incredibly did it. Curry missed all 8 shots he took with Delly on him in Game 2, and while Curry may have missed a few shots he’d normally hit, the defense clearly had a big effect on him. What Dellavedova was doing was subtle, yet very difficult: he was able to play defense without fouling. Typically, to bother a player with the talent of Curry, you have to get physical with him, don’t let him get to the spots he wants to shoot from, make him take tough shots. The thing is, playing more physically usually equals fouling, which equals giving them free points down the stretch. Delly was able to move his feet to stay in front of Steph so he didn’t have to reach in. Instead of jumping on Steph’s shot fakes, he stayed on the ground with his hands up and held his ground. You would think the MVP of the league would be able to solve this defense, but Curry had a nightmarish day. It’s impossible to expect Curry to continue to struggle like that; he won’t go 5-23 again. But if I was a Golden State fan, I’d be concerned that: 1) Curry really is bothered by Delly’s defense, or, and more frightening, 2) Curry is getting worn down after a long playoff run. That being said, if the Cavs are counting on Curry to shoot that poorly again, they’re kidding themselves. Even as bad as he was early in the game, Steph was still able to get hot and drag his team to force overtime. Curry will adjust, and the Cavaliers defense will have to adjust accordingly.
Pretty amazing that I’ve gotten this far into this column barely mentioning LeBron James. But that’s how good he is. Of all the surprising things that have happened in this series, LeBron scoring 44 in Game 1 and getting 39-16-11 in Game 2, a stat line literally no one in the past 30 years has ever gotten before (regular season or playoffs), barely registers as a blip on the radar. But that’s LeBron’s burden: the burden of expectations. LeBron is always expected to play at a crazy high level every night he gets on the court, and if he fails, not only will his team almost certainly lose, but he’ll be hit with a tidal wave of criticism. And yet on the biggest stage, he’s stepped up in so far in these Finals.
LeBron still isn’t shooting well. He’s 29 for 72 in the first 2 games, and he only hit 2 of his final 12 shots yesterday. He’s still able to impose his will on the game in other ways. In Game 2, his 11 assists were huge. By simply dribbling to a spot, he’s able to create passing lanes to get shooters the ball for open looks because he draws so much defensive attention. An even more subtle way he’s putting his stamp on this series is by slowing it down. LeBron knows the best chance for the Cavs to win is to limit the amount of possessions in each game. Less possessions = less chances for a better shooting team like Golden State to hit shots. So instead, he’s turned the game into a battle of competing isolation plays. More often than not down the stretch, LeBron was more than happy to wait until there were 10 seconds left on the shot clock to begin the offense. And because he’s so good, he’s able to get a good look most of the time. On the other end, because the Cavs defenders aren’t helping on Curry and Thompson, they’re forced to do the same thing. And for as good as each of them are, especially Curry, they aren’t good enough to match LeBron playing the exact same style. LeBron is so committed to slowing the game down that he even refused to take a few fast breaks in favor of running the clock and playing the Cavaliers’ speed. He knows that Golden State thrives on chaos, and he wants to keep the game as ordered as possible.
Now, you can say the only reason the Cavs won Game 2 is because Steph played so poorly. That was no doubt a big factor. It’s also important to note that JR Smith was a complete disaster, Tristan Thompson shot the ball like there was a lid on the rim, the fossilized remains of Mike Miller had to play 6 minutes, and the Cavs still won. You can take this one of two ways: 1) The Cavaliers are on a tight rope, barely holding onto this series. Even with as well as LeBron is playing, he won’t be able to keep it up, and they are due to collapse. Or 2) The Cavaliers just gave the Warriors their 4th loss all season on their home floor and now have home court advantage the rest of the series. It’s all a matter of your perspective. And no matter what your perspective is, we can all hope the remaining games of the series are as good as the first two.
– Evan Sally, @Evan_Sally