A league-best 12-2 playoff record, a gaudy point differential and plenty of rest all mean next to nothing now – the Cleveland Cavaliers are sizable underdogs in the NBA Finals.
Staring Cleveland in the face isn’t just the most successful single-season team ever, fresh off their first true challenge in their two-year run of dominance, or even just a team that handily dispatched these Cavs a year ago on this same stage. It’s also a Golden State Warriors team that holds sizable and visibly apparent tactical advantages within the specific matchup, and we’ve yet to see these Cavs prove they have the skill and (especially) the discipline to combat these for a full 48 minutes four times in seven games.
What’s been working for Cleveland as they’ve walked through the East won’t work here, at least not in the same ways. The Cavaliers have yet to face an opponent capable of simultaneously neutering their aerial attack without sacrificing interior defense, a reality that’s about to change in swift fashion. They’ve been able to dry-erase mostly lukewarm defense by simply overwhelming teams on the other end of the floor, but the Warriors use permanent marker.
Cleveland has found a comfort zone over this last month and change; now they have to be willing to leave it. This series is only competitive if the Cavs are able to swing a number of minutiae in their favor and dominate in their few advantageous areas, and doing that will take a commitment and potential willingness to sacrifice that has never been asked of at least a couple primary cogs. They’ll be asked to combine some lessons they learned last time around with new (albeit flawed) personnel and a negative margin for error. Let’s examine a few of the most vital tipping points.
The Cavs go right from over-matched opponents incapable of punishing their occasional defensive laziness often enough to one of the most ruthless, exploitative teams in recent memory. The Warriors will find the tiniest scar tissue in your defense, rip it open and pour salt water in it repeatedly until you find a way to cover it – and NBA basketball offers limited Band-Aids.
If how to adequately defend lineups featuring Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson while either of Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving is on the floor is a quandary, how to do so while both play at the same time is a MENSA project. The Dubs will seek these two out regardless of the matchups Cleveland chooses to place them in.
Love has succeeded most in Cleveland when the Cavs have kept things simple for him and involved the entire five-man unit in covering his weaknesses, and that will be the name of the game here.
Pick-and-roll defense is the tipping point against this opponent, and the switch-everything approach the Thunder used so well last round isn’t an option for Love. He should guard Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli whenever one of them is on the court, and when the Warriors involve him in Curry’s pick-and-rolls in these situations, expect to see the Cavs aggressively trap Curry and force the ball out of his hands. Bogut and Ezeli aren’t the playmakers Draymond Green has proven to be in space, and the Cavs have shown the ability to recover quickly and fly around in passing lanes when they’re engaged. They often find a majority of their transition points following these sorts of possessions, an added benefit if they can get enough stops.
It’s not a perfect option, but it seems preferable to the alternatives: switching Love onto Curry repeatedly or allowing Steph his bread-and-butter looks off the bounce with more traditional pick-and-roll defense. This might leave Love as the last line of defense at the rim more often than Cleveland would prefer, but the Cavs know they need a team effort on the interior regardless. Things get dicey anytime Love finds himself checking Green or a Warriors wing, and Golden State will hunt out these opportunities both in transition and in screen action away from the ball in the halfcourt – the Cavaliers simply can’t afford to make many mistakes in these quick-decision areas.
Love’s success could also depend in large part on coach Ty Lue’s willingness to put aside any distractions like salary or previous role while deploying his stretch power forward in this series. Lue should be ready to alter Love’s rotations in the pursuit of keeping him on the floor for virtually every conceivable second the Warriors play a traditional center; he’ll drown against the Death Lineup or any iteration that forces him onto Green or a Warriors’ wing for any stretch of time. Whether Lue is prepared to potentially deviate in a big way here, including periods when Love just won’t be a viable option, is a big question.
Like with Love, the Cavs do have a few simple options for defending Curry with Irving on the ball – a place he’ll end up in enough to make it relevant given that the presumed starting lineups don’t really offer a reasonable hiding place for huge minutes.
The Cavs should trap anything that includes Love’s man as well as Irving’s, but look for a switch-heavy scheme otherwise. Outside Love and perhaps Channing Frye, the Cavs boast a roster full of guys at least moderately capable of jumping out to check Curry for a few seconds at a time. The Dubs diverting from their offense to try and punish Irving in the post on these switches would almost certainly be a welcome sight for Cleveland, especially later in the shot clock.
The larger problem for Irving and the Cavs as a whole is away from the ball, where the Warriors will look to destroy the few manageable defensive matchups available while simultaneously hunting their brand of quick, lethal shots.
This is where the approach has to diverge from the one Oklahoma City employed last round. No mismatch the Thunder could cede while switching everything off the ball was large enough to abandon the tactic and yield the sort of open looks that would result in letting their primary defenders fall behind Steph or Klay navigating the trees – the Cavs lack that luxury. Remember, the Warriors will exploit every little thing: Love ends up on Thompson rocketing around a pick? He’s about to be involved in a pick-and-roll, where no trap or switch is safe.
The Cavs will be openly looking to keep the likes of Irving and Love away from certain matchups, and this will be Golden State’s counter. Cleveland is going to get burned here now and then regardless, but staying focused and communicative enough to prevent it from becoming a rampant problem is paramount.
In a broad sense, defending the Warriors will be a war of attrition for Cleveland. They’re giving up clear deficits in obvious areas; can they plug just enough of the right holes to stay afloat? We saw them briefly narrow an even larger talent gap last year, but the puzzle is much more complex this time out.
The King (Needs To) Stay the King
LeBron James is better-rounded than his defensively challenged star teammates, but he’ll need to be similarly open to venturing outside his comfort zone to succeed in this series. He’ll look to strike a balance between last year’s Herculean solo effort and the five-man success the Cavs have enjoyed in the playoffs thus far.
Cleveland will need peak-energy LeBron on the defensive end for longer stretches than we’ve seen from him in the last couple years. He sets the tone for their activity level on back-end rotations, a theme that will become vital if the Cavs indeed choose to trap certain Curry pick-and-rolls. He can blow up a few plays a game if he stays engaged, and will often turn these into points the other way on easy buckets Cleveland will desperately need. On the other side of that coin, the results could be disastrous if James settles into the roaming, detached, “my presence scares you more than anything I’m actually doing” defense he often gets away with against lesser opponents. The Dubs are too smart for it.
Offensively, LeBron and the Cavs need to be prepared for a team that will practically beg him to do too much. The Warriors will disrespect his jumper more emphatically than anyone to this point, and will be content with an over-reliance on isolation play during the bulk of his minutes while he’s guarded by Andre Iguodala. They’ll shade his post-ups with well-timed strong-side overloads from guys like Bogut and Green, throw tons of pressure at his pick-and-rolls and generally make his life uncomfortable.
Like in every other area, the Cavs will have to out-ruthless the Warriors when the opportunities present themselves. On the rare occasions James finds anyone but Iguodala in front of him, he should attack the mismatch immediately – before the Dubs have a chance to slide back into their preferred alignment, something they’re the best in the league at doing. If there’s even a hint of a possible transition chance, LeBron has to push for it.
In the slower halfcourt, leveraging James’ strengths are vital. Any time he spends on the perimeter is time the Warriors can spend loading up on the paint and more dangerous shooters; Lue should do his best to limit LeBron pounding the rock unless a mismatch is imminent. Cleveland has used James as the roll man in pick-and-roll sets much more often this postseason, up to 8.2 percent of his finished plays compared with 3.6 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports; that number should be in the double digits this series, even assuming his gaudy 1.4 points scored per-possession in these sets to this point in the playoffs has no chance of maintaining.
Kevin Durant roundly outplayed and even marginalized Green in the Western Conference Finals, and it wasn’t enough. For Cleveland to have a chance, James will need to be the best player on the floor. He should spend chunks of time in Durant’s Green-stopper/Curry-switcher role that helped the Thunder neutralize that pick-and-roll combo, and others stifling Thompson if Klay gets hot. He’s as fresh as ever at this point in a postseason, and the Cavs will need every ounce he’s got left.
Frye With That?
Cleveland’s secret weapon throughout this postseason, Channing Frye is another piece yet to be tested under the crucible of a strong opponent capable of exploiting him as much as he exploits them.
The James-Frye frontcourt duo that’s opened most second and fourth quarters for Lue over the last month is one of the few legitimate matchup issues for Golden State if one assumes Steve Kerr’s rotational patterns stay the same – and it may very well force them to change up. Guys like Mo Speights won’t survive defensively against these lineups and can’t hurt the Cavs enough on the other end, meaning Kerr could be forced to sub Green out a hair earlier in the first and third quarters to bring him back against these units.
Lue should be willing to mix and match Frye’s minutes pending matchups and situations, and potentially to lean on him if he proves he can hold up defensively. Frye will struggle defensively while Curry plays, but the Cavs can do many of the same things mentioned above with Love to help mitigate the damage here. Frye isn’t the rebounder Love is (another team effort thing that will spring up while he’s on the court), but has more length and might be a tad more effective as a rim deterrent. It’s easy to see a world where these units do just as well defensively as their more common looks; in this scenario, these lineups could swing a game or two in this series.
Win the Margins
It’s been our entire theme here, but it bears even further reinforcement: This series will be over in a hurry if the Cavs aren’t able to maximize every tiny advantage available to them.
The potential applications are broad and nearly endless. Cleveland has to be ultra-smart crashing the offensive glass; they badly need those extra chances to score, but it won’t matter much if they over-pursue and get killed in defensive transition. They should aggressively attack any key Warrior on the precipice of foul trouble, both to find easier points and potentially muck up Kerr’s rotational versatility.
The Cavs have done a great job limiting turnovers to this point in the postseason, and must continue the practice – even a few extra live-ball opportunities that turn into transition points the other way each game would likely bury them. Lue should be ready to react quickly to changing circumstances, and to potentially step outside the box with lineup decisions. Don’t be shocked to see more of Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert, potentially even alongside the more traditional “starters” at their positions.
More than anything, Cleveland’s focus simply cannot wane. A group prone to letting their guard down at weird times needs to be able to convince themselves that a 10-point lead is actually closer to a tie game against this opponent (this nearly has some basis in fact at this point). A full 48 minutes every night just might be enough against this behemoth, but 45 simply won’t.
The Cavs get their shot for redemption, and the full crew is on hand. Can they leverage a flawed skill influx enough to level the playing field? We’ll find out starting Thursday.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.