Watching the first two games of the NBA Finals with an immense pending wager on the Cavaliers was like watching your Greek nemesis go ass to mouth with your girlfriend: pure misery.
But as things continued to unravel, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why the fuck are the Cavaliers playing as if they’re the Warriors? I know I’m nothing but a faceless internet “writer,” paid a similar wage to the average undocumented asparagus farmer, but first-year Coach Tyronn Lue needs help.
So, armed with my Doctorate in NBA gambling, I went to work re-watching the horrors of the first two games. After crying the water supply of an African nation, I realized flaws in Cleveland’s strategy more obvious than those in Bernie Sanders’ economic policy.
The Cavs, for whatever reason, are in the midst of a bootleg Warriors impression, playing into Golden State’s preference for smaller lineups; allowing free motion in their offense and the lack of rim protection for slashing guards and back cuts.
While Cleveland shot lights out in the early rounds, the three ball had gone cold in the first two Finals matchups, as isolation “hero ball” from LeBron and Irving stalled a once well-oiled machine to the tune of nearly 20 fewer points per game compared to the first three rounds.
I cannot fathom the lineups Lue continues to put on the floor. Timofey Mozgov, who averaged a near double-double in last year’s Finals, has yet to play a meaningful minute. Channing Frye, shooting nearly 60% from 3 prior to the Finals, has combined to play fewer minutes in Games 1 and 2 than he did in the second half of Game 6 vs. the Hawks.
Though Kyrie Irving has posted a miserable +/- while serving as the primary ball handler, the Cavaliers have taken the ball out of the hands of LeBron James at a higher clip than in any other round.
Look, I get trying to save LBJ for crunch time, but Kyrie’s apparent disinterest in playing any semblance of defense and inability to create for his teammates demoralizes the Cavs both mentally and on the scoreboard.
Cleveland will never keep up with Golden State in a shootout. The Warriors are far too deep, with possibly the most versatile and best scoring guard rotation in NBA history. Going 6 deep, even Leandro Barbosa has outperformed the young “superstar” point guard of the Cavaliers, at least on a per-minute basis.
So instead of perpetuating this cheap imitation, the Cavs need to go back to being themselves and accentuate their greatest strengths: LeBron’s playmaking ability, dominating the glass, and scoring in the paint.
Yes, trading 3s for 2s is a recipe for an Ohio State vs. Michigan-esque blowout (sorry, Jim Harbaugh). However, barring an absurd shooting percentage from the Warriors, which they are admittedly capable of, give me LeBron with a head of steam towards the rim and Thompson + Mozgov crashing the boards over a Steph Curry three every damn time.
The Warriors offense is a collection of moving parts in perpetual motion. If you watch closely, even in late shot clock situations they are rarely forced into isolation, as the Cavs repeatedly fall victim to. Seemingly simple, the Warriors run the high post pick and roll better than any team I have ever seen, allowing versatile slashers (namely Green) an open role to the basket if the defender goes over the screen; a wide open jumper for a guard if he stays under; and shooters in both corners (statistically the highest percentage three) if they want to dish it out wide. It is poetry.
But there is a way to gum up the entire system: Force Bogut and Ezeli to play. The Warriors have shown a willingness to sacrifice rebounding and post defense for the preservation of Steve Kerr’s take on the Triangle Offense, but, at some point, the inside domination has to eclipse the jump shooting of the Warriors, even as prolific as the Splash Brothers and company are.
With either true center in the game, the Warriors lose the roll to the basket, greatly reducing Curry and Thompson’s ability to score in the lane (with Thompson protecting the rim as opposed to stuck in between the post and three point line with the perimeter abilities of Green) and collapsing an offense built on the fundamentals of spacing and motion.
The Cavs have the bodies to force not only Bogut into the lineup, but perhaps both bigs at the same time. A lineup of, say, LeBron at the point, a spacer at the two (let’s say Smith) and bigs at the remaining positions (I favor a Love, Frye, Thompson trio to preserve shooting in addition to rebounding) would average 6’9” across the board.
The Warriors’ preferred “small ball” lineup, with Green playing center, is just over a 6’4” average. This is an immense difference, and would force a far smaller player (likely Thompson) to deal with the bulldozer that is LeBron in the post, as well as a mismatch of epic proportions on two of the three Cavalier bigs. Draymond, while giving up at least 4 inches to each of the Cavs big men, would be the Warriors largest player on the court, forcing Barnes/Iguodala/Thompson to combine to cover two of Thompson/Frye/Love.
Movement here would cause even more matchup nightmares, with Curry exposed to a player more than 100 pounds heavier than him on essentially every switch. This would seemingly force Golden State to utilize Bogut, who, though very good in the 1st quarter of Game 2, has little offensive game and feet that are seemingly made of cement.
Even with Bogut in the game, the Cavs will likely control the post while limiting Kerr’s offense. Irving and Mozgov should be the first two players off the bench, playing Kyrie without James as instant offense a la Jamal Crawford. It is illogical to play each at the same time, as the ball dominance of Kyrie and his failure as a spot up shooter, combined with his subpar defense, negate his value when James, perhaps the greatest facilitator of all time, is on the floor.
It is unlikely Cleveland will win this series, as the Warriors are firing on all cylinders and match up well with the more plodding style of Cleveland. But using their advantages to… well, their advantage by grinding a bruising style of basketball outside of the comfort zone of Golden State could have them mirroring the early series success of Oklahoma City, though with far better bigs in the Wine & Gold.
Last season, playing 46 minutes per game and without the services of Love or Irving, James had the Cavs up 2-1 with a second quarter lead at home in Game 4. Bringing the ball up on essentially every possession, the Cavs, without their supposed two best players not named LeBron, shot a higher percentage, scored more total points, and beat the Warriors on their home floor.
Why? They trusted in LeBron to be the Magic Johnson-level facilitator he is, played to their strengths, and countered small ball with old school physicality. Coach Lue, it’s your only shot..
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