Thursday, June 1, 2017

How the Warriors called the Cavs' buff and solved their offense

The most iconic moment of the 2016 NBA Finals was the play that won it: Kyrie Irving hitting a three while guarded by Stephen Curry.

It was the rarest of shots, two superstars both involved in the game-winning play. This was no Michael Jordan vs. Bryon Russell. This was A superstar hitting a shot over an MVP. The problem for the Warriors, who lost to the play? Curry should never have been involved.

All series, Klay Thompson had been the designated defender on Irving, tasked with using his foot speed and size to contain Irving, a transcendent scorer. But Cleveland used a trick they had all series to get the matchup they wanted. Over the past few years, Golden State has become known for a defense that defuses pick-and-roll plays by switching the play.

Switching has become the Warriors' core identity on defense. Led be perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender Draymond Green, the Warriors trot out a lineup full of like-sized players, all with the length to switch nearly any matchup. Nearly.

The one player they don't want switching is Curry. His slight frame doesn't allow him to contest in the same way as Thompson, Green, and the other Warriors. That's why Curry is the exact player Cleveland wanted. Cleveland's plan was to use the Warriors' switching to beat them. Switching is consistent, but also predictable. By understanding the rules by which Golden State's defense is built on, Cleveland could force a switch in the middle of the floor, where no other Warrior could influence the play. The figured out how to get Curry switched onto Irving, LeBron James, or another dangerous scorer.

So when J.R. Smith set a screen for Irving, they knew they'd get Curry, Smith's original defender, on the switch. The rest was history.

After the Finals, the Warriors made a few moves that improved their team. After another romp through the regular season and dominating the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors were expected to win the rubber match. 538's pregame pre-series predictions had the Warriors winning at over 90 percent.

But when the game started, the Cavs were able to keep things close by using their pet play. They forced Curry to switch onto Irving and James. Irving got a couple switches to Green, LeBron got a couple matchups against Zaza Pachulia, Those are still tough matchups, but ones the Cavs can win. The Cavs are smart and their screens are unique. Ditching a lot of the traditional model of having a big man screen for a small, they'd have the small set the pick, knowing it will force a switch. For a quarter, they were able to keep things close with this strategy.

Then, the Warriors pulled out their Ace. After stewing over their Finals loss all summer and all season, the Warriors finally figured out how to beat the switch: don't do it.

Instead of accepting the switch and going from there, they had Curry make one big adjustment: he would jump out at the ball handler starting the pick-and-roll and direct him into the other defender. This of course, left someone unguarded: the player setting the screen. By using this strategy, the Warriors gambled that Cleveland didn't want to actually run the pick-and-roll. They called the Cavs' bluff. And it worked.

Cleveland doesn't want to pass to the roll man in these situations. They want the switch. And time after time, the Warriors denied it. On one crucial possession in the third quarter, with the Warriors threatening to blow the game open with their dunks and their shooting, the Cavs tried the same tactic twice. The first screen came up, Curry scurried around it to redirect James, and it was over. But then the Cavs re-screened the same action, with the same result: Curry jumped out, and LeBron was staring at two defenders with no switch in sight.

Of course, there are other reasons the Warriors won the game, especially one named Kevin Durant. They ran the Cavs ragged, dunked all over the place, and when Curry got hot from outside, the game was over, switch or no switch. The issue for Cleveland was, they had nothing left. They didn't have any sideline-to-sideline plays where the ball moved and offense flowed. With their primary offensive option gone, the Cavs resorted to a lot of standing around, LeBron playing hero ball and the others not involved.

So what can the Cavs do to fix this? The first is they have to get the ball out of the ball handler's hands. They can do this by trying fake screen with the screen man slipping the screen instead of allowing his man to step out. The can run little flare actions where the screener runs to the elbow with a full head of steam, ready to attack the defense. They can station someone above the break on the weak side to serve as a safety valve, someone who can take a pass and attack the four-on-three below the screen.

These are all basic options that the Cavs should be trained in. The question is: if they're so basic, the Cavs must have already ruled them out, right? They've clearly looked at their playbook and identified one thing that can work. Now it doesn't. Do you go back to all the other stuff you've already eliminated? Can their other players beside Irving and James display enough ball handling and passing prowess to be entrusted with the ball? After all, the Warriors are careful to hide Curry on players they know the Cavs don't trust. None of those adjustments solve that core issue.

Trust is the real reason that game one went to the Warriors. The Warriors trusted each other in their play on offense and defense. They trusted that when the Cavs wanted the switch, all five defenders would be clued in to how to protect Curry. The Cavs have yet to build that trust. They'll need to in a hurry, because Golden State has already run away with one game. Any hesitation, and the Warriors will run away with the series.

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