After marching back to the Finals through the wide open roads of the Eastern Conference, déjà vu set in and the Cleveland Cavaliers stumbled off their horses across the Mississippi River once again, taking a 1-0 deficit to the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Thursday night. With an updated, healthy core and a new sideline general, Cleveland fans felt confident they could win this battle so as not to lose the war for league supremacy. While it is uncertain where that confidence sits, now that game one is in the books, it is guaranteed that much will be written and said about what happened and what the Cavaliers can do about it before game two on Sunday. Instead of taking a broad approach to the remainder of the series, I would like to analyze a specific play in the arsenal of Coach Lue that we may see resurrected to the prominence it carried last year.
Early in game one, the Cavaliers aligned into familiar formation to isolate LeBron James against Harrison Barnes on the left block - a heavily used set in last year's Finals. The image below captures the flow of the play from start to finish. It is important to understand the mechanics before dissecting further. Kyrie Irving enters the ball to JR Smith on the wing as LeBron posts on the left side. The bigs - Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson - hang out on the perimeter, soon joined by Irving. As the ball is thrown to LeBron, JR speed cuts along the baseline to provide James with a cleared side. The bottom left image shows the play at maturity - LeBron isolated on a cleared side with an elevated floor on the weak side. With the floor properly spaced, LeBron torches Barnes baseline for an easy layup. A simple post-up it may seem, the story of this play cuts much deeper.
First of all, notice the starting point of the play. LeBron begins carving space on the block in order to make the catch at around 15 feet from the hoop. According to NBA.com, LeBron shot his best percentage - 42.4%
- on jumpers from 15-19 feet this year. Catching at that distance is ideal for his midrange step-back jumper, while also positioning James for a one-dribble power drive to the hoop. When it comes to the spacing around LeBron as he begins his isolation moves, look at Thompson's stance and location. He is the weakest shooter, which means his man is the most likely to leave to double. Knowing this, Thompson is in a staggered stance at the elbow waiting for a cutting lane to open up behind turned heads worried about LeBron - for a dump off pass or an offensive rebound. Thompson and Mozgov received many buckets cutting from this position last year. Mozgov has shrunk and learned how to shoot and turned into Kevin Love this year, so the space is greatly improved. Having both bigs high is really only advantageous in terms of floor spacing if one of them is a threat to shoot and can thus hold his defender on the perimeter. Look at how far Draymond Green is from LeBron in the bottom left frame. In last year's Finals, the Warriors got away with not doubling LeBron because they were sagging off Cleveland non-shooters enough to bother James at the rim without having to worry about the kick out pass. Having Love on the floor does not afford Golden State that luxury. The Warriors are averse to allowing three-pointers so they hesitate to send double teams, but they will be forced to get creative with digging and overloading against this play to prevent easy baskets like the one pictured above.
With new personnel in this year's Finals, it should be expected that Coach Lue would expand upon this set. Before diving deeper, it should be noted that this play can start with a direct post entry pass to LeBron and the spacing of the bigs may not follow what is pictured above - sometimes Love or Frye will fill the opposite corner at the start. However, if either or both of those minor adjustments are true, then beware of the Coach Lue expansion pictured below. In this iteration of the play, instead of cutting through after passing to LeBron, the entry passer - Kyrie in this case - stops to set a ball screen. This particular flavor of ball screen is known as a "snug" screen due to its proximity to the rim. This option is especially attractive when the Warriors stick their best stopper, Andre Iguodala, on LeBron. Praying upon the Warriors tendency to switch most screens, the snug pick and roll serves to free LeBron from the shackles of Andre with the added benefit of potentially switching Steph Curry onto LeBron, which will certainly draw emergency help and open up shooters.
At this point you may be thinking "what's the catch?" If this play is so good, how did the Cavs lose by 15 points? The answer to this question is multifaceted and may hold the key to the Cavaliers' survival in this series. I mentioned earlier that the Warriors would get creative to stop this play and already in the second quarter Bogut is overloading off Thompson as pictured above. One of the drawbacks of this play for Cleveland - stagnation, or more precisely, predictability - allows this type of defense to be effective. In both examples captured above, Kevin Love does not move from his spot on the right wing. Thompson is active cutting, but always from the same spot with little movement behind him. Helping against predictable movement, even against dangerous personnel, is not difficult because help movements and communication follow a replicable pattern. Love and Irving, the most frequent perimeter idlers, sabotage their own spacing benefit in this manner.
The most pressing issue surrounding this play, however, is coming from the sidelines. In last year's Finals, the Cavaliers featured this play as their preeminent half court set. While it was certainly a product of injury-forced dependence on LeBron, the frequency of this play reflected a larger strategy to slow the game down and take care of the ball, a great strategy against a superior opponent. My old high school coach used to say that you can't beat Tiger Woods on 18 holes, but you might be able to beat him on a single hole - the discrepancy between these two teams is nowhere near as large as the gap between Woods and myself on the tee, but Golden State is 2000 Tiger Woods in this analogy. Based on my charting of game one, Lue went to this play only five times. The Cavs went to this play seven times in the third quarter alone in last year's game one. This reversal of strategy is partially to blame for the unusually high 13.9% turnover rate
by the Cavs on Thursday night. To put that in perspective
, Cleveland had only a 12.7% turnover rate in the regular season and the Warriors forced only a 12.6% turnover rate, good for 13th and 23rd, respectively. With a heavy dose of LeBron post-ups last year, the Cavaliers turned it over at only an 11.1% rate in the Finals - a mark that would have been tops in the league the past two regular seasons. Perhaps the most potent benefit of the LeBron post-up play is limiting turnovers, which serves to provide more shots for Cleveland and less transition opportunities for Golden State.
Losing by 15 points on the road is not a reason to ring the panic bells, but it does signal a need for improvement. One of the ways Cleveland may look to shake things up is to call back to the David Blatt game plan with more LeBron post-ups. While predictability will remain an issue, adding the "snug" variation is a step in the right direction to keep Golden State slightly off balance. Even with stagnation, the simple addition of potent perimeter threats should make the Warriors think twice about helping on LeBron, just the type of indecisiveness the Cavaliers can and need to exploit if they wish to score efficiently in the half court and remain competitive in this series.