No matter how close Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals was for the majority of the contest, the run that the Warriors went on to end the game was grim. The evidence of a possibly lopsided conclusion to the already anomalously noncompetitive 2017 Playoffs further piled up with “Greatest Team of All Time” analogies. Last year, when the Warriors spanked the Cavs by a margin of 48 during the first home stand, the result set the record for the largest Finals deficit in the first two games; surprisingly, the first two desolations of this year, totaling a margin of 41, didn’t re-break the record. What tricks, if any, can the Cavaliers possibly have up their sleeves after the series shifts to their own domain?
Despite the contrast of styles between the teams, the Cavaliers have shown some major weaknesses so far. A conventional conclusion is that they need to have their focal players simply play better, and it isn’t untrue. Different aspects of their bench minutes didn’t work, but J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, the majority of their starting lineup, have been disastrous and something has to change. Even more importantly, however, is that LeBron’s matchup with KD is bound to fail. I covered James’ Game 1 turnovers, and that was a real issue, but LeBron hardly played poorly in any way during Game 2… that is, when he wasn’t exhausted. I’m suggesting that Cleveland needs to alter their rotation, and in turn the matchups, to make the Warriors search out a different path to victory.
Change the Durant vs. James Matchup
Having LeBron play the 4 and guard Draymond Green saved the Cavs’ title chances last year. Truth be told, Durant is well on his way to a 2017 Finals MVP, and having LeBron guard him isn’t going to change that. James found early success in Game 2 by pushing the ball off of misses and attacking in transition, but he no longer has the energy to do such a thing while guarding Durant on the other end, being a much needed force during transition defense, rebounding Warriors misses, and initiating the Cavs halfcourt offense for the better part of a full game. Ty Lue needs to optimize James’ energy. In guarding Draymond he’d have more chances to catch his breath, but would also switch from being an average (at this stage of his career, don’t kill me) on-ball perimeter defender, to the game-changing, roaming help defender like he was last year. Much like Green,and like we’ve seen throughout these playoffs, he can be a better switching defender in space, than he is guarding a scorer like Durant. Playing LeBron at the 4 could also alter the Warriors defensive assignments. If there were multiple wings on the floor, instead of multiple bigs, Pachulia and Draymond would have to guard different players at the start of halves. Without getting too much further into it, I would also have LeBron grab his rest during the 1st Quarter, then play him at the beginning of the 2nd Quarter with Tristan Thompson.
Start Richard Jefferson
Sure, Durant put Jefferson on skates and Jefferson would stand little chance in stopping Durant from going off, but that’s consistent to my logic. Curry and Durant are the most efficient isolation players in the league, and are visibly capable of winning the Finals with their scoring. No matter how likely it is that Durant goes off, asking the Warriors to play isolation basketball sets them up to be less dynamic, and possibly more predictable. If Jefferson has a rejuvenated James backing him up as a help defender, he is worth more rolls of the dice against KD. Secondly, Jefferson has been one of the better screen-setters and off-ball offensive players for the Cavs in the first two games, and could be the guy the Warriors end up putting Pachulia on to start a half. This would then allow LeBron and Kyrie to attack Pachulia with pick-and-rolls, with Love spacing the floor as the 5.
Bring Tristan Thompson Off The Bench
In spite of his bemused play, I’ve consistently championed Tristan Thompson during this series. Ty Lue hasn’t shown the same mindset by quickly removing a struggling Thompson in each game, resulting in an average of 21.5 minutes per game. The foreseeable impact Thompson was presumed to make on this series was going to come from creating second chance opportunities for the Cavs’ offense, and being an effective switching big on the defensive end. Neither task was accomplished, and Cleveland has been double-digits bad with him on the floor. While they are critical points to surrender, and he’s lacked vigor, I haven’t felt that Thompson has been given enough of an opportunity to find a rhythm in this series. The greater opportunity he should be given should come against someone other than Zaza Pachulia. Pachulia’s huge body has remarkably kept Thompson off the offensive glass, and that isn’t likely to change. Rather than asking Love to come off the bench (which I was in favor of at first), they should keep Love’s first and third quarter minutes consistent. He might be able to challenge Draymond into early fouls, or draw Pachulia away from the basket if that is who the Warriors put on him; it would also optimize Love because he is less exploitable when he can guard Pachulia. Then, when the Warriors go small (with Draymond at the 5, not Durant), or have McGee in the game, Thompson could come in and hopefully vitalize the second unit. In this position, he could either guard Iguodala like he did in last year’s Finals, or be more of a rim protector against McGee.
Keep Playing Iman Shumpert
While J.R. Smith was benched with unfortunate fouls in Game 2, Iman Shumpert removed his brakes and came into the game with ballistic energy. This was for better and for worse, but I liked what he brought to the defensive end. Removing the Cavs’ garbage-minute guys, Shumpert has the best Defended Field Goal Percentage of the first two games (33.3%); that has come against an average of 7.5 Defended Field Goals per game (terribly low sample size alert). Shump is also the only player averaging at least 2 deflections per game with fewer than 30 minutes per game (he’s only played 19 minutes per game). Having a guy that is ready to fly off the bench and rival either Durant or Curry is completely necessary, especially if Richard Jefferson were to tragically fail at guarding Durant. The negative side of Shumpert has been his shot selection and decision-making on offense. The thing I’ve struggled to understand (beyond the nerves he must be playing with), is why he doesn’t just shoot his wide open 3 pointers. Coming on another small sample size, (as I noted in the Player Guide) going into this series, he was hitting over 40% of his 3s in the postseason. I imagine that he thinks he’s got to beat a closeout off the dribble, but the Warriors aren’t closing out on him.
Find More Opportunities for Kyrie Irving
Kyrie wasn’t special in either of the first two games, and was particularly bad in Game 2. In many ways, we are seeing the flipside of Irving’s challenging shot selection: that he can miss, a lot. Without being substantially different, Klay Thompson’s defense has presented a different plot from last year’s story, and has locked Kyrie up. The Warriors have also made Irving reconsider possessions by throwing different pick-and-roll defenses at him. Irving isn’t a gifted passer, and can get tunnel-vision when he is almost always thinking of scoring. Most of all, I’d like to see Irving attack Zaza and McGee in high pick-and-roll. That could mean that they trap him, depending on who the screen-setter is, but if the screen is set further away from the basket than the ones that gave Irving trouble in Game 2, blitzing the pick-and-roll would be more difficult for the Warriors to execute.
J.R. Smith’s Defense
Diagnosing J.R. Smith’s problems falls more into the previously mentioned category of “simply has to play better”. He isn’t going to do much more than he has on offense, and shouldn’t have to. I liked the edge that he played with in Game 2, but he unfortunately got hit with some rough, but correct calls. Due to how little he actually has to do on offense, I would put him on Curry for the majority of the game. He is a better defender than Kyrie, and his energy should be spent on that task. Kyrie would be a bit small in guarding Klay, but that could also mean the Warriors potentially using Curry less, in favor of Klay. If Smith can be a better transition defender or screen-setter, he’ll provide another unprovoked boost to the Cavs’ chances of winning.
If Cleveland hadn’t won Game 3 in last year’s Finals, it’s even harder to imagine them coming back from the 3-0 lead they would have surrendered to the Warriors. The odds of the Cavs winning the series had mostly vanished after the first two games, but it was Game 3 when they jumped on the Warriors for a 33-13 lead in the first quarter, then later won by 30 points. Saying they must play better and win Game 3 are understatements, but encapsulate the heightened drama surrounding the game. Of course, no team has ever come back from losing the first three games, and losing Game 3 would only throw gasoline on the question of if Golden State can clean sweep the playoffs. Saying “they have to play better” is also easy to say when any team loses, but in this scenario, there is more on the line. There may be significant roster turnover anyway, but it’s almost as if the Cavaliers are fighting for their right to continue playing together by avoiding a sweep. There has been minimal drama in the 2017 Playoffs and Finals period, but Game 3 is sure to be intoxicating in one way or another, even if it is a blowout.
All stats from NBA.com