I’m afraid of what we’ll learn in tonight’s NBA Finals about one team—the Atlanta Hawks.
On May 25th, the Warriors had just eviscerated the Rockets on their home floor to take a commanding 3-0 series lead, while the Cavaliers struggled to dispatch the depleted Hawks in overtime, in Cleveland.
The Warriors ‘15 looked like the Spurs ’14, and I think most of us, other than maybe Denny Green, were ready to “crown ‘em.”
But one game later in each respective series—a Rockets win from a depth of desperation that only embarrassment would know the way; and a Cavs dispatching of a Hawks team that had already reached the final stage of grief: acceptance.
The Hawks were 20-14 after January, and I don’t think they’re playoff version was better than the Bulls, much less the Pelicans-Grizzlies-Rockets triumvirate that the Warriors dispatched to the tune of 12 wins and 3 losses. The Grizzlies are the only team to take two games from the Warriors, and even that series left us with the thought that they’d never take another one once Golden State had figured out how to defend them.
One thing tonight’s Game One will do is lead us too strongly one direction. The Heat once took the first game from the Mavericks, only to lose the last three straight. Oklahoma City once looked definitively better than the Heat in a Game One win, and never won again. Even last year’s Heat, despite history rightfully remembering the Spurs series win as dominant, won Game Two in San Antonio after leading Game One pre-cramp.
The better team tends to expose the lesser team in a series, but often not at the beginning.
CAN THE CAVS OUTSCORE THE WARRIORS?
The biggest question, to me, is will LeBron take his defenders off the dribble and into foul trouble? If he is content to shoot over his primary defender—as his opponent will be content to oblige—he will be allowing all other defenders and rebounders to play an even 4 on 4. It’s much easier to block out Tristan Thompson if you didn’t have to first help onto James as penetrator.
Conversely, Draymond Green, whom I think should defend him, is prone to reach, poke, and prod. He’s emotional, and I think that’s a bad thing to be when tasked with guarding the game’s least guardable player.
LeBron has often been reluctant to post up, resorting to it only after taking his mortal jumper for a spin. I don’t see him licking his lips for the physicality of a Draymond post-up like he may for a tussle with Klay, Barnes, or Iguodala.
If Draymond were in foul trouble: now you’re dynamic defensively, not having to stretch your defense vertically to guard him , and the two-headed monster of Tristan and Timofey can keep eating glass at an improbable rate. The Cavs may go small to increase offense and defend Green, but I think they can make noise going big with Green off the floor.
WHO GUARDS CURRY?
Curry is unique in that he surgically creates just enough vertical air space to deploy his quick release. Does it matter who his primary defender is? I expect LeBron to defend him in late clock situations, but I expect both teams to switch frequently and blitz ballscreens. If Golden State is screening for Curry with Mozgov’s man, they’ve just put the Cavs defense in a blender. (And the Cavs are hopeful that it’s Bogut and not Green who Mozgov just left. I’m not sure either Center plays his normal minutes in this series, particularly if GS is having trouble defending CLE.)
The downside of LeBron guarding Curry, on top of the energy expended, is that it essentially eliminates LeBron as a help defender elsewhere on the court. This may be fine when Cleveland protects the rim with both bigs, but I think it would lead to a quick death otherwise. The Cavs aren’t loaded with stout on-ball defenders besides James and Shumpert. And they won’t be going under ball screens a la Jeff Teague this series.
It’s very hard to find a fault in Curry’s game, but his release, while lightning-quick, is not very high. (He barely elevates relative to most NBA jump shots.) Could James’ length, if he can stay attached, cause Curry’s percentages to drop just a bit? Could he keep him from shooting as many attempts, perhaps helping accomplish the former? Probably not. But if there’s one guy who could…
JUST SAY NO TO THE WING ISO
Nothing is easier to guard than when LeBron *starts* the possession with the ball on the wing. It’s easy for the defense to load the strong side and see the ball. Even if you momentarily lost your man: it isn’t LeBron James. It feels like we’ve seen his CLE and MIA teams do this too often.
To compromise the Warriors defense, Cleveland must give it multiple actions to defend, and make sure LeBron is playing the majority of the game in, or moving toward, the middle of the floor. Make Thompson’s man defend pick actions, *and* keep him off the glass. Make JR Smith’s man be the helper onto the roller, so he has to decide whether to leave or stay. Make LeBron’s man defend a backscreen or pindown before having to close to LeBron’s catch. If the ball doesn’t stick on LeBron’s catch, you can forget about ‘who is guarding who?’—it will take all five.