The defensive turnaround of the Cleveland Cavaliers has been astounding. They were the 20th-best defense in the league in the regular season, giving up 104.1 points per 100 possessions. And while there's a lot of noise to that number from the first half of the season (102.0 defensive efficiency post-All-Star), no one expected the Cavs to have the third-best playoff defense, at a shocking 98.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. With Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbled, the Cavs have been forced to rely more on Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Iman Shumpert, and their defense has benefitted greatly as a result.
But as they head into the NBA Finals, the Cavs will face their biggest test yet. While their defensive success has been impressive, it has come at the hands of an inexperienced Boston Celtics team, a Bulls team that frequently forgets how to play basketball on the offensive end, and an Atlanta Hawks squad that spent the entire playoffs struggling to hit open jumpers. In the East, they didn't face anything like the juggernaut that has been the Golden State Warriors' offense this season.
Golden State's offense is a problem for every team. They finished second in the league at 109.7 points per 100 possessions, and led the league in effective field goal percentage with a team effort of 54 percent. They hit 39.8 percent from three in the regular season, also tops in the league. They employ the reigning MVP and best shooter in the NBA, and a third-team All-NBA member at shooting guard. Their center is one of the best high-post facilitators in the league. And they have a veritable army of 6'7" to 6'9" wings who can finish at the rim and hit threes. The Warriors are a scary proposition for any defense, and the Cavs will have a lot of work to do.
The Cavs do have some advantages against the Warriors. They're excellent at walling off the paint and not allowing penetration, which could disrupt the Warriors' ability to get to the rim and make them beat the Cavs from three. They're also able to switch most high screens successfully, which helped kill Atlanta's offense and negates the worry of the Warriors' versatility in the PNR being an issue. And they have LeBron James, Shump, and TT, who in the playoffs have shown they can give a spirited effort in guarding the best three players on any team. But can they contain the biggest threats of the Warriors offense? Let's break it down more specifically into the major ways Golden State kills teams offensively.
Threat 1: Stephen Curry Doing Anything
Limit Steph Curry, and the game becomes very difficult for the Warriors. It's no coincidence that Curry had his two worst games of the playoffs in Games 2 and 3 of the second round against the Memphis Grizzlies, both Memphis wins. This is easier said than done, because Curry takes and hits shots that no other mortal even considers in the normal flow of the game. He's one of the best in the league at springing himself open, but in the playoffs, he's struggled to shoot when someone is actually guarding him closely, hitting just 30.2 percent of threes and 42.3 percent overall with "tight" defense (a defender within 2-4 feet), per SportVU. If the Cavs have someone hound Curry full-time and can consistently contest his shot, that'll be huge to limiting his effectiveness. Shump may draw the primary assignment on Curry, but Delly can also probably be of significant annoyance, enough to bother Curry just enough to make the rest of the Warriors' offense take over the primary load.
Threat 2: Pick-and-Roll Coverage
The major problem I have with the Dellavedova/Curry matchup is how that's going to get exploited by Golden State pick-and-rolls. The Cavs have aggressively hedged when Delly is defending, with the big jumping out on the guard and Delly engaging the screener in order to prevent the roll and bait the ball-handler into a pull-up jumper. This worked really well against Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, but Curry's going to likely kill this strategy early, because it by necessity opens up a sliver of time where the ball-handler is unguarded, and that's all Curry needs to rain fiery death upon the defense. Even when the Cavs switch, that precious second of time where that occurs is going to be a dicey proposition against Curry or Klay Thompson. Switching can work, especially if it's Shump and LeBron or Delly and LeBron, but the Cavs are going to have to really vary their PNR coverage in the first game or two to figure out what works best. Perhaps it's switching. Perhaps it's hedging aggressively and ceding the paint to stop the three. It's hard to tell at this point.
Threat 3: Transition
This is something that scares me. The Warriors have been monstrous in transition all season, and while the Cavs have done a decent job in the playoffs of limiting fast break points, it was a huge problem all season, as they allowed 1.12 points per possession in transition. In particular, the Cavs aren't great at recovering out on three-point shooters in transition, and that's primarily where Golden State hurts you. The Warriors are averaging 1.17 points per possession in transition in the playoffs, and have an eFG% of 64.2 percent (ironically, only the Cavs are better). Marking shooters will be key, especially Curry, but guys like Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are excellent at getting to the rim in transition too, so that's easier said than done. The Cavs, just like any team that plays the Warriors, will give up significant points in transition. Luckily they're good at getting them back, and hopefully they can at least keep the Dubs off the three-point line, which is how they swing a lot of contests.
If the Cavs can negate at least two of these three things defensively, they'll have a good shot. They need to frustrate Curry and shift the Warriors' offensive focus to Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and their bench. The matchups are better there, because LeBron and Thompson can guard Green, Barnes, Iguodala, or David Lee effectively, J.R. Smith can probably also be serviceable in most of those matchups, and the Warriors go from otherworldly to simply very good when Curry struggles, and very good is enough here. If they can wall off the Warriors in transition and make them win in the halfcourt, that's also good, because failed transition attempts usually lead to transition looks for you, and the Cavs are monsters themselves in that regard.
The problem is that so few teams have successfully done that this year. You can cut off one area of the Warriors' offense, but they are so versatile and effective in so many different ways that you never truly can keep them contained in the way the Bulls or Hawks were containable. The Cavs have the tools to be able to make the Warriors work, but in order to beat the Warriors in a seven game series, they're going to have to play even better than they have been in the playoffs so far. And playing seven-deep against this team, which also has an elite defense that will cause problems for the Cavs' scoring, could make that really, really difficult.
We will see how a week off allows the Cavs to scheme for Golden State, but there's definitely cause for both optimism and concern with how this matchup could go.