The Cleveland Cavaliers are a very good team. 41 games into the season, they stand 30-11 with a solid 3.5 game lead over their nearest Eastern Conference competition. They are the returning East champions, and Kyrie Irving has played just 20% of the Cavs minutes this season. They employ LeBron James. There are much worse positions to be in.
There are better positions to be in, though. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are both putting together historic seasons. The Warriors may challenge the Chicago Bulls' record of 72 wins in a season. The Spurs might end up with the best net rating of all time. Things came to a head on Martin Luther King Jr. day when the Warriors walked into Quicken Loans and put a beatdown on the Cavs.
On one hand, they play 82 games and the Cavs played bad and the Warriors played great. It's not the end of the world. On the other, Kyrie Irving said before the game that the team wanted to make a statement. They did, but probably not one he'd had in mind. You never want to overreact to one game, and perhaps that's what this author is doing. If the Cavs do end up meeting the Warriors again in June, though, there are a few things for David Blatt to consider.
1. The big topic of conversation coming out of the game was Kevin Love's role in a potential series against the Warriors, and in general. Love is a part of a ton of great lineups for the Cavs. He unlocks the offense in important ways. Does he need to score a ton of points to be helpful? No, because he makes life easier for a lot of other Cavs. At the same time, he struggles defensively when put in space, and the Warriors are excellent at putting him in that spot.
The Cavs put Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson on Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli for large portions of the game Monday night. This left Love to deal with Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick and rolls, and that's just not something he's going to excel with consistently. He wasn't getting much help from Kyrie Irving, and the Cavs employed a strategy of trapping Curry. To be fair, this had worked in previous games to a certain degree. It did not work Monday.
First, Curry had an efficient 35 points even with the trap. He's good enough that it's basically impossible to hold him down consistently. Just as bad though, Curry had no trouble passing out of the trap, and Draymond Green consistently found himself with the ball moving downhill into Tristan Thompson or Timofey Mozgov in 2 on 1, 3 on 2, or 4 on 3 situations. Green finished with 10 assists, and they were consistently dunks or wide open three's he was creating for teammates.
The Cavaliers can avoid this by having Kevin Love defend in the traditional center position. Having him guard and track the minutes of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli keeps him away from the pick and roll. This would allow Tristan Thompson, who would theoretically start and guard and track Green's minutes, to defend the pick and roll. It's not a perfect scenario. The Warriors will still score, but you put a better defender in a better position to succeed.
The counter for the Warriors, then, is to not play Bogut or Ezeli. The Cavs could then go with either Love, Thompson, or LeBron James at the five position on Draymond Green. Either way, the Cavs might want to consider having the big defender on the pick and roll drop back instead of hedging high or trapping. Curry's defender will have to go over the screen and fight hard so that Curry isn't just taking wide open three's, but it reduces the impact of Green as a facilitator. Perhaps Thompson and James can have success trapping Curry or disrupting the play by hedging. If Monday is any indication, Love cannot.
2. Kyrie Irving is not a good defender. He's shown flashes throughout his career, but it's not something he's sustained for a long period of time. Do I think he's one of the worst in the NBA? Not all the time, no, but there are lapses. In the meantime, Steph Curry is the most gifted pure scorer in the league. The obvious strategy for the Cavs against the Warriors? Leave Irving to fend for himself on Curry. It's just crazy enough that it might work.
The Cavs should stay on the Warriors' corner three point shooters. Andre Iguodala has eaten the Cavs alive from the corners. Klay Thompson shoots and shoots and shoots. Harrison Barnes hits shots. Brandon Rush is back from the dead to hit threes for that team. Let Tristan Thompson fall back and do his best on Green. Let Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith try their hand on Klay Thompson. Kyrie? Fight through those screens man, it's on you.
Maybe Curry scores 60 points. He scored 35 on Monday when the Cavs tried to help Irving. Maybe they can switch it up a bit and put Shumpert or LeBron James on Curry for stretches. They should of course do a bit of switching, and mix things up, if only to try and keep the Warriors off balance a little. But for the most part, you need Irving to do his best, and you need to get a little lucky. If Curry goes nuts, and he will, you tip your cap.
3. None of this guarantees anything. The Warriors are versatile. They shoot. Curry is transcendent. But in terms of guys who can create their own shot, they might be just a tad bit deficient. It almost never matters because Green is such a wonderful distributor. But what happens when he isn't on a never-ending power play? Maybe it's still crazy good. Curry is the lone guy who gets his own shot consistently. Make him do it over and over and over again.
I'm not sure there's a good strategy against the Warriors. If there is, it might be this one.