The Cavaliers entered the Finals with a historically good offense. The pick and roll, especially using LeBron James as a screener, was nearly unstoppable. Defenses were bent until they broke, and there were open threes to be had by all.
After the first two games of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers record-setting offense had ground to a halt. The Warriors were switching everything, and that's a smart bet. In Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson,Shaun Livingston and even Stephen Curry in small doses, they bet that the Cavaliers would waste time hunting for mismatches that wouldn't be advantageous enough to capitalize on with what remained of the shot clock.
And, it worked. J.R. Smith isn't so scary if you just face guard him with no regard for anything else happening on the floor.Channing Frye, a breakout star who was literally off the charts for scoring efficiency in the playoffs was played out of the series. Matthew Dellavedova's shot abandoned him, and he was quickly relegated to the bench as well.
It makes sense. People wanted to blame the Cavaliers role players for not stepping up, but that's missing the point. By switching literally whoever was guarding the screener onto the ball handler, the Warriors were ceding individual match-ups to ensure that their defense remained entirely stable.
In essence, it was a challenge to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
We don't think you can beat us by yourselves, even if you get a switch.
For the first couple games, it worked. Irving averaged 18 points on 33 percent shooting from the field on 18 field goal attempts per game. LeBron James only averaged 21 points on 42 percent shooting and turned the ball over 11 times in those two games. The offense was ground to a halt and the Cavaliers couldn't adjust.
Until they did. In the first two games, the Cavaliers were too eager to involve Warriors defenders that are capable defenders in their pick and rolls. You're not gaining much of an advantage if you run a pick and roll involving Thompson, Iguodala or Green in a pick and roll. They're too competent as on-ball defenders, and the defense could help off confidently knowing there was only one rotation to make.
Then, the Cavaliers got smarter. They probably read this really smart piece by this super cool awesome writer, and I'll wait for my ring in the mail.
Instead of letting the Warriors off the hook, they picked Option 4 and started choosing their mismatches wisely. They ruthlessly attacked whatever Warrior that was on the floor that Golden State just didn't want to switch. If Andrew Bogut,Festus Ezeli or Anderson Varejao were on the floor, you can bet your ass that whoever they were guarding was going to be the one setting the screen.
The Warriors couldn't switch those actions with their bigs, especially with Kyrie Irving as the ball handler. Well, they could, but they left those poor guys out to get roasted, whether on a switch or when picking guys up in semi-transition, like Irving does here to Festus Ezeli.
That, of course made the tactical decision for Steve Kerr to go center-less an easier one, which he often did, especially with Bogut out. At that point, the Cavaliers got even more ruthless. Whoever Steph Curry was guarding was setting the screen for the ball handler, whether it was Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith or anyone not named Kyrie Irving or LeBron James.
On this play here, J.R. Smith sets the screen to force Curry onto Irving. If they don't switch, Irving gets a clear lane to the basket, and if they trap Irving, J.R. can just slip the screen for an open three, something he did a few times later in the series. Instead, they give the Cavs what they want and immediately shift into their second move of the possession, a Kyrie Irving-Tristan Thompson pick and roll. Curry gets wiped out on the screen after Irving sets up him beautifully, and Draymond Green doesn't close the gap in time. Kyrie gets an open three in the process.
This play was good old fashioned bully ball. Curry lunged towards James, forcing Iguodala to track Richard Jefferson and the switch was on. Steph really is a better defensive player than his reputation, but asking him to handle LeBron James on the block was probably asking a little bit too much.
There was a lot of handwringing about the fouls called on Curry in this series, but the Warriors switching was an unintended consequence of this. He was constantly put in situations where he had to try to box Tristan Thompson out or guard LeBron on the perimeter and even though he's progressed quite a bit as a defender since his early years in the league, that's not really fair to ask of him, and it also exacts a physical toll to battle with such bigger players over the course of the series.
Of course, none of this matters if Irving and James don't dominate their mismatches with either the score or the pass and sometimes score on great defenders that they couldn't force to switch off.
That was the Warriors real bet. They bet against hero ball, and hero ball won.
It's not super analytical to say "Kyrie Irving and LeBron James smashed their one-on-one matchups in this series," but it might just be the reality. They played one-on-one isolation basketball and it worked, because they figured out who to attack.
I've seen some writers mention how surprised they were by the reality that playing primarily isolation basketball won Cleveland a title in the modern era. That's because, as we know, hero ball isn't very efficient. That is, unless a defensive gameplan, like the one the Warriors employed, encourages it by slotting weaker defenders in situations they're not used to be in.
That's not to say that the gameplan the Warriors employed was a total failure. It worked until it didn't. Kyrie and LeBron are two of the best scorers in the world, and even when you play good defense, sometimes it doesn't work out for you, cause sometimes they go nuts and do things like this.
LeBron and Kyrie didn't get the steady diet of easy looks and drive-and-kicks like they did in the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Warriors gameplan required them to score and distribute often starting with a one-on-one matchup, and mostly against very competent defenders.
By being smart about picking which mismatch they wanted and some good old fashioned heroics, they scored just enough to become champions.