The Cavaliers offense came into the NBA Finals as an all-time juggernaut. They'd made 14.4 threes per game so far in the postseason and unleashed one of the most insane barrages any of us will ever see on the poor Atlanta Hawks, who'd had the best defense in the league over the second half of the season.
That all sort of stopped against the Warriors in Game 1. The team's offensive rating plummeted to 93.9, they only went 7-21 from three, and the team's role players had absolutely no room to breathe.
What were the Warriors able to do that every other team in the playoffs was unable to do? They can switch everything.
The Warriors are stocked to the brim with players between 6'6 and 6'8 that are light on their feet, strong and with wingspans like condors. Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Brandon Rush are all about the same size and can guard each other's man (yeah, I know Brandon Rush probably won't play much in this series, but the list looked more impressive with an extra name.)
Even the Dubs other guards are bigger than most, with Stephen Curry standing at 6'3 with a deceptive amount of strength (seriously, look at this play that Matt Moore of CBS Sports shared) and Leandro Barbosa not being a waif himself.
Andrew Bogut isn't the athlete he used to be in his prime, but Festus Ezeli is pretty light on his feet for a big man, though the Warriors were less likely to switch their centers like everyone else on the roster.
The Cavaliers have carved teams up by starting a ton of their actions with the pick and roll and the pick and pop, but the switching completely negates this strategy, at least the way the Cavaliers attacked it. For example, whoever guarded the previously deadly Kyrie Irving-LeBron James pick and roll (typically Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala) just switched and the Cavaliers would work to either enter the ball into the post, or attack the switch off the dribble.
LeBron on a switch is normally a devastating weapon, but the Warriors size and speed combined with a lack of complexity from the Cavaliers offense helped to neuter the option.
The Cavaliers probably aren't going to get the easy looks against this team that they did against less switchable defenses. That said, here are five options they have that can generate looks to get the Warriors defense off-balance.
Option 1: Slip the screen
The Cavaliers did almost none of this. The screener would stay in place until the ball handler was able to get the switch, normally an admirable goal. Except against this team. The switch just made the Cavaliers reset and start running their offense again.
The Cavaliers screeners can start slipping and diving towards the hoop right before the switch is supposed to take place. If they time it right, the man who would have switched onto the screener will be not be in position to guard him on the catch, nor will the screener's original man, who will have already been on his way to defend the ball handler. Kevin Love and LeBron James are both good passers and should be able to slip effectively and attack on the short roll. The whole goal of any pick and roll is to bend the defense, and this could accomplish this. In my rewatch of Game 1, I found almost no instances of slips, and it could be the strategy that could loosen things up a bit.
Option 2: Get more creative off-ball
Plenty of times, LeBron James caught the ball on a switch, and all four teammates would stand and watch him on a post-up. That's not going to work well enough against this Dubs defense. Even though Andre Iguodala has done a really nice job on James in the post, he's still getting a lot of attention from the defense. Sets of off-ball screening will open up either shooters for LeBron to pass to, or at least keep the help a little honest.
This is a very smart set that can play on the Warriors shading towards the ball, and to at least make their defense make some tough decisions. Four players are looking straight at LeBron when he has Livingston on the switch at the elbow. Having Iman Shumpert set a surprise backscreen for Matthew Dellavedova forced a hard closeout that made the Warriors defense scramble, and allowed a beautiful alley-oop for Tristan Thompson. Seriously, look at the attention being paid to James on this play, and how few eyes are on Delly.
Tristan Thompson is in the way of Kevin Love's man, drawing attention, and everyone else is shaded towards LeBron. Making them fly around the court is a good way to bait someone into a mistake, and the Cavaliers scored as a result on this play.
Option 3: Always, always involve their bigs in the pick and roll
The Warriors did a nice job containing pick and rolls with their two bigs, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, without sending help. That said if the Cavaliers run the pick and roll well, they can win these two-on-two matchups. The Warriors don't want to switch Bogut or Ezeli onto Kyrie Irving or LeBron James. It's the only pick and rolls they defended conventionally, and as I mentioned earlier, that's a good way to get the Cavaliers chaos engine going if you can force them to send help.
The Warriors didn't send extra help (Klay Thompson didn't fully commit to blowing up the roll), and the Cavaliers were able to get an easy alley-oop out of this play. The play starts in a horns set, with Irving and Thompson acting as the screeners. Steph Curry has no interest in leaving Kyrie on the play, so all LeBron has to do is make a well placed pass and Festus Ezeli can't get to it.
As I mentioned, the Warriors did okay in these spots in Game 1, but that doesn't mean the Cavaliers shouldn't go to it. Ezeli and Bogut have no chance to stay in front of Irving especially, and they can manufacture some easy buckets using this strategy.
Option 4: Choose your mismatches wisely
Running a pick and roll with players guarded by Klay and Iggy doesn't really do much for the Cavaliers, and the small advantage on the mismatch is rarely worth the 6-7 seconds it takes to earn it. This is another avenue the Cavaliers can use off-ball screens to their advantage on.
One option is to use Steph Curry's man as a screener for LeBron James off ball to help clear James a path towards the rim, especially when Curry is on J.R. Smith. If the Warriors switch, then LeBron can seal Curry with deep position. If they don't, LeBron has a step on his man roaring towards the rim. If both defenders commit to slowing LeBron, then J.R. Smith can slip out for an open three.
The Cavaliers can take a page out of the Warriors book and use Tristan Thompson as a screener for LeBron off-ball, just for LeBron to run up and screen for Stephen Curry. Zach Lowe illustrated how (scroll down to 10 Things I Like and Don't Like section) the Warriors got a more friendly PNR matchup for screening off-ball against the Clippers in this play.
If the Cavaliers run a similar set, they'll either give Kyrie a ton of room to pull up from three (if they don't switch off-ball,) or they'll get the switch they want and make either Ezeli or Bogut guard a Irving-LeBron pick and roll.
Option 5: Drift to different spots on the post double
When LeBron James or Kevin Love caught the ball in the post in Game 1, too often the Cavaliers shooters would stay exactly where they were, ready to catch the ball on the double. The problem is, when the double came, the help knew exactly where to recover to, and the Warriors defenders are too long and too quick to allow a clean shot, even for the Cavaliers quicker-release three-point shooters.
A good wrinkle, however, is for the shooters to drift to different parts of the court once the help comes.
Steph Curry digs down to help on LeBron James once he makes his move, and Kyrie Irving drifts over to the wing instead of staying near the top of the arc on this play. When LeBron kicks the ball back out, Curry's confusion is obvious. He has no idea where Irving went, and thus hesitates to close out, and Kyrie cans the three.
This Warriors defense is great, but it's not impenetrable. This Cavaliers offense has too much diverse talent across it to be scoring as poorly as they do, even in a tough matchup. If the Cavaliers implement some cocktail of these five strategies, they should at the least be able to destabilize the Warriors defense enough to create openings for success.