The Cavaliers offense was a unimaginative mess in the first two games of the NBA Finals. There was almost no action off the ball, and the team took the Warriors bait by attacking their switches in the post despite little evidence that it leads to an efficient offense.
That changed in Game 3. Though it was right to give some credit to the friendly confines of playing at home, that wasn't the only change for the Cavaliers. Tyronn Lue made his first positive adjustment in this series and the Cavaliers were much more active screening off the ball.
J.R. Smith's Finals performance in the first two games was a microcosm for the Cavaliers struggles. He either tried and mostly failed to attack the Warriors off the dribble or was silenced from three, being either face guarded or closed out upon too quickly for him to launch from deep.
A lot of blame went J.R.'s way for this, as it often does when he comes up small in big moments. Or small moments. Or any moments. I swear, someone on Twitter is probably roasting J.R.'s family right now because he forgot to get peanut butter when he went to the grocery store.
"You trusted him to get the PB in the PB&J? That's your fault, tbh."
In truth, J.R.'s struggles were a result of the Cavaliers poor offensive flow, not the cause of them. The cult of personality around him sometimes makes it easy to forget that Smith is a role player. Role players are, for the most part, the product of their environment. In Game 3, that environment changed. Smith finished with 20 points and managed to get up 10 three-point attempts, and the Cavaliers actions off the ball helped facilitate them.
Often in Games 1 and 2, the Warriors defense was able to send help to stop LeBron from attacking the rim with not enough repercussions. On this play, Andrew Bogut thinks he's free to hang out in the paint to stop a LeBron drive on Harrison Barnes because Tristan Thompson isn't a shooter.
Thompson, instead of hanging in space or setting an on-ball screen immediately lays one on Klay Thompson. J.R. runs to the now wide-open space, and takes a three. It doesn't go in, but that's not really the point.
On this play, LeBron has the ball one-on-one yet again, and this time drives to the hoop. The help comes like it has all series. The difference, again, is what happens away from the direct action. An Iman Shumpert cut drags Harrison Barnes down towards the paint and Tristan Thompson "seals" Barnes in an attempt for a prospective offensive rebound while LeBron drives. James is able to find Shumpert in the corner, and Shaun Livingston flies from his spot guarding Smith. Shumpert is easily able to swing the ball to J.R., and Smith gets another easy shot up.
This time, an off-ball screen almost functions as a pick and roll. LeBron James finds Smith after Thompson sets a screen for him at the top of the screen. As J.R. catches the ball, Draymond Green rightfully steps up to prevent a wide open three (which Andrew Bogut didn't do in the first play mentioned.) The action doesn't stop there though. Thompson, seeing that Curry is fighting over the top of the screen dives towards the rim, drawing Draymond's attention, given that there's no rim protector on the court. Curry has to at least take a step in Thompson's direction before Green has time to pick him up, and that gives Smith just enough room for a very makeable look. This time, he does hit.
The Cavaliers did a nice job opening up room for Smith, but the Warriors defense made mistakes they don't usually make as well. Watch Steph Curry fall asleep on J.R. on the strong side for literally no reason.
Curry just sort of assumes that Smith is going to complete his cut along baseline and stops paying attention. That's a dangerous game to play.
On this play, Andre Iguodala just lunges out of position, either in anticipation of a screen or to chase a steal. Either way, it creates a perfectly easy dump off to Tristan Thompson followed by a ball swing for another J.R. three.
Those two opportunities opened up as a result of mistakes, but on balance, the Cavaliers just did a much, much better job at using these actions to destabilize the otherwise VERY stable Warriors defense. The nice thing about Smith, too, is that once he gets a few shots up and can find himself in a rhythm, he can score on some good old-fashioned BS.
Not much of what the Cavaliers did to get Smith going reinvented the wheel. They used basic off-ball action and smart movement to get one of their best role players in rhythm.
As I said earlier, J.R. Smith serves as a microcosm for the Cavaliers offense. You can shout all you want about how the Cavaliers need to "move the ball" and get away from isolation basketball all you want, but until there's infrastructure in place, it's not going to come.
It shouldn't be surprising that when the Cavaliers finally did install some action to destabilize the Warriors defense, everyone, including J.R. Smith, played very, very well.