I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there was some controversy at the end of Thursday’s game, the first of the fourth consecutive edition of Warriors-Cavaliers. Mistakes were made. The referees may have stretched a technicality to review a block/charge call. George Hill missed a big free throw, then Kevin Durant missed a big boxout, then J.R. Smith forgot the freaking score of the game. Cleveland self-combusted in the ensuing overtime.
I’m not here to talk about any of that.
When the coaching staffs of both teams sit down to watch the film of Game 1, they’re not going to be watching Smith dribble the ball out of the paint to run the clock out, nor watching Hill miss the free throw. Those things are incredibly important, of course, but are not things for which the coaches can adjust between now and Sunday’s Game 2. Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue will address the late-game mistakes — reiterating the importance of boxing out on free throws and knowing the score — but who wins and loses the remaining games in this series aren’t likely to come down to those things. Rather, they’ll come down to the hundreds of plays before the last 4.7 seconds, where both teams had successes and failures that can and will be replicated and altered.
Cleveland’s Corner Set
In the first half, the Cavaliers had a lot of success using an action with which they’ve had a lot of success throughout these playoffs: two players screening for each other in unpredictable ways in the corner in order to confuse the defense and create an open look. Not dissimilar from Golden State’s split cuts, it usually involves two shooters coming together and splitting apart while LeBron James reads the defense and makes the right decision on where the ball should end up. The unpredictability is what makes it work; unlike a lot of set plays, the corner set is more of an idea, a framework from which the three players involved work to find an open shot using their instincts and individual skillsets, rather than a specific set of directions that break down if the defense interrupts any of them.
The Warriors are rightfully lauded for their defensive communication, but they struggled mightily with the Cavaliers’ corner set:
A lot of what ailed Golden State on these defensive possessions had to do with Stephen Curry—specifically what switching him onto Kevin Love does to the Warriors’ defense. Love’s post-ups are polarizing; Lue likes to get him touches early in the game to get him engaged on both ends but it often comes at the high cost of wasting possessions while the other four guys stand around watching Love try to score against Draymond Green. Against smaller players, however, it’s an entirely different story. All of Love’s moves in the post are much more effective against players of Curry’s size and his passing makes it almost impossible to double correctly without leaving an opening elsewhere. Whether it was Curry switching when he wasn’t supposed to or the Warriors’ bigs not switching because they didn’t trust Curry to hold up down low, something was very wrong for Golden State on these actions.
After a few miscues that led to points for the Cavaliers, the Warriors started bringing a third defender into the play, mucking up those backdoor cuts to the rim and letting the perimeter players focus on taking away open three-pointers. This help always came from Tristan Thompson, who is a non-threat as a scorer from outside the restricted area. Thompson’s used to this treatment and knows exactly what to do when it happens: go screen for someone.
In each of the above clips, Green sinks down into the paint off Thompson to sever any James-Love connection on a backdoor cut. Thompson recognizes this and immediately steps into a ball screen for James, which opens up an easy pull-up jumper or a lane to the rim.
Hunting Stephen Curry
In the second half, Cleveland mostly eschewed their corner action for something less explosive but a bit more reliable on a play-by-play basis: trying to force Curry to guard James in isolation. The 2018 playoffs have brought switching and isolation to the forefront of every NBA conversation and going at teams’ worst defensive players one-on-one has become the offense of choice for the best teams in the Conference Finals and now in the NBA Finals.
The Warriors tried their absolute hardest to have Curry show and recover when his man (usually Smith) screened for James. Early on, James’ defender would duck under the screen while Curry hedged high and hard before sprinting back to his own man:
This worked for Golden State because James wasn’t attacking immediately and Smith’s screens were telegraphed and easily communicated. James and Smith gave the Warriors plenty of time to get their defense set and for both Durant and Curry to be fully aware of what was happening. After a few failed attempts at getting the switch, Lue made the key adjustment that helped bring Cleveland back into the game offensively — Smith started setting harder screens and took less predictable angles in his pre-screening movement.
Smith was slipping out of his ball screens early in the game in an attempt to free himself for a jumper while Curry was busy hedging on James and while that worked well for Cleveland a few times, keeping the ball in James’ hands is a more reliable path for the team to get good shots consistently. In the second half, Lue had Smith screen Durant harder, forcing the switch and letting James go to work.
In the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers sprung a different tactic. Instead of running over from one wing or the other to set the screen for James, Smith first cut into the paint before bouncing back out directly behind Durant. Curry’s hedges on these screens require him to be in position early, often before the screen even takes place, but if he doesn’t know which side Smith is going to choose for the screen, he can’t be there early enough.
In all three clips, Smith sneaks up behind Durant initially, then waits for Curry to choose a side. Once he does, Smith quickly flips his hips the opposite way to wrongfoot Curry. On the first play, Golden State tried their hedge-and-recover strategy, but because Curry wasn’t able to position himself at or above the level of the screen and because of Smith’s hard screen on Durant, James was able to get right to the basket. Cleveland went to the same action twice in the final minute of regulation, both times forcing the switch and allowing James to score five points on two drives.
The national conversation surrounding Game 1 will certainly focus on the referees and the final 4.7 seconds of regulation, but there was plenty outside of that to discuss and dissect. The tactical battles between Lue and Kerr have been a key part of the first three Finals series and continue to be massively more important than a single call or mistake down the end of these games.