The Cavaliers have their backs against the wall. The deficit was expected by most but the path to get to this point was not.
Despite the lack of shot making — Cleveland shot 29.7 percent from three in the first two games and 8-33 from downtown off LeBron James’ passes — the offense has not been the main issue.
The Cavs have mounted a 109.5 offensive rating in the two games at Orcale Arena. For comparison, Golden State held Houston — the NBA’s best offense this season — to 100.3 oRTG over seven games.
Instead, it is the defensive end of the court that has betrayed the Cavaliers. Golden State has mounted a 123.6 oRTG so far in the series. For a team that got through the Eastern Conference with a 105.9 defensive rating, the Warriors’ offense has exhumed some of the bad habits that plagued Cleveland in their race to the bottom defensively this season.
And while transition defense has certainly been a flaw in the matrix, the Cavs have failed to take advantage of opportunities in the half court.
This is no fault of any individual player. Kevin Love has held up admirably for a player of his skill level being put through the ringer of on ball actions. Jordan Clarkson has been feisty. JR Smith and Jeff Green have been bad, to be sure, but their mistakes have merely been the straws to break the camels back.
Cleveland has tried to execute the switch-everything plan that Houston spent its entire season crafting, tweaking and perfecting in anticipation of toppling the Warriors. But the Cavs are not the Rockets. Their personnel is flawed.
Their scheme needs to change.
Blitzing Stephen Curry
Curry led the charge in Golden State’s decisive Game 2 victory — attempting 17 three-pointers and posting a 40 percent usage rate, easily his 2018 Playoff-high.
Unlike past practices, Cleveland has elected to switch every action on the floor — including Curry ball screens. And while their bigs have done reasonably well defending after switches, Curry’s combination of dribble moves and quick release is overwhelming.
But take the play above and consider the floor balance at the point of attack. Golden State is playing three non-shooters (Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston and David West). They are bunched on the weakside, offering Cleveland plenty of opportunities to take the ball out of Curry’s hands.
In fact, there’s very little Cleveland would have to change to transform this switch into a blitz.
And this situation is by no means unique. Golden State’s lack of shooting on the floor invites the type of coverage that the Cavs have long deployed to foil Curry.
While Cleveland has yet to even attempt a blitz, Curry’s occasional early pass out of ball screen actions has created functional blitz-like situations. Watch this possession where Curry gives it up early to Green.
Cleveland rotates well to take away the lob threat, forcing Green to pass to the corner. Hill is able to recover and contest Nick Young’s corner three.
You could certainly argue that Young — Golden State’s fourth-best shooter — taking a corner three is not an ideal option. And you may be right.
But such is life when you encounter the Warriors. You do not have the luxury of taking away every option. You have to live with some shots — whether they are Durant mid-post turnarounds against switches or Young corner threes. On balance, neither is as devastating as a Curry rainbow three.
In Playoff wins this season, Curry is averaging 31 front court touches and has possessed the ball for 6.6 minutes per game. In losses, that drops to 24.8 front court touches and 5.8 minutes of possession per game.
Taking the ball out of Curry’s hands creates one of two options. You may force roll men — Green, West, Looney, McGee or Bell — to make plays in the 4-on-3 surrounded by at least one other non-shooter. Or you may take the ball out of Curry’s hands entirely and funnel the offense through Durant.
Both are wins for the Cavs. And frankly, what they are doing is not working. It’s time to unearth a throwback — knowing the new players can execute it because it worked against Victor Oladipo in Round One — and take the ball out of Steph Curry’s hands.
One of the main topics of conversation in the Eastern Conference Finals was Boston’s ability to “kickout” or “scram” smaller players from guarding post mismatches.
Here is a perfect example where Jayson Tatum scrams Terry Rozier out of a post mismatch against Kevin Love and eventually forces a turnover.
First the "scram" switch (also called the kickout switch or "bumping" a player off ball).— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) May 15, 2018
Here is perfect execution of that concept by Boston. Love has an initial mismatch against Rozier but Tatum--helping off the w/s corner--kicks him out before Clarkson can make the post entry pic.twitter.com/AnJ8iOzCtA
Cleveland has often walked in the footsteps of its competition schematically — most notable following Oklahoma City’s switch everything blueprint against Golden State in 2016 — but this concept has yet to find its way into the Cavs’ scheme.
Watch this possession from late in Game Two and see if you notice a perfect opportunity to kick George Hill out of the post gone by the wayside.
You should have noticed this exact moment with 16 seconds left on the shot clock where Love contacts Durant’s body but inexplicably fails to switch.
The Warriors have often created mismatches for Durant out of the Curry-Durant pick and roll, forcing Cleveland to switch the vertically challenged Hill or Smith onto the 7-footer.
There is certainly a level of discipline required to properly execute this play. Perhaps the Cavaliers — after spending a season crafting poor defensive habits — simply do not have that in them. But the Warriors are again inviting the opportunity by playing multiple non-shooters at once.
Cleveland needs to show these non-shooters the proper level of disrespect necessary to prevent Golden State from so easily hunting mismatches.
Consider this play where the Warriors again telegraph that a Durant post-up is coming.
Love again misses a perfect opportunity to kick Hill out of this “mouse in the house” situation and force Golden State to either attack what is no longer a mismatch or divert its offensive attack.
Simply put, Cleveland has not been attentive enough to developing situations on the floor where they can put out fires with relative ease.
Credit goes to Steve Kerr for entering Game Two with a gameplan centered on slipping ball screens and taking advantage of the ensuing confusion created against a team trying to learn a switch everything style on the fly.
The Warriors artfully opened with this play on the very first possession — having McGee zoom into what appears to be a ball screen before flying to the rim for an easy dunk.
On the play, Love is so concerned with switching early to cut off Curry’s airspace that he does so without McGee actually making contact with Smith. While Smith eventually reacts to the play, he’s too late to disrupt the inevitable.
The dilemma is simple:
As the player guarding the “screener” (Love), you understand Curry’s shooting ability allows him to get off a three with the slightest sliver of space. You are focused on switching early to take away that opportunity. You assume a screen will occur.
As the player guarding Curry (Smith), you are also acutely aware of his shooting ability. You understand the switch everything scheme is triggered by any ball screen. But you never feel contact. There is no screen.
Watch as the action occurs again in the fourth quarter, this time between Livingston and Curry off ball.
Green is so worried about switching onto Curry that he does so before any contact happens. Hill is on the top side and Livingston has a free roll to the rim.
Sure, you might ask for better help on the weakside off non-shooters.
But the ultimate issue is that the man guarding the “screener” is not being physical enough with his man. The Cavs are not “jamming” the screener into the ball handler’s defender to force contact to occur.
Watch again how Love has all his attention on Curry, which allows McGee to have free reign to complete his slip unimpeded.
The same happens between Green and Livingston — and the gap between the two players is more apparent given the camera angle.
Green never directs Livingston to actually screen Hill, instead allowing him a free slip and roll to the basket.
Cleveland has not played with the requisite physicality in these situations. Again, you can see a team that is not quite comfortable switching everything reacting to the tremendous gravitational pull of Steph Curry.
Switching a slip is nearly impossible. It requires a level of communication and connectivity between two defenders that the Cavs will never be able to attain at this point in the season.
Given those limitations, Cleveland’s only option is to force screens to occur. Bigs have to dictate the movement of offense players. Do not grant them the freedom of movement to make decisions on the fly. Force Curry to use screens. Switching when contact occurs is a much easier proposition.
Cleveland’s defensive mistakes have put them in a difficult position returning home to Quicken Loans Arena. Their switch everything scheme has functioned as the square peg and their personnel is the round hole. Even when executed well, the two cannot ultimately fit together.
But the positive news is that these mistakes are (somewhat) correctable. The Cavaliers certainly will not be perfect defensively. Nobody is — and certainly not against the Warriors. But they can be much better. And being much better is a necessary piece of the puzzle to take Game Three and begin climbing back into the series.