- Ezra Shaw/Getty
Through two games in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had no answer for the Golden State Warriors’ high-octane offense.
Last year, the Cavs got by picking their poison against the Warriors, sticking weaker defenders on lesser options and using them to help out when needed. Combined with some ill-timed shooting slumps, the Warriors couldn’t make the Cavs’ defense pay.
This year’s Warriors team is different, however. They have Kevin Durant in Harrison Barnes’ place, leaving nowhere for the Cavaliers to hide.
Adding to the problem, this year’s Cavs squad is not stout defensively. They finished just 22nd in defensive rating in the regular season and were one of the three worst defenses in the league after the All-Star break. While the Cavs boast tremendous offensive firepower, they also have several one-way players that the Warriors have wisely targeted on offense.
The first is Kevin Love, who has played well on offense and capably on defense, but is put through the ringer on most possessions. The Cavs have often had Love guard Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, the least destructive member of the Warriors’ starting five. At times, it’s just a simple pick-and-roll, one of the hardest actions to defend when Stephen Curry is involved.
Other times, the Warriors add in an interesting wrinkle to make Love’s life extra difficult. Prior to running a pick-and-roll with Love’s man, the Warriors will send an extra player to screen Love just to make Love have to fight that much more to defend the action.
In Game 2, Curry shot a bold pull-up three-pointer that Love defended well. This is a less a grueling task than a taunt by Curry. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes, Love isn’t long enough to truly bother Curry and not quick enough to push up and force Curry out of his comfort zone. Curry just chose to tantalize from 28 feet.
Again, this is not all Love’s fault. He’s defended fairly well on several occasions and the Cavs are -19 with Love on the floor – the best mark of any Cavs starter. At times, he just faces physical mismatches against the Warriors.
But Love is not the only Cavalier being targeted. The Warriors know they can cause chaos and panic when they have their best offensive players interact on that end. Below, Curry and Klay Thompson crossing paths causes confusion between J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving, the latter of whom thought the two players were switching. It results in Draymond Green watching the chaos unfold from the top of they key, then hitting Curry for an open three.
The same thing has happened for the Cavs when Channing Frye or Kyle Korver enter the game. The Warriors attack the weak link and cause a chain reaction in the Cavs’ defense.
Here, Thompson goes straight at Korver one-on-one, and the Cavs were bailed out by Andre Iguodala missing a great look:
The Warriors’ defense has been so stifling that the Cavs have often had to make defense-for-offense substitutions, like playing Love at center (which means there’s little rim protection for Cleveland, though Lowe notes that lineup has played fairly well), or turning to Korver or Frye for floor-spacing. Lowe describes the conundrum for the Cavs:
“The Warriors have tossed the Cavs into a vicious cycle: Lineups with their best defensive players can’t score enough, so Lue is turning to all-offense groups, only those have zero chance at stopping the Warriors.”
Thr numbers aren’t pretty for the Cavs. They’re scoring just 97 points per 100 possessions, which would have been dead last in the regular season, and giving up 115 points per 100 possessions, which is two points better than the Warriors’ league-leading regular-season mark.
In past years, the Cavs had more pieces to make the game an ugly, slow-it-down affair that doesn’t suit the Warriors. This year, the Cavs are built for more explosion on offense and simply lack the defenders to slow down Golden State. With Cavs coach Tyronn Lue saying on Tuesday that the Cavs plan on pushing the pace and not slowing their offensive tempo down, there aren’t many reasonable fixes for the Cavs, other than to make more shots, communicate better, and hope the Warriors miss more shots.