Greetings from nowheresville, Indiana. Don’t get me wrong; it’s actually nice here. I just spent my entire morning watching Game Three of the 2015 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers (Gotta say all the relevant keywords in the first few paragraphs for that clutch SEO Optimization. Speaking of which, Matthew Dellavedova. LeBron James. Steph Curry. David Lee. Blog life). Anyway, I have words about the balls which go in baskets. Read them, in this extremely casually written article which will discuss all the #narratives that you crave. Most of this is going to be eye-test stuff that I’ve observed from just watching all three games thus far. Frankly, there is a plethora of better people to read about this kind of stuff, including anybody at SBNation NBA or Zach Lowe at Grantland or anyone at CBS Sports NBA. With that astonishing endorsement of my own work in mind, please enjoy my sentences.

The match-up between Golden State’s league-leading defense of the regular season and Cleveland’s spacing-bereft, injury-riddled, Love-less (ha!) and Kyrie-less offensive amalgamation of spare parts and oh yeah, that King dude, has gone roughly according to plan. Cleveland has struggled to score in any efficient manner and Golden State’s key defensive guys have been good at the *defensive* part of playing defense. By which I mean, they’ve played well within the GSW defensive game-plan by rotating appropriately (Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudala), protecting the rim exceedingly well at times (Andrew Bogut), and playing great on-ball defense (non-LBJ-guarding Thompson and anyone-guarding Igoudala).

What’s killing the Warriors is not necessarily LeBron going off (that’s just going to happen), nor is it Dellavedova hitting crazy scoop shots late in games, nor is it J.R. Smith cashing step-back jumpers over Thompson. The Warriors, specifically Bogut and Green, are getting eaten alive on the boards by Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov.

Here’s an interesting statistic, because I suspect most readers would look upon the previous sentence in complete agreement that the Cavs are destroying GSW on the boards: in the series, the Warriors are actually out-rebounding the Cavaliers (26.2 OREB% to 24.8%). So why does it look like the Cavs are so much more physical inside? Why does it feel like the Cavs are dominating the boards?

Simply, the Cavaliers have turned the modern era of pace-and-space basketball entirely on its head. The most successful regular season teams in the league today rely predominantly on efficient shooting and a faster pace across the league than in the grind-it-out periods from 1980-2005. The Warriors are the prime example of this philosophy; they have shooting at the guard and wing positions and the ability to go small at any time and run people off the floor. The Cavaliers are limiting this by having LeBron pound the ball for a minimum of 10 seconds nearly every time up the floor. Cleveland is taking a ton of shots with under 10 seconds left on the shot clock, and when they get an offensive rebound? Well the Warriors are going to have to defend for at least another 18 seconds or so. It feels like Cleveland is getting an unreasonable amount of offensive rebounds because they always have the ball.

Cleveland has slowed the pace almost to a complete halt. The series’ 89.7 possessions per 48 minutes ranks lower than every regular season team’s average (last-place Utah had an average pace of 90.4). The slow pace is having myriad beneficial effects for the Cavaliers.

  1. Rest. It’s no secret that Golden State is the much deeper team in this year’s Finals. Cleveland is without Irving and Love, and so lacking in talent that M I K E M I L L E R and James Jones are valuable bench guys who must give a few minutes a game to give the starters rest. Again, Golden State brings Igoudala, Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, and Marresse Speights off the bench. Former All-NBA guy David Lee couldn’t get off the bench until game three! Slowing the pace to a crawl is hugely beneficial to giving hustle players like Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson a breather as they watch LeBron dribble into an isolation post from the elbow for the 14th consecutive possession.
  2. Limiting Golden State’s offense. Something people probably don’t talk about enough is how a team’s style of offense or defense can affect the opposite end of the floor. In this series, Golden State hasn’t been able to get out on the fast break and acquire any of their customary alley-oop dunks or wide open transition threes. The Cavs are limiting that by preventing turnovers with a slow offense that passes minimally (and perhaps importantly, most of the passing is done by a top-five passer in the game). They’re also limiting fast breaks by sending one or two of their big men to the boards while everybody else gets back quickly. This way they can contend on the boards, because Mozgov and Thompson are excellent at what they do, while not over-extending themselves and allowing quick baskets the other way.
    The most effective offense Golden State has had all series has come late in each game, when they’ve made furious comebacks to close out the fourth quarter. I don’t think this is a coincidence– an increased level of urgency in the offense is a good thing for Golden State because it results in a jumbled Cavalier defense and a lot more open shots. Dellavedova is doing a decent job of irritating Steph when the Warriors yield to the Cavs’ ideal pace and run half court sets, but Steph should kill him in high-speed situations 95 times out of 100. You saw a little bit of that towards the end of game three, with Steph getting open off multiple screens for two consecutive threes. If Golden State starts to push the ball, even if it only results in four-on-four semi-transition opportunities, I suspect the team will fare better for the remainder of the series. The Warriors are more comfortable playing a fast-paced style and it’s something they should strive to achieve in the next few games, even as Cleveland continues to pound the ball.
  3. De-emphasizes the talent differential. This is somewhat similar to the first point. Golden State is either more talented or equally talented with Cleveland at every single position except for starting small forward (hi larbon jeans). Minimizing the number of possessions in a game allows for as much variation as possible. Slow-paced teams who shoot lots of high variance three-points are good upset picks in the NCAA Tournament because they grind the game down and force the outcome to hinge on a few lucky possessions here and there. This is not to diminish what the Cavs are doing, because nearly everyone on the team is playing the best basketball of his life. It is to say that the Cavs are benefiting from fewer possessions because strange things can happen in small sample sizes, like Steph Curry going 2-for-15 on threes in Game Two. This is a classic upset strategy and it’s working well thus far, keeping all three games close into the final minutes.

Outside of the pace, which is in my opinion the tipping point for how the rest of the series plays out, here are a couple of other bulleted thoughts that I didn’t want to take the time to extrapolate much further.

    • Harrison Barnes has been mostly nonexistent in this series and Draymond Green looks like he’s trying to fit a two-ton square peg into a nostril every time he pulls up for a three-pointer (I think Draymond’s back is hurt really, really badly just based on watching him. I doubt he would tell anyone, but it seems to be having a huge effect on his play). Andre Igoudala has been excellent, even though he brings some mild spacing issues. Kerr should either start Igoudala over Barnes at small forward or have a very short leash for Barnes in game four. Barnes is a good player, but LeBron is eating his lunch and then stealing his lunch money for the rest of the school year.
    • Bogut doesn’t seem mobile or athletic enough to keep up with Mozgov and Thompson on the boards. Ezeli has the athleticism but I’m not sure he has the ball skills necessary to run the offense against a good defense. I thought Kerr might want to try David Lee during Game Two, and it ended up working nicely in Game Three. Lee has the athleticism to rebound with Tristofey Thompgov and can finish contested shots around the rim better than Ezeli and Bogut. You also don’t have to worry too much about his defense since neither Mozgov nor Thompson is a threat to do anything other than hit layups (Mozgov can also make the occasional midrange shot). Lee is also a better passer than Green and Bogut have been out of the pick and roll in this series. Green especially has been awful in this area.
    • I’m not all that worried about Curry right now. He missed a bunch of open shots through the first two games and that was bound to regress a little bit. He should be fine the rest of the series, and frankly I don’t think Dellavedova is bothering him THAT much. Irritating on defense and doing a good job, sure, but he’s not going to continue shutting down Golden State or Curry in the manner it has appeared through 2.5 games. I’m hoping Curry has a big Game Four and roasts Delly so everybody shuts up about this.
    • It’s weird that the Cavs’ massive defensive improvement seems so shocking when they replaced two meh defenders in their starting line-up with two good defenders due to injuries.
    • Of course now the David Blatt hype train is back on the rails, but I’d hesitate to give him too much credit just yet. I think he’s an okay coach, but it’s not too difficult to find success when your strategy is to rely almost entirely upon the best player in the world.
    • I still think the Warriors will win this series. If they adjusted to the Grizzlies’ style of play, I think they’re likely to adjust to the Cavs. This is one of the greatest regular season teams ever, and they should start playing like it eventually.
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