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Monday, June 08, 2015

Cavaliers Tie Series as James Posts Triple Double and Curry Struggles

LeBron James posted big numbers across the board--39 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists, 11-35 field goal shooting, 14-18 free throw shooting--as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors 95-93 in overtime to tie the NBA Finals at 1-1. "Stat gurus" will decry his lack of efficiency and bemoan Cleveland's reliance on isolation plays for James that lead to the dreaded shots that are neither layups nor three pointers (i.e., the lost art of the midrange game, the same skill set that enabled Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to lead their teams to multiple titles). Obviously, it would be better for James and the Cavaliers if James shot a higher field goal percentage but the way James is playing now is the right way: he is in aggressive, attack mode and he is forcing the defense to stop him from scoring before he gives up the ball. If James had played like this throughout his NBA Finals career then he probably would have never lost in the NBA Finals. Precisely by scoring so prolifically he is bringing out the best in his teammates, because as Golden State sends more defenders toward James he is able to pass the ball to his teammates for wide open shots. This is the way that Kobe Bryant played during his prime but many members of the media never gave him proper credit for it. I praised Bryant for shouldering the responsibility of being a great player and I say the same thing about James now. Cleveland is succeeding despite being undermanned by relying on a tried and tested formula: defense, rebounding and the brilliance of a great player who is not afraid to keep shooting.

James is doing a lot but he is not all by himself. Timofey Mozgov contributed 17 points, 11 rebounds and excellent defense in the paint. Mozgov's size and ability to draw fouls hurt Golden State. Tristan Thompson has little offensive game (he scored just two points) but he is so ferocious on the boards (14 rebounds) that Golden State tried to face guard him at times, a tactic which may not have been seen at this level of the game since Dennis Rodman's prime.

Matthew Dellavedova's stat line does not look like anything special (nine points on 3-10 field goal shooting, five rebounds, three steals, six turnovers) but he played a huge role in Cleveland's victory; his tough defense against Stephen Curry contributed to Curry's poor shooting performance and Dellvedova made several crucial hustle plays, culminating in grabbing an offensive rebound, getting fouled and nailing the game-winning free throws with 10.1 seconds remaining in overtime.

ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said it all about J.R. Smith: "Dumb gets you beat." Smith was Cleveland's third leading scorer (13 points on 5-13 field goal shooting) but he earned Van Gundy's ire with a series of stupid fouls that almost cost Cleveland the game. Smith is an enormously gifted player who can shoot, drive, pass and defend but after more than a decade in the NBA he still has not figured out how to intelligently use his gifts on a consistent basis.

Klay Thompson kept Golden State in contention by pouring in 34 points on 14-28 field goal shooting  but he did not receive much help. Curry never found his rhythm, scoring 19 points while shooting just 5-23 from the field (including 2-15 from three point range). Curry also had six rebounds, five assists and he tied Dellavedova with a game-high six turnovers.

It is humorously inevitable that the team that has just won in the NBA Finals is described by the media as being nearly invincible/a team of destiny while the team that just lost has choked/has no chance but the reality is, in the words of Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter, "Everything turns on a trifle." In a seven game series, the best team will almost always win but each play, each game and the series itself can turn in a moment: a call, a missed shot, a deflected pass, a ligament strained just past its limits.

No one can say for sure who will win this series. Golden State was and remains the smart pick because the Warriors were much better than the Cavaliers during the regular season, because the Warriors are great at both ends of the court and because the Warriors are deeper and healthier. Yet, the first two games have demonstrated that these teams are evenly matched enough that anything could happen. Golden State could be ahead 2-0 now and the talk could be about how the Warriors rank among the league's all-time best teams and about how James falls short so often in the NBA Finals; Cleveland could be ahead 2-0 now and the talk could be about how James is on the verge of playing the 1975 Rick Barry role, flipping the script on the Warriors.

One thing that is interesting to note about this series is that the new, "advanced" theory of basketball may have a chink or two in it. The math behind relying on three point shooting makes sense; a 40% three point shooter is statistically equivalent to a 60% two point shooter and since the current defensive rules make it much easier to get open on the perimeter than inside it seems to make sense to jack up three pointers as much as possible. I get that; in fact, nearly 20 years ago when no one talked about "advanced basketball statistics" I used to argue with the older guys who played pickup basketball with me that dumping the ball inside to an inefficient big guy made no sense if a team had a consistent three point shooter. However, a style of play that works in pickup basketball or college basketball or even FIBA basketball may not be quite as successful in the NBA. The problem is that a good inside player who shoots 50% or 55% or 60% probably can do that fairly consistently; he shoots close to the basket and has little margin for error (he also probably gets fouled a lot and puts his team in the bonus early). A three point shot covers greater distance and has a greater margin for error. A three point shooter who shoots .400 from three point range might be 1-10 one night and 7-10 the next night. His team will almost certainly lose on the nights he shoots 1-10 (that is a lot of empty possessions to overcome) but may not necessarily win on the nights he shoots 7-10. The variability of three point shooting can work against using it as the staple of a team's offense. Teams like the Olajuwon Rockets and the Duncan Spurs established an inside presence and shot three pointers off of double teams, ball reversal and offensive rebounds. Now, many teams just jack up three pointers at any time. The math looks good on paper but it can also lead to results like last night's, when a team that seems to have an advantage at four out of five positions plus a deeper bench got sucked into a slow down game in which one team established at least some inside presence while the other team kept shooting jumpers, expecting that they have to go in sooner or later.

LeBron James is attacking the hoop like Jordan and Bryant used to do via drives and postups, which also creates opportunities for Mozgov to attack the hoop and for Tristan Thompson to get offensive rebounds. Look at the last shot that James missed during regulation: he attacked the hoop and, even though he missed, he attracted so much attention that Tristan Thompson had a chance for a point blank tip in shot. When James missed a long jumper at the end of regulation in game one, the defensive attention he attracted led to an offensive rebound but one that was further from the hoop and led to a lower percentage attempt.

In the long run, attacking the hoop on offense, playing solid defense and rebounding remains a pretty good championship recipe. If Golden State does those things--or limits Cleveland's ability to do those things--the Warriors can still win this series. If the Warriors continue to "let" LeBron James put up historic stat lines, then the Cavaliers can pull off the upset; I use "let" advisedly, because I am not sure that the media characterization of Golden State's strategy is correct. Contrary to published reports, Golden State is not defending James one-on-one and just letting him score. The Warriors are sending a lot of help defenders in James' direction. The problem is that they are not doing so effectively enough; Mozgov cannot be left open running through the lane, Thompson cannot be left unattended on the boards and Smith cannot be left open for three point shots. The Warriors should help in such a fashion that Iman Shumpert is left open for two point jumpers and Dellavedova is forced to create shots off of the dribble.

The one thing that remains constant in the NBA Finals and in all forms of competition is the importance and the purity of playing with maximum effort at all times. Precisely because everything turns on a trifle, the players and teams that exert maximum effort for the longest period of time are most likely to be rewarded. "Super John" Williamson used to exhort his teammates, "Go down as you live" and one of those teammates--Phil Jackson--later adopted that as a slogan for the teams he coached to 11 NBA titles.

The twists and turns of game two, culminating in a Cleveland win that most analysts considered to be improbable if not impossible, reaffirms the wisdom of what I wrote just prior to that contest:

"I disagree with the notion that LeBron James is playing with 'house money' just because his team has suffered injuries. He has some talented teammates and any team that is good enough to make it to the Finals should not just be happy to be there. James is the best player on the court and he has the ability to elevate his team so that each game is at least competitive."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM


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At Monday, June 08, 2015 8:07:00 PM, Anonymous A said...

Great post David.

I think it also proves the point to people that LBJ's teammates aren't as bad as the media portrays them to be. They may not be All Star players who puts up big numbers but each and every one of them know their roles and compete hard each game. Mozgov is a big long center who can be a starter on any team in the NBA, and also happens to be one of the best free throw centers in the league. Dellavedova has proven in this playoffs that he's a scrappy hard-nosed player capable of defending the best PGs in the league and is able to hit the open shot. Shumpert is a proven wing defender in the league. And finally, Tristan Thompson has been the difference maker for the Cavs this playoffs. His ability to protect the paint, challenge and alter shots, and probably the top 1 or 2 best offensive rebounders in the game.

When you have an imposing force like a LBJ you don't need great offensive players. His physical gifts along with the skills that he has he will draw defenders every time he attacks and other guys just need to be able to hit the open shots. So offense is a never a problem when you have a LBJ on your team. Like you said, this is the way that he should be playing long ago, and that is to attack, attack and attack. His first option should always be Jordan/Bryant, if defenders double or he can't find his rhythm then go to Magic. It always amuses me when people say he is a pass first player but the guy has always been one of the leading scorers in the regular season and the post season every single year. He's a big time scorer who is also a gifted passer.

Also on LBJ's help during his first stint with Cleveland, people always say he took a bunch of scrubs to the finals in 07 and also took the team to back to back 60+ wins in 09 and 10. That team was no scrub. They were decent role players, you have Big Z, Varejao, Mo Williams, Ben Wallace, Jamison etc. I would take those guys over the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown that Kobe had during the pre-Gasol years any day of the week.

At Tuesday, June 09, 2015 9:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James' cast outcompeted and outplayed GS cast in game 2. It's always interesting to hear someone complain about any negativity James gets at times. If Kobe shot 11-34(basketball-reference, other box scores have 11-35), even if his team had won, we'd never hear the end of it. The bottom line is that CLE's offense stunk, but their defense was amazing. If CLE continues to compete like that, James can continue to put up historically horrid shooting pct, and CLE can still win. It is also interesting James doesn't really get double teamed that much. Sure, he's drawing a lot of defensive attention just like any other good player, but GS isn't really doubling him. He's scoring a lot, but having to shoot a ton. This is actually working for GS. Their problem is that their offense has been terrible in the finals, and they've have rebounding issues.

At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 9:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 10:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


GS is tilting the floor toward James even if GS is not often just throwing a straight double team at him. The problem is that the angles that GS is taking are not good. James is getting to his spots and by the time the help arrives it is too late. I am not convinced that GS' strategy is good or that it is working. Perhaps it is working in the sense that James' FG% is low but James is dictating the pace of the game (slow) and this pace favors the team that is defensive-minded, less explosive offensively and less deep. GS should be pushing the pace and trying to run Cleveland out of the gym. James scoffed at the idea that GS is letting him score 40. He made a point of saying that he is going out and getting 40. I agree with him. GS should have an advantage in both talent (overall, even though James is clearly the best individual player) and depth and the way to exploit that would be to force James to give up the ball so that other players would have to beat GS. James is getting into the paint and either scoring or else dishing to wide open teammates. If that is GS' strategy then the strategy is not very good.

At Wednesday, June 10, 2015 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

You're right on all counts David, but the ultimate factor is that Curry has not been Curry the last two games. You can credit that to Cleveland, and possibly correctly so, but the margins are close enough that if Curry was even near his regular season percentages and turnover rate, GS would likely be up 3-0.

At Thursday, June 11, 2015 3:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The way that Curry and GS play is not as good of a formula for championship success as Cleveland's formula of superstar plus defense plus rebounding. All of the advanced stats say that Golden State's style of play is better than Cleveland's, yet Cleveland is ahead in the series. LeBron is finally playing the way that Kobe used to play, accepting the responsibility of being the best player.


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