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Friday, June 12, 2015

Warriors Regain Homecourt Advantage with 103-82 Game Four Win

Golden State defeated Cleveland 103-82 to tie the NBA Finals at 2-2 and regain homecourt advantage. Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala led Golden State with 22 points apiece. Timofey Mozgov scored a game-high 28 points for Cleveland while pulling down 10 rebounds. LeBron James finished with 20 points on 7-22 field goal shooting plus 12 rebounds and eight assists.

This game is yet another reminder of how quickly things can turn in a seven game series and how foolish it is to make too much of just one game. Prior to game four, everyone was talking about the Cavaliers being on the verge of pulling off a huge upset as James authored possibly the greatest performance in NBA Finals history. Then in game four the Cavaliers suffered the fourth worst home loss in Finals history. The same people who were writing off Golden State after game three will probably write off Cleveland after game four. The reality is that, except for an occasional mismatch, most NBA Finals are seesaw affairs in which each game is both its own individual story and also one chapter in a larger story that cannot be completely understood until after the fact. It could very well be that the most important moment of the 2015 NBA Finals has not happened yet--or it may have already happened and we do not realize it because we do not know the final outcome.

Most of the analysis of game four will probably focus on Golden State Coach Steve Kerr's decision to go small by inserting Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup over Andrew Bogut. Iguodala, a former All-Star, had started every game of his career prior to this season but had yet to start a single game for Kerr's Warriors. Kerr's move had such an immediate impact that Golden State promptly fell behind 7-0. You can bet that this part of the story will be left out or glossed over in most accounts of the game.

Kerr's decision to go small did not spark the Warriors--but what happened shortly after the game started did. To understand that part of the story we need to look at the plus/minus numbers from this game. Every Cleveland player who played significant minutes had a plus/minus number of -12 or worse except for Mozgov (-5). Kerr went small for two reasons: to accelerate the pace of the game (which favors the Warriors because they are deeper and because their perimeter players are better than Cleveland's) and to entice the Cavaliers to take the bait and also go small--and Blatt fell for the banana in the tailpipe, giving J.R. Smith 28 minutes even though Smith was a one man disaster area. Smith's plus/minus number of -27 (12 points worse than any other player who appeared in the game) only hints at how poorly he played and how negative his impact was. Smith shot 2-12 from the field (including 0-8 from three point range) and finished with as many fouls as points (four).

The Warriors made a 10-4 run to take a 22-20 lead after J.R. Smith replaced Matthew Dellavedova in Cleveland's lineup. Matters really went south for Cleveland after Blatt took out Mozgov at that point to go small with James Jones; Golden State pushed the lead to 31-24 before Blatt put Mozgov back in the game.

There is a natural tendency to focus on the fourth quarter in general and the final minutes/final plays in particular but students of the NBA understand that games are often decided early, even if there are subsequent runs by both teams. Cleveland made a late run in game four but the Cavaliers could not overcome the double digit lead that Golden State built by halftime. Golden State did a lot of damage in the first half with Mozgov on the bench; the Cavs played too fast during that stretch and Smith was awful. Instead of going small, Blatt should have stayed true to his team's strength and exploited his team's advantage inside.

When the Cavaliers went small they also started to play faster and they started firing up three pointers. Cleveland shot 4-27 from three point range. The problem is not just the number of misses or even the number of attempts but rather the quality and nature of the shots. Cleveland won games two and three by pounding the ball inside with James posting or driving, Mozgov cutting through the lane and Tristan Thompson pounding the offensive boards. Most of the Cavaliers' three pointers in those games came as a result of penetration and good ball movement. In game four, James did not attack as much, the Cavaliers settled for low percentage three pointers and the Cavaliers paid the price for Blatt's substitution patterns.

I understand that Blatt has limited options due to injuries but in order for Cleveland to win this series Mozgov's minutes need to go up, Smith's minutes need to go down and James cannot sit out the first two minutes of the fourth quarter because every time that happens Golden State goes on a run; this almost cost Cleveland in game three and it thwarted a potential Cleveland comeback in game four.

James may have to play 42 or 43 minutes per game the rest of the way, including all 12 in the final stanza. That work load is not the cruel and unusual punishment that the media portrays it to be. In the 1993 Finals, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--en route to winning their third straight championship--averaged 45.7 mpg and 44.3 mpg. In the 1996 Finals, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--en route to completing their second three-peat--each averaged more than 41 mpg (and Gary Payton averaged almost 46 mpg for Seattle in a losing cause that year). Superstar players should not only expect heavy minutes in the Finals but they should demand heavy minutes.

Hall of Famer Jerry West, a consultant for the Warriors, has said that in the NBA when you don't have talent coaching can only do so much but when you do have talent coaching is everything. While it is true that Golden State has more talent and more depth than Cleveland, for all intents and purposes both teams are using a seven man rotation now and both teams are talented or they would not be in the Finals; in game four, seven Cleveland players played at least 18 minutes (and three players received three garbage time minutes apiece) and seven Golden State players played at least 15 minutes (and five other players received between one and seven minutes, with four of those players playing three minutes or less). Kerr may have more chess pieces to move around the board than Blatt does but Blatt has the ultimate chess piece (James) and he has a chess piece who is a matchup nightmare for Golden State (Mozgov) so within the options that Blatt has he needs to make the best possible choices to maximize the damage done by his two best pieces.

In addition to Kerr outcoaching Blatt (or Blatt outcoaching himself), the other big factor in game four is that LeBron James was not nearly as aggressive as he had been in the first three games of the series when he averaged 41 ppg. James scored 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting in the first half and if he had reached his normal level of production in this series then Cleveland would not have trailed by 12 at halftime. Yes, that is a lot to ask of one player but when James is aggressive he not only creates scoring opportunities for himself but he also creates scoring opportunities for his teammates.

James suffered a large gash late in the first half when he hit his head on a courtside camera lens after receiving a hard foul from Andrew Bogut. It is unclear how much that injury affected James but he had been passive and the Cavaliers had been trailing even before that happened.

As a longtime advocate for the ABA, I cannot neglect to mention that even though James' 123 points through the first three games of the Finals is an NBA record it is not a pro basketball record; in the 1976 ABA Finals, Julius Erving scored 124 points in the first three games as his underdog New York Nets took a 2-1 lead over the powerful Denver Nuggets. James now has 143 points after four games but Erving scored 158 points in the first four games in the 1976 ABA Finals and for the series he led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as the Nets won 4-2 over a squad that featured two Hall of Famers (David Thompson and Dan Issel) plus the best defensive forward in pro basketball (Bobby Jones) and a Hall of Fame coach (Larry Brown). Erving shot .590 from the field against the Nuggets. Considering the quality of the opponent, the all-around statistical dominance and the efficiency, a good case can be made that this is the greatest single series performance in pro basketball history. Just keep that historical perspective in mind when placing James' numbers in proper context. James has played great overall in the first four games but basketball history did not begin with Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan and basketball history includes (or should include) the ABA, though you might not realize this if you depend on the mainstream media outlets for basketball commentary.

OK, enough with the historical interlude for now. What will happen next in the 2015 NBA Finals? The only honest answer is, "I don't know." What I do know is that Golden State has the better team but Cleveland has the best player. Cleveland is capable of winning by employing the right strategy and playing really hard but Golden State has a larger margin for error. If Cleveland wins this series it would clearly be an upset but I am not sure it would be the biggest upset ever, as some people have suggested; let's wait and see if Cleveland prevails before trying to figure out how big of an upset it would be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cleveland Shows the Value of the Paint--and the True MVP

The Cleveland Cavaliers lead the Golden State Warriors 2-1 in the 2015 NBA Finals but the score could easily be 3-0 either way. Cleveland may be halfway toward completing an improbable upset but Golden State may come back and cap off a 67 win season with a championship. Since the outcome is still in doubt, it would be premature to make definitive conclusions about what we have seen so far.

However, there are some trends that seem to be emerging, including the value of having an "inefficient" superstar who attracts a lot of defensive attention and the way that post play, team defense and rebounding can overcome analytics-driven small ball.

At The Roar, I discuss some of the things we have learned from the first three games of the Finals:

Cleveland Shows the Value of the Paint--and the True MVP

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:20 PM

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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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