Golden State's efficient inefficiency stunned Cleveland in game one
In game one of the NBA Finals, the defending champion Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in relatively comfortable fashion. Leading almost the whole way throughout the game, the Warriors led by as many as 20 points, and ultimately won by 15. And they did so with unanimous MVP Steph Curry far from his best, recording only 22 minutes and 11 points on 4-15 shooting, with a +/- rating of a compact 0.
The Warriors won this game with their depth, and specifically the depth behind Curry. Backup point guard Shaun Livingston scored 20 points on 8-10 shooting, while backup shooting guard Leandro Barbosa made all five of his shots in scoring 11 points. That is 31 points on 15 possessions from two players who normally contribute 12 on 10. There is a reason Steph only played half the game.
The consensus finding on the question of offensive strategy is easy to simplify – layups, free throws and (most) three-pointers are good, while anything in the mid-range area is bad.
This is not to say that the duo did this entirely unexpectedly. Barbosa has long been a scoring super-sub, winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 2007, and Livingston has been a fine NBA player for the last five years or so since finally finding his health and his niche in this league. They are key rotation players on a historical great because they are good at what they do, so it should not be news when they are good.
They also did not do anything stylistically that they did not already do. Livingston was not pulling up from 30 feet and bombing away like Curry, and Barbosa was not crossing people over and finishing in traffic at the rim. Rather, they just picked their spots, found where to go, and did what they did best.
What is noteworthy, however, is the juxtaposition between how they do it, and all that which was focused on before the series began. The NBA today is in an era of heightened scrutiny from which it will never now be free, and an unshakable belief in the paramount importance of offensive efficiency. We know now of the importance of such because of the mathematical invasion in the league, because there are so many more people to give so many more informed opinions, and because as access to information improves, so does the results of its analysis.
The consensus finding on the question of offensive strategy is easy to simplify – layups, free throws and (most) three-pointers are good, while anything in the mid-range area is bad. Some lament the loss of the mid-range game, but more for methodological and nostalgic reasons than analytical ones; many more approve of its demise. This is how it is now, and how it should always have been since the three point line was invented.
While they are admittedly few and far between, there are a few players in the NBA who favour the mid-range still, and who are allowed to by their teams. The most obvious example of the success of this is Chris Paul, whose offensive game - both his individual scoring talents and his playmaking abilities – are both built around a foundation of his ability to hit the mid-range shots that convention determines he should not be looking to take.
Paul hits mid-rangers so well that he cannot be given them, and because he cannot be given them, he has to be played in such a way that protects against them (riding him close and denying the shooting space normally afforded to others for a dribble or two). This opens up both driving and passing lanes, and Paul promptly exploits both better than most.
While they are admittedly few and far between, there are a few players in the NBA who favour the mid-range still, and who are allowed to by their teams.
In Washington, Randy Wittman had been one of the few to shake the unshakable and advocate his guards taking open mid-range shots. John Wall has particularly been the recipient of this – emboldened by Wittman’s permissive attitude towards the mid-range area, Wall has long since taken far too many pull-up free throw line jump shots with about 17 seconds left on the shot clock.
Wittman’s offensive philosophy involved the simple message “if you’re open, shoot it”, without much thought being given to the different levels of “open”. It seemed to matter not that the free throw line jump shots were open for a reason, looks considered acceptable for the opponent to take by defences trained in the art of prioritising inefficiency. (In possibly related news, Randy Wittman was fired in April).
These examples are few and far between, though. Paul is the exception to the rule, and Wall is the embodiment of why the rule exists. For the most part, and rightly so, mid-range jump shots are things that sometimes crop up during an offence, not things to plan for. And yet in step Livingston and Barbosa, who do exactly that.
The demand for efficiency is different from a backup. The need for scoring is more important than the efficiency of how it is done so – after all if a backup can score heavily and consistently efficiently, they are not often going to be a backup. If a scorer comes in off the bench and is not shooting well, they can go back to the bench. Barbosa and Livingston are scorers, Barbosa especially, and with this tag line comes some free reign offensively. But the way in which they do so tests the dichotomy between themselves and the efficiency model.
This is particularly true of Livingston, a guard who has hit 12 three pointers in 12 years. Livingston is long since departed from the perceived pass-first, playmaking point guard who entered the league. He is not a creator individually, or at least, he does not try to be much anymore. The system he plays in does not really fit for it.
Livingston’s shot, the floating mid-ranger off the dribble is the very shot most teams want to give up. Yet against him, it is a shot that cannot be taken away.
It also does not need it. It just needs players who can make shots, pick spots, move around, play smart and play within themselves. He is that. Barbosa is that. All of the Warriors’ supporting cast are that.
Almost all of Livingston’s shots were contested, but that makes them neither inefficient nor ‘bad’. 6’7 with a 6’11 wingspan, Livingston shoots with a high release point, thus making the shot almost unblockable. He can see over the smaller defender and release over the most outstretched of their arms. And he then makes the shot.
When matched up against him in game one, Irving mostly contested Livingston well. It didn’t matter. Livingston’s shot, the floating mid-ranger off the dribble is the very shot most teams want to give up. Yet against him, it is a shot that cannot be taken away.
This was supposed to be the series of the three point shot. The Warriors have changed the NBA with their unconscious and spectacularly effective three-point shooting, while the Cavaliers have been matching them shot for shot (their 14.4 three-point makes per game prior to the Finals actually being higher that Golden State’s total). The focus was on the Splash Brothers, whose nickname comes from precisely that act, and also on the Cavaliers’s flexible and balanced offence featuring shooters all over spearheaded by a legend in LeBron James who can find them all.
However, never has either team been limited to that, and Golden State especially. In Livingston’s sneakily good (and from a defensive standpoint, no doubt highly frustrating) mid-range game lies one weapon; in Barbosa’s transition and relentless aggression lie another. The Warriors' bench, led by Livingston and Barbosa, is efficiently doing inefficient things, and it will not simply stop being this way. This is what they do.
Cleveland were so successful against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals because they were mostly able to make Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan take the shots they wanted them to take, and denied them that at which they were best. But this is harder to do against the Warriors. There are more pieces to the puzzle, and the pieces are more diverse.
The Warriors’s bench, led by Livingston and Barbosa, is efficiently doing inefficient things, and it will not simply stop being this way. This is what they do.
It is far beyond my pay grade to try and identify how to contain them all. But in being the decisive factor in game one, Livingston and Barbosa served to show that they must do so.