Faced with an endless eleven-man assault, the Cavaliers just ran out of legs
The inevitable happened. The Golden State Warriors closed out the NBA Finals early Tuesday morning in five games with a 129-120 victory over a Cleveland Cavaliers team that hung around, but could not quite overcome.
It is a second victory in three years for the Warriors, and the first in ten years for Kevin Durant. Last summer, Durant left (or, if you’d rather, “quit”) the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise that he had been with the previous nine seasons to join Golden State, fresh off the Warriors setting the NBA record for the best ever regular season record and overcoming a herculean effort from Durant’s own Thunder team in the Western Conference Finals. He couldn’t beat them, so he joined them. And it worked.
It is not for this space to evaluate the validity and meaning of Durant’s decision. I expanded upon what Durant’s decision meant for the market, the concept of super teams and the idea of ‘parity’ back when he made the decision last July, but refrain for casting subjective judgement upon the morality of him actually doing so. [Well, I refrain other than to say that the contrast between his own “I’m doing what I want and I don’t care what you think” mentality and LeBron James’s “I did what I wanted, I care what you thought, and I’m going back to Cleveland to fix what I broke” was both stark and fun. Neither is necessarily correct nor incorrect, but nevertheless - good times.] Such judgements do not mean much and are only worth engaging in if you want to feel overly emotional about strangers.
What we can objectively look at instead is the on-court impact.
The Cavaliers did a better job as the series went on of negating the threat that is two time MVP Steph Curry. Curry cannot be shut down, of course, because to be elite means to be impossible to shut down. He can, however, be slowed, just like anyone. It relies upon an awful lot of defensive focus, but the Cavaliers showed it can work.
Cleveland did this by trapping the pick-and-roll. Trying to defend the pick-and-roll with one on one coverage is suicide against this Warriors team, and is the exact thing they and Curry have preyed upon throughout this run of theirs. Have the guard go under the screen and Curry will hit the three; go over it, and he will get past you with quickness, handle, and a variety of floaters and bankers. Switch the action and put a big on him, and the three pointer is even easier.
Trap him aggressively, however, and he must dribble to find space. Everyone does. A trapped pick-and-roll leaves a man open somewhere, but to throw the ball to that open man relies upon there being space for a passing angle. A good trap makes that extremely hard. In games four and five, Curry was often to be seen dribbling against this double pressure, trying to find a seam, needing a pressure release valve, not big enough to readily throw over the top. Had they done the same for a couple of possessions successfully in game three, it could have been a 2-2 series with it all still to play for.
To counteract this, the Warriors ran more pick-and-rolls with Curry that featured Durant as the screener. Trapping does not work as well when Kevin Durant is the man you are leaving. It was still not the easiest thing to get the ball to him, but once he got it, Durant made the shot, be it off the dribble or off the catch, like the truly great scorer that he is. And he frequently did so to stop runs. When the Warriors needed someone, he was there every time.
It would be a complete rejection of the aforementioned intent to be objective to speculate as to whether the Cavaliers could have won this series if Durant was not in it. Still, it sounds like fun, so let’s do it anyway.
Let’s further pretend the Warriors’ roster had remained much the same as last year’s Finals. Had Durant not been there, Curry – who immediately becomes far easier to trap – now must use Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes more to release the pressure. Klay Thompson would be the ideal option to find, yet on a team featuring more Barnes and Andre Iguodala in lieu of Durant, the defence has less options to cover, making a trap more feasible and less damaging. This is particularly so if Andrew Bogut, an increasingly limited offensive player, were involved. You can leave those three in a way you daren’t leave KD.
Despite a defence that so often left them down during the season, particularly in transition, Cleveland’s defence picked up throughout the series, particularly via these traps. So too did their offense. J.R. Smith awoke from his slumber to make some three-pointers with ridiculous degrees of difficulty, while Tristan Thompson became aggressive offensively, being prepared to drive the ball after coming out to screen and being willing to shoot around the basket rather than pass it out. As opposed to playing three on five too often, Cleveland now had a full contingent for a few minutes at a time.
However, they had nothing behind those five. The bench for the Cavaliers was almost entirely a non-factor. Richard Jefferson had some moments as a shooter, slasher, wizened-veteran type, yet he is only as good as the ball movement around him. Kyle Korver, slowing down and in the latter stages of his career, could not get open. Deron Williams was completely ineffective and a shell of his former self. Iman Shumpert could not make a shot. Channing Frye could not even get minutes. If the Cavaliers did not have their starting five firing on all cylinders – and for the first three games, they didn’t – then they had a disadvantage every minute on the court. The most obvious and important repercussion was this was how tired they got.
Compare that to the Warriors. They of course still relied heavily on Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green, yet they never lacked for depth, due in large part to their positional versatility. If Zaza Pachulia was ineffective at centre, JaVale McGee invariably would be, and even if he wasn’t, Green or Durant could guard the position. Without perhaps the Finals MVP-winning impact of two years prior, Iguodala nevertheless remains a vital cog in the wheel, a defensive stalwart and transition player who is capable of more offensively than he is normally asked to do. Shaun Livingston could back up or pair with Curry. Ian Clark was an unabashed and talented scorer. Patrick McCaw would hustle defensively and hit open looks. Even James Michael McAdoo. The Warriors were able to play at the pace they did because of the depth they had, and while Cleveland could largely match the pace, they could not do so for the full 48.
The Warriors had two things the Cavaliers didn’t – great depth, and Kevin Durant. The barrage never ended, and if ever it did, they found the one person who could always get it back. The three best players in the world currently were in this series, yet Golden State had two of them, and were able to rest them. That was enough.
Going forward, Cleveland can overcome this dominant Golden State team if they can improve their depth, scoring, athleticism and half court defensive personnel. If they become more like the Warriors, basically.