How can Cleveland expect to win if they will not make enough changes?

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three

Coaching is all about adjustments, and the NBA is a match-up league. Notwithstanding the fact that certain transcendent talents defy any possible match-up, the rest of the game is all about acquiring talented players, figuring out schemes both offensive and defensive to get your talented players in the areas of the court in which they do best, then figuring out schemes both offensive and defensive to get the opposition's talented players in the areas of the court in which they do worst. Simple, yet mind-numbingly complicated, the secret to success in the NBA is navigating that minefield.

As the playoffs go deeper, coaches generally tighten their rotations so as to get their best players the most court time possible. Rest can come later. Hopefully, by this time, coaching staffs have at least figured out who those best players are. But in the case of these NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, apparently that was still not quite so.

Before the game, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue announced that Rodney Hood, trade deadline acquisitee and at one time a key rotation player, would again be featured. Hood was out of the rotation altogether through the first two games due to a combination of poor recent play and an ugly benching controversy, yet with Cleveland in need of something different, back came Hood, theoretically the most talented reserve to whom they had not already turned.

And it worked. For a bit.

Hood's court time was one of a few adjustments made by the Cavaliers in the first half of game three. He gave the Cavaliers a second player who could create well off the dribble - Jordan Clarkson, fellow trade deadline acquisition and a man not cursed with meekness, was always willing yet never successful - and thus provided some support to LeBron James, who hitherto had been doing all of that. Finishing with 15 points on 11 shots to go with six rebounds and two blocks (one of which was on a Shaun Livingston mid-range pull-up, the greatest shot in basketball) in only 25 minutes of court time, Hood was indeed a very useful reinforcement to have. He was active, skilled, aggressive without being restless, and obviously talented. Successful adjustment achieved.

In addition to the personnel change, Cleveland also came out with some philosophical and strategic adjustments, too. There seemed to be a concerted effort to come out attacking, playing aggressively, pushing the ball, running on makes and exerting pressure, tempo and foul trouble on a scrambling Warriors defence. Cleveland has long been more willing to do these things when playing at home for whatever reason, and they flanked it with a commitment to the rebounding glass. Grabbing four of their first ten missed shots and holding the Warriors to only seven first quarter rebounds - all of which were by Kevin Durant - the Cavaliers grabbed 13 first period boards of their own, and stretched that advantage to 28-16 by half time. This was a game plan, an actual game plan, a game plan beyond Find A Way To Play LeBron All 48.

Not all of the adjustments made sense. James came out in this one incredibly determined to pass a ton in the half court; on no less than three separate occasions in the first quarter, he drew Stephen Curry on switches (deliberately), took him into the post (deliberately), yet then kicked to a corner or wing shooter, rather than using his enormous size advantage to try and power through Curry for the foul (presumably deliberately). This largely unsuccessful strategy (Cleveland scored on only one of those three possessions) was particularly curious considering that Curry had two fouls early in the game, and that the specific switches to get this match-up were sought and found. The Cavaliers also sought to double more Warriors actions off the ball, perhaps a misguided attempt to trap certain players, which gave up several open looks at the rim. There was a reason they were only up by one point after one quarter even with these successful adjustments.

Nevertheless, they made some changes. The Cavaliers actually made some changes! And they worked. For a bit.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three

In the second quarter, the Cavaliers stepped up their pressure on Curry. Finally apparently getting wise to Curry's desire to make sharp cuts after passing the ball off, the team defence was able to track him all throughout the first half, and even when Curry got Kevin Love, Larry Nance or some other favourable match-up out on the perimeter on switches, help was coming. Bigs fading his way as secondary defenders in transition offence slowed him down, and better awareness of where he was at all times in the half court checked him there too. Curry shot badly, but he was also not allowed to shoot well.

Offensively, there was a concerted effort by Cleveland to feature Kevin Love more. From the decisive early three-pointer he took (and made) on the first possession of the game, the Cavaliers sought to find Love in his favoured positions (wing threes, left side low post touches), and Love himself sought out extra touches through his rebounding. His 7 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter alone came from largely out-competing the step-slow Warriors, and at one point, he even just straight-up beat Kevin Durant in isolation on the drive.

For the first time since game one, the Warriors faced some true adversity. With Stephen Curry in foul trouble, and with Draymond Green (lucky to remain in the game after a massive blow-up mere moments after receiving an unrelated technical foul) not far behind, they were struggling for personnel, and with Curry unable to wriggle free from the defence (and thus the whole Beautiful Game system not functioning), they got down by double figures. The Cavaliers were outrunning, outworking, outscoring the Warriors - and for a change, they even out-adjusted them.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the Cavaliers sat Jordan Clarkson. It too worked. For a bit.

Adjustments, though, go both ways.

The Golden State Warriors are becoming somewhat infamous for their third quarters. Be it due to sheer complacency or not, the Warriors have often underwhelmed to start games this season, and then have to dig themselves out of a hole. This game was no different, as they somehow managed to get called for both an offensive three-second violation and a palming turnover in the first few minutes, two of the rarest turnover calls around. Yet seemingly at half time, the Warriors' coaching staff generally either find the right words to get the team to play better, find the right adjustments to make, or both. They always seem to do so, and they did so again here.

There were some adjustments before half-time, too. With Curry out of action and Klay Thompson - facing similar commitments to staying home on him by Cavaliers shooters as Curry - also doing nothing, the Warriors instead took what the defence would allow. In large part, this meant utilising Draymond Green more as a playmaker; catching the ball on the roll, open due to the traps on the ball handlers, Green would drive to the basket and usually either kick or throw a lob pass (often to Jordan Bell, who is ideally suited for purpose).

Eventually this forced an adjustment in return from Cleveland, who stopped trapping the ball handler whenever Draymond was the screener. All the Cleveland pace earlier in the game saw LeBron James get tired. As he and the other Cavaliers slowed the pace, the Warriors' patented cuts and movement had more effect, as Thompson, Shaun Livingston and the upstart JaVale McGee (who is very effective when he plays within himself and who should probably play more) all found themselves opportune looks around the rim borne out of their own movement, The Warriors also got back the rebounding advantage they have given up in the first half.

And from there, Durant was the deciding factor.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three

To be sure, Durant was a dominant figure in this game from the very start. He recorded 13 points on only four shots in the period, to go along with his team's only seven rebounds. He played extremely well in the first half, Love isolation notwithstanding.

In our review of game two, we explored how the fact that the Warriors' ability to turn to Kevin Durant in anticipation of a basket whenever their hallowed system was not working, rather than only when it was, was precisely the Added Value he was brought in to provide. And never was that more true than in the first half of this game.

Without Durant's 24 points in the first half - points mostly borne out of his own skills at scoring in isolation - Golden State would have been blown out by then. With little else going on, the Warriors kept going to KD, cap in hand, asking for more. And they got it. He posted up various players until the Cavaliers started countering with doubles, at which point he played more face-up. From there, he either pulled up for the shot, or made passing plays off the dribble. His decision making was good all night, and, as ever, his shot making skill was almost unrivalled.

Per Synergy Sports, since the start of the Western Conference Finals, Kevin Durant has shot an effective field goal percentage of 50% on isolations, 68% in the pick-and-roll, and 74% on spot ups. There are some things there is little adjusting to.

Against a well coached, high IQ team like the Warriors, a Cavaliers half-time message of "more of the same please" does not suffice as a message, no matter how big their advantage is at the time. The Warriors' adjustments using Draymond in an expanded playmaking role had started in the second quarter, and the Cavaliers surely knew there would be further adjustments to come. But even if they did, they did not properly apprehend them.

Defensively, Golden State soon started denying Love those selfsame post touches with double teams of his own to contend with. Then, they moved Durant back to the post. And then they targeted specific players better and more frequently on the other end too.

J.R Smith offered such bad screen-and-roll defence all game that, even if he does make some good plays on the ball. calling for a pick with whoever Smith was on usually yielded high-percentage offence. Adding new wrinkles to their standard motion cut, the Warriors ran some sets with little guys setting surprise back picks for bigs, as they once again demonstrated their playbook advantage over Cleveland. All the while, they were running sets and adjusting on the fly to Cleveland's pre-determined defensive ideas.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Three

Conversely, at the end of the game, Cleveland reverted to type. They slowed down the game, when once a higher pace had been so kind to them. They resorted to switching everything again, which allowed the Warriors to put who they wanted where they wanted them. So intent were the Cavaliers on switching that not even real screens needed to be set - Andre Iguodala fading towards the ball-handler alone was enough to get the two Kevins, Love and Durant, stuck facing each other. This is what Durant wanted. And from the description above, you can probably see how it ended.

Most pertinently, the Cavaliers resorted to their eternal reliance on having LeBron James throw every meaningful pass. And that is what Golden State were ultimately hoping they would do.

With Golden State still throwing new wrinkles at the Cavaliers, the pace Cleveland opened with had gone. The rebounding advantage had gone. The idea of George Hill posting up and kicking to Love had gone. The Korver down screens still were nowhere to be found. Even though it ha been so effective earlier, Rodney Hood was no longer trusted to create one on one. Flanking that with questionable rotations - why was Jeff Green in over Kevin Love for so much of the fourth quarter? - and Cleveland to some degree threw another game away.

Mental mistakes seem to cost the Cavaliers about 20 points a game. It is true that the Warriors' carefree nature often leads to carelessness and deficits they need not suffer. But at least they adjust their way of it.

To win the NBA title, the Cleveland Cavaliers now need to win four games in a row against the team that just beat them three times. LeBron James has recorded at least 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in his last ten Finals games, a remarkable achievement considering that no one else has ever managed a streak of even two. And yet here he is, down 0-3 in the series, still needing more help. Is there any way back for Cleveland?

Only if they stop reverting to type. Only if they can figure out their best rotation and the best ways to get their best players in their best spots while anticipating how the best defenders will try their best to prevent that. Only if they can prove they can with without LeBron James on every possession in a way akin to how Golden State can win without always having Stephen Curry. And only if they can adjust their schematics on the court more than they currently do, or have ever have.

That is to say - no, there isn't any way back for Cleveland. Not now.

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