Making Game 3 Competitive in 7 Easy Steps
This NBA Finals might feel like a wash so far. Each game seems competitive at the start before sliding into a Warriors blowout sometime around the third quarter. Fans are pissed and players are incensed, but there still remains a subtle sense that, especially back home in Cleveland, something’s gotta give. Four teams have come back from being down 0-2 in the Finals, with Cleveland’s championship last year being the most recent and relevant example. This year is different: the Cavaliers have new players. The Warriors have new players. Both teams are healthy. Neither team has Anderson Varejao. The Warriors have Kevin Durant. But, the first two games had practically the same results in Golden State. It seems harder to win Game 3 this year than last year but Cleveland is a scary place, especially after the arena tried to take out KD. And despite winning Game 2, even Steve Kerr knows that same performance wouldn’t go unscathed in LeBron’s home: “Heading to Cleveland, we’re going to have to be a lot smarter. We play that same game in Cleveland, there’s no way we win.” Based on last year’s Finals, this year’s regular season, and what we’ve seen so far — here are the seven easy steps to make Game 3 the competitive basketball most non-Warriors fans have been waiting for:
7. Where’s Your Depth At?
The Cleveland Cavaliers are being paid $128,492,467 this season, good for the highest payroll in NBA history. Outside of their Big Three, their seven principal role players (Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, and Deron Williams) are making a combined $54.4 million this year — while the seven combined for a total of 46 points through the two games thus far. These glue guys, meant to give LeBron some rest and support while expected to outplay their unproven, Golden State rotation counterparts, are averaging 3.3 points a game this series and a Plus/Minus of -8. These guys have been playing minutes, taking shots, and getting zero production. Cleveland’s Big Three can’t shoulder a load so heavy when Golden State is playing so efficiently. Fortunately, role players typically perform better at home so these next two games in Cleveland should yield greater, more reliable production from Cleveland’s lesser seven.
6. Stop Going at Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson is one of the greatest shooters of all time. No man has ever had a hotter hand and only one man, his teammate Stephen Curry, is more of a threat on the perimeter. Klay may be a generational offensive talent, he may have Rocco: the cutest dog in the league, and he may seem like he’s often stoned out of his mind. But there’s one thing that Klay is most certainly not, albeit unbeknownst to the Cavs: a vulnerability on defense. Kyrie worked Klay a little last year and it seems easy to score on an absent-minded defender, but Killa Klay has guarded the 5th most shots taken against a player in this Finals and only 27.6% of those have gone in. The man has defended 29 shots so far, with only eight being buckets. The rest of the Warriors starters each have a DFG% of at least 40%, so the Cavs have a much better chance going against anyone else. Seriously, the Toaster works in mysterious ways and may have switched Klay’s defensive and offensive attributes; the guy is on Kyrie like glue and forcing Kevin Love into fadeaway jumpers. Cleveland needs to adjust back home and just stop trying to attack Golden State’s best on-ball defender.
5. Show Their Kings the Same Respect They Show Yours
Everybody remembers the hands-off treatment Kevin Durant received in Game 1, where the Durantula was able to climb his itsy bitsy self above the rim with no threat of rain in sight. Even King James, who coasted and rested throughout the regular season in eager anticipation of the workload he’d handle in the playoffs, didn’t seem to really want to body up KD when it came down to it in Game 1. While the Warriors brought doubles and got into foul trouble trying to match LeBron’s physicality at the rim or get into Kyrie’s hip on the perimeter, Cleveland’s defenders looked confused on their end, essentially playing off of two of the league’s top scorers in Steph and KD. The Cavs adjusted in Game 2, but playing consistently physical defense is different than trying to slide in a few cheap plays here and there. JR Smith may have tried to pull a Zaza on Durant and Dahntay Jones may have tried to bully Steph a little, but those small plays couldn’t make up for an entire game where it felt like LeBron and Richard Jefferson were the only two willing to take some bruises in the line of duty. Maybe Cleveland is buttering the Warriors up for the rest of the series, playing nice with Steve Kerr and nicer with his players so that Golden State is primed to be cooked in Ohio. That might actually work. To win Game 3 they’ll need to start playing Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia’s brand of bully-ball with the Warriors stars.
4. Get TT and JR Some Damn Mojo
Tristan Thompson and JR Smith have been horrible. They haven’t been quite as bad as Deron Williams, a guy who has scored zero points total while fouling his own teammates on their shot attempts and proclaiming that he “doesn’t need to watch game tape” because he’s “seen it all.” But they’ve been bad. TT is averaging a paltry four rebounds to go along with four points on 40% shooting through two games, while JR is averaging 1.5 points on 17% shooting. Maybe there’s a weird Catch-23 at hand where the weight of helping determine LeBron’s legacy is making it difficult to step their production up after comfortably riding along on LeBron’s coattails all season. Maybe they just stopped being good and the toaster curse has chosen them as new victims. Regardless, JR is supposed to be one of Cleveland’s stronger defenders (still baffles me to this day) and a long-range threat, yet his opponents are shooting 91% against him and he’s shooting 25% from three. Tristan is the $80-million dollar man and expected to snag every single rebound in LeBron’s honor, yet Curry is averaging as many rebounds as TT has total: eight. Richard Jefferson can’t be the only Cav outside of the Big Three to contribute if this series is to be competitive. Zaza and JaVale are physical giants but Tristan should be able to work the Pick-and-Roll against them, while against Durant or Green he should be able to use his strength. JR can’t get lost on defense, especially if he’s not going to expose Curry’s size on offense. Right now, Shumpert looks like the best shooting-guard on the Cavs and down 0-2 Tristan is doing more talking than he is acting. TT promised that Game 2 was “going to be a wrestling match, like WWE down there.” His and JR’s casual play left Zaza’s mouth running and that’s why they’ll need to eat their Wheaties before Game 3. As noted by Sam Amick during his exposé of Game 3’s incoming physicality, Zaza commented: “It’s been mild. If you feel like you need to give a hard foul, we’ve played 96 minutes worth of basketball. You could’ve done that, and we’re going to have another 48 tomorrow. So again, talking is one thing but if you feel like you need to do something?” Please.”
3. Feed Kevin Love
You know which Cavalier found his groove? Who they were missing for parts of last year’s Finals and all of 2015’s? Kevin Love. Love is averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds a game on 44% from the field, 39% from three, and 100% from the line. Those shooting numbers aren’t dazzling (except for the free-throws) but, among Cavaliers who have played over 30 minutes his field goal percentage is second best and, among Cavaliers who have played at least eight minutes, his three-point percentage is also second best. He’s more effective than LeBron from three and than Kyrie from the field, so he should be used to create space and easy points. In Game 1, Love joined four Hall of Famers as the fifth player in NBA Finals history to pull down 20+ rebounds and 15+ points in one game — so that man deserves the ball. He feels better about this Game 3 than last year’s (on the biggest difference: “I don’t have a concussion.”) and he knows the Cavs will need to play physical to win: “We're hoping that we can kind of slow them down at our place and get into them a little bit more”
2. Get LeBron Some Space
LeBron might have mixed feelings about pace. While Kevin Love mentioned that the team wanted to slow the Warriors down to their own pace, LeBron has reiterated that the Cavs don’t need to: “That’s not our game. We don’t play slow down basketball.” Yet, the average pace of Cleveland’s games this season was 96.2. The average pace of the Finals so far? 105.5. If pace isn’t the problem, then space certainly is. And the two might be related. Tyronn Lue is an honest, maybe simple coach, when asked how to beat the Warriors he explained: “you have to score the basketball.” You don’t necessarily beat the Warriors by slowing down and taking less shots, but you definitely beat them by taking better shots. And if you need to do so by slowing down then so be it. As it stands, LeBron is given room to operate as one defender plays him physical and a second is brought when he reaches the rim. The Warriors are playing him off and trying to stick with his teammates so that he can’t open the game up by himself, only doubling when LeBron close enough to the rim that he’s unlikely to pass. When the Cavs go to Plan B, letting Kyrie iso to open up the court, the Warriors typically trap him and challenge him to become a ball-distributor. Kevin Love needs the ball more and Cleveland’s variety of disappointing floor spacers need to step up and find opportunities to crack the Warriors defense open if they want a competitive series. Not one of Bron’s archers (Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, JR Smith, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, and Richard Jefferson) is shooting above 25% from outside right now. That congested offense has given Cleveland 29 turnovers over the past two games and an inability to keep up with Golden State’s scoreboard. As a team, Cleveland is shooting 40% from the field (skewed by LeBron’s 55% field-goal percentage) and 32 % from three — they’ll need to slow down, cut with intention, and open up Golden State’s smothering side of the court if they want LeBron to properly take over and get everyone involved.
1. Remember Last Year
The Cavs came back from down 0-2 last season. They lost Game 1 by 15 and Game 2 by 33, an average of 24 points per loss. This year they lost Game 1 by 22 and Game 2 by 19, an average of 20.5 points per loss. History seems to have repeated itself, but with some modesty. Following all of the speculation about a Golden State sweep and LeBron’s inadequacies before Game 3 last year, Cleveland came out and won in a 30 point rout, 120-90. The Cavs rallied behind huge performances from LeBron and Kyrie while working to limit Steph, Klay, and Dray to difficult shots on offense. Tristan Thompson chipped in 14 points and 13 rebounds on 83% shooting while JR drained 20 points on 54% shooting. Steph, Klay, and Dray were held to 46%, 31%, and 25% respectively. The Cavaliers won last year by playing tough, physical defense around their own basket and by making the most out of their opportunities on offense, which cycles back and gives LeBron more room to dominate.
Going back to Cleveland is a huge deal. Part of why the Warriors could endure a rough start to Game 2 (the team had eight turnovers in the first quarter of Game 2, double the amount they had in all of Game 1) is because of the added resilience home teams enter the second half with, accompanied by their rejuvenated fans who finally got a chance to hit the latrines and get their beer refills. Playing in Cleveland should give the Cavs a much-needed boost, but they’ll need to fix their other issues anyway because Golden State won’t be taking this Game 3 as lightly as the last two (they also lost Game 3 in 2015, when the Cavs couldn’t even play Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving). Draymond recognizes the onus on this year’s Game 3: “Over the course of the last two years, we haven’t played well in Game 3’s and that’s probably a sense of complacency.” Even the Toaster’s vessel himself, Klay Thompson, knows that it’s time to handle business in Cleveland: “I’m excited to go to Cleveland. It’s going to be a whole new challenge. Can’t get caught up in the two wins here, gotta go handle business there.”
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