When Tyronn Lue said he wanted the Cavs to play more like the Warriors before the NBA Finals started, fans thought he was crazy. When the Warriors ran the Cavs out of the gym in the first two games of the series, the fans were calling for a return to caveman ball. Instead, a concussion kept Kevin Love out of Game 3 and allowed Lue to double down, and the Cavs began morphing into a funhouse version of the Warriors. We saw the end result in Game 6, when Cleveland beat Golden State to a pulp by using the defending champs’ strategies against them.
With the injured Andrew Bogut sitting in street clothes, the Warriors started Game 6 with the Lineup of Death, the unit that won last year’s Finals. The difference this time is that the Cavs can counter with a killer small-ball unit of their own. Love’s two early fouls were the best thing that could have happened to Cleveland, allowing the Cavs to return to the lineup that won Game 3 by 30 points. Once Richard Jefferson went in for Love, the Cavs didn’t have anyone over 6-foot-9 on the floor, and they didn’t have anyone who wasn’t comfortable guarding on the perimeter.
The Warriors had ruthlessly dragged Love into their pick-and-rolls for much of the series, but in Game 6, the Cavs implemented a winning strategy of doing the same thing to Steph Curry. Whoever Curry was guarding repeatedly set screens on the ball, forcing the MVP to switch onto a much larger player. The end result? A lot of points for Cleveland and a lot of fouls on Curry, who fouled out after playing 35 minutes. The Warriors offense thrives on forcing all five defenders to play in space, and then attacking the weakest link in the chain. They had more weak links on the floor in Game 6, and Cleveland made them pay for every one of them.
The Warriors’ upper hand is gone.
Golden State has been just as ruthless on defense as on offense under Steve Kerr, leaving bad shooters wide open on the 3-point line and keeping their defenders in the paint, destroying the other team’s offensive flow. They made Tony Allen unplayable in last season’s second-round series against the Grizzlies, and the Cavs have returned the favor with Harrison Barnes. The beauty of giving zero respect to a player on defense is it can have a devastating impact on the psyche of even a good shooter. Watching a career 38 percent 3-point shooter like Barnes miss wide-open 3 after wide-open 3 is like watching a relief pitcher suddenly become unable to locate the strike zone.
While Steve Kerr dug deep into his bench on Thursday looking for answers, Lue shortened his rotation in order to reduce the number of potential targets. He spent most of the game with LeBron James at the 4 and Tristan Thompson at the 5, his two fastest big men. Curry and Draymond Green made a killing on four-on-threes when the Cavs trapped their pick-and-roll in last year’s Finals, but all those openings were gone in Game 6. The Cavs switched screens and dared the Warriors’ stars to beat them one-on-one, and they couldn’t do it. All of a sudden, Cleveland was the team getting stops and racing out in transition for backbreaking 3s and monster dunks. The Cavs have outscored the Warriors 47–19 in fast-break points the past two games.
The biggest key has been moving LeBron onto Draymond. It’s the same thing that happened when Kevin Durant guarded him in the Western Conference finals. Draymond thrives by attacking traditional big men in space, taking advantage of his speed and quickness. He doesn’t have an edge in either category against LeBron. His one-on-one offense is gone, as he had only 8 points on 3-for-7 shooting on Thursday. Just as important, he’s no longer being used as the primary screener for Steph, since Steph doesn’t have much of an advantage when LeBron switches on him.
Put it all together and the Cavs are playing versatile defenders at every position but point guard, and shooters and ball handlers at every position but center. That’s the way the league is moving, in large part as a response to the Warriors. There’s just no place for a traditional big man like Love in this series. Love, at minus-6 in 12 minutes, was the only Cavs starter with a negative plus-minus. He was on the floor for numerous Warriors scoring runs, including one memorable sequence at the end of the third quarter in which Klay Thompson scored five points in 30 seconds on him. That’s how quickly things can turn in the modern NBA.
The evolution of the league is happening in real time.
If the Warriors have proven anything over the past two years, it’s that caveman ball can’t beat them. If you try to beat them by playing big men who can attack them on the boards and in the post but can’t guard on the perimeter, they are going to run you off the floor. The success the Cavs and the Thunder have had in the last two rounds has come from beating the Warriors at their own game. It’s much easier to score when you have five guys who can shoot, handle, and pass, and it’s much easier to guard when you have five guys who can switch screens. The closer you get to that ideal, the more dangerous your team is going to be.
The Warriors have averaged 70 wins over the past two seasons because they are playing a different game than everyone else. That wasn’t going to last forever. For every action, there is a reaction. At the end of Batman Begins, the first movie in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, a contented Batman looks over a peaceful Gotham when Lt. Gordon gives him the bad news:
“What about escalation? … We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds.”
A generation ago, a guy like Tristan Thompson would never have been a starting center, much less someone worth $82 million. At 6-foot-9, he’s not big enough to match up with traditional centers in the post, nor is he capable of creating his own offense with his back to the basket. However, what he doesn’t have in bulk, he makes up for in foot speed and the ability to guard every position on the floor. He’s an ultramobile big man who has been weaponized to defend small-ball lineups, and his ability to roll to the rim and catch lobs above traffic allows him to attack the lack of size on the Lineup of Death.
The Warriors were able to turn the tide in the Western Conference finals by going back to Bogut, but he’s out the rest of the Finals with a left knee sprain. With Andre Iguodala hobbling badly, and Barnes looking shook, they don’t have as many two-way players playing at full capacity as they had in last year’s Finals. Returning to Oracle for Game 7 is a blessing, and they still have the two most dangerous shooters in the world playing in maximum space. Unfortunately, the Cavs have LeBron and Kyrie Irving operating in the same space, and they have thoroughly outplayed the Splash Brothers to this point. Cleveland has figured out the blueprint for beating Golden State, and stuck with it, even when times were rough. You beat the Warriors by playing exactly like them.