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The Isolation Games

The Cavaliers and Warriors have some of the most dangerous offensive weapons in basketball, and aren’t afraid to use them. In an era that celebrates ball movement more than ever, this season’s champion may well be decided by each team’s solo acts.

(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Remember this pivotal sequence from the final moments of last year’s Game 7 between the Warriors and Cavaliers?

With only 1:02 remaining, the Cavaliers set a screen to isolate Kyrie Irving onto Stephen Curry. Irving dribbles the ball to the right wing, and then side-steps into the would-be game-winning 3. Then, on the following possession with only 44 seconds left, the Warriors set a screen for Curry to get him iso’d onto Kevin Love. Curry isn’t able to shake Love, and misses a wild 3. Irving hit his shot. Curry didn’t. The rest is recent history.

Basketball teams score by finding an edge anywhere they can, and in today’s game, it’s often found by putting two players in motion in a pick-and-roll, or just one player in motion with four other players spacing the floor, like with an isolation. With a heavy emphasis on ball movement and shooting from up and down the lineup, the game looks a whole lot different now than it did when behemoths were fed the ball on the block or a scorer was left to his own devices on the wing and everyone else got out of the way.

Advanced data shows that isolations generally aren’t the most efficient play types, compared to cuts, transitions, and pick-and-rolls. But situation and context matter. The worst shot in the middle of the second quarter during a January game might actually garner the best expected shot value in the final minutes of Game 7 of the Finals.

Even with everything in motion these days, there are still times when defenses lock in during the playoffs and a regular offensive system gets muddied. That’s when teams turn back the clock. "The game is definitely going more toward lots of shooting, lots of motion. It’s a fun style of play, it’s a fun style to watch," Kyle Korver told me after Cleveland’s Game 5 win in the Eastern Conference finals. "But at some point, at the end of a game, when you can’t get out and run, be out on the break, you gotta have that person who you can get the ball to and let them go to work."

Korver has first-hand experience with the wrath of LeBron James. In 2011, his Bulls lost to LeBron’s Heat; his last two seasons with the Hawks were terminated by LeBron’s Cavs — both sweeps. Serving as the King’s teammate isn’t nearly as demanding as trying to stop him, but it still requires a degree of focus. "You gotta be ready for the ball," he said. "You can’t just get caught watching him."

It’s easy to fall into a daze watching LeBron — he and Irving are basketball sorcerers. The same is true for Golden State with Curry and Kevin Durant. The Warriors and Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season, a rubber match of two heavyweights featuring a handful of the league’s greatest players ever. There will be a lot of ball movement. But if the game stays tight, all the stars will have their moment under the spotlight of isolation ball.

Basketball’s Isolation Chamber

Isolations aren’t a look that teams seek out early in games, but one they regularly turn to late. Using Synergy Sports data available since the 2009–10 season, I’m able to look at the percent of possessions a player used on an isolation during different stretches of games. Every star player’s data I viewed — from Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce during their 2010 Finals run to Derrick Rose during his 2011 MVP campaign — revealed an increase in fourth-quarter and overtime isolations, no matter the year, no matter the team. Overall frequency of isolations has declined slightly over the past decade, but the fourth-quarter spike remains as prominent as ever.

During the first three quarters of all seven Finals games last year, only 23.4 percent of LeBron James’s possessions came via an isolation, per Synergy Sports. In the fourth quarter, James’s isolation rate nearly doubled to 42 percent. Irving increased from 26.8 percent to 33.3 percent. Curry went from 17.9 percent to 23.8 percent. In the West finals with the Warriors, Durant leaped from 18.6 percent to 26.9 percent.

Here’s how the iso numbers look this year for key Cavaliers and Warriors players, both in the regular season and in the playoffs:

For perspective, Irving’s 35.4 percent isolation mark in the fourth quarter is nearly equal to Kobe’s numbers from 2004 through 2007. Curry’s 6.1 percent number from the first through the third quarter would rank 28th of all NBA teams in the regular season, while in the fourth and overtime his 16.7 percent mark would rank first.

Isolations aren’t something the Dubs do very much, but the play takes on increased importance at the most critical juncture of the game. Defense ramps up in intensity and focus; Golden State’s typical motion offense becomes harder to execute against a brick wall. In these moments, simplifying the game with an isolation can lead to a quality shot.

These instances are where the Cavaliers might have an edge, because isolations are what they do best. The Warriors have tallied only 106 isolations as a team in the playoffs. LeBron alone has 105. Irving has 100. No one else on Cleveland has over eight. The Cavs score a monstrous 1.19 points per possession when LeBron or Irving isolate this postseason.

As light-years ahead of the league as these two teams are, what could determine their Finals series is how effectively they execute the most basic setup in the game. Here’s a look at how each of the series’ maestros operates in isolation.

Killer Kyrie

There might not be a better player in the world at scoring in isolation than Irving — just ask his teammates. "This just the honest truth: I think Kyrie is the best one-on-one player in the NBA right now," Channing Frye told me after Game 5. "When you have a guy like that, you want to feed that, you want to promote that."

Watching Irving go one-on-one is like watching a highlight reel of all the league’s one-on-one legends. He has masterful footwork: He can spin, use crossovers, change pace, side-step, or put all the moves together for a Mortal Kombat combo.

"It’s a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work to it," Irving said of the work that goes into a sequence like the above spin move into a step-back 3. "The move doesn’t mean anything unless the shot goes in. That’s one of the things my dad always told me, ‘You can have a $5 million move, but if you have a one-cent finish, then who cares?’ The importance is utilizing the moves at the right time and just seeing the weakside action, and having your head on a swivel, and being complete, especially in these situations."

Isolations are often a last resort, deployed when a play is starting to deteriorate. But when you’re as good as Kyrie is, it doesn’t have to be. "[Irving is] so vital to what we do: You don’t have to run plays for him," James Jones said. "He’s talented enough to score, regardless of the situation. Whenever you have a guy like Kyrie, it’s the ultimate luxury to have a player that can get his own shot, that can impact the game, and score in bunches."

Irving also has been enabled by the team’s leading alpha, LeBron, to take more clutch shot-making opportunities. "He was born to play one-on-one," LeBron recently said to reporters, per Cleveland.com. "I think what he’s improving more upon is the feel of the game and taking his time and scoring and possessions and things of that nature and growing as a point guard and growing as a leader. But the kid was born to play one-on-one. You have those great one-on-one players in our league history and he’s up there."

LeBron Turns an Isolation on Its Head

"I’m not a scorer. I don’t want to be labeled as a scorer," said the man who broke Michael Jordan’s all-time playoff scoring record in Cleveland’s Game 5 win over Boston. "I did it by just being me. I don’t have to score the ball to make an impact on a basketball game," LeBron said. "When I started playing the game I was like, ‘If I’m not scoring the ball, how can I still make an impact on the game?’ It’s carried me all the way to this point now, and it’s gonna carry me for the rest of my career because scoring is not no. 1 on my agenda."

James has a chance to become the greatest of all time if the latter stages of his career resemble anything like the first 14 seasons. It’s impossible to know how many elite years LeBron has remaining, but when it’s all said and done, his playoff records could be unbreakable. Michael Jordan or Bill Russell may still be the GOAT today, but no one has dominated the game in every category through his age-32 season like LeBron has. The only other players to reach seven straight Finals played for the Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s — when the league had fewer than 10 teams — or have tagged along as LeBron has ripped through the Eastern Conference playoffs on an annual basis (James Jones). "We’re just piggybacking right now," Iman Shumpert said after Game 1 of the East finals. "He’s unbelievable. He’s like a computer. He’s amazing to watch."

James is a different brand of superstar. The isolation is traditionally a score-first play type, and it still is today. But LeBron frequently uses it as a means of breaking down a defender, forcing the opponent to help, and then kicking a pass out to an open shooter.

Here, the Cavs slip a screen, causing the Celtics to switch. LeBron then dances with Kelly Olynyk before firing a bounce pass to an open Korver, one of the greatest shooters of all time. "He’s the best passer in the NBA right now. That’s unarguable," Frye said. "The way he gets his teammates involved, the way he passes the ball, it’s our job to make shots."

From Korver to Frye, the Cavs are hitting triples at a ferocious rate this postseason (43.5 percent) and they lead all teams with a 120.7 offensive rating. Of all the Cavs players this postseason to attempt at least double-digit 3s, only Irving is shooting below 40 percent. The Cavs take advantage of their shooting prowess by putting LeBron into spacey lineups featuring four shooters, which can lead to shots like this:

It’s funny, really, that even when the best player in the NBA has a no-duh advantage — against a little guy or a slower-footed defender with no rim protector on the back line — the defense still can’t help off shooters. Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder have no hope of protecting the rim. Myles Turner needs to stay home on Frye, because otherwise LeBron is kicking it out for a 3. The shooting revolution has done more than lead to an increase in 3s. It’s opened driving lanes that superstars of the past would only dream of having available. "When you have guys who can iso and give you 30, you can iso the ball. Then the rest of us, make sure you’re ready to shoot it when they get double-teamed," Frye said. "It’s easy basketball. It’s old-school basketball, but at the same time you look at how unselfish they are. When we get matchups we like, we exploit that."

Isolations were once the de facto first option on offense. Today they are used more opportunistically as a way of exploiting mismatches created by player movement. Teams run screen after screen, with the hopes of switching players to find the preferred matchup, rather than straight-up isolating a player at the top of the key and letting the clock run down. In the Finals last year, the Cavaliers sought matchups with lesser defenders. In Game 7, the Cavs picked on Festus Ezeli using LeBron. Before Irving unleashed his game winner, they ran a rub screen to swap Klay Thompson for Curry. A defense won’t always willingly switch, but when they do, the offense is essentially able to customize the matchup like it’s a select-a-player screen in a video game.

"Bron’s talented enough to play in any system, and we can swing back and forth through isolation and ball movement pretty easily," Jones said. "There’s nothing out there that’s forced. There’s nothing out there that’s preplanned. He just plays the game and plays it the right way, and we always get the right result."

Super Dubs

The Warriors can flip between ball movement and iso-scoring, too. "Our identity is predicated on the collective: ball movement, player movement, using everybody’s talents on the floor to create great shots," Curry said after their Game 1 comeback win over the Spurs in the West finals. "But when you have situations where there isn’t any flow and you have to make plays, that’s what we’re expected to do."

Curry’s shooting has pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the NBA; many of these jaw-dropping shots come via isolations, in clutch moments, when nothing else is working on offense. Watch these two daggers against Portland in the opening round:

The Warriors are known for crisp side-to-side ball movement, but these plays display what Curry is getting at when he says there’s not any flow. They can beat you no matter the defense. The difference this year is the Warriors have a second elite isolationist; like LeBron has Kyrie, Curry now has Durant in the biggest series of his career. The Warriors, like the Cavs, now have two contingency plans if their regular offense is moving like it’s stuck in mud.

Over the past five seasons, Durant has never finished below the 90th percentile in points per possession scored via isolations. This season, the Warriors scored 1.1 points per possession when Durant shot, passed, drew a foul, or turned the ball over in an isolation possession. Though they didn’t utilize it very frequently, the time will come when they’ll need it.

The Warriors are blowing out opponents this postseason, but they’ve already begun to lean on their star duo in big moments. Durant was integral to their Game 1 comeback win over the Spurs. The Dubs attacked the best available matchup, running screens to seek out weaker defenders. "That’s the pretty sweet thing about our team," Durant said after Game 1 against the Spurs. "We can move the ball and get everybody involved, but when that stalls out we got guys that can score off the dribble and create off the dribble."

The Warriors will undoubtedly do the same against the Cavaliers. LeBron and Kyrie will be able to score at an elite level. The problem is how their entire team will be able to defend. Lineups that create offensive spacing around LeBron — with guys like Korver and Frye and Deron Williams — will need to play the defense of their life to survive. Golden State will attempt to seek-and-destroy them, and Cleveland is at a distinct disadvantage because of its roster’s natural limitations.

Basketball has evolved, but the need for effective scoring in the half court is still a prerequisite for deep playoff success. Over the past 13 years, as far back as Synergy’s tracking database goes, 18 of the 26 NBA Finals representatives had a half-court offensive rating ranking in the top four. Only the 2010 Lakers and 2005 Spurs won titles with a half-court offense ranking worse than sixth. Just four teams ranked outside of the top nine. Nearly every roster featured a player who could get a bucket or make a play without a screen, whether it’s LeBron, Curry, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, or Paul Pierce.

The way we talk about basketball has also changed, with so much emphasis placed on complementary shooting and ball movement. But shot-making at the ends of games is still the league’s premium skill, and the players who can check that box are still the hardest to find. In these two teams, we’ll have it all.

That’s what makes these Finals so special. We’re about to witness the two best teams, marrying the old-school and new-world ideas, on the biggest stage of all.

The lead actors have all played a role in basketball’s evolution. Curry’s pull-up 3s have created new dimensions on the floor. There has never been a 7-footer who moves as fluidly as Durant. Irving is a living isolation encyclopedia. LeBron’s passing has set an example for children around the globe that, yes, basketball is about far more than just scoring.

The Trilogy is a continuation of the game’s legacy. Basketball has changed, but some of the most iconic playoff moments, past and present, are etched in our memory as one-on-one battles. The isolation will never die. When the stakes are at their highest, the game repeatedly comes down to how those one-on-one moments play out.