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The Cavs Know What the Problem Is

Defense was a problem for Cleveland all season, and it came back to haunt them in Game 1 of the NBA Finals

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

After getting smoked 113–91 by the Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, the Cavaliers acted like they’d been here before — because, well, they have been here before. The visitors’ locker room was muted after the game, but it wasn’t lacking for confidence. “It’s hard to steal Game 1 on the road,” Iman Shumpert said at his locker, sporting reflective sunglasses. “Coming into this thing, our mission is to steal one [on the road]. Two would be perfect, but we dropped one.”

They may not have looked great on the court, but after the game, Tyronn Lue and his players were on the same page. You can’t practice for the Warriors, you have to play them. “You can’t really simulate [the Warriors] in practices,” said Lue. “There’s no way can you simulate the Warriors offense, so when you come out here, and no matter how greatly prepared you are, you know going against them and being in a game is totally different,” said Kyrie Irving. “No matter how many days that you have to prepare, you can’t simulate what they have,” said LeBron James. I think we got the message, guys!

It’s as if they were computer programmed to have the same response. They’re not wrong, though. We all know what happened last year: Cleveland got owned in Games 1 and 2, fell down 3–1, and then made the greatest Finals comeback ever. The 2015–16 Warriors were the best regular-season team ever. This year they’re even better. Cleveland hurt its cause by committing 20 turnovers, and the Warriors made them pay with 27 fast-break points. That’s a big boo-boo. “We made a lot of mistakes. There’s nothing really needs to be said,” LeBron said. “We know we’re capable of playing a lot better. We didn’t play as well as we know we’re capable of, so we look forward to the next one.”

Cleveland’s transition defense was an eyesore all season, ranking 30th in transition points allowed, per Synergy, while allowing the most chances of all playoff teams. Conversely, the Warriors score on the break like they have Mario Kart star power, leading in points per possession and chances. It won’t be easy for Cleveland to flip this defensive switch.

There are things Cleveland can do to try. They’ll try to limit turnovers — it was only the fifth time all season they’d committed 20 turnovers, so the odds are it won’t happen again. They also had a handful of missed at-rim opportunities, and if they convert those next time around, it won’t be a fast break going the other way. LeBron could help by getting back on defense rather than complaining to the officials too. The Cavs could also run more pick-and-roll to force switches and feast on the juiciest isolation matchup. One of the benefits of isolation possessions is a balanced floor, which frequently leads to offensive rebounds, effectively limiting transition chances. Here’s an example:

Richard Jefferson scoffed at the idea of Cleveland slowing down the pace when asked after the game, though that might be the recipe for more competitive games. But will it lead to wins?

The Warriors scored only 0.89 points per possession on half-court possessions, per Synergy — which is horrific, a near equivalent number to the Magic and Suns. It’s hard to bank on that happening again, considering that they have an all-time great offense, got plenty of easy looks, and missed a ton of easy ones.

Not all of Golden State’s shots came this easy — with Kevin Durant’s V-cut working like a misdirection magic trick, and LeBron later falling asleep and slipping — but they created a load of open looks that simply didn’t fall.

Keep your eyes on Steph Curry. He sprints away from Irving, who calls for a switch, but he’s not heard, and by the time Tristan Thompson recognizes Curry, he’s slicing to the rim. The shot misses. But this was near automatic for Curry on the year: He shot 62.8 percent on shots from the restricted area, per “We have to definitely rev up the defensive pressure,” Shumpert said. “We gotta be better in all parts of the game. We gotta be more physical, have more communication, and definitely got to contest more shots. I thought they got some pretty wide-open looks. They missed a couple of them, but they made a lot of them too.”

This is the scary part for the Cavs. They could theoretically fix their transition defense, but it’s unlikely the Warriors would statistically put up another half-court-scoring stinker again, with Klay Thompson goose-egging on five 3s and various players missing easy shots at the rim. “Their offensive domination tonight and success was based off turnovers and nothing with cuts,” Jefferson said after game. “They are a great cutting team, a great offensive team, but that wasn’t the difference tonight.”

Jefferson is right. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be the difference next time around. Two points off a Curry cut to the bucket, three points off an open Thompson flare, a drawn foul after a missed rotation — it all adds up. The Cavs were fortunate the Warriors didn’t have a bigger lead at the half. It mounted to 15 quickly in the second half, but next time that differential could come sooner with more shoddy defensive rotations.

Lue, LeBron, and Kyrie all said the team couldn’t simulate the Warriors. After Game 1, they better be experienced. They’re going to need it.