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LeBron’s Best Shot at Stopping the Unstoppable Warriors

The Cavs may be the biggest NBA Finals underdogs in years. Here’s what they need to do to have any chance at derailing Golden State’s repeat bid.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here we go again. For the fourth consecutive year, it’s Warriors vs. Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. When we’re older and reminiscing about this era, we’ll remember how cool it was to watch one of the greatest teams ever battling one of the greatest players ever for a ring four times in a row. But right now, this series feels superfluous.

A lot of good things come in threes, from Ali vs. Frazier to The Lord of the Rings, but look at almost any movie franchise and you’ll see diminishing returns once you get into the fourth film (Alien: Resurrection, anyone?). The hope is that Cavs-Warriors remains compelling, but Golden State is possibly the biggest favorite ever in an NBA Finals despite the fact its opponent is led by LeBron James. Most pundits expect a sweep, or maybe for the Cavs to steal one game like they did last year. LeBron barely dragged his teammates past the Pacers and Celtics in seven-game series, but now the Cavs are totally overmatched against the Warriors in star power and lineup versatility.

The Cavs outscored their three Eastern Conference playoff foes by only 1.2 points per 100 possessions, by far the worst of any of LeBron’s prior Finals teams (for comparison, the 2006-07 Cavs were plus-5.6 in three rounds before the Finals, while the 2015-16 Cavs were plus-13.4). It’s the worst net rating for a Finals team since Jason Kidd’s Nets were plus-1.1 before getting swept in 2002 by the Lakers, and it also edges out Allen Iverson’s 2001 Sixers (plus-0.6), who were beaten by those same Lakers in five games. The Cavaliers should meet a similar fate.

On the other side, the Warriors will attempt to enter an esteemed class of teams to win back-to-back titles and/or three in four years. There’s a lot at stake: They enter the dynasty conversation if they win, but they’ll be on the receiving end of one of the greatest upsets in history if they lose again. And just as Kevin Durant’s presence made last year’s Finals totally different than 2016, this year will be much, much different.

The Cavaliers roasted defenses the past three years with historic offensive numbers led by LeBron … and Kyrie Irving. But Irving was traded for a package headlined by Isaiah Thomas, who was soon replaced by George Hill and Jordan “Crawford” Clarkson. Irving’s presence was critical to Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in 2016, as his clutch shotmaking, ballhandling, and shooting complemented James. Providing breathers for the King was a nice perk, too. LeBron shared the floor with Irving for 436 of 503 total minutes during the past two Finals, and in that time the Cavs outscored the Warriors by 3.6 points per 100 possessions. But in the 67 minutes LeBron played without Irving, the Cavs got outscored by 14.3 points per 100 possessions. LeBron has been visibly tired this postseason, and how could you not be after playing 3,769 minutes through 100 games from October to May? LeBron is a machine built to hoop, but even machines overheat and malfunction.

James can’t play all 48 minutes every game when the demand will be so significant on both ends of the floor. Jeff Green will likely take on the Richard Jefferson role as a primary defender on Kevin Durant, and should maybe even be in the starting lineup to allow James to roam off Draymond Green or Kevon Looney. I still can’t believe the Cavs relied on a washed, mid-30s Jefferson in two Finals, but if they can win a title that way, maybe it isn’t totally out there that they could do it with a flaky defender like Green, too. Whether Green shines or flops, James will often need to guard Durant and carry Cleveland’s offense.

The good news for Cleveland is guarding James will be just as difficult. Durant started games against James in last year’s Finals, and then Andre Iguodala would take him on once he subbed in. Iguodala is out for Game 1 with a leg contusion, which he recently sought a second opinion for, according to ESPN’s Chris Haynes. Steve Kerr reportedly joked the Warriors would have beaten the Rockets in five games had Iguodala played, which is fair considering how important he is as a versatile defender who can initiate offense. In the past two Finals, the Warriors were a plus-79 in their minutes with Iguodala on the floor and a dismal minus-49 when he was off the floor over 196 minutes. Sound scary? Unfortunately for the Cavs, Irving was on the floor for 156 of the minutes Iguodala was off. Cleveland lacks a second superstar shot creator now that its roster is made up of a bunch of Marty Jannettys to LeBron’s Shawn Michaels.

Nonetheless, the Warriors will need to find another defender on their roster aside from Durant who can defend James, considering Iguodala has generally done the best job. LeBron’s effective field goal percentage drops from 55.6 percent when Iguodala is off the floor to 49.3 percent when he’s on. Green might get the assignment as long as Iguodala is absent. He has spent a lot of time defending Kevin Love in past Finals, but Love is still in the concussion protocol and his status for Game 1 is unclear.

Regardless of who’s defending him, we’re about to see what we’ve already seen time and time again from James. He will walk the ball up the court and call screen after screen trying to get Curry switched onto him.

The Warriors won’t be so willing to oblige. They tend to fight over screens, or blitz and then recover. Golden State should feel even more comfortable helping off of Cleveland’s shooters—aside from Kyle Korver—than it did against Houston’s extreme shooting barrage. James being the singular focus of the defense could lead to an increase in aggressive pick-and-roll defense meant to take the ball out of his hands. But the Cavaliers will still do whatever they can to force the switch they desire, and a lot of the time they’ll get it without any resistance.

These actions are slow and painful, but it’s the way the Cavs will have to play to make this a series. It’s what they did in the 2015 Finals, when they were without Irving, who broke his kneecap in Game 1, and Love, who dislocated his shoulder in the first round. LeBron managed to push the Warriors to six games that year with a collection of misfits—Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Timofey Mozgov gritting and grinding—and by slowing the game to a snail’s pace.

The game and the teams have since changed, but the approach still makes sense for the Cavs. For as long as Iguodala is out, we’ll see a lot of Looney and Jordan Bell, whom the Cavs can attempt to exploit the same way they did Celtics center Aron Baynes in the last round. Cleveland spent an insurmountable amount of time attacking Terry Rozier, the smallest rotation player on the Celtics. In Game 1, the Celtics modified their defense so that they swapped Rozier off James (or Love), then replaced him with a larger defender, often Baynes. James backed Baynes down, to mixed results. But he eventually started facing up and blew by him.

All that’s nice, but look at the inaction off the ball as he endlessly jabs and dribbles for seven seconds before attacking with little time left on the shot clock. Feeding the post always takes time to set up, but it’s like watching someone dial a rotary phone.

Why not post up James like he’s Karl Malone? No one can stop LeBron anyway. It’s infuriating how infrequently James uses his Herculean frame to bully defenders from the post position. Maybe it’ll come as he gets older and a little bit slower, but this matchup could demand it now, like it did during the 2015 NBA Finals.

If the Cavaliers post James early, rather than seek isolations for 15 seconds, they’ll have more time to run Korver through screens and have Tristan Thompson make himself available like Mozgov did in the clip above. Just do something. Stagnant basketball isn’t going to work.

The Warriors will be reluctant to double James, but they did on occasion by sliding a defender over to help, as Zaza Pachulia does above, sparking ball movement that led to a layup. Scoring out of the post is becoming more and more rare, but it’s still a good spot from which to facilitate. If LeBron’s dominance inside forces them to double more aggressively, then teammates will get open. Maybe Korver has an all-time great shooting performance, J.R. Smith gets hot, or Green and George Hill find their shots.

Cleveland can also muck up the game by playing big with Thompson. Clint Capela laid out the blueprint as a lob threat, a rebounder, and a serviceable defender on switches. Thompson isn’t as talented or bouncy, but he’s their best hope. Larry Nance Jr. could help, too. If the Cavs can force the Warriors to play David West meaningful minutes, or even put Zaza Pachulia on the floor, it’s a bonus. They need to make this a low-possession slugfest, in which each new shot clock on offense is treated like the end of a 15-round fight.

The same applies on defense. I’m interested to see if the Cavaliers go with a switch-everything scheme, or if they’ll aggressively blitz on-ball screens. It’ll probably be a little bit of both depending on the ball handler, the screener, and the defenders involved. But I’d lean toward a strategy similar to the one they used last year against the Warriors, with the screen defender showing and the backline defenders helping off of shooters.

The Cavaliers can conversely overplay Golden State’s lack of shooting, which sounds funny to say when they have three of the greatest shooters ever on their roster. But aside from Durant, Curry, and Klay Thompson, there aren’t really any players on the Warriors roster who will make you queasy if left open behind the 3-point arc. The Cavs should bump and attack Curry in screens, and push him as far away from the basket as they can like the Rockets did last round. They should selectively help off of Golden State’s bigs (Green, Looney, and Bell) to contain dribble penetration. They need to be maniacal and locked in. We need to feel the Cavaliers’ intensity through our televisions.

The Warriors ran a ton of isolations against the Rockets. They finished 22.1 percent of their half-court possessions using isolations in the Western Conference finals, compared to 7.8 percent during the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, per Synergy. Durant ran most of them. They don’t want to play that way, but they have to. As detailed before last year’s Finals, the iso is still a critical component of the playoffs. The Rockets forced the Warriors to do it with their intense switching defense. P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza were bulldogs. The Cavs unfortunately have a bunch of poodles.

But an aggressive, trapping scheme could drain the shot clock to the point where Golden State’s best plan of attack is to feed Durant from midrange, or have Curry launch from 35 feet with a hand in his face. A lot of the time it’ll work for the Warriors, but it beats cutting and screening their way to a sweep.

The way to compensate for a lesser roster is by winning the possession battle. The Cavaliers need to keep the turnovers down. They need to crash the offensive boards and not get burned on defense. But the Warriors still have so much sheer talent. Cleveland will need Golden State to go cold and LeBron to have the series of his life. Seems like a lot to ask.