It’s hard to believe now that, only one month ago, the Warriors losing a single game was a once in a blue moon event. Then the Thunder made it commonplace. Golden State lost back-to-back games in Oklahoma City by an average of 26 points. The Thunder had “figured the Warriors out” and were “simply the better team” going into Game 5.
My brother, Tal, a big Warriors fan, was calm. He said something along the lines of, “Yes, the Warriors have been blown out twice in a row, but Game 1 was a toss-up, and if they had just made a few shots down the stretch and closed out that game, it would be 2-2 right now going back to Golden State and everything would be going according to plan.” Well, Klay Thompson went coconuts, Steph Curry ate a Snickers and became himself again, and it turned out that the Thunder weren’t “the better team." By definition.
The Warriors have their backs against the wall again. The Cavaliers have won three of the last four games, and have outplayed the Warriors in seven out of the last eight halves. Throw in Andre Iguodala’s bad back and the Monstars stealing Harrison Barnes’s talent, and Cleveland seems like an unstoppable freight train.
The Warriors have every reason to be worried after their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Game 6. They were embarrassingly unfocused. I know it’s a cliche to say that they haven’t been playing their game recently, but they truly haven't.
- They had only 282 passes in Game 6, not even close to their average of 320 in the regular season.
- Cleveland has taken Golden State’s fastbreak weapon and turned it against them, outscoring the Warriors 47-19 in transition over the last two games.
- It was on defense, however, where Golden State dug their own grave, largely due to laziness. They gambled for steals when they had no chance, stood around as Cavaliers cut to the rim, and, on many occasions (like this, this, and this), their poor communication defending pick-and-rolls led to both Warriors being on the same side of the screen. If they don’t clean this up, they’ll be in big trouble tonight.
- Draymond Green, a reliably potent defender, was perhaps the worst culprit of uncharacteristically lackadaisical defense. Time and time again, and again and again, Cavaliers blew by Green on the drive when he reached for steals, wasn’t in a defensive stance, or both. Half-assed attempts at weak-side help caused him to wander away from or take his eye off his man, which is a problem when Lebron James, one of the best passers in the league, is on his game. While Green’s defensive talents are arguably being wasted on the offensively challenged Tristan Thompson, the moment Green takes his eye off Thompson, who has a knack for going to the right places at the right time, he darts to an open spot for a potential alley-oop catch or offensive rebound. The Warriors can’t have a traditional center battle with Thompson, though, because Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao are each way too slow afoot to keep up with ball-handlers on screen-and-rolls. Golden State misses injured starting center Andrew Bogut badly.
The concerning thing for the Warriors is that they simply haven’t come up with the answers for many of the Cavaliers’ tactical adjustments, for which coach Tyronn Lue deserves a great deal of credit.
- The Cavs have made an impressively concerted effort to attack Steph Curry’s defense, and he’s been repeatedly exploited when he’s switched onto James or had to fight through screens to contest Kyrie Irving jumpers. When the Warriors relentlessly forced Cleveland’s defensive weak-link Kevin Love into defending screens early in the series, Lue had the guts to pull Love from the starting five and insert Richard Jefferson, creating a defensive lineup for the Cavs that can switch any pick, just like the Warriors love to do. They obviously can’t just bench Curry, though, but there’s no obvious solution to what do with him on the defensive end.
- Meanwhile, the Cavs’ “switch everything” defensive mentality has befuddled the Warriors offensively. Moving James onto Green has effectively eliminated Golden State's go-to Curry-Green pick-and-roll because of LeBron’s ability to switch onto Curry and lock him down. Even Richard Jefferson, who was a corpse around a year ago, and Tristan Thompson have done a surprisingly good job staying with Curry on the perimeter.
- The Cavs’ ability to switch screens, as well as their physicality, has mortalized Steph offensively. Sure, he canned six three-pointers on Thursday night en route to 30 points, but it was the most quiet 30-point performance I’ve ever seen in The Finals. He got his buckets, but he wasn’t terrorizing the Cleveland defense by wasn’t drawing three defenders, allowing his teammates to get wide open looks. He didn’t have that same influence on each and every possession that we’re used to from the MVP. The Cavs weren’t scared of him.
So how can the Warriors possibly turn the tide?
- Curry needs to look to drive and kick more when he draws switches, as opposed to taking it one-on-one himself, which has been (relatively, for Steph) unsuccessful. He’s averaging only four assists per game in The Finals, and has had plenty of missed opportunities (like this, this, and this) to swing the ball when doubled.
- But the Warriors have to help him out. Curry was able to hit shot after shot over the Thunder big-men in Game 7 of the Conference Finals because the Warriors cleared out an entire side of the court for him, much like the Spurs do for Tim Duncan in the post. One off-ball player cutting across the floor to give Curry a little more space works wonders. Here's a play where he has room to operate, and here's a play where he doesn't.
- In addition to attacking Love whenever he’s on the court, since he’s been atrocious at defending off-ball screens, coach Steve Kerr needs to use more plays from the Warriors’ bag of offensive tricks. Using two guys to screen for Curry has had some success against the Cavs, and the few times they’ve had Klay screen for Steph, it’s been money.
- With Barnes turning ice cold, the Warriors may have to experiment with lineups. Unfortunately, neither of their reserve centers have done diddly-poo in this series, as Ezeli and Varejao have combined to shoot 6/19 from the field, in addition to their defensive woes. However, while the Warriors are -15 when Ezeli has played in the series, they’re +14 with Varejao on the court. Saying that Varejao has his limitations is a gross understatement, but he goes after offensive rebounds, at least knows where to be on defense, and is good for at least one Jeff Van Gundy flopping rant per half. It’s amazing that a 73-9 team has come to relying on Sideshow Bob’s look-alike in Game 7 of The Finals, but he’s given them quality minutes throughout the series.
- Green, who will probably play nearly the whole game, must be more locked in guarding Tristan Thompson. With Golden State already thin on the front line, he needs to abandon all hopes of protecting the rim and just focus on shutting down Thompson. The Warriors have a chance at winning if Lebron and Kyrie have great games, but not if those two are on fire AND Thompson scores 15 points on 6/6 shooting again.
The Warriors have strategic options, but, admittedly, when it comes down to X's and O's, the Cavs have the upper hand. They also have LeBron James, who isn’t a good GM, but he’s one heck of a player. The load that he’s shouldered both offensively and defensively should win him Finals MVP, no matter the outcome tonight. A championship in Cleveland would mean more to him than his Miami titles, though, and it’s now been five full years since he performed poorly in an elimination game. If Andre Iguodala isn’t healthy enough to defend him, Golden State could be screwed.
But there’s just something about the Warriors. They’ve still only lost two close games all season, and, at some point, their ability to eek out close wins stops being a fluke. For a 73-win team, the lethargy with which they sometimes play is unbelievable, but they have a way of flipping the switch. Saying that the Thunder were the better team in the Western Conference Finals is just not fair to the Warriors - it is exactly their ability to pull improbable victories out of nowhere that makes them the better team. The Thunder were more athletic, often had the two most dominant players on the court, and controlled the pace of the entire series. The Warriors still won.
And don’t forget, had Green not been suspended for Game 5 of The Finals, the Warriors would likely have closed out the series at home and won 4-1, so the same logic that my brother used during the Conference Finals applies here. There’s no need to panic. The Warriors were the better team in that series, and they are the better team in this series.
Prediction: Warriors 98, Cavs 93