This is the Finals matchup people wanted at the start of the playoffs, and this is the one they received. Two opening games have featured the expected excitement and starpower. Experiencing two consecutive overtimes, however, between the two best teams in the league at the end of season was nearly superfluous–our hopes would have been fulfilled whether or not the additional five minutes were needed. Nevertheless, two straight games of extra periods composed largely of strained jumpshots and isolation plays have brought the 2015 Finals to new heights in terms of thrill, unpredictability, and quality basketball.
Below are some stray observations concerning different points in time and aspects of Game 2.
GSW early ball movement
As they have often done at the start of games, the Warriors tend to force jumpshots that don’t emanate from adequate ball movement. Of course, for all the fanfare concerning a team that transcendently relies on jumpshooting to fuel abundant success, Golden State would be the most justified of any team to rely on such a quick trigger method. After all, no better basketball play derives greater crowd fervor–an aspect of the Oracle Arena experience that many have acknowledged as legitimately influential. Yet shots that result from ball movement rather than individual pull-up decisions are statistically more efficient. It would certainly behoove the Dubs, who already best embody basketball analytics ideology in emphasizing three’s and drives, to add an element of patience to their shot selection early on. However, it may as well just be part of their in-game development, as Golden State also tends to adopt a more ball movement-centric scheme as the game progresses.
With his best teammate, elite NBA point guard, and in truth the primary reason he returned to Cleveland in Kyrie Irving out for the season after a Game 1 injury, LeBron James and his on-court habits were bound to be an even more interesting case study than usual for Game 2. The Cavaliers have mainly eschewed offensive creativity and playcalling in favor of more isolation plays and “caveman basketball” as their roster has become more and more depleted. This tendency hit a crux of sorts last Thursday when James had to release 38 attempts–18 of which he made–good for a 47.4 usage percentage but only a 104 offensive rating. On Sunday, he seemed set to take on an even greater share as impossible–and potentially deterrent to his teammates’ progress–as that sounds.
Through a quarter of play, LeBron shot the ball 10 times–on track for 40 shot attempts for the game–and netted 10 points in visibly assuming the onus of compensating for Irving’s exit. However, the grizzled NBA Finals veteran cooled off with just three more attempts in the second quarter. Staying in his true unparalleled basketball character, James made his impact felt in other ways along the progression of the first 24 minutes of play. Perhaps fittingly in assuming the now vacant top point guard spot, LeBron turned distributor and accounted for all six of his first half assists in the second quarter. In terms of shot distribution, while he missed five of his shots in traffic in the lane, he did well enough in penetrating the paint to draw fouls and hit 5-6 from the charity stripe. All of his free throw attempts came in the second quarter, and his first-half exploits totaled to 20 points.
However, upon entering the second half of play, James regressed, offering a mixture of high shooting volume and sub-standard efficiency that characterized his Game 1 effort. LeBron fell on a downward slope of shooting accuracy, as seen in his shot charts for each segment of Game 2 below:
The two-time champion, hoping for a third, finished regulation with a 11-31 mark, as he shot 4-18 in the second half, and missed three additional jumpers in overtime to boot. The third quarter became an ugly scrum and an anomaly within this NBA Final series, riddled with poor shooting as the both teams scored no more than 15 points apiece. LeBron, however, still helped Cleveland to keep pace during this lull. In addition to his six points–and despite his own horrendous shooting–his two assists produced five more points from other Cavs players, a crucial facilitating feat in a quarter defined by a dearth of offense.
James continued to struggle into the fourth quarter, but what stands out from his own shot selection on the above charts is the way in which he attempted to score. Four of his eight shots occurred in the paint and within six feet of the basket, whereas in the previous quarter he posted only one such shot out of his 10 total. The poor results near the basket should most definitely not discourage LeBron, as his renewed mentality in operating close to the rim for the fourth quarter was all by means the right decision, and the best one moving forward. During these playoffs, James has gone .597 on shots less 10 feet from basket, .600 on drives to the hoop, and .460 on post-up plays, while going .184 on three-pointers, .223 on pull-up shots, and .329 on isolation play shots. The indication these stats give is not a matter of reshaping the offensive habits of the most talented and overpowering player in the world. Rather, I would argue that even a minimal shift towards attacking more near the rim and thus better utilizing his strength, all the while retaining his jumpshot and three-point stroke for the sake of offensive balance, would most suitably fit the current situation for LeBron and his team scrambling for offensive impetus.
Back to Game 2, despite his prolonged shooting difficulties, James contributed 10 key points in the fourth quarter, six of which came from shots beyond the arc, and his assists led to five more points. In the subsequent overtime period, he added three more points and assisted on an Iman Shumpert three. And though for the second straight game he missed a potential game-clinching shot at the end of regulation, LeBron has almost single-handedly kept Cleveland in contention for an NBA championship. Considering the responsibility he has taken–explaining and partially excusing the ridiculous 36 shot attempts per game he has average during the Finals–and the defensive focus he receives nightly from his opponents, to score 44 in the first game and 39 in this past second game (with a triple-double in the latter), and doing so without Irving, Kevin Love, or any other 2014 opening day starter teammates, and with a reeling supporting cast of sharpshooters, is otherworldly. Considering the last few years for LeBron, it might as well just be mundane.
Hiding Matthew Dellavedova off Stephen Curry hardly eliminates defensive mismatches when playing the Warriors. As such, Klay Thompson–to whom Dellavedova turned to guard for some time–thrived in the first half on Sunday, and entered a quasi-heat check mode in the early parts of the second quarter. As a spectator, a burgeoning confidence shown by Thompson both at the rim and behind the three-point line is as goosebump-inducing as any trend when watching the Dubs. In a matter of a little over two minutes in early second quarter action, Klay connected on a three and two midrange jumpers. Shots outside the paint but inside arc aren’t always the most efficiently wise basketball choices, but when they come assissted as with Thompson’s, their potential significantly rises. By the end of the half, Klay led his team with 9-13 shooting with two three’s for 20 points.
However, Thompson cooled off in the third quarter, missing his first three jumpshots and getting a layup blocked before finally seeing the ball go through the net again eight minutes in. The shooting guard went 5-15 from the field after his blazing first half start, and began to force more unwarranted jumpshots in the latter half of the game. Thompson finished Sunday night with a total of 34 points on 14-28 shooting and 4-12 from behind the three point-line–both percentage declines from one half to the next.
Game 2 still marked his breakthrough of a shooting performance, but Golden State–as much as it values Klay’s contributions–will likely try to cure the scoring imbalance moving forward. After all, the Warriors won the first Finals contest thanks in large part to five players reaching double digits in scoring, not one above a tally of 26. Furthermore, a well-rounded offensive approach predicated on passing, spacing, high tempo, and of course sharpshooting has keyed any and all team success this year. The return to form starts with what seems like the inevitable: a shooting improvement from league MVP Stephen Curry heading into Cleveland for Game 3.
After netting 10 of his 20 shots last Thursday (2-6 from three), Curry entered an unseemly cold spell for all but a few fourth quarter gasps of life in Game 2. Missing five of his six first quarter shots and three of four second quarter ones, Curry recovered to an extent towards the end of regulation with seven fourth quarter points, but ended with a grisly 5-23 shooting clip (the reasons for which I’ll touch on shortly)–albeit with 19 points aided by 7-8 free throw shooting. Every so often, Curry comes out with this off shooting touch. Unfortunately for the Warriors, it coincided with lackluster shooting efforts from practically every other offensive cog on the team for most of the game. Regarding Curry’s performance, it should not be received as any more than an aberration, one in which Steph at least displayed some perseverance in continually trying to catch his rhythm (i.e. he kept shooting), and from which the MVP should rebound forcefully.
The second-year Australian had one of the largest impacts on the game Sunday night. Hardly the first option to guard Curry entering the series, and still not fully on him in the early stages of Game 2, Dellavedova gradually issued a defensive lockdown of a performance on the MVP. A fiercely contested–and air-balled–19-foot jumper by Curry with 0:07 in overtime was merely the symbolic capstone in a stifling effort, as Dellavedova defended Steph probably as well as anyone could. Moreover, the defensive job had little to do with any physicality, athleticism, or a lanky frame–usually keys for defensive specialists–but had all to do with Dellavedova’s incessant nagging, pestering, tight coverage, and arm-waving, at times as if simulating a deranged jumping-jack motion. With an unmatched tenacity and ability to keep up with the deftly moving Curry, an unheralded–up until the playoffs–backup point guard caused the league’s best player to shoot 5-23 and 2-15 from beyond the arc.
And while he shot the ball poorly in whole–0-5 through the first three quarters before finishing 3-10–Dellavedova netted all seven of his non-free throw points in the fourth quarter. As for his points from the free throw line, they could not have come at a more critical juncture: with 10 seconds left in the overtime period, Delly cold-bloodedly sunk two free throws amid a roaring Oracle Arena crowd, moments after snagging an offensive rebound and drawing a foul from behind, which ultimately represented the go-ahead points for the Cavs’ Game 2 victory.