2015 NBA Finals Game 5: Cavaliers @ Warriors

Curry (30) and his starter teammates had much to celebrate in their thrilling Game 5 victory (AP Photo/Ben Margot).

Curry (30) and his starter teammates had much to celebrate in their thrilling Game 5 victory (AP Photo/Ben Margot).

Impact of Pace 

For much of the game, it felt as though the Warriors had further returned to their preferred style of play–having experienced shooting and effective passing resurgences in Game 4–but this time in terms of pace. Such a notion manifested itself immediately, as Golden State scored six of its first eight points in the first quarter off fast breaks, using sloppy Cavs play (five turnovers committed in the first five minutes) to run out on the floor and push tempo for easy baskets. Only two fast break points in the second half followed the 16 in the first two quarters, but the flurry of long-balls and high octane offense display–at least relative to slow pace induced by Cleveland in the first few games–gave the impression of a Warriors team back to its regular season capacity.

To an extent, a heightened pace of the game did occur on Sunday night. In some part, this could explain why Golden State thrived in Game 5, as an electric and quick style–resulting from a greater number of possessions per 48 minutes, as Pace factor measures–has keyed this team’s plentiful regular season successes, as well as formed a considerable part of its identity. On Sunday, Warriors players averaged out to a pace of 95.10. This marked a notable increase from the slog–what the Cavs aimed for in shooting late in the shot clock and playing suffocating defense, and for a few games benefited greatly as a result–that was a 93.23 pace in the previous four games of the Finals. In further contextualizing Game 5’s results, Golden State established a rapid 100.69 pace during the regular season that ranked top in the league. In the playoffs however, that number plummeted to 95.85, slotting the Warriors at 10th out of 16 playoff teams (take the drop with a grain of salt, as five of the teams ahead had the small sample size of only a first round series). So while well below the lofty tempo standards of its 67-win campaign, Golden State nevertheless saw some climb in pace on Sunday. At the very least it was an improvement from the prior games that met the playoffs average, but still far below than what he have seen all season from the fastest team in the NBA.

More smallball success

Of that 95.10 pace for Golden State noted above, the group with the highest contributors to that number included Draymond Green (97.63), Harrison Barnes (97.36), Klay Thompson (96.26), Stephen Curry (95.98), and Andre Iguodala (95.21). It should not be any surprise or coincidence that these five players compose the starting lineup sent out by Steve Kerr and the coaching staff, as the unit played even better than it did three nights ago. In Game 4, the implementation of a smallball approach–with these same five players–essentially won the Warriors the game at hand, and changed the course of the series in the long run (i.e. David Blatt playing his center Timofey Mozgov only nine minutes in Game 5). But though each of these five members independently found success on the floor (plus-minuses ranging from +9 to +18) in Game 5, the group as a whole had just a -1 plus-minus total in 14.4 minutes together. (Recall that their success as a group should be understood more so in terms of their playing the primary role in setting the smallball tone for Game 4 and this Finals series.)

Yet on Sunday, it was this specific smallball group that started the contest that ultimately found the most success. In 20.9 minutes of action, this unit collected a +14 mark together–far ahead of the +5 posted by the next closest five-man group on the floor at any time–and scored 46 points off five three-pointers and .457 shooting, adding four steals, which fostered some pace increase, as well.

Furthermore, the distribution of minutes on this Golden State team has gone even more in the way of wings and guards in recent games. After playing Andrew Bogut for a measly three minutes in Game 4, Steve Kerr elected to sit his Second Team All-Defense center for all of Game 5, and handed just 12 total minutes to non-Draymond Green bigs. Here are the minute percentages for Warrior big men by each game in this series, excluding Green who acts more like a small forward anyways: Game 1- 18.5%, Game 2- 13.6%, Game 3- 20.0%, Game 4- 8.3%, and Game 5- 5.0%. Amid this gradual decline of big men minutes, Golden State has continued to reap benefits in an all-in approach towards smallball philosophy. Apart from one group, each Warrior five-man lineup that reached a positive plus-minus total had some combination of four wings/guards paired with Green, or five without Green. Moreover, the top four performing lineups in terms of plus-minus had these same smallball qualities as well, and in total made up 32.9 of the total 48 minutes played. In sum, the more Golden State turns to smallball lineups, the more success they yield–a trend Cleveland looks unequipped to halt.

Superstar battle 

With LeBron James once again taking the bulk of the workload–41.0 usage percentage, highest of any team’s players–a triple-double, made up of 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists, naturally and easily came within his grasp, not even needing a fourth quarter of play to complete it. Yet it was this last quarter that contained the decisive duel between the two Finals teams’ superstars, and the hot-shooting fireworks by Stephen Curry that defined it.

Prior to this, LeBron had taken the onus of leading the Cavaliers on offense as he had done in the four previous games. Despite receiving greater help from his key supporting cast core of Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert–collectively six three’s and 23 points in the first half among them, though only two more three’s and six more points in the second–James nevertheless stood at the brink of a triple-double by halftime from all his efforts. Below are his shot charts from each quarter to help illustrate the progression of his shooting success and tendencies:

Shot charts from first quarter (left) and second quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Shot charts for first quarter (left) and second quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Shot charts from third quarter (left) and fourth quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Shot charts for third quarter (left) and fourth quarter for LeBron James (ESPN game box score)

Though in the first quarter he powered through in the interior for six points in the paint, LeBron looked most unstoppable later on in the half, reeling off a mid-quarter heat check that importantly saw him settle into a nice jumpshooting touch. At this point, no matter how tight the opposing defensive coverage or off-balanced the look was, he could knock down most of these tough shots. While he did all of this above-average in terms of efficiency in the first half (shooting 8-15), James dipped below the .500 shooting mark for good in the subsequent quarters. In the fourth quarter, LeBron, although adding a hot three-point stroke to his repertoire, began to tail off a bit. In addition to missing his five closest shots to rim, James went 3-9 from his favored left block area, and ended up misfiring on five of his last seven shots in this final quarter.

On the other end of the floor, Curry was having himself a steadily strong game, that only boiled over into something more in the fourth quarter. In the first half, while converting three long-balls from above the break, the league MVP focused many of his efforts penetrating the paint on drives–some coming as part of fast break opportunities–and went 3-4 on layup attempts within two feet of the hoop. Following a poor 2-7 mark from the floor in the third quarter, Curry entered the game for Shaun Livingston with 9:22 left in the fourth. For a fiercely contested game that featured 18 ties and eight lead changes around the time of his entrance, Curry quickly allayed any doubt as to who would win on Sunday night. Two possessions later, Steph drained a 20-foot midranger from the right side. His imminent decision to step back a few feet on his later shots would alter the game for good. One minute later, he knocked down a three from that same right wing–countering an effortlessly-executed 34-foot three by LeBron 14 seconds earlier–and in doing so permanently built a lead for the Warriors. Closeout duties came even more spectacularly for the MVP, with two three-point makes under the three-minute mark that sent an already ecstatic Oracle Arena crowd into further delirium. By the end of Game 5, Curry scored 37 points–17 of which coming in the fourth quarter–on a sublime 13-23 (7-13 from three) shooting line. At the same time, he finally had his signature game of sorts in the Finals, and demonstrated he could match up offensively with the superstar on the other team–though one with certainly less surrounding help in LeBron.

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (NBA.com/Stats)

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (NBA.com/Stats)

Fatigue setting in

Additionally, it’s important to note that the higher the pace, the more it wears out a tiresome and an undermanned Cavaliers squad. Fourth quarter and overtime level of play most vividly reveals the cumulative attrition rate of each individual game–two of which went into overtime–and of the span of an entire series. Across the fourth quarter and overtime periods of play combined in Games 1, 2, 3, and 4, the Warriors outscored the Cavs by 8, 1, 12, and 15, respectively. On Sunday, that edge expanded by seven, as once again Cleveland could not keep up with the energy–on both ends of the court–of its high-flying opponent. That comes in spite of LeBron’s Herculean performance in this Finals series, but suffers deeply from the absence of viable contributions from his supporting cast in late-game situations.

Ball movement rises again

For a team whose historic offensive proficiency has rested on productive and incisive ball movement, the Warriors continued to benefit on Sunday as they improve on this aspect of the game during this Finals stretch. The measurement of assist percentage–the percent of field goals that come off an assist–helps to understand this development. In Games 1, 2, 3, and 4, Golden State has posted assist percentages of 61.5, 48.5, 58.3, and 66.7, respectively. Thus, only as of late in the Finals has the team begun to slope upwards towards its desired levels–at the very least to its playoff mark of 63.4%, and optimally to its regular season average of 65.9%. Again, these standards are key in that they represent the levels at which effective ball movement and passing cohesion generated unparalleled offensive success for the Warriors this year. In Game 5, that trend rose even higher up to 69.4%. Particularly in the first quarter when that percentage was at 88.9 (small sample size, but having only one of nine FG makes go unassisted is still crazy) and by the end of first half with 75.0%, strong ball movement drove first half scoring and offensive effectiveness. Through the first two quarters, the Warriors shot .541 from the field and .500 from three-point territory. Although the 5-10 shooting line from three in the first half was topped by a 7-16 mark in the second, slightly more efficient three-point shooting percentage, emanating from productive ball movement that opened up better looks, occurred in the first half–despite Curry’s pull-up three-point magic that fueled his team’s long-range prowess especially in the fourth quarter.

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2015 NBA Finals Game 4: Warriors @ Cavaliers

Iguodala (9) and the Warriors reestablished their sharpshooting ways and cruised to a Game 4 victory (AP Photo/Paul Sancya).

Iguodala (9) and the Warriors reestablished their sharpshooting ways and cruised to a Game 4 victory (AP Photo/Paul Sancya).

Smallball, huge payoff*

Few make adjustments as striking as do the Golden State Warriors. Had the team not done so four weeks ago, it might not have been in position to execute its most recent change.

Back in the Western Conference semi-finals in early May, the Warriors were in nearly the exact same spot as they were before Thursday night: down 2-1, playing Game 4 on the road, and increasingly faltering against their opponents after two straight losses. In response to their situation against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western semis, Steve Kerr and his coaching staff–likely the most talented surrounding group in the league–did not sit idly by as one of the best basketball teams in history lied on the brink of a premature playoff exit. Instead, they instituted a bold, unorthodox defensive strategy, a gamble under pressure. Ultimately, the adjustment helped win the Warriors Game 4 and then the series.

While the Finals iteration we saw on Thursday was not nearly as brazen as assigning Andrew Bogut to “guard” Tony Allen, sending out a smallball lineup against the Cavaliers, which matched Draymond Green against Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov as the only bigs, came close, and constituted a significant change nonetheless.

The decision to go small essentially centered on inserting Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup in place of center Andrew Bogut. Iguodala’s presence on the court has become a necessity for the Warriors, as the NBA veteran has gotten tasked this Finals with attempting to slow down LeBron James. Through the first three games, the matchup proved fruitful on Golden State’s end despite LeBron’s Finals record-shattering scoring peformances. As likely the best possible formula had been found to address the team’s toughest burden, the Dubs logically have done all in their power to maintain it in pushing Iguodala to a more prominent role–already seeing a minute increase each game, but this time going out with the starters. Yet this created a shift in defensive assignments all around, leaving a troubling big man (at least on one side) matchup: Thompson and Mozgov squaring up against Harrison Barnes and Green, respectively.

At the start, Cleveland seemed to have exploited almost every mismatch resulting from the Dubs lineup alteration. Through just over the first two minutes of play, the Cavs had jumped out to a 7-0 lead and already possessed a 5-1 rebounding edge. The two Cleveland big men dominated the smaller Warrior group, scoring four of the seven points, with Thompson easily snagging two offensive rebounds on consecutive possessions and Mozgov scoring quickly on Green in the post.

But after looking shaky at first and shrugging off some early shooting struggles, the Warriors smallball lineup exploited their end of lineup mismatches as well. Gradually finding a shooting groove as a result, the smaller group fed off efficient passing and better execution of good looks at the basket–a trend which would continue the rest of the night, and about which I will later go into more detail–to go ahead 22-20. A Cavs timeout at this point (3:57 first quarter) was noteworthy in that it meant Cleveland was the first to budge in this tilt of uneven lineups: David Blatt had replaced his center Mozgov with a shooter. By the end of the first quarter, the Warriors had a seven-point lead and somehow even attained a +2 margin on the boards, all the while seeing a critical boost in shooting with a .462 mark.

This first 12 minutes of action would be but a microcosm for the rest of the game, as Golden State’s small ball approach, having formed into an offensive cornerstone throughout the season, proved fundamental to swinging the series’s momentum back to the Dubs. With more wings and shooters on the court, the Warriors had several more shooting options and room to grow their characteristic offensive rhythm: an adjustment first made with only defensive circumstance in mind eventually reaped major offensive benefits. Reaching halftime after a Warriors run landed them a 54-42 lead, with the team netting six three’s and shooting .465, the direction of the game had become clear.

First half

Shot chart for Warriors (left half of court) and Cavaliers (right) at the half (ESPN Game Box Score)

The coaching staff’s change to the lineup, making the game’s flow more predicated on Warrior shooters and Cavalier bigs, helps explain the above shot distribution of both teams at the half (the shot chart at the end of game looks very similar to the one at the half, but the one seen here clarifies that the trend was in motion from the early-going).

With the entirety of Game 4 in view, it’s also worth particularly noting the play of and indispensable contributions by Iguodala on offense. In addition to his rangy and stellar defensive play–the main purpose behind slotting him into the lineup–that will be discussed shortly, he helped build the pace of the game up in getting out in transition and finishing with his patented ferocious, breakaway dunks. Moreover, as he settled in to the offense with a greater share of shooting, Iggy crucially knocked down four three-balls and scored 22 points on Thursday, totals only matched by superstar teammate Stephen Curry. Iguodala’s shooting effectiveness holds specific importance, as the Cavs must now must respect his jumpshot ability, rather than focus solely on the Splash Brothers as dangerous shooters. Iggy has seen several great looks these past games due to this opposing defensive approach, and the more he develops his shot the more havoc it will cause for Cleveland on defense.

Effect of smallball on Dubs defense:

The dominance by the Cavalier big men in the early stages, already an overwhelming force in the Finals with even Bogut involved, remained the primary offensive source for the team following the 7-0 run to commence the game. But not only did this disrupt Cleveland’s offensive habits that guided their prior success, but the corresponding shift in offensive reliance also fell right into place with what the Warriors wanted.

At the core of the smallball approach, as noted before, was a heightened attention towards the best basketball player on Earth in LeBron James. Throughout the night, Iguodala spearheaded this defensive focus once again and performed admirably in doing so, considering what he was going up against. Central to this effort, however, was much greater help defense from surrounding Golden State defenders, particularly when James drove to the hoop–where he’s done most of his damage compensating for an off jumper. This entailed both Warriors near the perimeter and the team’s larger on-court players moving closer to the rim once LeBron penetrated the paint, with Barnes and Green often in the mix.

Full game shot chart LeBron James (ESPN Game Box Score)

Full game shot chart LeBron James (ESPN Game Box Score)

By the end of the game, Golden State had come as close to neutralizing LeBron James as any other team, player, or strategy could. James had reached only 20 points on a rough 7-22 shooting night, far cry from his historic 41 PPG rate through the first three games. Moreover, LeBron found less success on drives and post-ups near the rim–unlike his usual attempts there that feels like a scoring certainty–and failed to convert from his go-to spot in the left block area near the paint.

Of course, with LeBron the focal point of Golden State’s defensive concerns it left plenty of offensive freedom and options for Mozgov and Thompson, who consequently dominated the paint and scoring production from start to finish for the Cavs. Moreover, it’s important to recognize how the Warriors smallball approach was at the root of this influence on Cleveland’s offense. In one of the defining statistics of Game 4, after averaging 23.3 minutes in the first three Finals games, Andrew Bogut played for a mere three on Thursday. First and foremost, this helps to understand the scoring rise of Mozgov and Thompson, feats effortlessly accomplished by the two, as the absence of Bogut at the center position granted many more facile opportunities and finishes near the rim.

(ESPN game box score and Basketball-Reference.com)

(ESPN game box score and Basketball-Reference.com)

The chart above further illustrates the scoring consistency by the Cleveland bigs–with the Warriors to some degree allowing them to find success across all quarters of play in not sending Bogut to guard the paint–and the huge jump in scoring production by the two relative to what they had seen on defense from Golden State previously: both players scored more than twice their averages for Games 1 through 3. The corresponding effect of lesser attention towards Mozgov/Thompson saw their star teammate in James sharply regress in Game 4, scoring slightly under half his average scoring output from the first three games, as he now bore the greater defensive focus–stemming directly from the Warriors smallball lineup change. Understandably, the Golden State was more than content with letting the Mozgov/Thompson pair dictate its team’s offensive direction, in place of LeBron doing so. Easy lay-ins and dunks by these big men looked worrisome on the surface, but in truth–and in the long run of Game 4–the result fell right in line with the intended impact Golden State and its coaching staff surely wished to have.

On the perimeter, Cleveland’s shooting crew–composed primarily of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Matthew Dellavedova–went horribly cold in Game 4. At the end of the first half, the trio–dangerous for much of these playoffs from outside–made one shot apiece and collectively went 3-16, 1-11 from three. By the end of the game, the bleak output had fully materialized: Shumpert went 2-9 from the floor (1-5 on three-balls), Dellavedova had shot 3-14 (2-9), and most egregiously, Smith posted a 2-12 (0-8) debacle. The three had already been putting up mediocre shooting efforts–going a combined .333 and .326 from three through the first three Finals games–but on Thursday they plummeted to new depths. One could reasonably ascribe the decrease in efficiency by the Cavalier wings/shooters to the higher number of opposing defenders of equal stature. In another outgrowth of the smallball direction, four Warrior guards/wings on the floor for much of the time translated to greater defensive attention towards Cleveland players at the same position, albeit at the loss of interior defense with Bogut now out. But this still had the huge effect of mitigating yet another portion of the Cavs’ offensive arsenal.

Above all else, the persistence and faith displayed in maintaining the smallball lineup–even with initial failure–merits as much praise as the shrewdness shown by the Golden State coaches in executing this pivotal adjustment in the first place, which would ultimately win the Warriors Game 4.

Resurgence of Draymond Green

Green (23), seen celebrating here, rebounded from earlier troubles with great vigor in Game 4 (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images).

Green (23), seen celebrating here, rebounded from earlier troubles with great vigor in Game 4 (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images).

After languishing through the first three games of the Finals, Draymond Green bounced back from his unseemly play and reprised his role as the playmaking linchpin for the Golden State offense. For much of the time before Thursday night, Green represented the weak link on offense, and in a sense his owns troubles revealed his importance–when playing at his peak–to an optimally functioning Warrior attack. His valuable presence as a stretch four power forward was lost amid trouble with his jumpshot: his shooting touch was consistently off, and at some point he decided to not even threaten to shoot despite having great looks. However, his greatest difficulties came in attacking the basket, as the towering impenetrability of Mozgov and Thompson as rim protectors rendered his drives towards the hoop futile.

In one of the more understated Warrior adjustments in Game 4, Green noticeably modified his approach in this area of his offensive game. He continued to attack the rim on Thursday, but did so smartly. Rather than boldly going straight up against and into the Cavs’ big men bodies, which had largely returned stifled attempts for Green, the Golden State do-it-all forward refined his drives to where he managed to quickly create some space once in the restricted area. Achieving this by leaning his body out or slightly altering his path to the rim, Green gave himself more room to release a more accurate shot.

draymond green stats

ORtg: estimated points produced per 100 possessions, eFG%: shooting percentage that adjusts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth 1.5 times more than 2-pointers (Basketball-Reference.com)

As a result, the tweak helped him find more success in scoring at the rim, as seen with his field goal totals in the paint in Games 1-4 above, as well as made him more calculated in this territory and a better distributor. That his plus/minus numbers while on the court correlate with his team’s Finals victories further confirms his essential presence for Golden State.

Away from the basket, Green also improved upon his Games 2 and 3 performances with respect to his jumpshooting tendencies. Compared to these previous contests, Green showed less hesitancy in launching shots from the floor, but most importantly a greater willingness and confidence in pursuit of a proper shooting touch. At 6:05 in the second quarter, he drained a three from above the break–which came with space and time, a situation in which Green strangely fared poorly earlier in the series–and at the time gave the Warriors their largest lead of the game at 12. Though it was his sole deep ball on the night, it also marked only his second for the series and contributed to the broader process of the Warriors regaining their three-point sharpshooting identity (especially in capitalizing on good looks from outside). Additionally, Green also became more active within the Dubs’ offensive system, remaining decisive with his decision-making and firing sharp passes around the court.

Improved ball movement

Among several factors, stronger ball movement facilitated the return to proficiency for the Warriors throughout the night. Through better coordination among the players, in how passes shaped their offense and with both movement on and off the ball, and a more purposeful quality, in that the ball movement had a sense of direction and wasn’t just flung around, the Golden State offense fulfilled what was required of them in this department of the game: return to their exemplar, regular season character. In turn, more useful passes as well as better care with the ball fueled a scoring improvement on the last two losses:

passing

AST%: percentage of field goals that were assisted, AST/TO: number of assists for every turnover committed, AST Ratio: number of assists average per 100 possessions (NBA.com/Stats)

As had been the case with much of the team’s 2014/15 success, the offense revolved around productive ball movement and scoring emanated from passes that opened up space for great looks at the basket. This notion was reinforced with Golden State’s Finals wins correlating to greater AST%, AST/TO, and AST Ratio numbers than in their losses during the series.

The development of greater ball movement became no more apparent than in the fourth quarter as the Dubs began to pull away (+15 quarter margin). It pertained not so much to the sheer amount of passes getting thrown around on offense as it did to their incisive and swift quality. Golden State returned to its high-flying but productive style, in terms of promoting a fast pace but all the while feeding looks and taking drives to the hoop that opened up key space around the floor. The most emblematic of this rediscovered character occurred with Shaun Livingston’s feed–stemming from a quick passing buildup–to Iguodala for a three from the right corner at 7:22 to put the Dubs up 88-74.

Team-wide offensive upsurge 

Player tracking stats further convey the effect that better ball movement had on fostering better shot selection:

NBA.com/Stats

(NBA.com/Stats)

More constructive passing by the Warriors coincided with an uptick in, and assuredly played a part in producing, much better looks at the basket without so much interference from opposing defenders. The results by Golden State players on these type of shots also help understand the team’s shooting performance in Games 2 and 3: namely, that their losses came in large part because of their aberrant shooting. As I noted before, the Warriors’ horrid shooting display during their losses was bound to change as the series progressed, returning to their usual jumpshot standards. Notably, it was not as if Golden State had been completely squeezed out of any good looks at the basket. Rather, in addition to excellent, tight coverage defense from Cleveland, the Dubs had created quality shots and looks but simply weren’t making them, perhaps representative of an abnormally extensive off/cold shooting stretch. Game 4 thus showcased a return to the team’s typical shooting strength–an emphatic regression to the mean–in both the quality looks the Warriors derived but even more importantly the rates at which they converted them.

The below stats concerning key areas of offensive production–rates of shooting and scoring efficiency–lends insight into Golden State’s offensive recuperation more broadly:

NBA.com/Stats

TS%: shooting percentage adjusted to include value of three pointers and free throws, OffRtg: number of points scored per 100 possessions (NBA.com/Stats)

Across the board, the better offensive outputs correlate with Warrior victories, particularly with the Game 4 resurgence. The team found its groove from the floor in Games 1 and 4 and especially their deadly deep stroke (note that five fourth quarter three’s from Curry deceptively make the Game 3 totals looks adequate, when for the majority of the game they were not) unlike in the middle two contests, and the scoring on a per-possession basis further reveals a striking disparity in offensive efficiency–as if an entirely different Warrior team was playing on the court. Considering its regular season averages of 47.8 FG%, 39.8 3-PT FG%, 110.0 PPG, 57.1 TS%, and 109.7 OffRtg, Golden State simply looked much more like themselves on Thursday–a level at which it handily trumps any other team in the league, Cleveland included.

*UPDATE: When I often reference the smallball approach the Warriors implemented going into Game 4, I should clarify that I intended to discuss its effect beginning with the starting lineup but ultimately going beyond these group of five players. I say so because while the Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green bunch played far and away the most minutes as a single unit–spending 14.4 minutes on the court, the next closest group at 4.4–they posted a paltry -1 plus-minus mark together. This should not discredit their impact, as though they did not perform so exceptionally, the unit did score 35 points on 12-26 shooting (5-15 on three’s), and more importantly, set the tone/laid the groundwork for a game-long smallball attack by Golden State. By that same +/- measure, however, backup point guard Shaun Livingston deserves greater commendation for his involvement on both ends of the court. On top of scoring seven points along with eight rebounds and four assists, Livingston accumulated an absurd +25 plus-minus total–seven more points than any other player on the court. Moreover, while he was on the floor, he was part of every single Warriors five-man lineup that reached a positive +/-, the highest of which was 10 playing alongside Curry, Green, Iguodala, and Thompson and all of which were smallball groups, doing so in only 24:30 of playing time. Again, Livingston and his effectiveness played into the broader success of Golden State’s smallball strategy that guided the brought a Game 4 victory–stemming not wholly from the smallball starting lineup itself, but more so from the precedent they set. 

2015 NBA Finals Game 3: Warriors @ Cavaliers

The unlikely overpowering combination of Dellavedova (left) and James (right) have led the Cavs to two straight Finals wins (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

The unlikely overpowering combination of Dellavedova (left) and James (right) have led the Cavs to two straight Finals wins (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Defending LeBron 

With LeBron James taking more and more of a responsibility on offense with each passing game, Golden State has concurrently devoted greater attention towards how to deal with the most unstoppable force in the NBA. To start, the Warriors slotted in Harrison Barnes to guard LeBron–the natural fit considering the starting lineup–and the results were disastrous. Twelve seconds into the game, James dismantled the small forward on the low block and turned around for any easy layup. The notion of a mismatch increasingly crystallized, as despite forcing a few unnecessary jumpshots, LeBron dominated Barnes in going 3-6 from the field and 3-5 near the rim.

However, that immediately changed upon Andre Iguodala’s entry into the game at 6:48 in the first quarter for Barnes. Finding the same success in this matchup as in the last two games, Iguodala effectively shut down James and importantly warded him off taking over offensive possessions. On the first possession since his arrival, Iggy induced a travel call on LeBron, after which James became much more passive on the court. When he returned to a dominant offensive role, James missed two shots in the paint and one from three-point territory while guarded by Iguodala for the remainder of the quarter. His passing became disrupted too, as LBJ commited a turnover and another errant pass that should have had the same result. In the one moment that a switch took Iggy of LeBron, James was able to hit a driving layup while guarded by Draymond Green in the early second.

On the other end of the court, Iguodala complemented his excellent defense with key offensive contributions. Through the 19 first half minutes he logged in–second highest on the team–Iggy led the Warriors in scoring with 10 and chipped in four assists and four rebounds to complete the all-around effort. A few vicious dunks and passes that led to makes for teammates helped Golden State stay afloat on offense during the first 24 minutes.

Yet the initially suffocating defensive approach did not deter LBJ from resuming his scoring output. First drawing a shooting foul on Iggy in the high paint area, LeBron ferociously blew by Iguodala shortly after for a dunk. James continued to attack with aggression and as a result found a way to shed his defender Iguodala on these drives to the rim. It no longer seemed that Iggy alone could stymie LeBron, raising the question and necessity for greater help defense entering the next quarter. At the end of the half, James still struggled with his shot on 6-17 shooting, but managed 13 points and ended a rebound shy of a double-double, along with three assists.

Third quarter shot chart for LeBron James (ESPN Box Score).

Third quarter shot chart for LeBron James (two made FTs at 0:42 not included) (ESPN Box Score).

On Cleveland’s first possession of the third quarter, Draymond Green opened as the defender on LeBron, which translated to a blazing drive and finish at the rim that left Green in the dust. Later, in addition to mainly sticking Iguodala on him, the Dubs also experimented with Shaun Livingston on LeBron, which at one point created a short fallaway jumper for James that dropped through the net. Unlike the last two quarters, the third one hardly brought the same success for Golden State in limiting James. As a part of a broader 28-point explosion and crowd-galvanizing 12 minutes of play, LeBron rocketed to 13 points, doubling his scoring production for the game, and added three assists which all resulted in three long-range makes and thus an extra nine points.

Sloppiness then defined James’s early performance in the fourth quarter. Perhaps complacent with a 17-point lead–minutes after a 20-point edge, the largest in the series–LeBron committed two turnovers and a foul, as well as posted a 1-4 shooting mark and a missed free throw. In part, this momentary dropoff allowed the Warriors to storm back in the game. Yet it was short-lived, as James returned to dominance and carried the Cavs on his back–perhaps the most operative use of this worn-out sports cliche–to a 2-1 series lead. As the Dubs began to close in on Cleveland’s lead in the final minutes, LeBron brought the ball up the court, used a Tristan Thompson screen to create some separation, and hit a three-point dagger in the face of Iguodala off the left wing. After extending the Cavs’ lead to seven with this shot, James proceeded to convert on all six of his free throw attempts under the one-minute mark–a late-game facet he’s often struggled with–in guiding his team to the 96-91 win. In either final end-of-game shots or during closeout stretches as with this situation, LeBron has cemented–especially in these last six Finals runs–time and time again his status as a premier clutch performer, a feat once many thought inconceivable for him.

Cleveland’s supporting cast

King James finished the contest with 40 points–setting the record for most points through the first three Finals games with 123–on 14-34 shooting and two assists away from a triple-double. But for not the offensive support of a few key members of his supporting cast and at crucial points in time, a Game 3 win would likely have been out of reach. First and foremost, grit-personified (he chases loose balls like he’s still playing on a 10-day contract) Matthew Dellavedova backed his Game 2 defensive masterpiece by going toe to toe with Stephen Curry on the offensive end Tuesday night. While erratic with five missed shots out of seven, the Australian instantly assumed an aggressive offensive disposition in the first quarter, netting four of his team’s first 10 points.

But his greatest damage would come later in the third quarter, during which he fueled a critical run–perhaps without it, Cleveland would not be able to stave a furious GSW comeback a quarter later. From 11:23 to 2:51 in the third, the Cavs fired off a 24-9 run–at one point a 12-0 stretch–to leap ahead 68-48. Dellavedova had a huge hand in this momentous surge, racking up 10 points that included two three-pointers, and furthermore assisted on a LeBron trey and 15-footer.

For a moment, Delly looked like he returned to a scrawny no-name player after getting his shot blocked by Leandro Barbosa, missing a 20-foot runner, and committing a foul all in the first 1:04 of the fourth, consequently getting yanked from the game. But after reentering as the fourth quarter wounded down, he provided us with perhaps his most remarkable play. With 2:45 left on the game clock, an increasingly hot-shooting Stephen Curry had just drained a three–with Dellavedova naturally right up against him–to cut the margin to 81-80, the closest since the early minutes of the second quarter. Then, as if he had the audacity to undertake a PG duel with the league MVP, an “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” shootout heretofore reserved for sparring NBA superstars, Delly, with the opposing floor general glued onto him, stumbled towards the free throw line area after a pass from LeBron, an inch or two from completely losing control of the ball, released a wild shove towards the basket that mildly resembled a basketball shot attempt. It, to the glee of a zealous Quicken Loans Arena, somehow banked off the backboard into the rim, and in the process Dellavedova drew a foul from behind off Curry. Video of the play shows even Delly himself, having ended up sprawled on his back, slightly shaking his head in disbelief–mirroring the reaction of every basketball fan watching. The inevitable converted free throw made it 84-80, and effectively impeded the fourth quarter Golden State comeback surge at its apex.

In total, Dellavedova scored a playoff-high of 20 and tacked on four rebounds and five assists. In addition, the point guard who has (almost) made Cleveland forget about Uncle Drew posted the highest plus minus (+13) of all players–outside of David Lee, who participated in a quick 13-minute Dubs burst–and only three players on the court played more minutes than he did. This may just be as incredible as it is unsustainable, but Dellavedova, even aside from his unwavering motor and yes, grit, has legitimately become one of the best two-way players in this Finals series.

Consistency, balance, and an essential three-point efficiency when playing on a team with LeBron (it does wonders for spacing) characterized the contributions by the rest of the supporting cast. By the end of the first half when the Cavs built up a 44-37 advantage, five different Cleveland players reached at least five points, four at least seven–and that’s with LeBron already at 13. James’s teammates in the backcourt and on the wing all developed a nice shooting touch far from the basket that continued throughout the game: J.R. Smith, James Jones, and Iman Shumpert collectively went 7-13 from the floor and most importantly hit five threes. Nearly all of the connections from deep also carried additional significance: either extending Cleveland’s lead beyond one or two possessions or facilitating game-changing runs. And that’s not to mention the game-to-game extraordinary work on the boards by Tristan Thompson, who has averaged 14.0 rebounds through three Finals games–almost seven more than the next closest Warriors player–and had a game-high 13 rebounds on Tuesday–four on offense, his lowest total this series but significant nonetheless–with 10 points.

Warriors’ shooting woes 

The biggest concern for Golden State heading into Game 3 was how to improve its shooting–particularly from three-point land–that dwindled so sharply in Game 2. Some regression to the mean would be in order as well, as the Dubs deviated heavily from their average shooting percentages as seen below:

(ESPN game box score)

(ESPN game box score)

But for however much creativity in developing their shot early on, the Warriors still could not regain their usually unparalleled shooting form. Screens around the perimeter, pull-up shots, switches by the defense that carved out space, or even relatively open looks did not return substantial gains. While Curry converted on a three within two minutes of the opening whistle, the MVP would not see another ball go down from long range for more than half an hour of playing time. The shot also marked the only three for the Dubs out of the seven taken in the first quarter, and 2-9 team shooting from beyond the arc in the subsequent quarter brought the overall three-point percentage to a miserable .188 mark. Four players took at least three attempts, and the Splash Brothers went a combined 1-7.

Led by Curry and Thompson, the Warriors started to show some signs of life from the floor in the third–somewhat of a harbinger of things to come–by going 2-4 from three. Yet the poor overall shooting was still there, and as a result Golden State could not keep up with Cleveland’s most formidable quarter of play that produced a +10 margin. As noted on the ABC Finals broadcast by Mike Breen, the Warriors failed to reach 60 points through three quarters for the second straight game, marking the only two times it occurred all season–a fact simply astounding, but perfectly representative of the hopeless stagnancy the Dubs had showcased the prior seven quarters.

Yet the tides soon changed: in what was at the same time an unprecedented development and eerily familiar of a team that once throttled everything in its path, Golden State emerged in the fourth quarter down 17 with its back against the wall, but revitalized. With Steve Kerr slotting in David Lee into the lineup to start the quarter–who provided a pivotal boost of energy and offensive resourcefulness in tallying nine points, four rebounds, and two assists after his entry–the Warriors jumped out on an 8-0 run sparked by two three’s in less that two minutes that cut the deficit to single-digits.

Of course what really catapulted the Dubs back into contention was the awakening of Stephen Curry. After adding a three and a few midrangers to raise his scoring total to 10 in the third quarter, the MVP looked like the Curry of old (i.e. before Game 2) in developing a hot three-point stroke. Here’s his offensive progression from quarter to quarter:

(ESPN game box score)

(ESPN game box score)

From the 7:24 mark in the fourth onward, Curry nearly stole Game 3 for Golden State in making five three-point jumpers, some within the Warriors offensive system and others in a stroke of individual brilliance, and knocked down three different shots during this span that brought his team one possession away from the Cavs. Apart from a Lee two-pointer with 40 seconds left, Curry was the only Dubs player to score in the final six minutes of play–take out Lee entirely and no other teammate recorded a point inside the nine-minute mark.

Curry (30) will look to get back on track for a full game on Thursday (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Curry (30) will look to get back on track for a full game on Thursday (AP Photo/Tony Dejak).

Yet for all of Curry’s efforts, the Warriors shooting machine–in the form of its key part–rumbled to life far too late on Tuesday. LeBron and Dellavedova did enough on the other end to negate Golden State’s offensive incursion, which had it fully developed perhaps a quarter earlier, might have tremendously affected the game’s result. But that doesn’t preclude an eventual full regression to the shooting mean for the Warriors. This series has at least two remaining games and at most four, and despite the extent to which the most recent events can cloud our vision, it’s almost a near certainty this team will soon return to its shooting prosperity. Cleveland deserves credit for its defensive approach to muck up and slow down the game, as well as tightly stick to and unsettle Warrior shooters. Still, Golden State has also uncharacteristically missed several open looks around the perimeter, exuding a sense of an “off touch” for the Splash Bros & Co. these last few games. Simply put, that this series is far from over is directly related to the fact that the Warriors are far from likely to stay this cold from the floor. Expect regression, and expect a team that has rightfully caught the fascination of the entire NBA community to fight back–much like they did in similar circumstances against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semi-finals a few weeks ago.

UPDATE: The legend of Dellavedova is blossoming before our own eyes.

2015 NBA Finals Game 2: Cavaliers @ Warriors

LeBron James (23) penetrates the paint and attempts a shot close to the rim. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Pool via AP)

LeBron James (23) penetrates the paint and looks to finish at the rim. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Pool via AP)

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.

LeBron James

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:

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Shot chart first quarter (left) and second quarter (right) for LeBron James (ESPN game box score).

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Shot chart third quarter (left), fourth quarter (center), and overtime (right) for LeBron James (ESPN game box score).

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.

Klay Thompson 

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.

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Shot chart for 1st quarter (left) and second quarter (right) for Klay Thompson (ESPN game box score).

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.

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (source: ESPN game box score).

Shot chart for entire game for Stephen Curry (ESPN game box score).

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.

Matthew Dellavedova

Dellavedova (right) celebrates with teammate LeBron after taking a crucial away game. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Dellavedova (right) celebrates with teammate LeBron after taking a crucial away game. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

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.

2014 NBA Finals Game 2: Analysis

Chalmers's elbow shot on Parker warranted a flagrant foul. (USATSI)

Chalmers’s elbow shot on Parker warranted a flagrant foul. (USATSI)

A Cheap Shot, A Game Changed 

Mario Chalmers’s egregiously winded-up, cheap shot elbow to the stomach of Tony Parker not only permanently disoriented the point guard who had just re-entered the game 18 seconds ago, but following the pause in the game caused by the technical foul, took a toll on the Spurs’ psyche. San Antonio failed to recover thereafter, neither in their immediate four free throw opportunities (all missed), nor down the stretch: the team shot 2-7 with only six points in the remaining period, excluding the futile Manu Ginobili three-point jumper at the buzzer. The incident also plays into the bigger picture of Miami’s “questionable” (at best) style of play, regularly engaging in histrionics and exaggeration–colloquially called flopping–as both Dwayne Wade and Chalmers did earlier in the contest, as well as taking the occasional cheap shot at an opponent. This tendency is in fact utterly incomprehensible: why resort to such morally low and basketball-disparaging methods, when you have an unstoppable and overpowering freight train of a basketball player–and the world’s best player–in LeBron James at your side? Nevertheless, therein lies the reason for why so commonly the NBA world allies against the Heat, and why Miami incites a tremendous amount of hatred–and not so much because of their successes and dominance.

Evolution Of Bosh

Resounding, bounce-back responses to previous game defeats have characterized the Miami Heat’s reign over the NBA in the past year. But while LeBron James leads the charge in this type of scenario, frequently experiencing scoring outbursts and increasing his influence on the game, the superstar’s ability to take control late in a contest remains inconsistent. So for converted-center Chris Bosh–usually regarded as the lesser of Miami’s “big three”–to sink the go-ahead three pointer in Game 2, it’s huge, and will serve as a huge psychological lift for the rest of the series (particularly for LeBron, who now can lessen or even pass off his clutch-time responsibilities). Furthermore, it highlights the dimension Bosh has recently added to his repertoire: the three-point shot. Sure it extends his NBA career for a few seasons, but in the present, it has the effect of nicely complementing the play of his star teammate James, and adds another layer to the team’s offensive arsenal.

Beaten At Their Own Game

If the Spurs will have any shot to dethrone their Finals opponents–and complete the crucial task of taking at least one of the next two games in Miami–they must win the battle in the paint. With Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Tiago Splitter, San Antonio has the clear advantage in the low block both offensively and defensively, therefore making Miami’s 44-34 points-in-the-paint victory simply inexcusable. Adding in Tony Parker, and his driving-layup ability and craftiness around the basket, there’s no reason for the Spurs not to use their superiority in the paint to the fullest, and impact the game to their favor from that space on the floor. The Heat not only out-shot the Spurs in this area, but also somehow managed to out-muscle them, having the better edge of total rebounds by a tally of 38-37. It only further speaks to the critical necessity for San Antonio to regain dominance down low–and how influential a factor this paint battle really is–which players and coach Gregg Popovich will assuredly keen in on during the time until Game 3 in Miami.

Leonard (2) will seek to better restrain LeBron in Game 3. (Photo by Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Leonard (2) will seek to better restrain LeBron in Game 3. (Photo by Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Leonard’s Liability

Third-year small forward Kawhi Leonard has been tasked with containing LeBron James from the start of the series (and to some extent, assumed the same duty in last year’s Finals too), so it’s imperative for him to play defense shrewdly in order to remain in the game as long as possible–and not succumb to foul trouble like in Game 2, which freed up LeBron, allowed him to face and exploit mismatches, and ultimately develop the rhythm that paved the way for a 35-point performance. Though fouling out with just 47 seconds left in the game, Leonard constantly felt dragged down by his high foul total throughout the course of the game, either having to take a seat on the bench, or not guarding LeBron as aggressively and effectively as he usually would while on the floor. Looking ahead to the remainder of the series, Leonard must act more judiciously in his defensive challenges, and especially avoid debatable contact in the latter stages of games, having committed six of his eight defensive fouls during the last two games of the series in the second half of play. As long as Leonard puts forth an unhindered defensive effort, compounded with well-timed help defense from his teammates, the Spurs have the capacity to mitigate LeBron’s impact and force him into taking contested  jump-shots.

Why The Pacers’ Off-Court Actions Will Lead To Their Fall

Stepheson (right) will fell the brunt of LeBron's reaction to his comments.

Stepheson (right) will fell the brunt of LeBron’s reaction to his comments.

For all of Indiana’s efforts on the court to best solidify their chances of overcoming the two-time champion Miami Heat, it is the Pacers’ actions off the floor that have already triggered one collapse this year, and will soon spark another.

The organization has made itself into a championship contender, and proved its worth as one, through the game of play: the players’ cohesion and developing efficiency has vaulted the team into the upper echelons of the NBA. Its fame has not resulted from off-the-court popularization or basketball marketability, but from how complete and polished the squad is–namely the starting five–and how formidable they stand in the face of the megastars from South Beach. Thus, comments from Roy Hibbert and Paul George earlier in the season that first derailed the team, and now those of Lance Stephenson that will surely have the same effect, will make the season’s inevitable outcome both ironic and mind-boggling for Indiana.

Harken back to the shower of praise–in which two Pacer members partook–following the 61-point spectacular performance by LeBron James on May 3rd. Shortly after James’s achievement, Hibbert chimed in with applause on Twitter, which it’s worth mentioning has become a reliable outlet for an NBA player’s expression, tweeting “damn @KingJames 61 is tough. Congrats.” In the days following this seemingly simple gesture of praise, and presumably tied in some way to James’s recent surge, teammate Paul George expressed his desire to work with and learn from LeBron James. He essentially viewed the Heat superstar as a potential mentor, of course in spite of the fact that James and his team constitute the sole obstacle to George and his Pacers’ aspirations.

At face value, these instances do not appear egregious or damning, but rather gestures of respect and sportsmanship towards the opposition. But is it any coincidence that after the tweet and the comments to Basketball Insiders, the Pacers finished April on a 6-10 slide and ended the year 10-13, barely securing their number-one Eastern Conference spot and overtly showing their struggles along the way? It’s nice that players can act respectfully towards their contemporaries, but at the same time, there’s a time and place for these friendly activities. For the Indiana Pacers, James and the Miami Heat serve as the adversaries and hindrances to their goals, thereby forming the image of LeBron particularly as the enemy–not in any malicious way, but in purely competitive spirit. In no way is it permissible to reveal a hint of deference by congratulating the enemy on his successes, as Hibbert did, or to suggest to cooperate and mingle with him, as George desires to do.

Thus, through the actions of two prominent Indiana starters off court, the lack of a competitive mindset within the team’s core was uncovered, one that both NBA champions of the past and present possess. This damages the team’s prospects in the long run, but the more immediate effect, as mentioned before, manifested itself in a horrid stretch to conclude the regular season.

Now fast forward to yesterday, when another key figure on the Pacers roster, shooting guard Lance Stephenson, made comments about LeBron outside the court of play. Perhaps still remembered for flashing a choke sign at King James while in a backup role, this time Stephenson told the Associated Press that he feels he has gotten under LeBron’s skin and considers getting trash-talked by the Heat star a sign of weakness. Although this sort of statement connotes a very different attitude towards the opposition, the instance plays into the bigger picture of exposing Indiana’s focus on something other than itself and its abilities. It seems out of character for the Pacers to direct their attention to the their rivaling squad, rather than concentrating on themselves, their performance, and what they can do as a team: an approach that has led them to their status as one of the NBA’s best. Simply put, it’s matter of distractions and the Pacers investing themselves in something other than what they do on the court.

Moreover, at this juncture in the NBA year, when players battle through fatigue and seek sources of inspiration as they inch closer and closer to the illustrious NBA Finals, why would Stephenson dare to poke the proverbial bear? It’s not as if publicly clarifying on-court happenings and then making assumptions off them will irritate the attacked player in a manner that will hinder his ability. Instead, if anything, it will provide James and his team with “bulletin board” material, and incite the Heat–especially LeBron of course–with an extra push and motivation in their quest for a three-peat.

And that’s additional to the aforementioned effect Stephenson’s words will have on his team in terms of diverting focus. In what will eerily parallel the aftermath of Hibbert and George’s comments off the court, Stephenson’s actions off the floor yesterday will help bring about Indiana’s imminent downfall, one that is notably self-inflicted and outside the basketball court.

*Written without knowledge of the outcome of ECF Game 4 on Monday, April 26th. 

Chemistry, Hot-shooting, and a Blowout: Heat-Spurs Game 3 Recap

Heat team dynamic

For all the scrutiny surrounding LeBron James’ supporting cast in these playoffs, the superstar MVP finally received a considerable amount of assistance on Tuesday night. The ailing Dwayne Wade got off to a fantastic start, and after several efficient trips on the offensive end, the shooting guard frankly should have shouldered more of the ball control. Wade’s shot and distributive efforts were spot on to begin the night, a surprising and reassuring effort that could not be paralleled by his fellow teammate, LeBron, who converted on one measly 6-foot jumper at the 3:24 mark in all of the 1st quarter action. The MVP went on to net only 2 more points in the 1st half, and along with 4 assists, marked a gruesome 1st-half performance.

Wade’s production waned as the game progressed, but the fault is not necessarily directed at him. Chris Bosh prolonged his struggle on Tuesday, meaning Wade would receive all the defensive attention. Yet had LeBron averted his passive attitude (literally and figuratively), he may have provided essential support for Wade that would undoubtedly aid both of their play for the rest of the game. Even the sharp-shooting Mike Miller, as well as the ball of energy that is Norris Cole, pitched in valuable efforts in the first 2 1/2 quarters that kept Miami in the game–in spite of LeBron’s no-show. One could only imagine how Game 3 might have turned out if LeBron actually played like himself: the unstoppable, MVP force that takes control of contests like no other.

Shooting Spurs

If you happen to dabble in fantasy basketball, you couldn’t say the performances of Danny Green and Gary Neal were TOO surprising: their three-point totals and explosive scoring stretches caught many an eye during the regular season. Nevertheless, the play of Green and Neal on Tuesday is one for the ages, and certainly meets the lofty standards of Spurs playoff lore. The barrage of 3’s en route to taking a 2-1 series lead resonates on a level beyond the stat sheet, as it ignited an oftentimes dormant San Antonio crowd. With the majority of the punishing damage coming in the 3rd quarter, Green/Neal combined to shoot 18 for 32 (56%), and a gaudy 13 for 19 (68%) beyond the arc. Perhaps most importantly, their stellar performances nicely made up for mediocre play from their fellow teammates: the terrific trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, who surprisingly could only muster a paltry 10-23 combined shooting night. The three veterans could only convert on 1-5 3-PT field goals, and even went a horrid 4-9 at the charity stripe.

Keep in mind that these faces of the Spurs franchise are about as good as it gets as making adjustments from game to game, which will come of use in the NBA finals: in other words, don’t expect any more low-key performances from the trio, who will also definitely play more than 30 minutes in the coming games (a mark none of the three surpassed on Tuesday). And even if Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili don’t regroup in time to establish a significant impact on the series, they faithfully leave the reigns in young, potent (as we saw Game 3) hands.

Observations in a blowout

Perhaps Gregg Popovich was trying to send a message, through–gasp–allowing for his players to have a little fun by piling on the score in the 3rd quarter. Or maybe Miami already had one step outside of the AT&T Center and had no intentions on looking back until Thursday. Or it may have been that the explosive Danny Green/Gary Neal tandem was divinely possessed, and the continual onslaught of 3-pointers were simply a natural feat. Whatever the case may be, the blowout witnessed on Tuesday seemed a bit different.

Usually, in an telepathic act of mutual consent, opposing coaches take out their players–and toss out their will to compete any longer–once the scoring margin exceeds 20. But once a blowout was brewing towards the latter part of the 3rd quarter, the Spurs attack on the basket hardly ceased, as it seemed natural for the basketball to glide into the hoop. In most cases, in games following a blowout, any notion of a huge disparity between two teams halts going into the next game. Of course, that comes after the 4th quarter (and maybe even some of the 3rd) instantly transforms into garbage time: stars are benched, the crowd calms down, and the excitement ventilating throughout the stadium evaporates. That was clearly not the case on Tuesday, as the home crowd fervor only grew towards the end of the game, corresponding with a growth in San Antonio’s lead. Perhaps this means the Spurs’ momentous, blowout victory could have lasting effects in this series, as the aura surrounding the NBA Finals series could shift towards San Antonio’s advantage.

Another lesser point in this Game 3 eruption is how the Spurs’ heroes conducted themselves in light of a Miami blowout just days earlier. The NBA world surely has gotten to know LeBron’s overpowering stuff of Tiago Splitter’s dunk attempt on Sunday night, a point that really highlighted the Heat blowout. James, instead of sprinting back on defense like a non-egotistical person, gladly soaked in the moment, as he pretentiously observed his surroundings and happily gloated. This provided a stark contrast from how the likes of Game 3 stars Danny Green and Gary Neal carried themselves. After each one of their crowd-arousing 3-point shots went through the net, Green and Neal immediately scampered back on defense, and kept a blank, but intensely focused, expression on their face. The most you could get out of Green at least was a grin and a jump or two (going into timeouts), occurring towards the end of his shooting streak.

This serves as yet another reason of why so many despise the Miami Heat and all that its brand constantly expresses. So much for LeBron being a changed man, and experiencing his “epiphany” (a story that graced a Sports Illustrated cover a year ago). And if that’s not what he included under “change”, he might want to reconsider what truly defines him not just as a basketball player, but as a person and role model.