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.

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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.