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The Dubs Have It: Everything Grantland a Learned from the 2015 NBA Finals Game 1 Between the Warriors and Cavaliers

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One of LeBron's best ever efforts was almost enough to beat the Warriors. Almost.

The last two possessions of regulation in this enthralling, standing-room-only game were perfect representations of how each team got here — and how narrow the gap between them can be on the right night. With just over 30 seconds left, the Warriors sprang Stephen Curry on a play that had him skitter across picks at each elbow, curl toward the rim, catch the ball, and attack open space. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes mimed some two-man action on the weak side — a ploy to distract any defender who might rotate toward the basket.

It was an artful little play … and it produced zero points. Kyrie Irving, capping perhaps the best defensive performance of his life, bothered Curry’s layup from behind.

As far as the Cavs’ last possession, they definitely had a chance to steal Game 1 — and that they didn’t feels borderline catastrophic, especially since Irving left the arena on crutches. If Irving is out, or hobbled, this series will be over fast. In the biggest moment of their season, the Cavaliers called, well, nothing. They gave the ball to LeBron James and had him run out the clock before hoisting a contested jumper over Andre Iguodala — a shot that is probably a sub–30 percent proposition, even though James has canned plenty of shots just like it, including a couple in this arena. Everyone in the arena thought Iman Shumpert’s putback heave was going in. Warriors GM Bob Myers was watching from about 10 rows up and directly behind Shumpert, and he told me afterward he was sure the shot was going down.

Heat officials have watched these playoffs and thought back to the 2012 conference semifinals against Indiana, when Chris Bosh got hurt in Game 1. Miami had to reinvent itself, and it did so in part by reverting to prehistoric basketball. It gave the ball to LeBron, cleared an entire side of the floor, and begged him to single-handedly create points. It was the antithesis of what the Heat wanted to be, and of what they would become, but it was all they had at that moment. It was their survival instinct.

Cleveland has taken that to an extreme since losing Kevin Love in the opening round and possibly Irving, again, to injuries. This is an eight-man team, and in Game 1, it was a six-man team. David Blatt could have called a real play to end regulation; the Cavs had been slicing Golden State apart for much of the second half with the James-Irving pick-and-roll. But it’s hard to have everyone stand around LeBron for the bulk of 47 minutes and then snap into some five-man Spurs-esque routine with the game on the line. Golden State officials are quietly confident that LeBron’s one-man show, even when it’s working, will keep his teammates from building any rhythm.

And it’s not as if those teammates are bad players. Irving, J.R. Smith, and Shumpert can do real basketball stuff after a LeBron pick-and-roll bends the defense away from them. But Cleveland went mostly with LeBron isolations and post-ups, and Golden State did well to live in the huge gray area between leaving LeBron alone and double-teaming him. The Warriors flashed help, sent it away, sent it back again, and ultimately made LeBron kill the clock, guessing what would come next. But they almost never sent a hard trap at him.

There was only one place Cleveland would go in the final seconds of regulation. It didn’t work, but that style was damn near enough to get this win. That is the power of LeBron. He brutalized Barnes and Thompson, bowling the latter over when the Warriors would switch that James-Irving pick-and-roll. He took just four of his 38 shots from within the restricted area, but he attempted a bunch from just inches outside of it — borderline layups, really — and drew 10 foul shots.

Draymond Green and Iguodala, a goddamned one-shoed wizard, fared better in keeping James from the deep paint, but LeBron scored efficiently and tossed smart passes through the tiny windows that opened as Golden State help defenders rotated around the floor. It wasn’t pretty, but it was almost enough to beat the league’s prettiest team.

The Cavs had a plan. Golden State adapted.

I loved the Cavaliers’ game plan against Curry pick-and-rolls. They tried to avoid switching, since that leaves a big man tracking Curry at the 3-point arc — a strategy Curry has generally torched. Instead, they had the big guy guarding the screener slide side-to-side with Curry as Irving fought over the pick and tailed Curry from behind.

That left the screener — usually Green — with a free roll to the rim, but the Cavs wanted to coax Curry into passing to Green in space. They wanted the ball out of Curry’s hands, even if it meant Green would have a chance to work 4-on-3. Green hurt the Cavs several times, even as Cleveland was building an early lead behind some strong defense. He drew a foul at the rim, rumbled for a dunk, and hit Barnes in the right corner for a triple.


Golden State has seen this defense before, and it gradually adapted to the Cleveland version in smart ways. “That’s what they’re gonna do,” Green told me after the game. “I just have to make plays out of it. I’m looking for another dunk.” Irving fought hard to stay close to Curry around those Green picks, but there were times when he fell far behind — leaving Curry dribbling in open space:

There are other ways for Curry to manipulate that space aside from just chucking the ball to Green. In the second quarter, he realized he could use all of that territory to cross back over in front of the screen — a move, sometimes called “snaking,” that often forces the big man to switch onto a ball handler in Curry’s position. Curry pulled that here in the second quarter

Rihanna not a Warriors fan?!

Warriors owner Joe Lacob told me after the win that Golden State is breaking all-time NBA records for single-game gate receipts. “They are record-setting,” Lacob says of the totals. There are whispers that Golden State could approach $10 million in gate for an upcoming Finals game.

Lacob also said that Rihanna, sitting near him at courtside, was cheering loudly for LeBron.

Rihanna NBA finals 2015 game 1 joe lacob Shootaround Isolation Game

LeBron James isn’t an underdog. The Cavaliers are.

In Game 1, James scored 44 points on 18-of-38 shooting, with eight rebounds and six assists. Most of those 44 points came in the form of grinding isolation plays, that most maligned type of NBA offense. Per, no player has operated out of the iso more often — 32.6 percent of the time — this postseason than LeBron. Again and again, James got the ball on the left side, his teammates cleared out, and he went to work bullying Harrison Barnes (or Klay or Iggy or Draymond) until he got deep into the paint, at which point he’d loft up a shot from practically inside the rim. If he missed, Tristan Thompson was there like his personal rebounding valet. As far as aesthetics go, it was about as subtle as brass knuckles.

But the brutal simplicity of throwing the ball to the best player in the world and letting him hammer away hides the play’s advantages against the Warriors. Sure, Bron is scoring only .68 points per possession in isolation in the playoffs. But against the W’s, going bare-knuckle iso means no pick-and-roll, which means no opportunity for Golden State to unfurl its scarily effective switch-everything defense. And it means the game bogs down into trench warfare, crucial for blunting the Warriors’ fast-break guillotine.

And it was almost enough.

2015 Finals Game 1 Steph Curry shakes LeBron for the Jumper Vine:

Source and more Game 1 analysis:

If Cavs can execute the game plan they did when Kyrie was out previously (more passing and more non-lebron shots going into the basket) then Game 2 may be as close as Game 1 (until OT).

I am happy to see these two teams in the finals.

Game 1 was great -- happy to see both teams there too! Best Finals in a long time!

But Kyrue seemed to be the difference maker. Without him Warriors seem to have the edge, right?

Another OT...this time with Cavs victory.  Best Finals in a long time! I wonder if the numbers agree with our sentiment.  

Will keep an eye open for numbers but so far these teams are evenly matched!

How do you stop this?

LeBron James shot chart 2015 finals game 1 NBA Shootaround Isolation Game

Kirk Goldsberry: Stopping LeBron James is easier said than done. Obviously. But “turning him into a jump-shooter” remains the best way to turn him into a relatively average performer. Last night, the Warriors did that at the most important moment of the game. Per usual, James was dominant in the paint all night with floaters, rim attacks, and jumpers, but he was average outside of it — also per usual. He was 2-for-8 from beyond the arc and struggled to drain his favorite 2-point jumpers, along the left wing. But the biggest miss of the night was the 21-footer he took with three seconds left in regulation. That would’ve flipped the stories we’re all reading this morning.

Source and more Game 1 analysis:

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