As recently as 10 days ago there was a giant wall separating the Cavaliers from an NBA title, and every brick was another statistic that made the feat seem impossible.
No team trailing 3-1 had ever won the NBA title. Their opponent, the Warriors, had never lost three straight games under Steve Kerr and fell just twice at home during the regular season - a mark Cleveland would have to match in the next three games.
Yet the Cavs hopped on LeBron James’ back, witnessed some spectacular shots from Kyrie Irving and definitively won the final three contests, solidifying their place in history by delivering Cleveland its first NBA title.
They did so by breaking down previously undiscovered holes in the Warriors’ armor. They singled out Stephen Curry on defense, forcing the two-time MVP into uncomfortable situations, and turned Golden State into a team that hunted splashy 3-pointers rather than shooting them in the context of the offense.
Size Isn't Everything
The Warriors became well-known for having their greatest success when they downsized and put five forwards and guards on the floor, using 6-foot-8 Draymond Green as the acting center. Golden State’s intelligence, chemistry and ability to switch almost any action made this one of the league’s more deadly lineups, as it outscored opponents by 47 points per 100 possessions in the regular season.
But the Cavs found a glitch in their system, one that was particularly effective with starting center Andrew Bogut injured. Though Kerr hid Curry on Cleveland’s weakest offensive player, the Cavs routinely dragged him into pick and rolls. Thanks to Golden State’s relentless switching, this left Curry hopelessly mismatched time and time again against James:
Things were even more disastrous when Kerr tried using a more traditional lineup with Festus Ezeli or Anderson Varejao. Neither big man had a prayer of defending the eventual series MVP:
Tyronn Lue was able to take Golden State’s greatest strength and turn it into a weakness. The Warriors resisted changing their switching strategy, which left Curry and Ezeli on an island against James as superior defenders Andre Iguodala and Green played off the ball.
Lue worked this to his advantage defensively as well. The Warriors became the league’s darlings by playing an uptempo, 3-point heavy style that is tailor-made for highlight videos. But that offense is at its best when Golden State is pinging the ball around, getting open looks off of drive-and-kick situations and utilizing Green’s unique playmaking.
The Warriors panicked a bit when faced with adversity in the final three games, chasing subpar looks in an effort to quickly get back in the game.
Golden State averaged 32.8 3-pointers over the first four games of the series, connecting on 38.2 percent. That number ballooned to 40.3 attempts in the final three contests on 36.3 percent shooting. The Warriors shot more 3-pointers at a lower conversion rate.
This was never more evident than in the series-defining quarter, the final period of Game Seven. The Cavs kept Golden State off the board for the final 4:39, and it’s not hard to see why when examining the fourth-quarter shot chart:
The Warriors desperately sought the back-breaking, riot-inducing 3-point bombs that strangled their opponents’ will all season long. But they never came, and the Warriors’ lack of size proved to be a big problem - they had just seven offensive rebounds and 13 free throws attempts in Game Seven.
That continued a series-long trend, as Cleveland crushed Golden State with its size. The Cavs averaged 15.9 second-chance points in the Finals, compared to just 11.9 for the Warriors. They also scored 46.6 points in the paint, while holding the opposition to 32.9.
Look at where the series turned. Golden State dominated inside the first two games, both blowout wins. But the Cavs obliterated the Warriors in the paint in the final five contests, winning all but Game Four, which saw Golden State connect on a Finals-record 17 3-pointers.
When the long balls weren’t falling, the Warriors had nowhere to turn and the Cavaliers took advantage.
Return of the King
Of course, none of this would matter if James hadn’t reached nearly fictional numbers of brilliance. He averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.6 steals in the series, becoming the first to ever lead all players on both teams in each statistic in the Finals.
But James really turned it on in the last three games. Check out his shot chart:
James’ outside shooting faded a bit after reemerging in Games Five and Six, but his ability to routinely attack the basket with success rendered that moot in the clincher. James shot 57-for-91 (62.6 percent) in the paint during the Finals, averaging 6.1 free throws attempts in the process.
Oh, and he made one of the single greatest defensive plays in Finals history:
Of course, James didn’t do it alone. Irving was sensational in several games and hit the clinching 3-pointer. Tristan Thompson tortured the Warriors’ small lineups with relentless offensive rebounding (27 in the first six games) and J.R. Smith, streaky as ever, delivered when Cleveland needed him most.
And don’t forget the miscast, much-maligned Kevin Love. Plenty of hate has been hurled his way recently, but he had 14 rebounds in the clincher as the Cavs outscored Golden State by 19 points in his 30 minutes. That stuff matters.
And so the Cavs were able to crash through that wall. No doubt Lue and his staff used advanced statistics and video to find the Warriors’ well-disguised weaknesses, and those tools are available to any coach through Hudl. Give us a try here.