The Golden State Warriors are great because they can win whatever way an individual game dictates. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will happily run, gun and splash to victory in a shootout, while Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are just as content to push, bang and mean-mug the Warriors to success in a slog.
Golden State didn’t become the first team in history to lead the league in pace and defensive efficiency by accident. This is a squad comfortable playing any style at any time, a reality that poses a major dilemma for the Cleveland Cavaliers in these highly anticipated yet potentially brief NBA Finals.
David Blatt’s team has been surprisingly stingy on defense throughout the postseason. The Cavaliers’ 98.5 defensive rating ranks third among playoff teams overall, but just .4 points per 100 possessions behind the Chicago Bulls’ field-leading mark and .5 points ahead of the Warriors’ own stellar number.
It’s no coincidence that their defensive surge has come with Kevin Love sidelined and Kyrie Irving in and out of the lineup, either. Tristan Thompson is a fantastic rebounder with the feet to stay in front speedy guards on switches, and Matthew Dellavedova a bulldog whose intensity and commitment never wavers. But the circumstances behind Cleveland’s defensive improvement isn’t as simple as that plug-and-play analysis makes it seem.
Love’s absence has ensured that LeBron James spends more time playing nominal power forward than he ever dreamed before making the decision to return to Northeast Ohio. It’s directly that development, however, which has allowed the Cavaliers to thrive utilizing lineups both traditional and modern. And though it comes as a relative shock, specific units featuring a frontcourt of James and Thompson have been nearly as good defensively as those pairing the two of them with 7-foot rim-protector Timofey Mozgov.
The ability of Cleveland’s small-ball lineups to defend effectively looms especially large against Golden State, mostly for their merit on the other end of the floor. Steve Kerr’s club wasn’t only basketball’s best defensive team during the regular season, but is also uniquely equipped to give James fits like no other team in the NBA.
Harrison Barnes, Green, Andre Iguodala, Thompson and Shaun Livingston would all serve as a viable primary defender of the four-time MVP by themselves. It’s fair to argue, in fact, that each player could be considered the second-best “stopper” James will face this postseason behind Jimmy Butler. And all of them play for the Warriors.
If James and the Cavaliers’ offense struggle as a whole, Blatt will be tempted to rely even more heavily on small-ball lineups that spread the floor with shooters by replacing Mozgov with J.R. Smith. And he should indeed have that itch, too. Golden State is loath to give help in the post, where James should be able to easily batter his way to buckets against every defender he’ll meet but Green.
According to nbawowy.com, Cleveland units with James and Thompson in the frontcourt have scored 118.8 points per 100 possessions in 179 minutes since Love was lost in Game 4 of the first-round against the Boston Celtics. Those lineups feast, and only hemorrhage on the other side of the ball – in a tiny sample size, by the way – when one of the defensive-oriented Dellavedova or Iman Shumpert is off the floor.
But the playoffs are a chess game, and the Warriors are better off playing it than the Cavaliers. Won’t Blatt going small immediately give Kerr a welcome opportunity to do the same?