Golden State Warriors: How They Checkmated The Cavs In The Finals

Jun 15, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; The Golden State Warriors celebrate during the Warriors 2017 championship victory parade in downtown Oakland. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 15, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; The Golden State Warriors celebrate during the Warriors 2017 championship victory parade in downtown Oakland. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

The Golden State Warriors downed the Cleveland Cavaliers in the latest chapter of their three year saga and in some ways, their second title was the headiest.

The Golden State Warriors won the series 4-1, claiming their second title in three years, but don’t let that outcome fool you. The Cavs played some good basketball, giving some stiff competition and scary moments to the only team capable of competing with them offensively.

Last summer, the Warriors added Kevin Durant to roster that posted a 73-9 record in 2016 and was just two minutes from closing the season the title — until the unthinkable happened and they blew a 3-1 series lead.

Durant’s integration has proved less complicated than some assumed it might be — do you remember the opinions about how many balls the Warriors needed to play? The concerns about whether Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were smart enough to change their style to accommodate the rotations and the ball movement required by Steve Kerr‘s offensive system?

In fact, Durant’s acclimation has been nearly seamless and though the Warriors needed Thompson at his absolute best last year, this time around, the shooting guard didn’t need to play a hero-game.

In fact, this year Thompson was steady, but hardly flashy in averaging 18.3 points against Portland, 14.0 against Utah, 11.0 against San Antonio and 16.4 during the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

His scoring numbers dipped from last year’s performance, staying below 20 points in every series. Although he scored few points, he was able to really up his defensive game.

The pressure Thompson put on Kyrie Irving and his support in pick ‘n roll situations were key in limiting the physical power of LeBron James and the quickness of the speedy point guard.

And Thompson’s defensive prowess is exactly what the Warriors needed in that it was precisely in pick ‘n roll situations that Cleveland tried to score points and get more buckets. The high pick ‘n roll, started with LeBron or Irving with JR Smith as ball screener.

Their goal was to take advantage of Stephen Curry’s defensive issues — which was one of the keys in last year comeback for the Cavs.

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Tyronn Lue tried to replay this same strategy this year, but the result changed dramatically according to who started the play. In pick ‘n roll situation during Game One, if the action was started by James with Curry guarding on the ball screener, the Cleveland Cavaliers scored 10 points in 9 plays (1.11 PPP).

However, if the play was started by Irving,  that number dropped to just four points in five plays (0.8 PPP).

The bad news for Cleveland was not just limited to the different defensive approach of Curry though. The Cavs attacked Zaza Pachulia, forcing the Warriors to collapse in support. When that happened, they’d pass the ball to the shooters like Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Deron Williams, who were usually behind the arc for a wide open shot.

For this offensive approach to be successful though, Tyronn Lue was counting on Tristan Thompson to be knock down his shots. Except for the last two games of the series however, Thompson was pretty well anonymous.

In Pachulia and David West — who saw his minutes increase, leaving JaVale McGee on the bench for all of Game Five — Thompson found big bodies who were able to fight and grab as many rebounds as possible, keeping Thompson off the boards and from scoring with the efficiency he showed last year.

In 2016, Thompson was able to score important buckets down in the pain or in transition — this year, Golden State always had somebody guarding him, even at the cost of leaving an easy drive for James wide open.

Golden State Warriors
Jun 12, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors players and staff hold up the Larry O’Brien Trophy after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the 2017 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

In Game Three and Four, we also saw the transformation of Kyrie Irving. In the first two games of the series, Irving tried his classic ISO offense while guarded by Klay Thompson. Although this is Irving’s favorite situation, the result this year was ineffective.

Thompson — who played well against Irving of the last two Finals series — defended him in a different way this year, with Draymond Green acting as a goalie to support the teammates without a fixed player to guard of his own.

This strategy forced Irving to change his style in Game Three and Four. In fact, instead of playing ISO against Thompson, Cleveland’s playmaker decided to receive the ball off screen and use his ability to shoot. Catching and shooting using the screen allowed to Irving to create space away from Thompson and score 38 and 40 points respectively, in Games Three and Four.We

We likely would have seen a different series if Kyle Korver had scored on the last shot in Game Three, when the former Atlanta Hawks standout missed an open shot from the left corner. It was a bad miss, but as confirmed by LeBron (who passed him the ball) it was the best option available.

In fact, from that spot, Korver was shooting an insane 63.4% this season. So,with the Warriors defense moving slowly in rotation, it certainly seemed like the best option available at the time. It just didn’t have the result they were looking for.

The Cavs played a pretty well offensively during the course of the postseason. Despite Irving struggling in isolation and Kyle Korver missing that big shot in Game Three, the Cavs were able to move from and Offensive Rating of 110.9, to 118.1— a fluctuation never seen before.

Also Kevin Love, who was roundly criticized after a poor Game Five after finishing with just six points in 30 minutes, averaged 38.7% behind the arc during the Finals. What Cleveland was unable to change was their less than stellar Defensive Rating (108 points during Regular Season, 108.3 during Postseason), a performance well below what was needed to survive the Warriors offense.

Last year, Tyronn Lue decided to leave one Warriors shooter unguarded to limit the other players and contrast the offense during the entire game. Unfortunately for him, it proved to be unsustainable to have everybody guard in single-coverage for more than 40 minutes when you are opposing players like Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.

During the Finals last year, Lue decided to leave Harrison Barnes unguarded, moving LeBron James to defend Draymond Green, which forced Golden State to trust the worst shooter available.

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Lue’s decision was correct — Harrison Barnes ended up shooting just 35.2 percent from the field and 31 percent behind the arc. Many believed his poor performance was one of the biggest reasons for Golden State’s loss to the Cavs last year.

This year, with Kevin Durant in that spot, Lue made the decision to loosen up on Green and Andre Iguodala — a strategy that had mixed results. The two Warriors didn’t shoot the best from behind the arc with Green hitting on 28 percent of his shots and 33.3 percent for Iguodala.

On the other side of that coin, the Cavs won Game Four thanks an amazing shooting performance by the team. That happened because with Durant and Curry, it’s very difficult to survive and win when you are struggling.

The Warriors ended the series with Cleveland averaging 121 points per game — with the Dynamic Duo averaging a whopping 62 points per contest.

In Game Five, Steve Kerr opted to use the Hamptons Five very early, moving Draymond Green to center. Curry and Durant focused on creating pick ‘n roll situations that benefited both.  And not just with the shot behind the arc.

Using that alignment Curry, for example, scored 34 points — but only six from behind the arc. The pick ‘n roll played by Curry and Durant created many mismatches like having Smith on Durant or with multiple blocks that created positive situations for the Warriors.

Green and Iguodala were down low, ready to catch and drive or take a shot. So it’s not a coincidence that  Golden State attempted 50 percent without dribbling the ball. The Cleveland defense in fact was too slow to react and, sometimes, there was also a lack of communication on blocks and cutters.

James struggled defensively during the Finals conceding 1.314 points per possession. That is a number that is 513th of 517 players in the regular season. And most of the points James surrendered were to Durant.

Durant played almost the entire series against LeBron, often finding enough space to get his shot. His defense might linked to the Warriors deciding to play him tough on both sides of the court, forcing James to decide what plays to fight and which to not in order to preserve his physical condition for the entire game.

Next: Kevin Durant’s First Title Win Brings The Trolls And Haters Out In Force

But the Warriors are not just Curry, Durant and Thompson. In fact, it is impossible to overstate the impact and the effort of Andre Iguodala and what he meant to the team.

During Game Five, the 2015 Finals MVP scored 20 points (9-14) and closed the series with +/- of +60. The benches were another element of difference between the two teams, with the Cavs unable to score more than seven points (22 percent from the field), while the Warriors rookie Patrick McCaw was able to score six all by himself.

The Warriors are NBA champions for the fifth time in their history, and the second time in the last three years. Since Steve Kerr became the head coach, the Warriors have had an impressive run.

In fact, if we count the regular and postseason records, we would see that Golden State finished 2015 with an impressive 83-20 record — an 80.58 winning percentage. They finished 2016 with 83-16 record and an 83.01 winning percentage. And they ended this year with another  83-16 record — a winning percentage of 83.01 winning percentage.

The sum total of Kerr’s tenure is a crazy record of 254-54 — an 82.46 winning percentage. It’s a percentage higher both than the Bulls 96-98 (258-56 with 82.16 percent of winning) and the Los Angeles Lakers 00-02 (226-77 with 74.58 percent of winning).

It’s an incredible run and one that may just be getting started with the addition of Kevn Durant to this loaded roster.