How the Warriors Locked Up The Cavs (2017 Finals Game 3)

A great old article for a great old replay for ungreat new times.

This article originally appeared on Bballbreakdown.com during the 2017 NBA Finals. I wrote a series of pretty great articles for BBB, but in March 2018 ClutchPoints took over the web site and since then has allowed ALL of my articles (and everyone else’s at BBB) to fall off the web. So I’m re-publishing them here at LGW slowly over time.

2017 Finals Analysis

By Eric Apricot, June 8 2017

Kevin Durant pulling up for a three pointer over LeBron James may be the defining image of Game 3 and perhaps the 2017 Finals. But without focused team defense and scheme, the Warriors wouldn’t have gotten close enough to pull out the game. 

Let’s analyze the plays down the stretch of the improbable, shocking 11-0 Warriors comeback to end Game 3. The two major themes you’ll see are: (1) the Warriors finding varied and creative ways to avoid the Cavs from isolating on Curry, and (2) bad Cavaliers transition defense.

2:58. 107-113. K. Durant misses 3-pt shot from 24 ft 

This play ends with Kevin Durant missing an open three-pointer. If the Warriors had lost, he would have been seeing this shot in his sleep. Watch it to see how he got so open.

The Cavaliers have suffered all year from poor transition defense, and here the Warriors push the ball in early offense and run the classic high pick and roll between Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. The Cavaliers have been trapping Curry all game, but on this play Kevin Love ends up sagging to contain Curry’s drive. Unfortunately, Kyle Korver was awaiting the arrival of his man Andre Iguodala and he freelances to the same spot as Love’s sag. In a scene repeated many times over in the past, Draymond short rolls for Curry’s release pass, and LeBron James rotates to cover. You can see LeBron’s awareness, as he starts rotating as soon as Draymond begins rolling. Unfortunately, neither Korver or Love rotate to cover LeBron’s man and they dodge a bullet when Durant misses.

2:33. 107-113. J. Smith misses 3-pt shot from 22 ft

2:32. 107-113. Offensive rebound by L. James

2:25. 107-113. K. Love misses 2-pt shot from 2 ft

Well, this play is the real killer. The Cavs are up 6 with two minutes left and miss a shot, get the rebound and miss ANOTHER shot.  Kyrie Irving begins the possession by chewing up clock, and then Korver comes to screen to try to force a switch to Curry. Watch everything Curry and Klay Thompson do to delay the switch.

First, Curry has taken to boxing out his man when they go to set the screen. He does not go quietly into that Good Switch. Second, I believe Curry is trying to force the screen to be set on the sideline side. Korver doesn’t much care, so he does so, and forces the switch. Now Curry can use his lateral quickness to keep a tired Kyrie from turning the corner on him, and give Draymond Green enough time to come over as the strong side overload goalie. Kyrie backs out and skip passes to the open man, J.R. Smith. Kevin Love alertly screens Durant to prevent help, but Draymond Green rotates back to Smith and contests his shot. A good defensive play, where Curry and Klay’s fighting the switch gained a couple more shot clock seconds that forced Smith to fire up the tough shot.

Unfortunately, in all the switching, Durant ends up lingering at the arc guarding no one instead of gang rebounding, and a tired but alert LeBron goes in unboxed and grabs the rebound. He immediately attacks, threads a heck of a pass to Love, who somehow loses the handle.

2:19. 109-113. S. Curry makes 2-pt shot at rim 

To compound pain of the missed opportunity, Curry runs down court at about 70% impulse power and lays it in with no Cavs resistance. 

The Warriors do have numbers, but J.R. Smith makes a disadvantage into a sure score by not stopping the ball, and even running away to cover Thompson on the left wing. The Cavs transition defense killed them all game. 

1:52. 109-113. K. Irving misses 2-pt shot from 1 ft

1:50. 109-113. Offensive rebound by K. Irving

This play ends with Kyrie barely missing another high difficulty layup and coming up with a great hustle play to get the offensive rebound from Draymond on a weird bounce. But what’s also interesting is watching Curry shows off more techniques in gumming up the switch.

First, Curry does his imitation of a rhino and refuses to let J.R. Smith move freely. Then on the screen, J.R. Smith does force the switch, and seems so satisfied that he just stands there. Kyrie has to wave him to clear out. In the meantime, Curry just stands there. Klay Thompson waits until J.R. clears and comes over to double team Kyrie. This forces Kyrie to stop to re-compute, and Curry takes that second to un-switch himself back to J.R. Smith. Clearly Kyrie was dead set on isolation, but that fixation prevents him from forcing an advantageous switch. After all the rhinoing and switching and unswitching, Kyrie is attacking with 7 on the shot clock, 30 feet from the basket.  

1:29. 109-113. L. James misses 2-pt shot from 12 ft

Now LeBron resets to a high pick and roll with Korver, again trying to force the switch to Curry. Here Curry uses the High Tag defense we analyzed in gruesome detail back in The New Way Stephen Curry Defends LeBron James.  

Curry comes up to tag James before he can attack, and James (as we suggested) drives, right as Curry comes up. Andre Iguodala guns the engines to keep James from turning the corner, and James gets deep post position, but misses a tired looking fadeaway jumper. 

1:24. 109-113. Personal foul by K. Korver (drawn by K. Durant)

Durant comes out and attacks in early offense. It’s true that Kevin Love gets tangled up and left on the ground in pain, but he wouldn’t have helped on this play, as Durant runs past a jogging Kyrie Irving, a statue-like Kyle Korver, and finally has all the other Cavs collapse on him to foul under the basket. Have we mentioned the troubles of the Cavs transition defense?

1:15. 111-113. K. Durant makes 2-pt shot from 13 ft 

The Cavs defend the initial action here, which is an Elevator Doors play, but LeBron sticks to Durant, and frankly neither Curry nor Iguodala look too interested in being the screen door slamming shut on a full-speed LeBron. 

Durant turns the play into a simple screen from Green to force the switch to a rested Tristan Thompson. LeBron was exhausted at this point, otherwise he could have easily avoided the switch. Thompson just isn’t quite fast enough to stay with Durant, and he hits the short floater. Draymond alertly backs LeBron down under the basket to prevent him from helping on the drive.

0:53. 111-113. K. Korver misses 3-pt shot from 23 ft

0:52. 111-113. Defensive rebound by K. Durant 

LeBron said of this play:

“If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three screen situation, Draymond would switch on me with five fouls, I would get him leaning, I would drive left, I would see KD step up, I would see Steph Curry drop on Kevin (Love) and I would see Kyle Korver in the corner — one of the greatest three-point shooters in this league history — to give him the opportunity in the short corner. I would do the exact same thing.”

It’s obviously the correct basketball play, and the critics are really grasping here. In this play, watch how the Cavaliers try to get Curry to switch to LeBron, and how the Warriors avoid it. 

The Cavs run a real behemoth of a play, with a TRIPLE screen with Curry’s man at the right end. They ran this play last game, so Curry figures out quickly what’s going on, and he signals for Draymond to switch onto LeBron instead. After all the dust settles, Curry is still on J.R. Smith and Andre iguodala belatedly switches to Korver in the left corner. Curry, anticipating that Smith will come screen again for the switch, signals for Iguodala in the corner to switch. The two of them audaciously cross half of the court to switch. 

As LeBron drives on Draymond, Kevin Durant waits as the help defender goalie at the left post. That leaves Curry to guard both Kevin Love and Korver. Love alertly sets a hammer screen on Curry, LeBron drives into the Durant/Green double team and he fires a sweet pass to Korver. Curry figures out the play as Love makes contact and does a nifty spin move to go low around Love’s screen. Korver gets the shot away, but he has to shoot immediately to get over the contest of Curry. He can certainly hit that shot, but it’s no open jumper.  

0:45. 114-113. K. Durant makes 3-pt shot from 26 ft 

Kevin Durant is good at basketball.

LeBron give Durant just a bit too much room at the three point line, and a Phantom Cam highlight is born. 

0:27. 114-113. K. Irving misses 3-pt shot from 25 ft

The game is still very much in doubt. J.R. Smith tries to come over to screen for Kyrie to force the Curry switch. Watch how the W’s fight against the switch.

Curry gives Smith the rhino treatment again, trying to hold up Smith long enough for Iguodala to switch onto him (to avoid Curry’s getting switched to Kyrie). Andre does switch, and Kyrie, perhaps tired of the wildlife show, waves Smith off, and Smith looks quite unhappy about the call. Curry calmly switches back to Smith as Kyrie isolates.  

Kyrie takes a long stepback for a three and misses short. Another tired looking shot. Curry, in a quietly important and fundamental play, goes in for the rebound. 

0:12. 116-113. L. James misses 3-pt shot from 23 ft (block by A. Iguodala)

The Cavs inexplicably let the Warriors dribble the clock down from 26 to 13 before fouling. They are still very much in the game. But oddly, needing a 3, Korver is not in the game, and they run an oddball play. 

It looks like the first option is Kyrie getting the ball up top on a curl, presumably to drive with J.R. Smith and LeBron in the corners. However, Thompson screens for Kyrie, and Draymond freely leaves Tristan Thompson (no 3 point threat) to sag back at the free throw line to stop a Kyrie drive, so Klay Thompson can go over the screen. 

Instead, Love hits James in the corner, and Iguodala tries a very risky strip of LeBron as he goes up for the three. James doesn’t get three free throws, nor does he hit an and-1 three, so Andre exacts revenge for The Block 2016 with The Strip 2017. 

Final Thoughts

It’s too late for the Cavs to fix up their transition defense. The time for building the schemes, communication and habits was the regular season. Notably, the Warriors had poor transition defense and switching at the start of the season, but they made it a point of emphasis to the point where the switching is elite and the transition defense is good.

The Cavs are still capable of winning Game 4. After all, Game 3 was basically a crapshoot. However, the Warriors seem to have found a few more tools working in their fight to keep Curry from getting isolated on defense, and we will see if the Cavs can exploit him as easily as they did for stretches of Game 3.