Both Teams Played Hard: 2016 NBA Finals Game 1 Breakdown

John W. McDonough/Getty Images

The NBA Finals are underway, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet for the second straight season. However, this series is very different than the six-game slug-fest we saw these two battle through last year.

First off, both teams are much healthier than last year — mainly for Cleveland who now have both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the court — and these are the two teams that have both adapted best to the new pace and space age of the modern NBA.

Entering the Finals both teams had made 200-plus three pointers in the postseason (212 for Golden State and 202 for Cleveland) and shot over 40 percent from deep (40 percent for Golden State and a league-high 43 percent for Cleveland).

But, you know all of this. Sports network after sports network has bludgeoned you over the head with stats like these — all year for the Warriors and all postseason in the Cavaliers case. You also know that Game 1 was decided by theWarriors bench outscoring Cleveland’s 45–10. Even if you didn’t LeBron James did his damnedest to make sure you did in the post-game.

Yet, stats don’t tell the full story. The motto of the 2016 NBA Playoffs has been that the NBA is a “make or miss league”. While the Warriors defensive effort had some hand in holding the Cavs to a field goal percentage of 38.1, Cleveland missed some good and open shots. The same can be said on Golden State’s end; Stephen Curry and KlayThompson only score 20 points combined and neither shot over 33 percent from the floor.

With Both Teams Played Hard I decided to take a look at the things that might have been overlooked on first watch. Take an inside look at what sets, plays, lineups, rotations, and/or matchups worked for both teams. The series takes it name for one of the memorable Rasheed Wallace taos of basketball and it’s my hope that it impacts as much wisdom as the quote from Sheed did.


Cleveland Cavaliers

Things didn’t turn out well for the Cavs in Game 1, but despite a 15-point loss there were several positives they could take away from the opening game. Listed below are my opinions on what Ty Lue and his team should be looking to usein order to get a victory in Game 2.

  • Kyrie Irving Isolations

While the talk after the game was that Cleveland’s lack of ball movement was part of the reason the Warriors held them in check I believe that if anyone had the right to be ball dominant in Game 1 it was Irving. Irving is the toughest guard that Golden State has had to defend all postseason. He can shoot like Dame Lillard and is a threat to score whenhe’s in the paint à la Russell Westbrook. However, it is his shiftiness and ability to play in tight spaces that make him different from the other two All-NBA guards. A quick look through his eight first quarter one-on-one plays you see he’s able to get five high quality shots.

In this first play he walks the ball down the floor after a Warriors basket into a high screen-and-roll with Tristan Thompson who’s being guarded by Andrew Bogut. With Steph Curry being walled off by Thompson’s screen that leaves Irving attacking the Warriors’ center downhill. Bogut prefers to lay back in the paint when defending the pick-and-roll, yet against Irving that space is potentially deadly. Here Irving rises up for an open three — Bogut doesn’t get a hand up until Irving is about to release the ball — but misses long.

A few possessions later Irving now opts to push the ball down the court after a Golden State make. Once again Thompson comes to set a high screen, but this time Irving’s defender (Klay Thompson) is able to maneuver around and make Tristan’s screen ineffective. Kyrie sees this and begins to attack baseline before crossing back over into what seems to be another pick-and-roll. Irving, however, rejects the screen as he sees Thompson shading that way in his stance. That opens the baseline once again and he is able to attack the rim and get an early foul on Klay (here’s a similar play that results in Thompson’s third foul of the first half).

On this possession Irving gives the ball up early and then drifts to the opposite corner as a kick out option. After the Warriors send help on a Love post up against Harrison Barnes, Love is able to find James on the wing. Golden State closes out hard to James who touch passes it to an open Irving still positioned in the corner. Draymond Green bolts out in an attempt to keep Irving from shooting a three. Kyrie sees the hard closeout coming and quickly attacks Green as he attempts to meet him at the three-point line. With Green on his heels and Bogut not wanting to leave Thompson open for a lob Irving is able to stop and drop in a wide-open 11-foot floater.

Irving collects the defensive rebound and looks to push the tempo. With the Warriors defense in retreat no one picks up Kyrie until he reaches the opposite three-point line. Andre Iguodala is still back pedaling as Irving approaches and he uses two quick crossovers to keep Iguodala at bay as he gets to the basket and scoops home the layup.

To end the first quarter Irving gets the ball and begins down the floor as he sizes up Curry. A hesitation dribble is all he needs to get a step on Curry and he’s next met at the basket by Anderson Varejao who does enough to keep Kyrie from converting at the rim — though Irving believed he was fouled.

All in all Irving had nine total plays where he brought the ball up and didn’t pass. Four of those came in the opening quarter and as shown above he got good looks when attacking his man one-on-one. I’m not advocating for Irving to singlehandedly attempt to bring “hero ball” back, but to completely eliminate Irving’s isolation attacks would be a bad move on the Cavs behalf.

  • Kevin Love Post Ups

One of the Irving plays highlighted above was a result of a Love post up play. Love has been turned into the dictionary definition of a stretch-four during his stint in Cleveland, but since Lue took over as coach there have been moments when the Cavs attempt to throw Love a bone by putting him in the post. When he was the man with the MinnesotaTimberwolves it was his outside shooting and his post play that made him such a difficult cover. In this series if Love is to have a true impact he will need to convert on these post touches.

Off the sideline out-of-bounds the Cavs go into a box set. Irving swings it over to James and as that happens Love goes to set a screen for JR Smith. The screen turns out to be a decoy as Love immediately pivots and pins Green on his back with deep post position. James fires it into Love’s waiting hands. Love feels Green giving him space and shoots an open turnaround jumper. Love tried a similar move in the third quarter with Klay defending him, but wasn’t able to knockdown the shot.

In the second quarter Lue tried the Cavs’ version of the “Death Lineup” (Matthew Dellavedova/Iman Shumpert/Richard Jefferson/James/Channing Frye) but it was ineffective as Steve Kerr countered by leaving Draymond Green on the floor and playing small-ball to allow wings to chase Frye off the three-point line. Here Love is doubled once he puts the ball on the ground. As Barnes and Iguodala trap Love he is able to make a quick decision and find Dellavedova. With Golden State scrambling to pick up their man Delly is able to attack his defender and make an open runner.

Seeing the Warriors keep Barnes on Love Cleveland goes right back to Love in the post. This time Golden State doesn’t send an immediate double. Love is able to back down Barnes, but Barnes does a good job of keeping Love from getting too deep in the paint. Green comes to double down as Love picks his dribble up, he then pump fakes a pass to Green’s man (LeBron) and as Green retreats Love goes into a baseline fadeaway that Barnes has no possibility of blocking. A quick four points — could have been six, but Love was called for an offensive foul on a Dellavedova layup — and it’s clear that Love feels he can take advantage of any of the Warriors wings.

After an Irving-Love pick-and-roll the Cavs get the matchup they want as Klay switches onto Love. Love gets the pass from Irving and spins quickly towards the baseline. Green has cheated over and is able to stop Love’s drive to the basket. This causes Love to try to kick out to the perimeter, but has his pass slip into the air and out-of-bounds. The quick move was great, it was the pass that needed to be better. JR Smith was wide open at the top of the key. If Love is able to better read the defense Smith gets a great look at three that possibly helps him take more than just three triples all game.

Here Love is being guarded by Varejao and after a pick-and-roll with James doesn’t pan out the ball is given to Love just outside the low block. Knowing he has a rare speed advantage Love quickly faces up and looks to take Varejao off the dribble. It almost works, but a slight forearm shiver drops Varejo to the ground and the officials award him by calling an offensive foul on Love.

  • LeBron James-Kyrie Irving PNR

One play that was a staple of the Cavaliers offense is a pick-and-roll where James is the ball handler and Irving is the screener. They tried this out in Game 1, however, they didn’t yield as many points for Cleveland as they could have.

As the game was starting to get away from them the Cavs looked to this pick-and-roll to get them easy looks. With Shaun Livingston on Irving and Iguodala on James Golden State switches without much thought. James then backs up and gets some take off room for his runway to the hoop. As he attacks Green helps off Love and James passes it to Love in the corner. Green does an excellent job of helping and recovering, yet Love still ends up with a makeable layup and James misses his follow-up layup as well.

On this play the Cavs add JR Smith as an extra screener before going into the James-Irving pick-and-roll. Once again,LeBron backs the ball out to build up speed as he attacks the rim. Though he gets another easy look from close he is unable to finish off the play. These close-range looks need to be converted at a higher rate if Cleveland is going to have a shot of taking a game from the Warriors at Oracle Arena.

This time they use the Kyrie LeBron PNR with Draymond being the defender on LeBron. When the Warriors switch it means Green is left to try and stay in front of Irving while James should be able to get good positioning on a recovering Iguodala. Irving is able to make the entrance pass to LeBron and he quickly uses two powerful back downs to get to the middle of the paint and within five feet of the hoop. However, it’s the quick and strong hands of Iguodala that keeps James from scoring. Iguodala cleanly swipes the ball away from LeBron before he can get the ball onto the rim.

On the first possession Iguodala enters the game the Cavs run the Kyrie-James PNR to get Curry switched onto James. James immediately tries to attack Curry. The first time results in a kick out to Irving who dishes it right back to James. James then bullies Curry into the paint and as the Warriors’ defenders cascade on top of him finds an open Love in the opposite corner. These are the shots Love was nailing with ease as Cleveland made mincemeat of their Eastern Conference foes. In Game 1 of the NBA Finals this shot happens to pop out after being half way down.

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors were able to win big despite getting a D-game from the Splash Brothers. Neither Klay or Steph were able to find their rhythm, but in their struggles the bench stepped up in a big way led by Livingston and Iguodala who scored 20 and 12 points respectively. Along with the resurrection of Leandrinho Barbosa — 11 points in 11 minutes on five for five shooting — the role players for Golden State did more than hold up their end of the bargain. In the end it was truly a total team effort that helped the Warriors secure a win in Game 1.

  • Harrison Barnes Aggressiveness

Barnes is a pivotal piece to the Warriors success. He has the ability to play both forwards positions and is good from inside and outside offensively. During his high school and college career he was looked at possibly as the next big thing and while he hasn’t reached those lofty expectations he has become a very solid NBA player. Early in Game 1 he scored seven straight points for Golden State. He would finish with 13 total, but those early first quarter points set the stage for other role players to confidently take and make shots all night.

The Warriors have one action that they do off the ball that is practically unguardable. It’s called “Split Action”; in these plays either Curry or Thompson set an off the ball screen for another member of Golden State after dumping the ball into the post. When a shooter like Curry or Thompson sets a screen both defenders involved pay closer attention to the shooter. Here that helps Barnes get a clean run to the middle of the rim and Bogut dimes him beautifully allowing Barnes to take contact from Tristan Thompson and finish a three-point play for his first points of the game.

To follow that up Barnes attacks the rim again, this time in transition. After Green pulls down a defensive rebound he immediately initiates the fast break for the Warriors. As the Cavs run back LeBron attempts to pass Barnes off to another player as he looks to pick up Curry on the wing — the Warriors love to get Curry and Thompson looks from deep off fast breaks. Irving is slow to recognize James’ defensive audible and this allows Barnes a free cut to the opposite block. Green sees the open Barnes a tad late and gives it up as Irving is closing in on him. Barnes has done well posting up on the left block and it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Barnes had elected to wait for Irving to close in on him on the post and then go to work from there. However, Aggressive Harrison quickly pivots around Irving and puts in the easy right hand layup.

With Barnes in a rhythm Golden State does a great job of recognizing a lesser defender (JR Smith) has switched ontoBarnes after setting a screen for Klay. Green swings it to Barnes on the wing and tells the other Warriors’ players to give him space. Barnes sizes up Smith and jabs at his high foot before sweeping through and taking Smith to the rim for a right-hand finish.

  • Transition Offense

Pushing the pace is an area where the Warriors truly thrive. Their combination of defensive acumen and three-point proficiency makes them an absolute terror on the break. Their ability to force turnovers springs their transition offense and their ability to switch defensive assignments at all times leaves the opposing team at a disadvantage. When Golden State comes back the opposing team is often matched up against players they don’t usually guard and as they try to sort themselves out the Warriors are often too busy putting the ball in the hoop to care. In Game 1 it looked like they were going to break the game open in the second quarter after their transition offense helped to push the lead to 43–29 midway through the second quarter.

Igoudala and Festus Ezeli checked in the game and both made an immediate impact. Off the Cleveland miss Golden State uses two passes to get the ball down to the corner on their end. With the Cavaliers trying to find their defensive matchups the players look o get to the shooters first. That allowed Ezeli to streak down the court unguarded and finish a two-handed slam with authority at the hoop.

This is classic Barbosa at it’s finest. He rebounds the James’ miss and pushes the ball right back down the Cav’s throat. Again the middle of the floor is open because even though the transition opportunity begins as a two-on-four those four Cleveland defenders all remain on the perimeter hoping to keep the Warriors from getting a decent look at three.Barbosa sees the paint is open and puts the moves on Dellavedova — a crossover followed by a behind-the-back dribble — and gets to the hoop to finish easily.

Another transition opportunity ends in a Barbosa basket. Here the ball is tipped into Klay’s hands and he quickly pushes the ball ahead. Again, there isn’t a clear numbers advantage for the Warriors as both teams have three players back. Thompson being the lethal shooter he is takes first priority for the Cavs and as they stop him he gives the ball up to the wing where Iguodala has spaced out to. Iguodala goes to attack the basket with Barbosa in the corner; as he drives Iman Shumpert stunts at him in hopes to slow down his drive attempt. While Shumpert’s stunt does what he intends it leaves Barbosa open in the corner. Iguodala throws it to Barbosa and besides getting his feet tangled with referee Ed Malloy he is all alone for a corner three.

This play is initiated by the swipe on Kyrie Irving by Andre Iguodala. The ball bounces into the hands of Steph Curry. His quick burst opens up a three-on-two fast break for Golden State. With Thompson and Green on the wings it’s a lose-lose situation for Love as he runs back to the paint. Shumpert attempts to stop Curry’s dribble, but it leaves him out of position and gives Thompson a clear path to the hoop. Curry gets the bounce pass past Shumpert’s outstretched foot and Thompson finishes for his easiest two points of Game 1.

  • Active Hands/Verticality

With three first half fouls LeBron does a smart thing and attacks Klay on the opening possession of the third quarter. However, Thompson smartly backpedals as James thunders down the lane toward him. As James anticipates contact from Klay’s body, Thompson is able to swipe away at the exposed basketball. Guarding LeBron is hard. Guarding freight train LeBron is damn near impossible. This is textbook on the part of Thompson and his ability to play with fouls was huge for Golden State.

A second LeBron versus Klay possession. This one ends almost identically to the first. James goes downhill on Thompson only to finish with the ball knocked out of his hands and off his body for a turnover. One difference here is that this time Bogut also comes to close down on James’ drive. The extra body and arms makes it highly unlikely that James will get off a decent look at the rim. Bogut has done a great job of using the rule of verticality to his advantage. He is often less athletic than the person he’s meeting at the rim, but with his 7'3" wingspan and 9'2.5" standing reach he is able to wall off the rim when defending the paint.

~click “Iguodala REBOUND (Off:3 Def:4)”~

This clip shows just what the Cavs were facing all night in the paint. If the Cavs are going to have success against the Warriors finishing shots within the paint should be the main area of improvement they focus on .Just take a look at the difficulty they had in the restricted area during Game 1 against the Warriors, courtesy of ESPN’s Zach Lowe.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”>

Stat to watch tonight: In 3 games vs GSW, Cavs are 46-of-96 (48%) from restricted area — lowest figure GSW has allowed vs any opponent.

— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) <a href=”https://twitter.com/ZachLowe_NBA/status/739477333233569793">June 5, 2016</a></blockquote>
<script async src=”//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8">


With LeBron James’ led teams being 9–0 following a Game 1 lost this series is far from over. Remember, just last year James followed up a disappointing Game 1 defeat to the Warriors by absolutely taking over on way to a 39-point, 16-rebound and 11-assist effort in a 95–93 victory at Oracle Arena — oddly enough we’re just two days short of it being a full 365 days since this awe-inspiring game from James.

This series will all be about adjustments and there’s plenty for both teams to make as the games go on. However, as almost every history teacher I had ever told me, “If you don’t learn from the past than you’re bound to repeat it.”

  1. All videos and stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted
  2. I apologize for having to open the video in a new window to view, am working on making them GIFs or an embedded video for next time!