Both Teams Played Hard: 2017 NBA Finals Game 1 Breakdown

Game 1 gave us the good, the bad, and the ugly of this third meeting between the NBA’s two best teams. Upon review let’s look at how KD and Steph exploded and what Cleveland flaws were unearthed.

Image Courtesy of Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

New year. New rosters. Similar result.

All the hype heading into the 2017 NBA Finals tilting the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors quartet of stars (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson) and Game 1 produced another blowout for the second straight year.

However, the difference between the two years was pretty obvious from the start, and that difference was Durant.

The langley seven-foot assassin made his return to the sport’s biggest stage after a five-year hiatus. The intensity of the moment was not lost on Durant and he spearheaded the Warriors attack throughout the first half as he poured in 23 points in two quarters. Durant was relentless in his offensive onslaught. He shot over smaller defenders with ease, attacked Cavs big men down hill on switches, and made James use a considerable amount of effort defensively.

It culminated in a 38-point, 8-assist and 8-rebound performance (he’s one of five players to ever post those numbers in an NBA Finals game) and a lopsided 113–91 victory for Golden State.

With Game 2 not until Sunday night, the extra time between games gives us a chance to really dig into what happened for both teams. Below we’ll get glimpses of game plan and execution from both teams to ultimately tell why things turned out the way they did.


CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Image Courtesy of Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

While the final score didn’t reflect kindly on the type of game Cleveland had in Game 1, they did keep it under double-digits after the first 24 minutes. With the scoreboard reading 60–52 at halftime there was a prevailing thought that the Cavaliers were lucky to not be down more.

Well, in the second half the more came.

One of the biggest reasons for the lackluster performance from the Cavs stems from their defensive philosophy. Let’s see what exactly head coach Ty Lue cooked up and how poor execution really doomed Cleveland.

Defend The 3-Point Line

Golden State possesses three of the deadliest outside shooters in the NBA (Curry, Thompson and Durant) and it was clear that Cleveland was going into the game with the plan of taking away as many outside looks from the Warriors as they could.

There’s an old saying, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” God’s laugh sounds like thunderous Kevin Durant dunks.

The Warriors are a terror in transition and they ran every chance they got en route to outscoring Cleveland 27–9 on fastbreak points.

One reason for this was that Cavalier defenders sold out to prevent transition 3-point looks for Curry and Thompson. With Durant pushing the ball up the court he was often the last player to be picked up as he came down the floor.

Far too often Durant-led breaks looked like this clip.

Curry is always one of the first players down the court with or without the ball in transition. The threat of Curry increases the further over half court he gets. In the play above, simply calling for the ball draws both Kyrie Irving and James to him, which results in the lane being left wide-open for Durant to slam it home.

Durant once again gets the ball to initiate the fastbreak and once again Curry is his running mate down the floor. As Curry breaks to the 3-point line, J.R. Smith flows right with him as if he’s caught in Curry’s gravitational pull. Smith was the last line of defense for Cleveland and with him out of the way it leaves KD unchecked to saunter through the lane for another dunk.

When asked about the Cavs seemingly employing the tactic of selling out to the perimeter, Lue had this confusing exchange post game (via cleveland.com).

Q. Kevin had — Durant had plenty of dunks in the first half. It looked like guys were concerned about getting out to the shooters and it left the lane wide open. How do you handle that in transition and what is the goal there when you got Kevin running free and shooters on the wing?
COACH LUE: Yeah, we kind of did something. One of our game plan was kind of backwards. But when Kevin Durant has the ball, you don’t want to leave him and get to shooters. But I thought they got him going early in the game. I thought he got out in transition, got four or five dunks early and it just kind of opened everything up for him. So we got to make it much tougher on him, can’t give a great scorer like Durant easy baskets like that, especially in transition, especially early. So we got to do a better job of taking that away.
Q. So was that the idea to stay with the shooter?
COACH LUE: No.
Q. You said the game plan was backwards?
COACH LUE: No, yeah, I’ll tell you later.

Going into Game 2, Cleveland needs to sure up their defensive priorities. It seemed like the message of containing Durant off the dribble got through to the team in the second half. Watch as Smith adjusts to Durant making a beeline for the rim in transition during the third quarter.

However, the play finishes with an open 3-pointer from Curry instead of an uncontested Durant slam. Defending the Warriors on the break is the basketball equivalent of playing high-speed chicken.

Isolation and Frustration

During the 2016 NBA Finals, part of the reason the Cavaliers were able to battle back from a 3–1 deficit was their ability to involve Curry in every play as a defender.

The plan was simple, whoever Curry was guarding would set a screen for LeBron or Irving. The Warriors as a team choose to switch most pick-and-rolls and because of this Curry often found himself matched up against James and Irving: advantage Cavaliers.

Golden State tried to find ways to minimize the time Curry spent on those two, but in the end Cleveland got the looks they wanted enough to bring home the title.

To start of this series Cleveland went back to that well. This time Golden State was better prepared to defend it.

Whenever the man Curry was guarding approached James Curry would hedge hard towards James before the screen was set. As LeBron drove towards Curry, LeBron’s initial defender would go under the screen and attempt to meet LeBron before he could begin his drive towards the hoop.

Instead of getting the switch they sought after, most times the play would look like what happens above. James would get cut off prior to getting into the paint and the help defense would rotate and adjust properly to close off any openings for other Cleveland players.

Listening to Hubie Brown on ESPN Radio it was clear to hear the disgust he had with the Cavaliers offensive attack. Trying to slow the game down is a good thought against the Warriors, but if slowing the game down means stagnating your offense then there is no real advantage gained in draining down the clock possession after possession.

James and Irving are phenomenal one-on-one scorers, but Golden State would gladly accept them shooting 45 percent from the field (James shot 9–20 and Irving finished 10–22).

When Cleveland is able to force the Warriors into favorable matchups they are going to score. Cleveland didn’t compile a playoff-high offensive rating of 118.3 by accident. The skill is there, but the execution was lacking in Game 1.


GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Image Courtesy of Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Golden State did not look their best in Game 1 and that is scary in retrospect.

The build up to this game clearly affected both teams and outside of Durant’s brilliance early, there was a lot left on the court for the Warriors in the first half.

Besides the open looks from Durant — and multiple missed looks in the paint to begin the game — the Warriors were carried by their energy and effort defensively. Adding Durant gives them another Swiss Army Knife defender to unleash with Green and Thompson to wreak havoc on the opposition.

Defensive Strength In Numbers

The biggest takeaway from Game 1 is the type of defense that Golden State played for 48 minutes. Cleveland’s Offensive Rating for Game 1 was 89.2. Almost a full 30 points lower than what they were averaging coming into the Finals.

Green, the likely Defensive Player of the Year, was stationed on either Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love for most of the game. After picking up two early fouls in the first quarter, Green would only notch two more for the rest of the game.

With Green on the court, Golden State often employs him like a ball-hawking safety. He has free range to attack any ball in the air if he believes he can force a turnover.

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In the above video from Mike Prada of SB Nation, you get to see Green’s defensive genius on full blast. He begins by telling Durant and Curry to switch assignments to kill the James-Smith pick-and-roll that hasn’t even happened yet. As Cleveland checks out of that play, they opt instead to have Love post up on the block with Curry defending him. This is exactly what Green expected. Green lulls James into thinking Love will be isolated on Curry down low, but the moment LeBron lobs the ball towards Love Green is sprinting over to intercept the pass.

Next on Golden State’s defensive totem pole is Andre Iguodala. Iguodala has a Finals MVP trophy at home because of his ability to make life more difficult for James offensively. In Game 1 Golden State used Iguodala as the primary defender on James and Irving. Iguodala does a great job of anticipating a player’s move and then using his length to wall off the interior.

Here, he and Durant combine to completely stifle both Irving and James on the same possession. Iguodala begins it by mirroring Kyrie and then staying tall and knocking the ball loose as he goes up for a layup. Iguodala’s defensive IQ is on par with Green’s and his quick hands cause a lot of loose balls.

Another interesting tactic that the Warriors employed was to double team Irving out of pick-and-rolls. A lot of teams try to corral him, but Golden State is one of the few that have the requisite athletes to execute it.

Irving is not an elite playmaker like James, and if done right doubling him can lead to turnovers or sloppy play from the Cavaliers.

Zaza Pachulia and Curry do just enough to hassle Irving in the corner and by the time he escapes the double he is unable to keep a handle of his dribble. Whenever there’s a loose ball around Green you can be sure that he will be one of the first on the ground. He caps this defensive possession off with a superb save that ignites a Warriors fastbreak.

And despite only making a single shot in Game 1, Klay was at his best on the defensive end. With Durant, Green and Iguodala being interchangeable defensively, Thompson can become the forgotten member in terms of his importance on that end as well.

Video Courtesy of @TomWestNBA / Fan Rag Sports

Here he does a great job of executing the Cavaliers scheme of running shooters off the the 3-point line. Then he is stout enough as a defender to stick with Smith afterwards and force him into a difficult shot. It wasn’t just the supporting cast that Klay found himself covering yesterday. He also held his own when facing Irving and James.

Video Courtesy of @TomWestNBA / Fan Rag Sports

In the above play, Thompson is switched onto James who then isolates against him on the left wing. Klay remains close enough to keep James from rising up for a jumper and then he holds his own as James barrels into the paint and does just enough to influence LeBron’s shot to be slightly off the mark resulting in a miss.

These small moments add up over the course of the game. Thompson’s combination of length and strength allows he to be a deterrent to players of different makeups like Irving, James and Love. The Cavaliers went 1–12 from the field when Thompson was the primary defender. Thompson set the tone defensively by stonewalling Love in the post on Cleveland’s opening possession of the game.

Shoot Your Shot

The mantra of the Twitter era is also prominent in the way Golden State plays basketball. No two players are more efficient at shooting their shot than Curry and Durant.

In Game 1 we saw why.

Both players are great at scoring from all three levels of the court. Defending them comes down to trying to turn lemons into lemonade. They will capitalize on any opening that is given to them.

Kevin Durant has been destroying the NBA offensively since his rookie year and now he has the type of arsenal around him that makes it harder for opponents to lock in on him completely.

Steph Curry looks like the Curry we’ve come to love and expect from his regular season showings over the past three seasons, including his back-to-back MVP years.

Words really don’t do justice for what they are capable of, so to finish off this recap of Game 1 let’s just re watch the beauty that is these two future Hall of Famers playing basketball.