Cleveland Cavaliers' defensive approach may need to change for must-win Game 3 of NBA Finals

Jay Asser 21:17 05/06/2018
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Kevin Love has had his hands full defending Stephen Curry one-on-one.

It’s now or never for the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose season will be on the line in a must-win Game 3 as the NBA Finals shift to Quicken Loans Arena.

No team in NBA history has ever overcome a 3-0 series hole and that task seems even more impossible against this talented Golden State Warriors side, which means Cleveland are out of time for figuring things out.

Their defensive coverages have to be tight and their shooting has to bounce back on Wednesday night if they hope to make this a series, instead of the lopsided affair it was last year.

The Cavaliers’ adjustments will centre on defence, where they’ll have to come up with a way to slow down Golden State’s prolific attack to give them some sort of margin for error on the other end of the floor.

It all starts with containing Stephen Curry, who has already hit 14 triples in the series, including a Finals record nine in Game 2.

Cleveland’s game plan has so far mostly been to switch everything defensively, except when Curry hunts out Kevin Love for a mismatch. In those situations, the Cavaliers have tried to avoid leaving Love on an island with Curry by trapping or having Love jump out aggressively to invite Curry drives.

That strategy wasn’t an unequivocal success in Game 1, but Cleveland managed to not get completely dismantled on those possessions. That wasn’t the case in Game 2, however, as the Warriors countered by having the screen-setter slip before the Cavaliers could switch, which left the defence in a confused state and a Golden State big man diving uncovered to the basket.

When Cleveland abandoned that approach and just had everyone switch all the time, Curry smoked them by catching fire and splashing 3s off the dribble.

There’s no real right answer for how to guard Curry, but it may be time for Cleveland to break out their trapping method, which they used with relative success in the pre-Kevin Durant clashes. That means having not just Love, but every Cavaliers player involved in the Curry screen swarm him to force the ball out of his hands. From there, Cleveland will have to hold up in a 4-on-3 situation on the back end, but that becomes easier when Golden State are playing two non-shooters with either JaVale McGee, Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell alongside Draymond Green.

That would absolve the players involved in the Curry screen of having to constantly be in the right position, but it would still require constant communication for the other defenders to overcome a math equation not in their favour.

“That’s our game plan defensively,” Tristan Thompson said of the switch-everything scheme. “We saw Houston do a good job doing that so we piggybacked that. With that said, we have to do a better job of communicating.

“With this team, they move a lot. They’re not conventional. NBA-style team. They have guys that are moving constantly and if you stop for a second and relax Klay [Thompson] and Steph will get open in the corner or KD or Draymond will get a back cit. We have to have our head on a swivel for the entire 24 seconds and give maximum effort.”

Offensively for the Cavaliers, it may be as simple as knocking down shots.

With the ball constantly in LeBron James’ hands, Cleveland are generating good looks as the Warriors have had to pick their position between letting James feast one-on-one or force his teammates to beat them. The latter hasn’t happened yet as the Cavaliers are just 8-of-32 on 3-pointers off James’ passes in the series, including 5-of-16 when it’s been an uncontested shot.

J.R. Smith has been representative of Cleveland’s shooting woes as he’s converting just 26.3 per cent from the field through two games. However, he was also next to useless in the first two games in Boston last round before going 6-of-10 from deep in the following two games at home.

That was also the case in the past two Finals – Smith shot 7-of-18 from deep in 2016 and 10-of-19 last year in the Cavaliers’ first two home games of the series after going 2-of-7 and 1-of-4 on the road, respectively.

Smith and the rest of Cleveland’s role players are out of excuses now. They’ll have the comfort of being at home and more open shots are likely on the way with Golden State keying in on James.

This will be the last chance they have at making this a competitive series.

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