Kevin Durant delivered two daggers in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, both piercing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hearts – his deep 3-pointer in the final minute to seal a win and his performance as a whole to effectively end the series.
This was the type of game the Cavaliers needed to get back on track at home. Their role players stepped up, they killed the Warriors on the glass, Klay Thompson was a non-factor and, perhaps most importantly, Stephen Curry had one of the worst shooting nights of his career.
And yet none of it mattered in the end because Durant’s transcendent performance washed over everything like a tidal wave engulfing everything in its path.
As the best player on the floor in Game 3, Durant scored a career playoff-high 43 points on 15-of-23 shooting, while adding 13 rebounds and seven assists to take complete control of the Finals.
His unstoppable nature was on full display throughout as he rose over defenders from beyond the arc and in the mid-range to score effortless bucket after effortless bucket.
All of that culminated in Durant’s 3-pointer with 49.8 seconds left to give the Warriors a six-point lead.
It was nearly the same shot – from almost the same spot on the floor – that Durant hit in Game 3 of last year’s Finals, which also helped give Golden State a 3-0 lead.
Kevin Durant— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) June 7, 2018
2017 Game 3
2018 Game 3 pic.twitter.com/HdR3nxI3jX
This one, however, was even deeper and came from 33 feet out, making it one of four triples Durant hit in the game that were from 30-plus feet. He had previously made only one shot from that distance in any single game, regular season or playoffs, in his career.
The Cavaliers simply had no answer for Durant. LeBron James defended him for stretches and took on the responsibility at the end of the game, but the Warriors threw off the match-up by setting a screen and forcing a switch. Thanks to his combination of length and shooting, Durant is ungradable as it is, but when he’s firing on all cylinders like he was in Game 3, no defence can slow him down in a one-on-one setting.
Durant has been the Warriors’ fail-safe since he joined in the summer of 2016 and while a high volume of shots by him doesn’t usually translate to the offence playing their preferred brand, he significantly raises their floor as a security blanket on nights when Curry and Thompson are misfiring.
Game 3 was one of those nights and in the pre-Durant days, it would have almost certainly been a loss against a LeBron-led team. But against this version of Golden State, you need all three of their offensive stars to have an off game to ensure victory. They can each cover for one another – something James doesn’t have the luxury of anymore with Kyrie Irving on longer around.
James could have used one of those sidekick-becomes-the-hero performances Irving used to provide so often in Game 3. Even though he had a triple-double with 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, it wasn’t a great game by James’ standards.
He appeared dead set on getting his teammates involved from the jump as he turned the corner on drives with the intent of finding open shooters. The strategy worked initially as Cleveland’s role players found a bit of rhythm, but by the end when shots weren’t falling, James hadn’t established enough of a scoring rhythm himself and couldn’t get a bucket at will like he could in the series opener. He also settled for 3-pointers far too often on a night his jumper wasn’t falling, going 1-of-6 from beyond the arc.
For the Cavaliers to have any chance of beating the Warriors, James has to bring his A-game every night. The key difference between the teams is that Golden State can get away with only one of Durant, Curry or Thompson bringing theirs.
It’s a trap
Speaking of Curry, it would be easy to say from looking at his stat line – 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting and 1-of-10 from deep – that Cleveland figured out how to shut him down by employing an aggressive trapping scheme.
The reality, however, is that the Cavaliers’ use of the trap benefitted them only in one way and that was getting the ball out of Curry’s hands more. His rough shooting night was more a result of him missing shots he normally drains and at times pressing the issue whenever he encountered single coverage.
The trade-off for that was countless easy dunks and layups for the Warriors in 4-on-3 situations. With Durant or Thompson spotting up near the corners and Curry handling the ball, that allowed one of Golden State’s non-shooters to set a screen and the other to be Curry’s outlet at the top of the key – usually Draymond Green – after getting trapped. The result was Green getting a pass in open space and playing 2-on-1 with his defender, who was stuck in the middle between him and the screen-setting roll man. With the Cavaliers hugging up on Durant and Thompson, there were no help defenders to deter easy dives to the rim.
The screens set were more touch-and-go leading to slips, which got the Warriors attacking downhill quicker and left the two Cleveland defenders trapping on Curry with an impossible foot race to win to get back in the play.
There are no right answers for the Cavaliers on how to defend the Warriors. Either they trap and get sliced up like they did in Game 3, or switch everything and leave someone like Kevin Love on an island with Curry.
Cleveland don’t have the versatile and switchable personnel Houston do, so they can’t come close to fielding the ideal defence required to consistently bother Golden State.
Sometimes, the other team is just that much better and there’s nothing you can do.
Though Iguodala is officially listed as a game-time decision for Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena, Warriors coach Steve Kerr was forthcoming on Wednesday to say there is a “good chance” the forward will play.
Andre Iguodala update from shootaround: Will warm up pregame, “game-time decision” per Kerr. Sounds like he’ll play. “Leaning in the right direction.”— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) June 6, 2018
After suffering a bruised left knee in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, Iguodala has been sidelined for the past six games.
While he may not play his usual minutes immediately as Kerr eases him back, Iguodala will immediately give a boost to Golden State on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, he gives the Warriors another body to throw on LeBron James, whether it’s full-time or sparingly. Iguodala has a history of at least bothering James, which includes him picking up Finals MVP honours in 2015 for “limiting” LeBron to 35.8 points per game on 39.8 per cent shooting.
Him being back in the lineup also allows Golden State to be more comfortable switching everything when they roll out the ‘Hamptons 5’.
So far in the series, the Warriors have mostly trotted out either Kevon Looney, JaVale McGee or Jordan Bell alongside their All-Star foursome, with varying degrees of success – the Looney lineup has an offensive rating of 114.1 and a defensive rating of 108.9 in 23 minutes; the McGee lineup has an offensive rating of 136.4 and a defensive rating of 122.8 in 19 minutes; and the Bell lineup has an offensive rating of 138.9 and a defensive rating of 138.6 in 10 minutes.
When Iguodala has been healthy in these playoffs, the Hamptons 5 have an offensive rating of 123.9 and a defensive rating of 101.1 in 110 minutes. They’ve not collectively faced LeBron yet but that lineup is a step above any other combination of players Golden State can throw on the court.
Offensively, Iguodala adds more spacing, even if Cleveland will live with him launching from the perimeter. Looney, McGee and Bell have served as capable roll men after setting screens, but Iguodala will allow the Warriors to play five-out, affording Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant more room to work with off the dribble.
But even more than the spacing boost he brings, Iguodala’s playmaking skills have been severely missed. Draymond Green does well as the trigger man at the top of the key, but Iguodala is a secondary point guard who allows Curry and Durant to operate more without the ball, which is when Golden State are at their deadliest.
Just what LeBron and the Cavaliers needed – another weapon for the Warriors to wield.
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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.
As I wrote before the series, I expected a lot more defensive possessions like this when the Warriors put Love in the pick-and-roll: https://t.co/wa4vOiQ3KF— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) June 4, 2018
“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.
JR Smith in 2017 NBA Finals:— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) June 2, 2018
Games 1-2: 1/6 FG, 3 PTS -30
Games 3-5: 19/31 FG, 56 PTS, +4
He rebounds after he disappoints. You should expect big things from him at some point this series.
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.