Suffice it to say, a lot of things went wrong for the Cleveland Cavaliers in their 22-point loss to the Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. They turned it over 20 times. They gave up 11 offensive rebounds. They got virtually no production from anyone outside Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. They lost track of guys on out-of-bounds plays, surrendering dunks and layups. Tristan Thompson was all but invisible. We could go on and on here, but you get the point. The Cavs were not good. In many areas, they were flat out bad. But the one area for which they were most roasted, that seemingly endless reel of uncontested Kevin Durant dunks, ironically, was one of the best things they did all night.
I know what you’re saying. Allowing a player like Durant, with a full head of steam, to go completely free to the rim, without so much as a cursory challenge, is in violation of all conventional basketball wisdom. Anyone who got as far as middle school hoops knows the first rule of transition defense is to stop the ball and worry about everything else later. But with the Warriors, you have to think differently. Worry differently.
You often hear about the basic math problem the Warriors create, which is to point out the obvious that three points is more than two, and over the course of a game that extra point over and over again is just too much to keep up with. Well, that math works both ways. For the defense, two is better than three, even at a higher percentage, and even if those two points are coming in the form of six emphatic Durant dunks, the most in a Finals game since Shaq in 2004.
The Cavs, very clearly, made a decision long before Game 1 even started that they were not going to give up transition threes. Watch here as the defense scrambles to shooters running the lane rather than toward Durant, resulting in a wide-open dunk.
Here, they do it again, with J.R. Smith making a split-second decision to follow Curry to the wing rather than stop Durant.
Again, this looks bad. The crowd starts going crazy and it suddenly feels like the Warriors are blowing you out. But in fact, even with all these dunks, the Cavs were only down five after one quarter, and eight at halftime. The Cavs weren’t playing great, but they were within striking distance, in large part because they weren’t allowing the Warriors to win the 3-point battle. The Cavs, in fact, made seven first-half 3-pointers to the Warriors’ three. That’s a 12-point differential. Without that, Cleveland is down 20 at the break.
Now fast-forward to the second half, when the Warriors’ lead ballooned as high as 24. What changed? You guessed it: Golden State started shooting, and making, more threes. Take a look at this one below. It’s almost the exact same scenario, Durant coming down the lane, only this time, the Cavs, just for a split second, instinctively move toward Durant and don’t fan out cover to shooters.
This is what kills you vs. the Warriors. You can hang around when they’re making twos, even when they’re dunks that feel like more than two points, but when they start raining threes, you’re cooked. In the second half, as the Cavs lost more and more energy and focus, and thus began compromising their guard-the-three-at-all-cost principles, the Warriors wound up hitting nine threes to the Cavs’ four. That’s a 15-point differential the other way. Game over.
Now, this isn’t to say winning the 3-point battle is the only thing the Cavs need to do to compete, let alone beat, the Warriors, and hopefully there is some kind of middle ground between letting guys go free to the rim and leaving shooters open that they can find in Game 2. Either way, at the end of the day, to me, three things need to happen for Cleveland to compete. One, the Warriors can’t be clicking on all cylinders. If they are, the Cavs, or anyone else for that matter, can’t beat them. Two, Kyrie and LeBron have to at least match Curry and Durant, and probably outscore them altogether. And three, Cleveland needs to pretty much devote its undivided defensive attention to guarding the 3-point line, and hopefully in the process, win the 3-point battle.
In the first half of Game 1, all three of those things happened. The Warriors were not collectively great, as evidenced by their missing 15 shots in the paint, many of them point-blank layups, and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combining for just four points on 2-of-10 shooting. Curry and Durant were great with 35 combined points, but so were LeBron and Kyrie with 36. And the Cavs won the three-point battle. Because of that, even though they gave up those 11 offensive rebounds and the Warriors only turned it over once, they were within striking distance.
And look, that’s really the Cavs’ best blueprint for success as a pretty decided underdog, to stay close long enough to allow Kyrie and LeBron, two of the best scorers in the world, to take over in a possession game down the stretch. All of Durant’s dunks notwithstanding, they were doing that until they gave up the 3-point battle in the second half, when Curry and Durant combined for seven 3-pointers and the Warriors ran off for good.
Ultimately, the Cavs need to change a couple things if they want to steal Game 2. They can’t give up so many offensive rebounds, for starters, and ideally they would cut those 20 turnovers in half. But the 3-point line is the killer. In Game 1, when they guarded it at all costs, which included letting Durant produce his own highlight show, they were in the game. The moment they stopped doing that, they got blown out. Do the math. Two points is two points. Three points is three points. For the Cavs, two points is better than three. Always. Against the Warriors, there is just no other way to approach it.