The Cleveland Cavaliers came out of the gate Thursday night seemingly determined to run the same play over and over again that won them the 2016 championship: hunt Stephen Curry.
That is, give the ball to LeBron James (or Kyrie Irving, but James can inflict more punishment), and have Curry’s man (usually J.R. Smith) set a ball screen for James. This play works for two reasons: Curry usually can’t prevent James from scoring on a switch, and he takes an absolute pounding when jostling with The King. It’s a good way to score, but also a good way to weaken one of the best offensive players in the game.
The Warriors’ strategy on those ball screens Thursday was different from last year – Curry would hard hedge well before the screen arrived, then try to scurry back to his man. While this allowed him to avoid getting switched onto James, it wasn’t a particularly effective tactic. The Cavaliers put up 30 points in the first quarter, when they ran some version of this cruelty on just about every possession. James could split the defenders pretty easily, or he could pass the ball to a wide-open Smith with a four-on-three to work with. While Smith is no Draymond Green as a playmaker, that’s still a pretty tasty setup.
Playing such a repetitive style requires discipline. Once the Warriors started going bananas on offense in the third quarter, Cleveland fell behind – and all but abandoned the “hunt Curry” strategy, instead, treating possessions as if it were a Tuesday night game in January. The iso-heavy style also creates a caveman-like, slow-mo atmosphere – an absolute must if you want to beat the go-go Warriors. High possession games favor the better team. Golden State is the better team. If Cleveland is going to win, it’s going to have to do so in an ugly way. Hunt Curry isn’t pretty, but it’s effective.
Furthermore, when James is asked to play 40-plus minutes, guard Kevin Durant on one end and carry the offense on the other, a fast-paced game is the last thing he needs. He’s (kind of) human, and was clearly winded Thursday. On possessions James isn’t the ballhandler on pick-and-rolls, let Irving isolate, or let him take a crack at Curry on a switch. A possession in which perhaps the best isolation scorer in the game gets to go to work while James gets 20 seconds of rest is a net positive.
It’s understandable why the Cavaliers strayed from this. Once the deficit hit double digits, it wasn’t the quickest way to come back. It’s kind of like a football team with a great running game that’s going up against Tom Brady: the goal should be to control the time of possession and limit his opportunities. Once you fall behind by two touchdowns, the temptation to air it out yourself and ditch the running game is awfully tough to resist.
No matter how hard it is, you should resist. Because you’re not going to fight fire with fire against Tom Brady and come out on top. The same goes for Durant, Curry and the Warriors.
Had the Cavaliers stayed married to the Hunt Curry strategy, they almost certainly would have lost. Keyword: almost. The Warriors are better. The Cavaliers have certain advantages, but Golden State is playing a different sport than everyone else.
But slow-it-down, cruel, unapologetic bully ball is the Cavaliers’ only shot in this series. The good news is they’ve seen it work before. The bad news is it’s not a particularly fun way to play basketball.
You know what is fun, though? A parade. While Cleveland likely isn’t having one this summer, it needs to try to replicate its winning blueprint from 2016. While the odds aren’t promising, it’s something the Warriors struggle with. That list isn’t long.