Why the Cavs Warriors Christmas rematch wasn't just a regular season game
This season has been a very unpredictable one for the NBA. Among the many surprises, have been the performance of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who after their rough 5-7 start have won 19 of their last 22 games despite having faced a multitude of injuries to key players. This level of play has been led by their star player, LeBron James, who has produced a monstrous campaign in his 15th season while arguably leading the MVP race so far into the season.
However, in the nationally televised Christmas game against the defending champions, the Cavs faltered and lost in a close game by a mere 7 points. Though many were quick to dismiss the game as being “just a regular season game”, there were quite a few warning signs both offensively and defensively that could foreshadow the outcome should the Cavs reach the Finals again.
Like always, Cleveland's offense has been running through James. Most of the Cavs offensive plays begin with LeBron being given the ball either deep in the frontcourt or at the elbow, and all of the subsequent offense lies upon LeBron’s ability to get past his defender and close to the rim. Though the Cavs have employed such a basic offense, it has been very successful for them so far; the Cavs have maintained the third-best offensive rating in the NBA despite missing two of their biggest offensive contributors in Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas for extended periods of time.
However, this offense has worked effectively for them mainly because most teams simply lack multiple defenders needed to prevent LeBron from getting to the paint. The Golden State Warriors, however, have four defenders who can do a good job of guarding LeBron in Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Tristan Thompson, and Andre Iguodala, all of whom can play together for long stretches of time.
Whenever the Cavs initiated their offensive plays by giving LeBron the ball, the Cavs would through a screen try to get him a mismatch so that he could get past the defender and initiate the rest of the Cavs offense. However, with so many competent defenders on the floor, there isn't a mismatch that LeBron could really take advantage of. He is, hence, forced to take on a good defender one-on-one, and as the Cavs have no other sophisticated plays to generate offense out of their role players, the Cavs responded by employing high amounts of isolation basketball. The Cavaliers role players were left completely disengaged from the game, and hence scored only 41 points in the game, a far cry from how much they score on average.
Though the Cavs did miss Isaiah Thomas, who is at his peak one of the best offensive players in the league while the Warriors at full strength still have more offensive weapons than the Cavs with Isaiah. The Cavs hence need a massive over hall of their offense in order to compete offensively with the Warriors.
On the defensive end, the Cavs played relatively well, containing the Warriors to only 99 points and 10 three-point field goals. Though this was no doubt impressive, the Warriors were missing two time MVP Stephen Curry. As a result, the Warriors had only a maximum of two elite scoring talents on the floor with Durant and Thompson.
The Cavs hence were able to employ a strategy similar to what they used in the 2016 Finals, where they trapped the primary scorer, which in this case was Durant, and let the other Warriors on the floor score. Though Durant played well, he was still forced to give up the ball many times, and other Warriors players were forced to create for the team. However, the problem that the Cavs faced in the 2017 NBA finals, and would if they meet the Warriors again, was that if they trapped Durant, Curry would be open, and vice versa.
The presence of two players of such offensive capability makes the trapping defensive scheme that the Cavs used ineffective, and the Cavs were forced to guard man to man, where the Cavs do not have the personnel needed to contain an offense like the Warriors. Hence, though the Cavs defensive performance against the Warriors may be an encouraging sign, the lack of Stephen Curry's presence on the floor definitely made containing the Warriors a whole lot easier.
The Cavs-Warriors Christmas game was a very closely contested game from start to finish, but the disparities between the quality of basketball played between both teams was evident. Though the Warriors suffered from turnover problems through most of the game, they were still able to win the game, containing the Cavs to only 32% from the field. For the Cavs to win the 2018 NBA finals, a drastic over hall of both the offense and defense is necessary, or else, history may repeat itself once again.