Heading into the 2017 NBA Finals, many wondered how exactly the Cleveland Cavaliers would defend Kevin Durant, the four-time scoring champion and former NBA Most Valuable Player that the Golden State Warriors didn’t have the last time these two teams squared off in the championship round. In the first half of Thursday’s Game 1, the answer on at least a few occasions was … um … they wouldn’t:
OK, so the first one’s hard to blame on the Cavaliers too much. Stephen Curry threw an inbounds pass to what he thought would be a back-cutting Klay Thompson, only to see Klay juke back the other way. What could, and possibly should, have been a turnover instead wound up bouncing harmlessly all the way to the far corner and into Durant’s hands. After a quick juke move that sent LeBron James slipping, he drove the baseline and elevated for the thunderous flush.
After that, though, the Cavs … well, they had some problems stopping the ball in transition.
At first glance, you find yourself wondering why the hell the Cavs appear to be running away from one of the most dangerous scorers in the league to allow him a wide open lane to dunk the ball.
Cleveland is treating KD like he's Moses parting the Red Sea. Weird defensive strategy.
— EvanZ, LLC (@thecity2) June 2, 2017
The reason, of course: Stephen Curry, the deadliest shooter the NBA has ever seen, is streaking down the floor to the left corner, and nobody wants to leave him alone for a wide-open corner 3.
“You could tell that their game plan was to take the 3 away,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said after Golden State finished off a 113-91 blowout win to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals. “And when you do that, when they do that, you got to drive the basketball.”
“We were stressing to our wings, [head coach] Steve [Kerr] stressed to our wings even at halftime, ‘Hey, run the floor and fill the corners,” Warriors acting head coach Mike Brown added. “If you do that, with the way we shoot the ball, what you saw Kevin — I think K.D. got maybe three uncontested dunks because we had Steph in one corner and Klay [Thompson] in the other corner and K.D. was pushing the basketball.
“It was really important to get our guys to the corner to flatten out the defense and make them decide: are you going to leave the corner 3-point shooter and stop the ball or are you going to stay home?”
Being forced to make that kind of choice on the fly can cause defenders to spontaneously malfunction.
“You know how scary things can be, especially when that 7-footer is coming at you full speed with his ball-handling ability and shooters spread across,” said Warriors sixth man Andre Iguodala. “It’s pick your poison. […] I think that’s part of the reason why people enjoy watching us play. You see so much unselfishness. You see the beauty in the passes. It can scare teams at times. It’s kind of like, ‘What do you do? Are we giving them 3s or are we giving them layups?’ It’s kind of where the game is going.”
In general, sure, you’d rather give up two points than three. But man, a completely uncontested dunk by Kevin Durant sure seems like about as high-percentage a shot as you can get.
The Cavs are running out to the shooters in transition, which I totally get, except KEVIN DURANT KEEPS DUNKING
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) June 2, 2017
While generating the cleanest, clearest looks possible is obviously something every team strives for, you’ll be shocked to learn that “Kevin, drive right down the middle of the floor unmolested and dunk” didn’t show up on the Warriors’ Game 1 game plan.
“That was just — that was organic,” said Durant, who celebrated his return to the NBA Finals stage with a flourish, scoring a game-high 38 points on 14-for-26 shooting to go with eight rebounds and eight assists without a turnover in 37 1/2 minutes. “I was just — I don’t know. I don’t know when I’m going to dunk or when I’m going to get the wide-open 3 […] If I see a lane, just try to attack.”
The result: an awful lot of easy buckets …
Warriors have 7 dunks this quarter, the most they've had in any quarter this season
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 2, 2017
… especially for your man KD.
The most dunks KD ever had in a postseason game before tonight was four.
He has six dunks in the first half.
— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) June 2, 2017
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) June 2, 2017
Evidently, that wasn’t exactly how Cleveland drew it up, either.
“Yeah, we kind of did something. One of our game plans was kind of backwards,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “But when Kevin Durant has the ball, you don’t want to leave him and get to shooters. But I thought they got him going early in the game. I thought he got out in transition, got four or five dunks early, and it just kind of opened everything up for him. So we got to make it much tougher on him — can’t give a great scorer like Durant easy baskets like that, especially in transition, especially early.”
Lue declined to specify what part of the game plan his players got backward, but during his post-game press conference, James emphasized the importance of getting a body in front of the ball.
“First of all, we got to stop the ball in transition,” said James, who led the Cavs with 28 points on 9-for-20 shooting to go with 15 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and eight turnovers in 40 minutes. “There was a few times where we fanned out to the 3-point line and let guys just go right down the middle for a dunk. And I know, I believe, K.D. had two or three of those. So when you turn the ball over, you got to know that that’s [when they’re at] their best. That’s when they become very dangerous because those guys, they sprint down the lane, they sprint to the 3-point line, they put a lot of pressure on your defense.
“But the ball is the number one thing. We got to stop the ball first, and then fan out to the 3-point line if those guys go there.”
That could result in a boatload of open long-range looks for a Golden State team that roasted the Cavs despite shooting a comparatively pedestrian 12-for-33 from deep in Game 1. But if you don’t plug one leak for fear of theoretical future ones, you’ll drown before too long, and the Cavs can’t keep giving up 56 points in the paint — including many on wide-open forays to the rim on the fast break — and expect to beat a Warriors team this good.
Until Cleveland tightens up in transition and starts walling off the lane, though, Durant and the Dubs will keep attacking and taking what the defense gives — especially when it’s being given so freely.
“Coach and my teammates always want me to attack and try to open it up for everybody else and try to score as well,” Durant said. “So I felt like in transition, they were running out to the 3-point line, and we got the best 3-point shooters in the world on our team, so obviously teams want to take away our 3-pointer. But I just tried to be aggressive to the rim and loosen them up a bit.”
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