Sports

The Cavaliers Need to Feed LeBron James in the Post

The Golden State Warriors did a fantastic job defending James in Game 2, but moving forward Cleveland has to figure out a way to make this series look like the 2015 Finals.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

OAKLAND — Many of the 51 points LeBron James scored in Game 1 were tallied without any predetermined resistance. The Golden State Warriors were passive, confident their consuming shot-makers would supply more than enough firepower on the other end. The gamble ultimately paid off, but LeBron’s masterpiece emerged over the next few days as the most remarkable and celebrated memory from our initial entrance into the 2018 Finals. To paraphrase Rihanna: Golden State might’ve won but they’ll never be the King.

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Game 2 was different. LeBron was still awesome—29 points (on 20 shots), 13 assists, and nine rebounds—but the Warriors made him feel like a running back throughout the game, committed to pay for every step towards the basket. Golden State’s defense picked him up at half-court and sometimes before he crossed his own three-point line. Draymond Green, Jordan Bell, JaVale McGee, and Kevin Durant were prickly, unafraid of the referee’s whistle. LeBron was double-teamed 40 feet from the rim. His pick-and-rolls were trapped and hedged with force against a team that wasn’t willing to switch because he wanted them to.

During the second quarter, Draymond harassed LeBron wherever he went, step for step, almost exactly how defenses treat Steph Curry when he’s mid-eruption. The Cavs countered this a couple times by removing Draymond from the action and almost turning LeBron into a decoy (possessions that also let him rest) while his most capable teammates were able to enjoy the space afforded by a 4-on-4 situation.

Here’s another example later in the game, where James isn’t even on the screen. But this time Draymond realizes what’s happening (aka how exhausted LeBron is) and eventually crashes the paint to box out Tristan Thompson and grab Kevin Love’s miss.

But voluntarily removing LeBron out of the equation isn’t exactly something the Warriors will worry about. And all the different ways they made him work when he had the ball in his hands eventually made an indestructible extra terrestrial appear human. “I think I only got tired once tonight,” James said after the game.

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Whenever it looked like he finally had an advantage, be it against Curry, Klay Thompson, or Kevon Looney, there was always a second wave of defense that either immediately crashed into his body or was a second away from doing so. Golden State treated the Cavaliers like a one-man team, and on plays like the one seen below, where George Hill was wide open in the strong-side corner, so did LeBron.

Those plays were few and far between, though, because LeBron is as smart as he is unselfish. But there’s only so many plays where he can watch Jeff Green miss a wide open three before he feels like taking matters into his own hands.

Watch Larry Nance in the play above, how he knows all eyes are on LeBron and sets a flare screen to free up Green. That’s smart, and he did it more than once, but these are possessions where James may want to back down a mismatch, force the help to rotate completely, and then kick.

“I mean, they doubled me a few times when I caught the ball in the post, something they didn't do in Game 1,” LeBron said. “So I got off the ball, trusted my teammates. But as far as working harder, I think I got tired once.”

This is what happened on his first post touch of the game. It should’ve resulted in an open corner three for Love.

The Cavaliers also did a pretty good job setting screens high up on the floor, near half-court, to pick off LeBron’s man early in the possession and give him room to attack downhill. In the third quarter this action evolved when they used two guys to pick off James’s man, forcing a switch and inevitable double team. LeBron was always a step ahead of Golden State’s defense on these plays, though. Watch how quickly he gets rid of the ball to set up Love for another open three.

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And to avoid a pre-switch, where Draymond would take Curry’s man as he went up to set a ball screen for LeBron, the Cavaliers would bring James up the left side of the floor with Curry’s man, and have the other three Cavaliers trot up along the right sideline. (Ty Lue is a good coach, people.)

All this was wonderful, and Cleveland’s offense—while not unbelievable—is still creating good looks and functioning on a level that leads anyone who watched the first two games of this series to think their defense is easily the bigger problem. If the Cavaliers made a couple more shots this series might be tied heading back to Ohio. But that doesn’t mean they lack room for improvement. And one of the clearest ways in which they can get better may just be to give LeBron more touches off the ball, in the post.

The most physically imposing sequence in modern NBA basketball fulfills itself every time he catches a pass on the block. It makes even the league’s sturdiest defenders feel like they’re spitting into the wind. But according to Synergy Sports, James has ended just one possession with a shot, foul, or turnover in this series. We’ve already covered how the Warriors swarmed him in Game 2, but there are still so many advantages created whenever the sport’s fiercest post player does damage in the post.

The day before Game 2, I was standing along the baseline during the first few minutes of Cleveland’s practice. At one point, LeBron stood no more than 10 feet away, hands on his hips in a black tank top. Right next to him stood Tristan Thompson, a 6’9”, 240-pound specimen whose job is to bludgeon box outs, deliver knockout blows via screen, and generally throw his massive body around in an intimidating way. He’s good at it. But by comparison, LeBron’s mountain ridge shoulder line made Thompson look malnourished.

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I couldn’t get that snapshot out of my mind during Game 2, when the Cavs had James initiate almost every possession instead of designing ways to feed him off the ball. During the 2015 Finals, LeBron was a one-man S.W.A.T. team, smashing through Golden State’s shell and living in the paint. In the first two games of that series he logged 20 post-up possessions that ended with a shot, foul, or turnover. Harrison Barnes, Draymond, and Andre Iguodala were punching bags.

He attacked switches with a power we haven’t seen in this series.

He didn’t have Kyrie Irving or Love for most of that series, and Cleveland’s strategy revolved around a steady diet of post ups. Of course, Cleveland had a different head coach then, and the Warriors have different personnel now. But we also know what LeBron was capable of as recently as the Eastern Conference Finals, when he repeatedly bulldozed his way through the Boston Celtics in situations that pleaded for him to do so.

He was a monster.

LeBron has been amazing through the first two games of these Finals, and even though his team trails 0-2 it wouldn’t be insane to call him the series MVP. But heading into Game 3, Lue and his staff need to find more ways to control the game’s pace and grind offensive possessions down into situations where LeBron can impose himself and make the Warriors uncomfortable. More post touches might be the closest thing they have to a solution.