This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Heading into their NBA Finals rematch, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have a lot in common. They both have multiple superstars, launch three-pointers at a rate that makes the Seven-Seconds-or-Less Phoenix Suns seem quaint, and are terrific at converting fast break opportunities.
Yet despite these similarities, their contrasting approaches to pace, offensive rebounding, fast breaks, and cross-matchups likely will decide which team wins a championship.
The Warriors own the fastest pace in the playoffs and have the most postseason fast break points per game; as such, they'll look to turn defensive stops into quick, transition baskets. They also will switch nearly every screen on defense; try to push the ball up court in hopes of forcing the Cavaliers into unfavorable cross-matchups; take quick shots on offense; and generally try to create as much chaos as possible on the defensive end.
Meanwhile, the Cavs have allowed the second fewest fast break points in the playoffs, and almost certainly will try slow the pace down to a crawl. Despite head coach Tyronn Lue's comments to the contrary, Cleveland benefits from a more controlled game, as its 1.10 points per possession on plays following an opponent made basket is tops in the postseason. To prevent the Warriors from grabbing defensive rebounds and running downhill on the break, the Cavs will attack the offensive glass, particularly via Tristan Thompson. They'll launch three-pointers, for sure, but their shots will come more from deliberate actions than from emulating Golden State's shoot-from-the-hip style.
Both teams have been great at forcing their style of play upon their opponents, whether through specific sets that they employ, or broader tendencies that help shape their identities even when they break free from those sets. And as each club tries to impose its will on the other, something is bound to give.
Let's take a closer look at some of the key pressure points:
Lebron James in the post
In last year's Finals, the Cavs held the Warriors to just 12.7 fast break points per game, 8.2 points per game lower than their regular season average. How? In part, they did it by using LeBron James in in the post, allowing him to slowly attack the defense as his teammates spotted up on the weak side. This strategy hurt Cleveland's offensive efficiency by making the Cavs predictable: the Warriors knew that the shot would either come from James in isolation or on a kickout to a shooter or cutter. On the other hand, it also helped keep the Warriors from taking off in transition.
With Kevin Love out with a shoulder injury, Cleveland was forced to start two non-stretch bigs in Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. That allowed the Warriors to pack the paint on defense, forcing James into contested shots. In the end, that proved decisive. The Cavs were unable to score enough in the half court, largely because James shot just 39.8 percent from the field and had many of his attempts contested by two or three defenders:
This time around, James likely won't post up as often. Thanks to a healthy Love and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have more playmaking options, and figure to use them. Still, they'll certainly to to James on the block when they need to slow the tempo, and Golden State will face some tricky choices if and when they decide to send extra defenders. Thompson's offensive rebounding ability makes helping off him a gamble; similarly, any combination of Irving, Love, Channing Frye, Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith provides enough shooting to make the Warriors think twice before sagging into the paint.
One-on-one, Harrison Barnes will be overmatched against James in the post; James can match or exceed Barnes' quickness on the block or at the elbow, and he has about 30 pounds of muscle on the Golden State swingman. As such, Warriors coach Steve Kerr may start Andre Iguodala in Barnes' place, just as he did in the back half of last year's Finals. But even Iguodala, a capable defender, will have a hard time containing James if Golden State decides not to help off Cleveland's many shooters. When Iguodala won last year's Finals MVP award largely on the strength of his defensive work against James, he was aided by a second line of help defense that always was ready in case he was overpowered or blown by. With Mozgov out of the Cavs' rotation and Love in his place, the Warriors will have a much more difficult time deciding when to help, especially since Love and Frye are very good at sliding into open space:
One of Cleveland's pet plays is a set called "Horns Rub." The Cavaliers will run this action at any point in a game, but have been especially effective using it early in second and fourth quarters, when James teams with four spot-up shooters off of the bench. The action takes advantage of two of James' greatest strengths—playmaking from the elbow, and from rolls to the rim.
With shooters in each corner, James receives the pass on the elbow, where he's a threat to shoot a spot-up jumper or back his man down. After entering the ball to James, the point guard sets a back screen on the wing at the opposite elbow. The action seems simple enough, but James is so accurate with his passes that the defense is forced to react to the back screen by either switching the screen, sagging off of the screener to provide help, or sinking off of the player getting screened to prevent an easy backdoor layup:
The initial action produced easy backdoor dunks against Toronto—but the main goal of this play comes after the back screen is set. With the defender sagging a full step off of the screener, the guard then sprints around James to receive a dribble hand off. This is the most deadly action in Cleveland's playbook and there is no perfect way to guard it. It gets James rolling to the rim as either Dellavedova or Irving attack off of the handoff.
On those rolls, James has as much gravity as anyone in the NBA. He has the height and athleticism to throw down highlight alley-oops and the ability to catch in open space and read the defense. Pick your poison.
Balancing act in transition
The Cavs lead the playoffs in half court offensive efficiency, but they also lead the league in transition efficiency. On plays immediately following a turnover, Cleveland has scored a scorching 1.62 points per possession in the postseason, a number that is 0.29 points per possession higher than their NBA-leading mark during the regular season.
These numbers are absurd. Turn the ball over against the Cavs, and you're basically conceding two points. James and Irving are masterful in the open court—able to score through contact or find the wide-open shooter on the perimeter if the defense collapses into the paint—and Frye excels as that shooter, especially when trailing the play:
As a team, Cleveland has the highest effective field goal percentage on shots in the first nine seconds of the shot clock. Most of those shots come from pushing the ball up court in transition. However, that's a risky strategy against Golden State. The Warriors thrive in chaos more than any team in the league. As the Thunder learned in the Western Conference Finals, every missed opportunity in transition often leads to an even more promising fast break opportunity going the other way.
The Cavs will have to find the right balance scoring quick baskets and not letting play become too helter-skelter, between striking quickly on some possessions, and milking the clock on others. That won't be easy—and if they get it wrong, the Warriors are likely to punish them with a flurry of double-digit scoring runs.
Andrew Bogut dribble handoffs
Golden State's halfcourt offense will have a simple goal: find ways to force Love into as many defensive possessions as possible. To his credit, Love has stepped up his defensive effort in the playoffs; still, opponents look to attack him in pick-and-rolls and on switches. The Cavs know this, and often try to hide Love on the player least likely to be effective as the screen-and-roll man.
Against the Warriors, that will be Andrew Bogut. Bogut isn't usually an immediate threat on short rolls or pick-and-pops, so in some ways he's an ideal candidate for Love to guard. However, Bogut is also a very gifted passer on dribble handoffs, even going between his legs or over his head on passes to guards cutting off of him at the high post. When the Warriors really get rolling, Bogut turns into the second coming of White Chocolate, putting spins on his bounce passes or adding two or three fakes before dropping it off behind the back.
When Love is guarding Bogut, Golden State will drag Bogut out closer to the three-point line and run tight routes around him with their famous splits action. Over the course of the last two seasons, the Warriors have refined the ways that they cut off of Bogut. They will find the angles to shed Cleveland's guards by cutting around him, forcing Love to help off of Bogut or to switch onto a guard entirely.
Bogut dribble handoffs are just one way that Golden State can force Love into the middle of the action on defense. Perhaps the Warriors' most recognizable offensive sets begin with Weave action, where all five players zig in and out in a dizzying loop of cuts, handoffs, and screens. For versatile teams like the Thunder, these weave sets were mitigated by the Thunder's ability to switch every screen up high. Even Steven Adams was able to hold his own while chasing Curry on the perimeter, so much so that the Warriors stopped trying to single him out:
Given that Love has as much chance of stopping Curry one-on-one as a traffic cone, the Cavs will do their best to keep from switching. They'll chase guards over the top of screen to take away pull-up jumpers, and be active in switching Love off of the screener as early as. However, Golden State is phenomenal at reading exactly when and where to cut out of the weave, and that will force Love into split-second decisions. Hesitate for a moment, and Love will find himself out on an island with Curry, with nowhere to hide. That won't end well.
As an iconic team, the Warriors have introduced some new fundamentals to the game of basketball, including quick ball reversals in transition. Traditionally, the ball-handler on the break tries to get the ball to the center of the court with guys flanking him on either side. Golden State often takes one or two dribbles to attack on the break, and then hurls the ball to the far opposite side of the court, flipping the court's gravity and forcing scrambling defenses to re-calibrate.
It's hard enough to keep up with the Warriors in transition, but those quick ball reversals in the backcourt force the defense to match up two times in a matter of seconds—often causing just enough chaos for one of Golden State's many three-point shooters to shake free for one of those "how-did-he-get-open?" plays.
This series will be fascinating. Last year, Cleveland had the defensive personnel to control the tempo, but lacked the offensive punch to make it matter. This year, the Cavs' offense has been historically efficient, but their defense hasn't been able to consistently contain anyone. Meanwhile, Golden State's offense is one of the best the NBA has ever seen. Something will have to give, and the fun will be in seeing which team can make that happen.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.