This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
After fumbling around for two games both offensively and defensively, the Cleveland Cavaliers turned the tables on the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, handing the defending champs a 30-point whuppin' behind some key adjustments and what might turn out to be a serendipitous injury to Kevin Love.
What went right for Cleveland? What went wrong for the Warriors? And what can we glean for tonight's Game 4?
Let's take a closer look:
Kyrie Irving running the show
The Cavs' biggest adjustment was getting the ball into Irving's hands more often, especially in high pick-and-rolls. For two games, Cleveland let LeBron James do most of the heavy lifting as the team's primary ball-handler—but since his jump shot has been extremely unreliable, the Warriors have been able to play off of him, packing the paint.
When Irving has the ball, by contrast, the on-ball defender has to go over every screen, and the defender guarding the screener has to extend further out on the perimeter to prevent a pull-up jumper. The higher up the Cavs can draw the ball screen, the more likely they are to get a good look. Sag too far off Irving and he'll nail the shot; overextend on him, and he'll blow by with a now-open lane ahead of him.
The Warriors mixed up their coverage on Irving throughout the first quarter. They denied him the ball beyond the arc, jumped ball screens, and even tried trapping him on pick-and-rolls. But throughout that same span, Irving made the right reads and made the Warriors pay. It was a masterful performance, led to a 20-point first quarter lead, and helped get every Cavs player involved and in their comfort zones.
Small ball and the 2nd quarter
The first half of Game 3 was a prime example of why Cleveland's offense—and not its porous defense—is the key to their success in this series. There's a ceiling to what the Cavs can do defensively, but the sky's the limit on the other end of the floor. In both quarters, Cleveland gave great effort on defense. However, their offense stalled in the 2nd quarter, opening the door for Golden State to get easier baskets in transition.
The Warriors opened the quarter by going small with Draymond Green at center, and held the Cavs to just 2-for-16 shooting through the first seven minutes of the quarter. More importantly, with the ability to switch every screen, the Warriors were able to prevent Irving from getting a full head of steam off high pick-and-rolls.
With their newfound action no longer working, the Cavs reverted back to their (mostly bad) old habits: isolations and stagnant pick-and-rolls that lead to more isolations.
Isolations and stagnant pick and rolls aren't terrible options against Golden State's Andrew Bogut-less lineups, since he and Festus Ezeli are the only true rim protectors on the Warriors' roster. Moreover, James did a great job of blowing by the first line of defense in the quarter. However, much like in Game 2, James struggled to finish at the rim. Some of his misses were due to great contests by Green, but an equal amount were lightly contested gimmes that James has to convert when he's the biggest, tallest guy on the court.
Fortunately for Cleveland, Tristan Thompson had James' back on the offensive glass. Thompson snatched six offensive rebounds in the 2nd quarter alone, almost single-handedly counteracting the Warriors' small ball tactics.
Thompson is a skilled rebounder, but Cleveland also put him in position to succeed. How so? The Cavs used him as the screener early in the clock, forcing one of Golden State's smaller players, usually Harrison Barnes, to switch onto him down low. The same early action also forced Green onto one of the Cavs' wings. With Green away from the basket, Thompson had both the height and size advantage inside, and was able to give the Cavs six second chance points and even more second chance opportunities.
The Kevin Love effect
The biggest story heading into Game 4 is the ripple effect that Kevin Love's concussion-induced absence will have on the rest of this series. The Cavs lost by 33 points in Game 2, but looked significantly better on offense in Game 3. They also were better on defense with Richard Jefferson starting in place of Love and playing a majority of Love's minutes.
Offensively, you can argue that Love could have provided everything that Jefferson did in Game 3. Jefferson was mostly a floor spacer, making smart reads and cuts, but he was always a secondary threat. The Cavs didn't run any plays through him, especially not the sort of isolation and post-up plays they ran for Love in Games 1 and 2. Instead, Irving benefitted from a much larger role, attacking the defense with the ball in his hands. Playing the same way might not be possible for the Cavs with Love on the court. Even though Love is a much better shooter and all-around offensive player than Jefferson, that's also the sticking point: it's difficult to tell such a skilled player to function as an off-ball satellite and nothing more.
Moreover, it wasn't just Jefferson who had a breakout game. JR Smith had far and away his best performance of the Finals—finishing with 20 points, and hitting some big shots on key possessions. Most importantly, he took 20 shots, 11 more than he took in Games 1 and 2 combined, the latter number an indicator of how much Smith had been frozen out of Cleveland's offense. By removing Love, the Cavs' attack flowed much more smoothly, and their shot distribution was far more spread around.
It's no coincidence that with Love out, Cleveland also looked sharper on defensive, holding the Warriors to their lowest point total of the playoffs. Jefferson might be old, but he still has the versatility to guard every player on Golden State's roster, especially on pick-and-rolls. James was able to slide over to power forward—probably his best position at this point in his career—for most of the game and was placed on Green, who looked like a Finals MVP candidate in Games 1 and 2, but scored just six points.
Most of this isn't Love's fault. Nor does it mean that he's a bad player. The biggest difference defensively was that Cleveland played with much higher energy and effort. The Cavs still missed rotations and gave up wide-open shots, just as they have throughout the playoffs. They haven't become the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
However, for the rest of the Finals, it's possible that Love would best be used as a 10-15 minute per game bench player, deployed against certain lineups for short stretches.
How Cleveland coach Ty Lue decides to use Love will definitely affect Golden State coach Steve Kerr's lineup decisions. Bogut is much less playable against the Cavs when Love is not on the floor, especially when they let Irving attack in pick-and-rolls. The Warriors had success going small in stretches and it's very likely that Kerr will go back to small ball more quickly in Game 4, which means James will probably take more minutes at power forward alongside Thompson at center.
In fact, the 2nd quarter of Game 3 might foreshadow how the rest of the series will play out. The Warriors were forced to sacrifice some of their punch by playing small for extended minutes, while the Cavs struggled to score against a lineup that held them to 18 points in the quarter. Both teams seem to have answers for everything else, but the battle of their small ball lineups has yet to be decided.
The Warriors have the luxury of being up a game, and can afford to whiff on their adjustments tonight. The Cavs don't have that luxury—a loss at home all but ensures that the series is over. If Love is able to play, how and when to play him will be as important as any decision that the franchise has made all season.
For now, Golden State remains in control, but Cleveland has halted the Warriors' momentum. What happens tonight could make the Finals a whole lot more interesting.
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