The first chapter of the ancient Chinese essay "Thirty-Six Strategems" is titled Yǐ yì dài láo. Translated, it means "wait at leisure while the enemy labors." The idea is to encourage your opponent to expend all of his energy while you rest, then strike with purpose when he is exhausted.
It's a winning formula that has been used by more resourceful armies throughout history. It's also a winning formula used in these NBA Finals. Warriors coach Steve Kerr is employing the strategy in tandem with his team's depth and pace to grind the shorthanded Cleveland Cavaliers into the ground. Slowly, it's working.
The Warriors' largest advantage has remained constant since the start of these NBA Finals. Golden State is a far deeper team than the Cavaliers. They simply have more capable players and can afford to commit more mistakes without crippling repercussions.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are LeBron James. While he's one of the greatest players to ever grace an NBA court, he's still made of the same flesh and bones as every other human being. Faced against a team of LeBron and whatever four placeholders shared the court with him, the Warriors' task seemed easy.
For a couple games, they greatly underestimated a deity. The original plan was to let James do his thing, but James proved to be much more than a standard volume shooter. He's also a talented playmaker, defensive stalwart and rebounding machine that doesn't commit many fouls, so getting him out of rhythm or off the court is damn near impossible. The plan worked in the first game by a slight margin and failed in the next two. James went on an historic run where he almost averaged a triple-double.
It would have been easy for the Warriors to panic. The Cavaliers were imbalanced, yet they had a living, burning star that was erasing the Warriors' strength in numbers.
To solve the problem, Kerr returned back to the initial question that's been the theme of these finals. How much can one man do?
The Warriors concluded that even the Titan Atlas sometimes groans under the weight of the world. James was responsible for 70 of the Cavaliers 90 points, scoring 40 and generating 30 with assists. In the second half, Cleveland only got two field goals from players not named LeBron or Tristian Thompson. In that fourth quarter, when Stephen Curry went full George R.R Martin on the Cavaliers, the sole basket that didn't belong to James or Thompson was an Iman Shumpert triple. The deity had nothing left.
James especially had nothing left because of Kerr's decision to insert Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup before Game 4. Even before the change, James was exhausted after every game. After games, he'd stand hunched over and motionless while smoke and sweat rose and dripped from his body. Between games, he was limping and finding it hard to keep his eyes open. It was this type of stress that forced him to take two weeks off in January to re-energize. The human body isn't engineered for this type of work.
Yet this type of work became even harder because of Kerr's decision. The Warriors' small lineup pushed the ball and removed any time for Cleveland to rest. The Cavaliers were able to slow down the pace for the second and third game of the series, but now Golden State is now forcing them to sprint. The Warriors are young enough to withstand the pressures of that tactic and their bench is prolific enough to hang in there when the starters are gassed. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, lose all shape and semblance of chemistry when James sits. That's why he hasn't.
Curry referenced it after the win in Game 5: "Over the course of 48 minutes, we hope we wear him down to make it very tough on him."
James will make shots, but the Warriors know not be discouraged if so. James has played 228 out of the 250 minutes of the series. He's scored 183 points with 62 rebounds and 44 assists. He's getting numbers. Yet it's telling that the Cavaliers have been outscored in every single fourth quarter so far and the Warriors' margin of victory has swelled to double digits in the last two games.
Kerr is following the formula of that old Chinese essay. The Warriors are hanging around in the first two and a half quarters while Cleveland burns all of its energy. The Cavaliers eventually hit empty in the final stages of the game, allowing Golden State to strike and deliver the dagger. The longer the series plays out, the better the Warriors' strategy works.
There is nothing the Cavaliers can do about this. They can't afford to go deeper in their rotation because those other players are washed up. They're outmatched in resources and time. The only way they can win is to ride James and hope one man can really do it all.
Maybe he can, but it's still not going to be enough.
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