LeBron James saw a switch he wanted and caught the ball in one of the most desirable plots of real estate on the court: the pinch post, a neighborhood situated just behind the free-throw line. It's an area that's appreciated dramatically in value since Dirk Nowitzki began renting a decade ago.
From here, James needs just one quick-twitch step to power his 250-pound body through to the hoop. Nobody has held that freight train off for years, especially without the luxury of time to guess which way it goes.
The seemingly impossible job fell to Klay Thompson, a fine defender giving up 45 pounds. During his steady rise to stardom, Thompson made a name for himself with his shooting and clamp defense on smaller guards. He did not do so by stopping 250-pound bowling balls from accelerating to the basket.
Thompson spread his legs and held his ground, which, surprisingly, angled James half a step further than he ideally hoped. Instead of taking off directly underneath the hoop, James had to bend his knees to power up. That gave Andrew Bogut enough time to come over and swat the weak layup attempt across the Bay.
No single play better encapsulated the first two games of the 2016 NBA Finals. In the 48 hours since Game 2, we've beaten to death every possible factor for the 48-point gap between the two teams. Yet, all those explanations ultimately lead back to the one-plot point that flashed before our eyes with six minutes and 20 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 2.
LeBron James, the NBA's best player for over a decade, simply cannot score efficiently against the Warriors anymore. That's a statement that reveals as much about the Warriors as it does James himself.
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Let's be clear about two things up front, because critiquing James' play causes reasonable people on both sides to lose their damn minds:
1. LeBron James is still one of the league's very best players: He's coming off a season where he averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. In the East playoffs, he delivered many trademark performances to carry the Cavaliers to this point, most notably in the Game 6 clincher against Toronto. He's still on the NBA's active Mount Rushmore of players.
2. LeBron James' teammates aren't exactly offering solutions: Everything that follows about the Warriors' strategy to stop LeBron is working twice as well against Kyrie Irving. Kevin Love was dead meat trying to score in the post before his Game 2 injury. The entire Cavaliers team is a mess defensively, something we could have easily predicted. Tyronn Lue's managed his rotation like a first-year coach.
Still, all roads lead back to LeBron. Here's how the Warriors have slowed him down.
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Last year, the Warriors unveiled a unique strategy to defeat James. They correctly identified James' court vision as his most dominant skill and elected to shut that off while living with the consequences.
In practice, that meant playing James straight up with one of their many wing stoppers -- usually Andre Iguodala -- and using the other four players to form a shell off the ball. They refused to double-team, though they were ready to slide over if Iguodala needed help.
This allowed the Warriors to win the title, but in theory, the Cavaliers' many injuries made it possible. Without Love and Irving (for all but one game), nobody else on the Cavaliers could create their own shot.
So, the Warriors split the baby. Encouraging the Cavaliers to force-feed James may seem unwise on the surface, but it had the effect of turning Cleveland into a one-man team instead of allowing the other players to gain confidence.
James happily accepted the challenge and nearly dragged the Cavaliers over the finish line. However, he slowly wore down and the Warriors' ace defenders limited his scoring efficiency. By not double-teaming, the Warriors coerced him into exhaustion. Meanwhile, they isolated James from his teammates, preventing anyone else from delivering the necessary second wind.
At the time, most thought it worked only because James had no help. If his secondary scorers were healthy, they'd shoulder more of the scoring load, causing James to be more efficient and dangerous. Surely no team could win with a "let LeBron score" strategy under optimal conditions, right?
Turns out they can. The Warriors have used the exact same approach this year, even with all the bullets the Cavaliers now have in reserve. They are again successfully separating James (and Irving to a lesser extent) from the rest of the team using the same strategy.
This is a credit to the Warriors' improvement from last year. While their defensive numbers dropped during the regular season, that's because their focus waned during their spells of dominance. At its best, their defense is even more fearsome than last season. They are the only team that can switch every assignment without causing a mismatch, which means they aren't caught in the usual help-and-recovery scramble that leads to open shots.
They can also take a step closer to the paint and still recover to shooters. Draymond Green looks like he's sliding on a moving walkway on this closeout.
Combine that physical ability with pinpoint positioning and coordination, and you wonder how anyone scores on the Warriors. In Iguodala, Thompson and Green, the Warriors have three of the eight or so best defensive players in the league. Bogut is an excellent defensive center, as is Festus Ezeli. Shaun Livingston would be the top perimeter defender on half the teams in the league, and he comes off the bench. Alone, they are imposing enough. Combined, they form the Captain Planet of NBA defenses.
Though the Warriors prefer not to double-team, their cornucopia of skills means they can make the necessary rotations other teams can't.
The Cavaliers are an isolation-heavy team that relies on their stars drawing two defenders and preying on the openings that result. That was the case in the Eastern Conference playoffs and it's the case now. It's tempting to say they have stopped doing what allowed them to thrive in the previous three rounds, but that's not really the case.
They are simply going against the perfect defense to deny their style, one that never yields the openings the Cavaliers need to move the ball properly.
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All that said, the Warriors' strategy makes a fundamental assumption: LeBron James isn't scary enough to bust it. That is a bold claim, but he's yet to invalidate it.
James has not scored efficiently against the Warriors for some time now. Since Game 4 of last year's series, James has scored 175 points on 169 shots against the Warriors. As ESPN reported, he's shooting 35 percent in his last 10 games against Golden State with Iguodala as his primary defender. The Warriors will take those percentages and odds.
Iguodala is again smothering James in every one-on-one situation.
On its own, this reveals some of James' decline. Iguodala is an amazing defender, but James has made amazing defenders look silly in years past. It says something that he cannot force help against Iguodala.
But the bigger problem is that James can't score consistently against other Warriors either. He's losing the ball against Thompson:
He's getting stuffed at the basket by Green:
Outside of an early Game 1 flurry, he's not getting to the rim consistently against Harrison Barnes.
Even Livingston is forcing awkward kickout passes on James drives.
Last year, at least James could beat these players on switches. That's why the Warriors moved Iguodala into the starting lineup -- it ensured he was guarding James as often as possible. But this year, James is struggling to get by anybody the Warriors throw at him.
The signs of James' decline are subtle, but they're there. His first step is a little bit slower, so defenders can more easily beat him to the spot he wants to go. That means he surrenders leverage, causing him to lose balance making counter moves. And because he loses balance making counter moves, he has to bend a little more to power up to try to finish.
These half-seconds add up. Instead of powerfully shedding defenders, James is the one recoiling back.
Every little bit matters. Last year, James had enough strength and quick-twitch muscles to beat Thompson to the spot. This year, James can't create that angle, so Thompson can hold his ground and force a turnover.
The same is true when James faces the basket. Notice the difference between these two left-wing isolations with Barnes guarding him.
On the first play, James' first step is enough to slip his shoulders inside of Barnes before the help could react. On the second play, it's a little bit slower, allowing Barnes time to position his body to push James to the baseline. That, in turn, makes it easier for Green to help and force a pass to the corner.
Every little bit matters.
This decline is especially damaging to Cleveland for two reasons. One is that James is best as a power player at this stage of his career. His jumper is busted, so the Warriors are going under the screen anytime he handles the ball.
Worse, James knows he can't shoot, so his indecision causes those plays to fizzle out. The Cavaliers can't even station him off the ball because the Warriors will help off him.
The second, more serious problem is that James' lack of post scoring proficiency vaporizes the most obvious counter to the Warriors' switches. The Cavaliers can't use James as a roll man because Golden State will just swap assignments. The Warriors aren't even that scared of switching the Irving/James pick-and-roll because they trust their ability to recover. If James can't score effectively against anyone, why not just switch every action?
That's why critics of the Cavaliers' isolation-heavy approach in this series miss the bigger picture. The first step toward moving the ball is drawing two defenders to one offensive player. The Warriors' switching prevents the Cavaliers from doing that on pick-and-rolls and cute off-ball action, so Cleveland must count on their stars to suck defenders into their vortex by themselves.
But as long as James going one-on-one against any Warrior spits out less than a point or so per possession, the Warriors won't double-team. Therefore, no openings are created, no purposeful ball movement happens and everyone complains about ISO-ball.
That's why all roads lead back to LeBron James. The Warriors' dare is working, which says something about James' state in the NBA world.
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This NBA Finals reminds me of another seminal one 25 years ago, when the Lakers faced the Bulls. During his journey through the Western Conference playoffs, Magic Johnson parked his butt in the post and carved up opponents with his brilliant mind. That was enough for three rounds.
But when he reached the finals, he quickly discovered that he needed more than smarts to overcome the burgeoning Bulls dynasty, led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Using their two ballhawks as catalysts, the Bulls unveiled a defensive plan that pressured Johnson full court, then sent double-teams along the baseline. The goal was to wear Johnson out, shut off his passing lanes, dare him to try to score, then sneak in the help when he did.
It was clear that Johnson was 80 percent of the player he once was, but only the most difficult competition made that relevant. The Bulls won in five games after dropping Game 1.
LeBron James is 31 years old. He's logged many more minutes than Johnson did at that age and is facing an even better opponent. None of that mattered for three rounds because 80 percent of the old LeBron James was enough. Only against the most difficult competition does that 20 percent matter.
Beneath the strategy adjustment, talking points and referendums on less heralded players lies one simple truth: LeBron James is declining and only the Warriors can exploit it. Unless James plays like his 2009 self, the Cavaliers have no answer.