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The solution to the Cavaliers’ defensive woes is to fix their offense

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The Cavaliers’ biggest problem in Game 1 wasn’t their defense. It was how their offense put their defense in a bad spot.

2017 NBA Finals - Game One Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

How can the Cavaliers possibly rally in the NBA Finals after getting their butts kicked in Game 1? Good question.

The obvious answer is to fix a leaky defense that can no longer skate by against inferior Eastern Conference opposition. The Golden State Warriors dropped 113 on them in Game 1 and would have scored more if not for a handful of missed layups and a horrific shooting performance from Klay Thompson. That served as confirmation from many that the Cavaliers can’t expect to chill on that end all season and suddenly dial it up when it matters.

I agree that the Cavaliers’ defense must improve. Hard to argue otherwise. However, I disagree that it was the root cause of the Game 1 disaster.

The root cause of the Game 1 disaster was actually the Cavaliers’ offense. Specifically, the way their offense created impossible situations for their admittedly faulty defense to address.

Fix the offense, and many of the defensive woes go away. Let me explain.

Start here: the Cleveland offense was really that bad

The Cavaliers entered Game 1 averaging nearly 121 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. They posted a mark of just 89.2 points per 100 possessions in Game 1. The Warriors have a great defense, no doubt, but Cleveland still should do much better than that.

Two problems immediately stick out. The first is the 20 turnovers the Cavaliers committed. Cleaning that up is priority No. 1 for the Cavaliers, based on their postgame comments.

The second problem was less discussed, but equally damaging: missed layups. The Cavaliers shot just 39 percent in the restricted area through the first three quarters, when the game was actually in the balance.

What do missed layups and turnovers have in common? They trigger fast breaks. And the last thing the Cavaliers can do is to give the Warriors fast-break opportunities.

During the regular season, Golden State created the most transition chances in the regular season and had the second-highest scoring efficiency on such plays, according to NBA.com. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why. Just watch Game 1 as an example.

The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are an awful transition defense team. During the regular season, they allowed the seventh-most transition chances and were dead last in transition scoring efficiency. They’ve improved slightly in the playoffs, but none of the three teams they played ranked in the top half of the league in creating fast-break chances. The Warriors are a major step up in competition.

This all leads to a pretty simple conclusion: the worst thing the Cavaliers can do is give the Warriors chances to score on fast breaks. In Game 1, they gave up way too many.

How many, exactly?

I went back and watched the tape. The answer: tons and tons.

There were a total of 77 Cavalier possessions in the first three quarters of the game. Forty-seven of those ended with made shots or dead ball situations -- a turnover out of bounds, a loose ball foul, free throws, etc. Golden State scored 53 points on the ensuing 47 sequences. If the Warriors had to take the ball in from out of bounds on every play of Game 1, they’d have notched an offensive efficiency of about 112.7.

That’s not great, but the difference between that and a good defensive performance is one made three-pointer. For perspective: Cleveland surrendered six points by falling asleep on three different Warriors’ out of bounds plays. If those three situations turned into stops instead, Golden State would have only scored a point per possession in half court situations. If you hold the Warriors to a point per possession over an entire game, you will win.

The problem is in those other 30 possessions. On plays that involved a missed shot or a live-ball turnover, the Cavaliers surrendered 40 points. That’s 1.33 points scored per possession, a much higher mark than the Warriors’ regular-season transition scoring average. (Not all of those 30 possessions would be considered fast breaks by NBA.com’s player tracking stats — but that only illustrates the Cavaliers’ problem further).

The average time of possession for the Warriors on those 30 plays was about eight seconds. If the Cavaliers had a bad offensive outcome in the run of play, chances are the Warriors turned it into a fast break.

Drill it down further, and that 1.33 points per possession number really should have been worse. The Warriors generated their 40 points by scoring on 19 of those 30 possessions. Three of the remaining sequences ended with uncontested missed layups.

Two of the remaining eight sequences ended with Stephen Curry missing shots he often makes:

One of the six remaining ones ended with a wide-open missed jumper by David West.

Finally, one of the 19 made possessions was a Pachulia AND-1 layup where he missed the free throw.

Add in those 12 points the Warriors left on the table, and they’d have scored 1.73 points per possession on live-ball situations. By my count, the Cavaliers only got a legitimate stop five times when the Warriors changed ends within the flow of the first three quarters. Five times out of 30!

That’s where Game 1 was lost. The Cavaliers did an OK job whenever they made the Warriors play a half-court game. They looked like complete fools anytime they couldn’t. Based on the profiles of both teams, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Warriors dominated whenever they could run.

So how do the Cavaliers fix that problem? By not allowing those situations in the first place

And this is where we come back around to the Cavaliers’ offense being the real issue in Game 1. You cannot evaluate the two ends of the floor independently when trying to beat a juggernaut like the Warriors that is so unstoppable in transition. They go hand in hand.

If the Cavaliers run a clean, efficient offense, they will end more possessions with buckets, draw more fouls, and position themselves to retreat properly. If they take better care of the ball, they will commit fewer live-ball turnovers that lead to fast breaks the other way.

If they do these things, they will keep themselves out of their most vulnerable situation: their transition defense against Golden State’s transition offense. It’s really damn hard for a team to run when you’re always taking the ball out of the basket.

This is how Cleveland has masked its leaky transition defense in the playoffs thus far. It’s how it must mask it again to win the NBA Finals.

So how do the Cavaliers score more?

That’s a tough question because the Warriors are so good defensively, but there are ways. For starters, stop missing layups. Beyond that, don’t shoot 1-12 with Klay Thompson as the primary defender. Klay is great, but y’all can do better.

Beyond that, the Cavaliers may need to alter their game plan. In Game 1, they went back to what worked in last year’s Finals: putting Curry in a million pick and rolls. As I noted, the Warriors were prepared with counters to snuff that out. Curry himself looked better (and healthier) navigating those situations, and the Warriors’ other three defenders did a great job covering up gaps behind the play.

It might be time for a new approach. Back in the first round, I wrote about why Draymond Green is at his best when he isn’t guarding his own man on the ball. Here’s a snippet:

If you had to rank Green’s defensive skills, No. 1 would be his ability to read the other nine guys on the court, No. 2 is his shot-blocking, No. 3 are his hands, and No. 4 is his ability to shut down anyone one-on-one. No. 4 is still a special trait, but it’s not quite as dominant or unique as Nos. 1-3. By forcing Green to actually guard their best offensive player, teams negate strength No. 1 and limit the impact of strength Nos. 2 and 3.

(For more about Draymond’s defensive genius, you’ll want to check out the latest PICTURES video).

The Trail Blazers came out of the first half of Game 1 with a bold idea to actually force Green to switch onto their guards and then attack him. It stopped working in that series because the Warriors rejiggered the matchups to get Green back on Portland’s many non-threats, freeing him to roam again.

The Cavaliers, though, have great shooters that are hard to leave on the opposite side. They could execute the strategy Portland couldn’t.

To understand why they should, watch this failed attempt to attack Curry.

In a sense, the play worked decently. The best player in the NBA got the step and was attacking downhill, as the Cavaliers wanted. But the Warriors still forced a turnover because Green and Kevin Durant are so long and smart that they collectively covered three Cavaliers by themselves.

If the Cavaliers allow Green and Durant to patrol the back line together, they will find no openings. That combination is too good and too athletic. It’s unfair.

On the other hand, if they pull one of the two up top into the play, they might have a chance to beat them. Green is a terrific isolation defender against guards and wings alike, but James and Kyrie Irving aren’t just any one-on-one players. They can actually take him. In fact, Irving did so a couple times in Game 1.

Pulling Green out means there’s less collective Warriors length to cover the Cavaliers’ beautiful spacing around their two isolation stars. Green is the best help defender in the league — and maybe in NBA history — but if he’s defending on the ball, that means he isn’t playing help defense. That might be the best way for the Cavaliers to make it easier to attack the hoop and score, find open shooters, or draw fouls.

And if the Cavaliers can do more of those three things, they’ll accomplish two victories in one. Not only will they score more points, but they’ll limit the Warriors’ fast break chances, where they are at their best and the Cavaliers are at their worst. The game will become more of a half-court affair, and the Cavaliers have a much better chance of winning that way.

That’s why the most important task for the Cavaliers before Game 2 isn’t fixing their defense. It’s fixing their offense.