Once is luck. Twice is coincidence. Three times, you have a pattern. The Cleveland Cavaliers' defense is for real, and it is causing the Golden State Warriors' offense to look like a sports car with the parking brake stuck on.
Yes, causing. The Warriors are making uncharacteristic errors and have shown flashes of solving Cleveland's strategy, most notably in the fourth quarter of Game 3. But so far the story of the NBA Finals is that the Cavaliers, who ranked 20th in defensive efficiency this year and 17th after acquiring center Timofey Mozgov, have proven to be the one team that can actually halt Golden State's symphony of chaos.
They're doing it because they've made a decision and carried it out to the extreme. No matter what happens, they won't let Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson beat them.
Anyone else? Go right ahead. We dare you.
This screenshot reveals everything you need to know about the strategy in action.
We've freezed the frame after Curry fought off another hard Cavaliers trap on the pick-and-roll to get into the lane. At that point, both Cavaliers defenders on the opposite side ran off their men to help on Curry in the lane.
Normally, this is a horrible defensive breakdown that even bad teams can exploit. The Cavaliers, however, are committing that horrible breakdown on purpose. They are begging the Warriors to give the ball to Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, even if they are open from the three-point range.
Sure enough, it worked. Curry hooked a tough pass to Green, who passed up a wide-open corner three to swing the ball to Iguodala. Iguodala then proceeded to do the exact same thing. The ball circled back to Curry, who had to force a difficult three that missed. All the while, J.R. Smith face-guarded Klay Thompson, refusing to let him break free even if it meant ignoring everything else that happened in the play.
This is an extreme example, but it's not that extreme. Look at LeBron James play free safety on this play.
Look at Dellavedova leave Iguodala for emergency help and Smith still refuse to step even an inch off Thompson to throw off Iguodala's rhythm. Iguodala missed this shot, and it was a big miss.
Look at LeBron, well, not even look at Iguodala in the corner.
Look at James and Shumpert double-team Thompson in transition, leaving one man to guard Iguodala and Green. This is not a breakdown. This is a plan.
These tactics were common throughout the Cavaliers' Game 3 victory.
It seems odd that the Warriors of all teams are having trouble spacing the floor, but Cleveland has made it so with this extreme strategy. The Warriors may have a revolutionary offensive system built around the greatest shooting backcourt of all time, and dizzying ball movement the league has rarely seen, but the Cavaliers have stripped the powerful collective down to its ordinary spare parts.
All season long, the Warriors used constant motion, passing, screening and misdirection to mask the fact that only two of their normal rotation players are elite scoring talents. Curry and Thompson are so good and so versatile that the Warriors could afford to surround them with passers and defenders that thrive in chaos. A typical Golden State offensive set has as many as three plays running at once. There's a pick-and-roll on one side, a pindown screen on the other and maybe even a third action that asks someone to cut in what seems like a random jagged line to the naked eye, but is actually quite purposeful.
These illusions are impossible to guard ... unless you know the magician's secret. Previous Warriors playoff opponents overreacted to the threat of this movement, often choosing to switch half-haphazardly or get sucked into the flow. This is what the Warriors always wanted. Even if a big man contains Curry on the switch, the mismatches elsewhere -- and they aren't traditional mismatches that only manifest themselves when that player has the ball -- are too much to overcome. The defense voluntarily surrendered its normal shape, which is what any offense wants.
But the Cavaliers seemingly have discovered the secret: those "threats" aren't really threats if they don't involve Curry or Thompson. If Curry or Thompson is involved, by all means, panic. If not, let the decoys try to be more than decoys. They've made Harrison Barnes beat them. They've made Andrew Bogut beat them. They've made Iguodala beat them. They've made Livingston beat them.
And they have really made Draymond Green beat them. Poor, poor Draymond. He took advantage all season when teams trapped his pick-and-rolls, but he can't in this series.
Undisciplined opponents ran at him when he caught the ball on the short roll 18 feet from the hoop. They left corner shooters or left the basket area open, allowing Green to use his passing gifts.
But the Cavaliers have done nothing of the sort. Whenever Green's caught the ball in 4-on-3 situations, he's seeing two wings staying at home in the corners and the massive Timofey Mozgov stretching his arms out near the rim. There are no passing angles, so the only thing Green can do is try to score, even though he's undersized and doesn't have a great in-between game. That ...
Worse, Green's spirit has been broken from constant failures. He's already struggling to box out Tristan Thompson on the other end. Now, he's banging into a brick wall and coming up empty every time. He's fatigued, both mentally and physically, and thus he's even less capable of bending his knees and hitting enough threes to keep the defense honest from the perimeter. The Warriors tried popping him to the three-point line to give him more space to operate, but the Cavaliers happily abandoned him. Green is shooting 25 percent from three-point range in the postseason and he knows it. Why else would he pass up this shot?
These supporting members -- Green, Iguodala, Barnes, Bogut, Livingston -- grease the Warriors' wheels, but the Cavaliers are betting they can't be the engine. Through three games, it's working.
There is some room for Warrior optimism. David Lee emerged as a potential X-factor because he can slip his screen quicker than Green and beat the Cavaliers' alignment before it could get set. For all his defensive faults, he's a dangerous offensive threat that should earn more minutes over Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Curry also did get free in the fourth quarter of Game 3 because he was more decisive with his attacking. Dellavedova is a heck of an irritant, but if the Warriors really focus their efforts, they can get Curry open despite this strategy.
The problem is that both decisions force the Warriors to become something they're not. Lee can't shoot threes, defend the pick-and-roll, protect the rim or offer the positional flexibility the Warriors crave. He's the antithesis of what the Warriors built this year, so relying heavily to him is an indictment of that very structure.
So, too, is changing the entire offense just to get Curry (and Thompson) open. The whole point of Kerr replacing Mark Jackson was to build an offense that actually used all five men as threat. Resorting to the Splash Brothers Show would be a reversion to last year, when the Warriors' offense was too easy to defend.
That the Warriors are in a position where they must consider extra such measures is a credit to the Cavaliers and a warning sign of the danger to come. Cleveland is executing a scheme most teams wouldn't try because they couldn't trust their players to do it. That scheme is showing the Warriors just how flawed their supporting players are.
SB Nation presents: The 3-pointer has gone from novelty to necessary