This year is different, and the Cleveland Cavaliers will never repeat the avalanche of 3-point shooting and Kyrie Irving one-on-one brilliance that walloped the Golden State Warriors from jump street in Game 4. But in Cleveland, the Cavs bent some of the trend lines in this series more in their direction, and in ways that might be sustainable in another do-or-die game.
The Cavs are dangerous. They believe. Golden State has to stamp out that belief tonight.
They slowed the pace a bit in Game 4, and leaned harder on the Warriors with sheer physicality that will take more of a toll the longer this series goes -- provided the officials allow it. Tristan Thompson woke up. And their two transcendent offensive fulcrums are gradually figuring out ways to puncture the Warriors' defense, just as they did over the last four games a year ago. LeBron can solve almost any defense if he sees it enough.
James and Irving have shifted their pick-and-roll attack from Stephen Curry to Golden State's trio of slow-footed centers -- Zaza Pachulia, the utterly hopeless JaVale McGee, and David West. They know the Warriors do not want to switch those behemoths onto Irving or James. Golden State's only alternative is to put two defenders on the ball until the defense can reset itself.
If the Cavs slip the ball through those traps, they ignite the kind of four-on-three passing sequences that fuel their 3-point shooting game. They have several tricks to make those passes easier. Sometimes, their screeners slip away before really setting a pick -- providing an easy passing lane for Irving and James. Richard Jefferson was especially crafty at this when Steve Kerr tried to hide Golden State's centers on him.
Golden State's help behind those plays wasn't as airtight and coordinated as it usually is. The Warriors blew some easy switches they normally make with a wink and a nod. Kevin Durant dialed back his frenzy defending LeBron on the ball. That stuff figures to change as the Warriors try to clinch at home.
Sometimes, Jefferson went the other way and held his picks like an offensive lineman:
The effect is small, but crucial: Jefferson grabs Andre Iguodala's arm, delaying him just enough so that Pachulia has to slide an extra step or two further toward LeBron. That leaves Jefferson more open than he might otherwise be, and that in turn requires more help away from the other Cavs.
Thompson brutalized Golden State defenders with wide, bulldozing picks that triggered the same ripple effects:
In Games 1 and 2, Irving and James were perhaps too patient driving against Pachulia in those situations. They pulled back to observe the lay of the land. That gave Golden State time to recover. They have since started going right at him the instant they sense an opening. That suddenness keeps the defense off-kilter. It can force Pachulia into switches he can't handle.
The obvious solution is for Kerr to play his centers less. The Warriors lost contact in Game 4 late in the first quarter, when a smaller Cleveland lineup with Kevin Love at center toyed over and over with McGee. Kerr even kept Pachulia on the floor during a brief third-quarter stretch in which Cleveland had LeBron at center.
Golden State is plus-21 in 53 minutes with Green at center, and just plus-4 in all other minutes for the series, per NBA.com. A new lineup with Durant at center turned Game 2. The "A" version of the vaunted Death Lineup has logged just 17 minutes in four games, partly due to Draymond Green's foul trouble. Golden State is an unthinkable plus-23 in those 17 minutes.
Kerr has never made any huge rotational adjustments with Golden State ahead in a series. He likes to play a lot of guys, and stick to what has gotten the Warriors this far.
Golden State also has a real fear of Thompson's rebounding. The Warriors see how it energizes the Cavs. They want big bodies out there to wall him off. They are probably also worried Green might get into even more severe foul trouble doing that grunt work over extra minutes. We have already seen Kerr use James Michael McAdoo as something of an in-between option -- a center-ish type who can switch a bit on defense. Don't be shocked if we see him again in Game 5.
Kerr should be more daring, even with a (say it with me) 3-1 lead. This isn't 2016. Stephen Curry is healthy, and Harrison Barnes has become Kevin Durant. The Death Lineup is powerful enough offensively to survive some Tristan Thompson swim move offensive rebounds. Ride with it early, just like Mike Brown did during his undefeated stint as interim head coach.
The wild card here is Iguodala's health. He looked springy in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but logged just 21 minutes in Game 4. He hasn't cracked 30 minutes in any Finals game, though three of them featured garbage time. He surpassed 30 minutes in five of seven Finals games a year ago, and hit at least the 37-minute mark in three.
Going centerless is dicier without Iguodala. The Warriors can slide Shaun Livingston into his spot -- the Coma Lineup -- but Livingston can't hold up as well guarding LeBron. Durant and Green can, but the Warriors might need them to guard Love and Tristan Thompson in some alignments.
Either way, when Golden State downsizes, the Cavs will go back to hunting Curry. He has navigated the pick-and-roll maze better this time around, but LeBron is so damn calculating -- and has discovered some new tactics.
Curry prefers to lunge out at LeBron, stall him, and get the hell out of the locomotive's way -- and back toward his guy (usually JR Smith). Just like Irving, LeBron spent the first two games surveying the scene and waiting out Curry's help.
Now he's lowering his shoulder and driving right into Curry, or squeezing through the corridor Curry's strategy leaves open:
Smith has been mixing up his technique, and darting away early for open triples or rolls to the rim. When Curry tries to switch his way out of a pick-and-roll, James just calls Curry's new mark up for a screen, even if it means he has to sift through five bodies to make a play.
The Cavs also found some funky ways to confuse the Warriors and punish Curry at the same time. As Curry's man -- Iman Shumpert below -- approached to screen for Irving, James nailed Curry with a separate pick.
LeBron's pick makes Iguodala think: "I usually switch, but if I do that, that means Steph is stuck on LeBron. But if I don't switch, Steph is gonna have trouble catching up to the play. Should I switch? Stay home?" That kind of hesitation is fatal against Cleveland's offense.
The Cavs have found other methods to spring Irving, including plays on which he starts off the ball, races around one pick to get some separation, and flies into a dribble handoff with a head of steam. He has toasted Klay Thompson a few times by faking toward a pick, and then veering away from it.
The Cavs are learning on offense. To contain them, the Warriors may need to tweak their rotation. They definitely need to bring their best, hyper-alert game.
Cleveland isn't comfortable on the other end. No team is against the Warriors. But the Cavs know what they want to do, and executed it decently enough in two home games. They know Golden State will put Love through the pick-and-roll ringer. Love has slid his feet well, and the help defenders behind him have left the right guys open.
Green took more shots than both Curry and Klay Thompson in Game 4, including several of those wild driving floaters that always seem to miss. That is a win for Cleveland.
As Jeff Van Gundy likes to say, if Green and Iguodala hit their 3s, you lose. They are 8-of-28 combined so far. If they shoot well in Game 5, the series probably ends.
If they are going to derail the offense to poke at Love in a pick-and-roll, they should preface it with some other action -- put some obstacle in his way. Hit Love with a screen in the paint as he prepares for the real thing up high.
These double screens for Curry, with Love's guy as the final screener, have been devastating:
That alignment is very much intentional. Golden State knows the Cavs are fine switching Tristan Thompson onto Curry. That switch is harder to pull when Thompson's guy is only the first screener in line. This play has generated better switches -- Love on Curry -- and turned Thompson around. Golden State hasn't used it enough.
The Warriors have actually scored more efficiently when they put players other than Love in the pick-and-roll, per SportVU data reviewed by ESPN.com. Going that route often leaves Love on the back line. He might be worse there than he is scrambling at the point of attack, though he has worked his tail off to challenge shots and deflect passes down low. Turns out, he can play against these Warriors.
Manipulating the floor so Love is the last line of defense is harder than it sounds. Cleveland will switch a lot of other pick-and-rolls, barricading the path toward Love's ground-bound defense. But there is one other combination the Cavs really, really don't want to switch. This one:
Oh, baby. That is spicy. That is mean. The Warriors put their two best players in a pick-and-roll, and clear that side of the floor so there is no defender in traditional help position.
The bet here is that we see more of this kind of thing in Game 5 -- more mismatch basketball, more pick-and-roll, more Curry pindowns for Durant, and less of Golden State's beautiful game. The Cavs can hang with all that motion if they are engaged, and if the referees allow for some grabbing and holding. They cannot hang with Irving guarding Durant on a switch. Hell, maybe the Warriors will get really crazy and let Curry attack one-on-one a bit.
Bottom line: If Golden State plays well, it should win the title at home tonight. But a "B" game may not do it.
A few other things to watch in what could be the last game of the season:
• If the Cavs are going to abandon Green away from the ball, Golden State might be able to pry Klay Thompson open by running him off pindown picks from Green. If Green's guy is patrolling the action elsewhere, there will be no one around to contest Thompson catch-and-shoot jumpers.
• The Cavs have gotten away with a lot of Kyle Korver guarding Klay Thompson. That should be exploitable for the Warriors.
• Jefferson's minutes were huge in Game 4. Cleveland is minus-27 for the series with both Love and Tristan Thompson on the floor. There is a ton of noise in that number, obviously. The sample is tiny, and Thompson was awful in the first three games. But Tyronn Lue appears not to trust that double-big group to play against some of Golden State's super-small lineups, which means someone -- Jefferson, Shumpert, Korver, Deron Williams -- has to step up in place of one big man as sort of an extra starter.
• Durant's gang rebounding is so hit-or-miss. He has a bad habit of just standing around 20 feet from the rim, even when Tristan Thompson is sprinting unchallenged down the lane for an offensive board.
Durant is skinny, and doesn't love contact. This is a closeout game in the NBA Finals. A few rebounds could tip the balance.
• It can be hard for Golden State to play any of its centers with both Livingston and Iguodala. The spacing gets so cramped.
• Adjustment alert: James guarded Green more against Golden State's small-ball lineups, even if it meant the Cleveland big -- Love or Thompson -- had to defend Livingston, with Jefferson taking Durant. The Cavs like James on Green.
• The pace pendulum is so fascinating. The pace got away from the Cavaliers in the first two games. They do need to run when they sense a real chance, though. Slowing to a crawl also nudges them up against the shot clock, without time to exploit mismatches that materialize late in possessions. They are left to force tough shots.
• The lineup without Durant and Curry that starts the second and fourth quarters has been a net-negative all playoffs, per NBA.com. Kerr has gradually sliced its minutes, but the Warriors can't eliminate it without rejiggering the minutes pattern for one of the stars in a way the players may not love. It might be time to do that, though if I had to bet, I'd wager we see it again with a quicker hook if need be.