In Game 2 of their second-round series, the Utah Jazz punctured the Houston Rockets' switch-everything defense with the most tried-and-true switching antidote: slipping screens.
A Utah player -- usually Rudy Gobert -- would sidle over to screen for Donovan Mitchell, only to stop short and dart to the rim. Gobert was gone before the two Houston defenders could properly swap assignments.
In Game 3, Houston was ready. The Rockets reminded themselves they would not switch until the guy guarding Mitchell actually felt Gobert's pick. Trevor Ariza, defending Mitchell, waited for Gobert to hit him, and then burrowed underneath the French Rejection -- staying between Gobert and the rim.
Ariza and Clint Capela switched only at the moment they could touch Gobert at the same time:
For the Rockets, this was not an adjustment. It was a return to principles they drilled all season with an eye on the Warriors. They had developed habits, and those habits carried them within one win -- and who knows, maybe one hamstring pull -- of the NBA Finals.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have few habits, unless you count lazing through the regular season and fatuous melodrama. They are trying to develop habits on the fly against an opponent that demands something barely short of perfection -- an opponent against which "switch everything" is only step one of a feasible game plan.
Like a student cramming for finals after skipping class the entire semester, the Cavs cobbled a brand new blueprint just for these Finals.. It was sensible -- something you could see coming. Boiled down, it went:
• Switch everything off the ball -- a Houston impression. On top of (theoretically) short-circuiting Golden State's fancy stuff, this would spare LeBron the exhausting full-time duty of chasing Kevin Durant; LeBron could pass him off to the next defender, and Cleveland would live with Durant going one-on-one against that guy.
• Switch all on-ball exchanges except any Stephen Curry pick-and-roll involving Kevin Love. Cleveland has long preferred having Love trap to force the ball out of Curry's hands. That leaves Cleveland three-on-four behind the play, but it mitigates the risk by ignoring Golden State's worst shooters.
The new plan meshed habits old and new. It amounted to playing two schemes at once. It was perhaps the best combination of ideas available on short notice. It was also entirely predictable that a team with such a weak defensive infrastructure would fail when suddenly confronted with multiple sets of rules. Information overload can paralyze even elite defenses.
Failure came, repeatedly, in the first quarter of Game 1. When Curry targeted Love, the Cavs collapsed in a haze of confusion: Are we switching? Wait, I thought we were trapping? Oh god, they scored already.
They aborted. They would just switch everything, and hope for the best. Whatever old habits they had for defending Golden State -- those traps -- were scrapped. You could understand the idea. Love running Curry off the arc alone is not so different than trapping Curry; both gambits grant Golden State a 4-on-3 in exchange for (in theory) shutting off Curry triples.
On some possessions, it worked. But over time, Golden State will win this battle because of both its historic talent, and Cleveland's long-engrained defensive shortcomings.
Houston had a basic rule for defending Curry, says Jeff Bzdelik, the architect of their switchy defense: When Capela switched onto Curry, no one was allowed to help from anywhere -- even if Curry slithered inside Capela off the bounce. Houston had confidence Capela could bother Curry from behind. They would live with Curry hitting contested layups because 3s would surely kill them.
Love, of course, isn't Capela. Neither is Larry Nance Jr. When Curry beats Love off the bounce, those layups become uncontested -- almost 90 percent shots. Both Love and Nance have occasionally fallen for Curry jukes, stumbled below the 3-point arc, and surrendered open step-back 3s. On one Game 2 possession, Love played Curry correctly -- jumping to his side, well above the arc -- but yielded too much airspace:
Both decelerated for a fatal half-second when Curry gave up the ball, exhaling like a horror-movie victim who thinks the villain didn't see her slip into that closet, giving Curry the teensy advantage he needs to launch one of those patented give-and-go triples.
And that's the unseen danger of a switch-everything scheme: It cannot handle any breakdown at the point of attack.
Well, Love is guarding McGee, and even if he decides to, like, move, he's probably not disrupting Durant. (Still: Moving is helpful!) But what about Tristan Thompson?
He's focused on Klay Thompson popping off a flare screen from Draymond Green. Why? Because in a switch-everything scheme, it is his job to switch onto Klay Thompson. Switching in that sense works against traditional help defense.
This is not a novel problem for defenses dealing with the Warriors. Help off their non-shooters, and those guys pivot into screens for literally three of the greatest shooters in the history of Earth. Stick to them, and you concede the rim.
"It's like you're in a boat with three holes in the bottom," Bzdelik says of defending Golden State, "and you only have two pegs to plug them. You just have to keep moving the pegs around."
The Rockets understood switching alone wouldn't be enough. They practiced how and when to help off Golden State's non-shooters, Bzdelik says. They had rules for specific situations -- baseline drives when the best shooter is in one particular corner, penetration down the middle, and more. Cleveland is improvising with lesser talent.
Sometimes, the Cavaliers pull it off; watch Kyle Korver spot LeBron sagging off Draymond Green, and realize he has to chase Klay Thompson around Green's screen instead of assuming LeBron will switch.
All these challenges coalesced on the first possession of Game 2, when McGee slipped a pick for Curry, and jaunted untouched to the rim. J.R. Smith, committing treason so far, was late digesting the slip, and too far behind McGee to do much of anything:
Tristan Thompson again has his back turned to the play, obsessed with his job of switching onto Klay Thompson.
As for Smith's gaffe there, the Cavs looked unprepared for the ferocity and timing of Golden State's slip cuts.
That is less a pick than two humans crossing on opposite sides of a sidewalk; Livingston and Curry barely come within 10 feet of each other. With that much distance between "screeners," the Cavs should just stay with their original assignments. This is how Houston briefly neutered Golden State's attack. The Rockets didn't switch everything. They switched almost everything. The Cavs are aware this is a good idea; watch Love and Jeff Green agree in the moment to stay home when Jordan Bell and Curry crisscross:
But they aren't as well-versed as the Rockets in the minutia of an anti-Warriors switching scheme, or as naturally talented on defense. Also: The Warriors are awesome. They inspire paranoia. You can understand Jeff Green, guarding Livingston before Livingston's layup shown above, thinking to himself: My guy is about to screen for Stephen freaking Curry. If I don't switch early, I'm toast.
By the midpoint of Game 2, the Warriors started preying on all of this -- the fear they inspire, the predictability of the Cavalier switches, Cleveland's intractable disadvantages. Sometimes it was as simple as Curry giving the ball up, and diving behind a McGee pick:
Diabolical. Curry knows Love is going to switch off of McGee. He knows that by cutting hard toward the basket, he will nudge Love in that direction. And he knows that when he moonwalks back into 3-point range, Love will rush out in a panic -- vulnerable to an easy blow-by.
Sometimes it was more complex.
Green slips his pick hard enough that his new defender -- freshly switched Jeff Green -- is behind him as he zooms to the basket. And then, bam: a back pick from the world's most dangerous shooter smushes Jeff Green even farther behind. Smith might stanch the bleeding with an insta-switch, but we are talking about Curry -- do we dare risk botching a switch against him? -- and Smith, and so the Warriors dance all over Cleveland again.
This is especially mean:
That first McGee pick for Curry is a decoy designed to tip Cleveland off-balance. The Warriors invite Love to switch, and anticipate he will position himself to one side of Curry, chest parallel to the sideline, instead of playing straight up:
It is really hard for Love to swivel from that alignment right into another switch when Draymond Green arrives for a second slipped pick. Confusion reigns, but Swaggy misses.
Elite switching defenses dictate terms to the offense. They jolt opponents out of rhythm. The Cavs are switching from a position of weakness -- to preserve LeBron's stamina, simplify the game, and keep out of scramble mode. Golden State's offense is dictating to Cleveland's defense, using Curry to do it.
Golden State set 40 ball screens for Curry in Game 2, their fourth-highest single-game total since Durant joined, per Second Spectrum data. Two of the three games above that one on the same list: Game 1 of these Finals, and the Game 5 clincher a year ago. Two more among the top-10 such games happened in the just-concluded conference finals against Houston.
The Warriors lean on Curry's pick-and-roll game when they feel threatened, and when they see Love.
The Cavs can't excise Love. They need his offense. They may need to play him a little more at center, at least when Curry rests, to unclog LeBron's driving lanes. (Their best shot at competing probably still comes with Love and Tristan Thompson together -- and perhaps alongside George Hill, LeBron and Korver, given how bad Smith has been. Thompson cramps spacing, but he's essential to Cleveland's defense. He's a monster screener, on and off the ball, and the Cavs found a little something in the third quarter of Game 2 having him screen for LeBron around midcourt -- giving LeBron a runway. A lineup of LeBron and four shooters has no shot on defense. Jeff Green isn't good enough, at anything, to justify siphoning many more minutes from Thompson, Love, or Nance.)
They need to consider going back to their roots, and having Love trap at least some Curry pick-and-rolls. If it makes it easier, have Thompson trap, too. Trapping would have helpers on high alert behind the play. It would at least eliminate instances in which a Curry pick-and-roll involves both Cleveland bigs. The Warriors are calling consecutive screens -- first with Thompson's man, then Love's -- to manufacture that scenario, and scoring almost at will when they get it. LeBron can still switch everything away from the ball to avoid ceaseless Durant duty.
In the end, it probably won't matter. The Warrios are a generational juggernaut. Only one team -- the Rockets -- has wobbled them since they acquired Durant. Andre Iguodala may come back soon, adding another playmaker to punish any trapping scheme. The Cavs have always been at least one two-way player short for this matchup. (So is almost everyone. The combination of two-way guys and star power on a fully actualized Boston team makes it perhaps the most interesting Warriors opponent going forward.)
Building a complete roster is hard for any capped-out team. Building a culture that values the fundamentals of defense, and the drudgery of sharpening habits on that end over multiple regular seasons, shouldn't be.