If you’re wondering why the offense of the Cleveland Cavaliers has come to a grinding halt down the stretch of the first two games of the NBA Finals, coach David Blatt has a perfectly logical explanation.
Blatt may be an NBA rookie but is somewhat of an icon in Israel, where he won five league titles, four Coach of the Year awards and the 2014 Euroleague Championship with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He is on a first name basis with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has an enormous following. So his reasoning makes perfect sense.
“Well, the people in Israel are up at 6 o’clock in the morning (to watch),” Blatt explained. “I’ve got to give them something to do. I can’t just make it easy. Seven million people watching the game, it’s got to be exciting.”
With the first two games going to overtime for the first time in Finals history, no one can say it hasn’t been exciting. But it appears to be a bit much for Cavs guard J.R. Smith, who had different thoughts as he watched his team’s struggles after fouling out in Game 2.
“Please win this game,” Smith said. “I don’t want the phone calls, the emails, Instagrams, tweets, memes. I don’t want none of that right now.”
Smith’s teammates took him off the hook – barely – by scrambling for a 95-93 road win over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday that evened the series at one game each. The Cavs squandered an 11-point lead with just over three minutes left in regulation that would have joined Dallas’ Game 3 loss to Miami in 2006, the LA Lakers’ Game 4 loss to Boston in 2008 and San Antonio’s Game 6 loss to Miami in 2013 as one of the biggest meltdowns in recent Finals memory.
“We had to do everything we could just to hold on, and fortunately we did,” Blatt said, turning serious.
The teams have played 106 minutes through two games, and the Cavaliers have been in control for most of them. In Game 1, they built a 14-point first-quarter lead and trailed for just 4:32 of the second half – never by more than three points – until falling apart in overtime. In Game 2, they built that 11-point lead and trailed just once for 19 seconds after halftime when Stephen Curry’s free throws late in overtime gave Golden State a brief edge.
In both games, however, Cleveland’s offense has transformed from patient to predictable to panicked down the stretch. In crunch time, the Cavs are taking way too long to get into their halfcourt sets and don’t seem to have many counters when the Warriors load up on LeBron James.
James has taken an unprecedented 73 shots in the first two games. That is the most shots he has taken in consecutive games at any point in his career and just the fourth time – and first in the postseason – that he has attempted 30-plus shots in back-to-back games.
In their current depleted state, the Cavs can’t beat the Warriors if James takes 20 shots – his career postseason average – while being overtly attentive to getting his teammates involved and creating a balanced offense. And despite his historic hoisting, he still leads all players with 17 assists in the Finals.
“I’m not a high volume shooter. I’ve never been in my career,” James said. “But things have changed on our team where the shots that Kevin (Love) and Kyrie (Irving) would have has now been placed on myself and the rest of the guys as well.”
But that level of ball dominance makes the Cavs easier to guard, especially late in games, when James is more likely to shoot rather than pass. He has just one assist down the stretch of the first two games while attempting 15 shots, making just two.
Here are Cleveland’s overall late-game numbers, which are pretty alarming.
In Game 1, Timofey Mozgov scored to give Cleveland a 93-90 lead with 4:16 left in regulation. From that point, the Cavs were 2-of-16 from the field, 2-of-2 from the line and committed four turnovers. Both of their baskets came from James – a 3-pointer with 2:38 to go in regulation and a meaningless late layup that only prevented an overtime blanking.
In Game 2, James made a 3-pointer to give Cleveland an 83-72 lead with 3:14 left in regulation. From there, the Cavs were 1-of-14 from the field, 9-of-12 from the line and committed two turnovers. The only basket was Iman Shumpert’s 3-pointer early in overtime, although the Cavs did a better job of getting to the line.
Late in games, the Cavs have run just two basic sets: a 1-3 pick-and-roll that is designed to get James matched up on the smaller Stephen Curry, or a left-side clear-out for James in the post against either Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala. Both sets give James three options – shoot a jumper, get to the rim or drive and dish.
“It’s what needs to be done to help our team win,” said James, who is shooting below 40 percent in the Finals. “Am I going to be in the 30s every game or things of that nature? I’m not sure. I would not like to. But if that’s what the case has to be to help us win, then I don’t have a choice.”
James may not have a choice, but Blatt does.
When Warriors coach Steve Kerr goes to his small lineup with Draymond Green at center, Blatt counters with Tristan Thompson. That forces him to remove Mozgov, who has been his second-best offensive player, torching the supposedly stout Andrew Bogut for 33 points and 20 free throws through two games.
For all of his yeoman work on defense and the backboards, Thompson could not score in an empty gym. He doesn’t seem to grasp the notion of a put-back and is 1-of-9 from the field, making the talk of him receiving a max contract this summer absolutely ridiculous.
“We played the lineup we thought we needed to play to match up properly with them and at the same time not lose an advantage at the other end,” Blatt explained.
The absence of Mozgov was dramatic. In Game 2, the Cavaliers scored 26 points in the paint – all in the first half, when Golden State played more big lineups. And when Iguodala is on James, Green is virtually ignoring Thompson and providing help, because James won’t throw the ball to a player who can’t make a layup or two straight free throws.
“We had some success, some good success in the first half getting it inside, and much less so in the second, and it’s something that we’ll look at,” Blatt said.
Blatt should leave Mozgov on the floor and dare the Warriors to take crunch-time shots away from Curry and Klay Thompson and live or die with the erratic Green, another player projected to receive a max deal. Thus far, Green is 6-of-20 from the field, including 0-of-4 from the arc.
The Cavs could also do a better job of getting into their half-court sets more quickly. When James brings up the ball, he is often crossing the time line with 17 seconds left on the 24-second clock. Advancing the ball with a bit more pace, saving two or three seconds and setting up faster would help on the back end of the possession.
Very late in games, Blatt could also go offense-defense a bit earlier with Smith and Dellavedova, who got himself in trouble a handful of times in Game 2 by penetrating only to pass, whether on straight drives or pick-and-rolls. On a couple of occasions, he tried to run pick-and-rolls with Thompson, a set with no threat.
Smith is often chastised for his willingness to hoist, but he did seem to make a concerted effort to drive the ball in Game 2 and aside from James is Cleveland’s only breakdown offensive player. And if you’re worried about Smith’s lack of defensive wherewithal at the end of Game 2 – “a lot of dumb fouls,” he admitted – remember that keeping Mozgov on the floor is to direct shots to Green rather than Curry or Klay Thompson, whom Smith would be guarding.
Look, the Cavs just won a Finals game on the toughest home floor in the NBA while shooting 32 percent, which illustrates that Blatt’s schemes are working. He may feel like he has found a winning formula and not change a thing.
“The lineup to finish the game is one that’s been a winning lineup for us, and that’s why we played it,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean that those schemes can’t be tweaked to make it just a little bit easier to score down the stretch, and make the games a just little less exciting.
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Chris Bernucca is the managing editor and a featured columnist for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.