5 things the Cavs need to do to turn the NBA Finals around
The Cleveland Cavaliers have played two games in the NBA Finals this year and left Oracle Arena on a down note following a pretty good beating at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Despite the superhuman efforts of LeBron James, the Cavs find themselves in a 2-0 hole for the second consecutive year as the Finals shift back to Cleveland.
Can the Cavaliers turn things around and get themselves back in the series? Yes, they can, despite the seemingly endless talent that the Warriors boast.
Here are five key things the Cavs need to do to regain a foothold in the series and threaten the Warriors.
1) Make a lineup change
In the first two games of the NBA Finals, guard J.R. Smith has taken just six shots. He made only one of them. This is a player who doesn’t offer much defensively, and if he isn’t knocking down jumpers, he just doesn’t have a ton to offer the Cavs.
Enter Iman Shumpert, who has played 38 minutes in the series to Smith’s 42. His offensive ceiling is not as high as Smith’s, but as the saying goes, it’s getting late early, and Cleveland can’t afford to bide their time, wait out Smith’s cold streak, and wait until he heats up against. What Shumpert lacks in offense he can make up with superior defense.
Cleveland has had an enormously difficult time slowing down Kevin Durant in this series, and outside of LeBron James, Shumpert is arguably the team’s best defender. This is a change the Cavaliers have reportedly already considered, and coach Tyronn Lue should go ahead and make it. They’ll sacrifice some screening if Smith is benched, but if they can’t get him scoring, they should at least put someone on the floor who might be able to keep Golden State from scoring a bit more effectively than Smith does.
If JR gets going offz the bench, all the better for Cleveland.
2) Make more shots from the outside
No, Cleveland probably isn’t going to win any shootouts with Golden State, but they have made 19 threes in two games, and that’s not really going to cut it against the Warriors. More troubling is the fact that 13 of the 19 threes have been knocked down by the big three of James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. It’s not bad in a nutshell, but where are the alternatives? Which non-stars are keeping Golden State honest from beyond the arc?
We know that the Cavaliers have the supporting personnel to hit more outside shots than they have. The aforementioned Smith has made just 1-of-4 attempts. Kyle Korver, who has made an entire NBA career out of three-point sharpshooting, is 1-of-6. Shumpert and Richard Jefferson have knocked down a three each, with the other two being hit by little-used Dahntay Jones and Derrick Williams in garbage time. That’s not remotely good enough for Cleveland.
The Cavs need at least one of Smith or Korver to really get going from downtown, and frankly, at this point, they may well need both to go off.
3) Control the pace
This is one piece of advice that LeBron does not want to hear.
LeBron James reiterates that Cavaliers don't want to slow pace vs Warriors: "That's not our game. We don't play slow down basketball."
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) June 6, 2017
In a sense, he is right. The Cavaliers bludgeoned the rest of the East playing the same sort of up-tempo basketball that they’ve tried to play in the Finals. The problem is the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics aren’t as good at it as the Warriors are.
You know it’s bad when the team is marveling at how fast their opponents are. It’s very easy to take stock of everything and say that the Cavaliers should double-down, stick to their principles, and hold on to what got them here in the first place. There’s a huge problem with that strategy — it’s really, really tough to win when what you excel at is bested by the other team.
The hesitance to change course is even stranger when you consider the previous two Finals. The Cavs adopted a more grind-it-out possession-by-possession slugfest strategy in both the 2015 and 2016 Finals when their tempo backfired on them. It allowed the 2015 team to take Golden State to six games without Irving, and it helped bring the 2016 team back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. There is, as ever, no guarantee it will work. But it beats playing right into the Warriors’ hands strategically.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Cavaliers need to be more deliberate — if nothing else, to at least temporarily take the Warriors out of their comfort zone.
4) Crash the boards
This goes hand-in-hand with the talk about tempo. The Cavaliers need to gain an advantage against the Warriors on the glass, particularly offensively. Golden State has only one fewer offensive board than Cleveland does in the series so far, and the Cavs have missed more shots. A big part of that has been Tristan Thompson’s disappearing act. Yes, he has five offensive rebounds in the series, but only eight in total, having spent most of the first two games of the series completely marginalized.
In terms of total rebounding percentage, Golden State actually has a slight edge. That will not do. The Warriors have two solid rebounders in Thompson and Love, and they really need to grab as many misses as possible at this point. It’s not a great sign when Durant has only one fewer offensive board than Thompson does.
Thompson himself knows his series has been a failure so far, and it’s on him to turn it around. He has to do it as soon as possible.
5) Find a fourth option
This goes along with the second point. Cleveland’s Big Three has been responsible for nearly 70 percent of the team’s scoring in the series. In the regular season, that tally was closer to 54 percent. Sure, there’s less garbage time in the playoffs, and it’s logical that Cleveland would lean more on their star players this time of year as opposed to the regular season. However, there’s a happy medium between those two numbers where the Cavs are still getting big performances from James, Irving, and Love while also getting significant contributions from their role players.
As mentioned before, Korver and Smith have combined to knock down just two combined threes in the first two games. 36-year-old Richard Jefferson is the team’s fourth-leading scorer. Only two players not named LeBron, Kyrie, or Kevin — Jefferson and Shumpert — are averaging more than five points per game. That means the likes of Smith, Korver, Thompson, Deron Williams, and Channing Frye are simply offering nothing offensively after playing their part throughout the season and parts of the playoffs. Those five players have combined for 21 points in the first two games total. Williams has yet to score at all, with a hideous 0-for-9 mark from the field in the series.
The Big Three are great, but the Cavaliers cannot win this series if there is nothing beyond them. At least one of Cleveland’s supplementary pieces needs to start providing a threat.