The Golden State Warriors have thrived all season due to their ability to switch on defense with a handful of like-size wing players. Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson can each guard multiple positions, and the Warriors as a unit do not suffer when they trade assignments.
The wild card in this switch-heavy scheme has always been reigning MVP Stephen Curry. His lack of strength and size has always been his biggest disadvantage on defense, and in these NBA Finals, the Warriors are actively keeping him away from mismatches.
At 27 years old, he's arguably the greatest shooter ever, mixing a hyper-quick release with unmatched ball-handling skills. To say he's maximized his athletic gifts on the offensive end would be an understatement.
On defense, Curry has undoubtedly improved. Teams no longer exploit him without mercy. He's competent enough to guard opposing point guards without requiring massive help rotations, and a growing defensive IQ has taught him to rely on his quickness to outwit physically overwhelming offensive matchups.
In April, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr zeroed in on this exact principle: "When asked what Curry has improved upon the most defensively, Kerr was quick to say 'ball pressure.' Once a liability, he's now on the offensive when he's on defense."
LeBron James has shattered all of those incremental improvements in this year's Finals. Whereas Golden State is usually comfortable letting Curry fend for himself as an isolation defender, James' overwhelming physical advantage has negated this strategy.
No longer are the Warriors willing to switch any pick-and-roll involving their guards and wings. Through three games of this series, Golden State has made a concerted effort not to find Curry stuck on an island against James.
This isn't so much a criticism of Curry as it is a demonstration of James' all-encompassing skills and gifts as a basketball player. His brute strength already dominates the usually sturdy Green, and his length and quickness have given defensive ace Iguodala all he can handle. If neither of those players can consistently keep James out of the paint, Curry does not stand a chance.
That's why Curry has defended James in exactly three isolation plays all series. Golden State has avoided this matchup by "hard-showing" any pick-and-roll in which Curry's man sets a ball-screen for James.
This is a common tactic for teams that want to avoid certain guard-guard switches. Instead of squaring up James in a switch, Curry lurches out toward James with his body perpendicular to the sideline in an effort to widen James' dribbling path.
This forces him to circle around the screen, thereby eliminating any straight-line drive to the rim.
Below is an example from Game 3. When Matthew Dellavedova sprints in to set a pick for James, Curry does a nice job hard-showing early.
James responds by using a somewhat circuitous route to the hoop. The extra second it takes him to redirect downhill gives Iguodala time to sneak underneath the screening action and meet James lower on the floor.
Instead of driving with a head of steam, James now has to muscle through multiple defenders with calculated, slower dribbles for a difficult shot.
What could be an explosion of power turns into a spinning, whirring layup that misses the rim.
In the Warriors' normal pick-and-roll coverage, they have the guard force the ball to the nearest sideline while the defensive big man drops back.
This "ice" pick-and-roll coverage, as it's known, simultaneously prevents the ball-handler from attacking the middle of the floor with a clean line of sight and keeps the offensive big man from rolling to the basket.
The only option is to throw the ball back to a popping big, most of whom are non-shooters for Cleveland.
When the big does try to roll to the basket, there's little room for a pocket pass.
This coverage funnels drivers into Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli or Green, each of whom is an excellent rim protector in his own right.
|Opp. FG% at Rim (Reg. Season)|
|NBA.com Player Tracking Data|
With one defender trailing and a second defender lying in wait at the rim, the prospect of finding a clean layup is minimal.
The Cavs have adjusted by changing up the screener. Instead of drawing Bogut into the pick-and-roll and trying to attack one of the league's best rim protectors, they're trying to engineer switches with Curry on James.
The Cavaliers anticipated Curry switching onto James in pick-and-rolls, because that is how the Warriors have operated all season. Golden State, however, has countered by swapping out the expected Curry switch for a hard show.
For the most part, it's working. The Warriors haven't gotten caught with Curry on James, and James' inability to consistently knock down jumpers from deep hasn't punished the decision.
This last part is crucial, because it's one of the methods through which James could thwart the game plan. Although he's knocked down a shot every so often in such situations, he's shown a consistent unwillingness to settle.
On some level, his commitment to attacking basketball is good for the Cavs—James cannot win this series with his jump shot. On the other hand, James' refusal to even acknowledge most of these open looks has allowed Golden State to hold firm in its defense. And although James is certainly dominating this series in many respects, his 40.2 percent shooting from the field—he has particularly struggled from the outside—in the Finals is undoubtedly inefficient.
Golden State has come to expect and rely upon James passing up these shots to attack the teeth of its defense. Iguodala has been beaten every once in a while, but more often than not, he's able to bother James with a contest while even more help arrives.
Where James is having success against this hard-show defense is when he attacks immediately. Even if he cannot score himself, Golden State is so preoccupied with James' ability to generate rim pressure that the entire defense collapses.
Because if the Warriors do not get there in time, he has an easy two points. On the play below, it's Barnes who gets clipped by a Dellavedova screen, leaving Curry's hard show exposed. The help is late, and LeBron throws down a dunk.
Although James' numbers are great volume-wise, great defense is about limiting efficiency. Golden State has done that to him this series, and it's clear the strategy to hide Curry from James is working. The defense on the whole has done its job and held the Cavs to an offensive rating of 94.3, per NBA.com.
It's on the offensive end that Golden State needs to figure things out. It's hard to imagine that a lineup featuring so much shooting, versatility and playmaking could struggle to score, but that's what has happened thus far in this series.
As Mike Prada of SB Nation points out, there are some signs that things could change in Golden State's favor:
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.
It's also possible that Cleveland's offensive strategy is wearing on Curry and, by extension, the Golden State offense. The Cavs have tried relentlessly to expose Curry all series, and we will see more of the same moving forward. Although only a handful of Curry-involved pick-and-rolls have led directly to shots for James or his teammates, Cleveland exclusively sets these types of screens down the stretch of games.
This is the chess match of the playoffs. Even great defenses have weaknesses, and Cleveland has identified Curry as the weakest link in Golden State's chain.