Cleveland Cavaliers Have Surpassed Golden State Warriors' 3-Point Dominance

David CassiloFeatured ColumnistDecember 25, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots against the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the 2016 NBA Finals on June 16, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND — If the Cleveland Cavaliers win their NBA Finals rematch on Christmas Day, it will at least be partially because they beat the Golden State Warriors at their own game.

While Steve Kerr's group has a reputation as the league's elite long-range shooting team, the Cavaliers are actually better than Golden State in three-point percentage, attempts and makes per game so far this season.

In fact, Cleveland—at 40 percent from long range—trails only the San Antonio Spurs (40.8) in three-point percentage this season.

"I think it's the offense we run," said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. "I think it's the attention that Kevin [Love], Kyrie [Irving] and LeBron [James] draw. And we have great three-point shooters."

The Cavaliers are also second behind the Houston Rockets in NBA three-point makes (13.4) and attempts (33.4) per game. The Warriors are third and fourth in those respective categories and fifth in three-point percentage. If the season ends with the stats this way, it will be the first time since 2013-14 that Golden State does not lead the NBA in three-point percentage.

According to B/R Insights, Cleveland and the Rockets are on pace to break the Warriors' single-season record for made three-pointers (1,077), which was set last season.

It's not like Cleveland has come out of nowhere to pass Golden State either. The Cavaliers have been a quietly proficient three-point team since LeBron James returned, going top-five in both three-point attempts and makes each season.

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However, the big difference this season is accuracy, as Cleveland shot 36.2 percent from deep last year.

"We've got great three-point shooters, and for us, we try to put the ball on time and on target," James said. "Then it's up to our guys to knock it down. Guys are putting their work in, and that's just the byproduct of it."

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 05:  Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball during the first half of an NBA game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre on December 5, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
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The thumb injury to J.R. Smithwho leads the team with 6.6 three-point attempts per gamemight decrease the number of looks the team has per game. But the improved overall three-point shooting actually starts with the team's three best players, not Smith, who has seen his long-range shooting fall from 40.0 percent last season to 36.2 this season.

From last season, James is up from 30.9 to 37.1 percent, Kyrie Irving from 32.1 to 42.5 and Kevin Love from 36.0 to 40.6. The first full Cavaliers season for Channing Frye (45.1) has also led to the rise in three-point success.

When in charge of the offense, Irving believes he doesn't have to do much to find open looks for his teammates.

"By just being myself," Irving said. "By being able to get downhill. Utilize the people around me. When you have the pieces that I have on this team, it makes your job a lot easier, whether you're handling the ball or you're off the ball."

Cleveland has always shot a high number of long-range attempts since James' return, but now the Cavs are second in the league this year in 3PA rate at .392 (39.2% of their field-goal attempts are threes), up from .352 last year (the Warriors, meanwhile, are down to .356 this year compared to .362 last year). 

Still, this isn't a case of the Cavaliers stealing the Warriors offense. Instead, it speaks more to a league-wide trend that has developed since the mid-2000s, when Mike D'Antoni brought his electric offense to the Phoenix Suns by focusing on pick-and-rolls and surrounding the perimeter with elite outside shooters.

Over the last 10 seasons, it's gotten to the point where every NBA team needs to incorporate aspects of D'Antoni's system into its own strategy.

Milwaukee, WI - DECEMBER 20: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 20, 2016 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
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"It's a great offense," Lue said. "A lot of teams are doing it now. When I first came in the league, there were two or three teams wavering over 100 points a game, and now there's 22 teams. The game has changed. The three-point shot is very important and very valuable, and now teams are playing that way."

But while everyone may be using that offense now, few teams can do it better than Golden State.

"I thought the trend was there before they started it," Lue said. "Teams have been doing it, but I think Golden State just took it to another level, as far as their great three-point shooters, and they have multiple ball-handlers who can make plays."

With stars like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson among the Warriors' building blocks, it empowered them to use a style like D'Antoni's that would play to their strengths. But we should note the Warriors' style differs from the Seven Seconds or Less-era Phoenix Suns in that they are last in PNR usage this year (the Cavs rank 20th), which is a departure from the hallmark of D'Antoni's teams. D'Antoni's philosophy was to take the first good shot, while the Warriors expressly pass up good shots for great shots as a rule.

"They have two of the greatest three-point shooters of all time," James said. "Do you have a choice but to shoot threes? Those guys are so great and so dynamic at what they do. It's just a byproduct of building around those guys."

So if that's James' proposed reason for Golden State's three-point success, what about Cleveland? Is it the personnel or the strategy that has led to such a dynamic long-range season thus far? For James, he doesn't try to think too much about why it's happening and points instead to the simplest reason there is.

"They're going in," James said.



As for the Cavaliers-Warriors game itself, while the rest of the NBA might have had this one circled for months, Lue is trying to play the meeting off as just another game.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors defends LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
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"It's just one game," Lue said. "We know they're a good team. We're a good team. They're tough to prepare for during the regular season anyway. We know that and the way they play. It's just one game. We're not treating it like anything else."

This will be the 13th Christmas Day game in Cavaliers history. These two teams met for an NBA Finals rematch last holiday season in Oakland, California, and the Warriors picked up an 89-83 victory.

Irving has put a priority on maintaining his health over the last two seasons.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 17: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives between Jordan Clarkson #6 and Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on December 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers
Jason Miller/Getty Images

He never played more than 75 games during his first four years in the league, and he reached a crossroads where he needed to find a way to stay on the floor.

"I think I just stopped taking my body for granted. Realizing the amount of years I kind of want to log going into the future is going to come with me making sure my body is a priority," Irving said.

"As a young guy coming into this league, you think that it's just about playing basketball. You see the vets foam rolling and lifting every single day just looking at them like you can run through anything right now."

His health comes with extra importance this season after a long playoff run and Olympic appearance. So far so good this year: Irving has played in 26 of his team's 28 games.

James is shooting a career-low 69.8 percent from the free-throw line through 26 games this season. That's down from 73.1 percent last season and well below his career average of 74.3.

After a strong November from the stripe (73.8), James is down to 67.1 for the month of December. He's on pace for his lowest full calendar month since November 2012 (64.9).

James is also seeing an increase in foul shots this month (6.7 to 7.2 per game), which might be a growing trend if he fails to reliably make them from the charity stripe. However, that number could be due to an uptick in minutes in December and compensating for J.R. Smith's absence.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of Dec. 24, 2016 from Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. 

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