In a lot of ways, the fifth game of the 2016 NBA Finals was the best one. The funny thing, though, is neither team played all that well. Sure, Klay Thompson was great for Golden State, and of course, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James put on a historic night (they were the first teammates to both score forty points in a single finals game), but overall neither team played their game. For Golden State, missing Draymond Green and – for part of the game – Andrew Bogut resulted in sloppy offense and defense. For Cleveland, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith both had below-average offensive performances because of the lack of ball movement. Nevertheless, it was an important and meaningful game, so below are this author’s takeaways.
Breaking Down The Warriors’ Biggest Problem Against The Cavs:
As I noted before the series started, and as has been true throughout, the Warriors really don’t have any players that can guard Kyrie Irving and LeBron James one-on-one. It has been easier, for most of the series, for Golden State to double LeBron James. That’s mainly because James does not have Kyrie’s ability to instantaneously stop on a drive and score. Additionally, much of LeBron’s drive game is predicated on passing, and the Warriors have done a solid job removing passing lanes using double-teams when James drives. Let’s examine a video of this happening below:
With that said, there is only so much a team can do to stop LeBron James. And while that double-teaming worked early in game five, LeBron was not to be stopped after the first half. His three-point shot, midrange shot, and drive game were all perfect.
With that said, LeBron has not been the Cavs’ best offensive player this series. That honor goes to Kyrie Irving. Let’s examine one of the records Kyrie Irving broke last night. He was the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to score at least forty points while averaging at least seventy percent shooting in a finals game. Moreover, he was the only guard to ever average those numbers. That’s absolutely insane when you think about it. Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook. None of those guys, nor any other guard has ever done what Kyrie did last night.
But the number was impressive for a whole other reason. Irving is only LeBron’s second teammate ever to score at least forty points in a playoff game. The first was Dwyane Wade on May 24, 2012 against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. James has been in a lot of playoffs, ongoing eleven years and 176 games to be exact, and this is only the second time that one of his teammates has done that.
Reflective of that, Kyrie’s incredible finals series needs to be put in context. Since the NBA started collecting statistics in 1996, in the finals, only two other players have averaged at least twenty-five points per game while not being the most used player on their team (Kevin Durant in 2012 and Kobe Bryant in 2001 and 2002). Let’s compare these numbers below:
Thus, it is clear that Kyrie Irving is having a historically great series. Additionally, in game four and five the Cavs began running more plays using a Kyrie Irving/Tristan Thompson high pick-and-roll, and it’s been very effective. Let’s examine a video below to see why:
When Kyrie Irving gets a switch he has the ability to beat the bigger player off the dribble. It’s as simple as that. Much of the year, most of the high pick-and-rolls with Thompson went to LeBron and Matthew Dellavedova, but Lue’s decision to run them frequently with Kyrie the past two games will pay great dividends. So yes, you understood that right, Kyrie Irving is going to be even more difficult to defend.
The Warriors will need to figure out a way to stop Kyrie Irving and LeBron James in game six. They have not been able to do so yet, and frankly, it cost them game five. Expect Golden State to do to Kyrie what Cleveland has done to Steph. I.E., doubling Curry every time he touches the ball at the top of the key.
Breaking Down The Cavs’ Biggest Problem Against The Warriors:
Frankly the problem is not nearly as stat worthy, but it is the same as it was after game two: the Cavs simply do not have the depth to beat the Warriors. This was extra-evident during game four, where the Cavs started the first two-and-a-half quarters strong – they were up eight with eight minutes left in the third quarter – but fell apart due to exhaustion in the fourth. The only Cleveland player who has been a net-positive off the bench is Richard Jefferson. That’s pathetically bad when the Warriors have gotten meaningful bench minutes from Shawn Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Anderson Varejao, and Mo Speights. Thus, if the Cavs cannot get scoring, or at least meaningful minutes, from Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Mo Williams, Channing Frye, and/or Timofey Mozgov, the Warriors will win this series.
How Has The Series Changed After Game Five?
First, it is important to discuss the Andrew Bogut injury. This is important for three reasons:
- Andrew Bogut is a huge defensive piece for Golden State. The Australian big man is in Goden State’s top-two defensive lineups this post-season. Moreover, opponents are shooting 13.6% worse within ten feet of the basket when Bogut is the primary defender. Finally, let’s examine how Bogut’s defense compares with other NBA finals starting centers over the past three years.
What we see here is that Bogut’s rim protection stats fit comfortably in the middle of rim protectors over the past three NBA finals. He’s very good at using his size and verticality to prevent drives to the rim. Let’s examine a video below:
What you see in this video, taken from game 2 of the NBA Finals, is that Bogut’s ability to use his height poses big problems for the Cavs. First, LeBron drives to the rim and creates an opening, however Bogut uses his size and speed to position himself to block the shot. After this happens and the Cavs get the rebound, moreover, Kyrie Irving opts not to drive because Bogut has completely clogged the lane. Thus, on this play the Cavs miss two shots, and Bogut is responsible for seventy-five percent of that. Additionally, Bogut’s rim protection and smart blocking allow him to hurt his opponent’s transition while benefiting his own team’s.
In this video, Kyrie Irving takes the ball in transition and Cleveland finds an open Tristan Thompson. However, Bogut uses his length to block Thompson, but does it smartly and aims the ball to his teammate, Steph Curry, who then scores a transition three-point shot.
Thus, Bogut’s rim protection will be missed by Golden State. Now let’s examine the other two reasons the Warriors won’t be the same team without him.
2. Andrew Bogut is the Warriors’ best screen-setter. Using SportVU data to track “hustle” stats, during the NBA playoffs, we see that Bogut averages 1.4 screen assists per game, in only 17 minutes per game. This is huge, because even though he is not an “offensive weapon,” so to speak, his ability to set screens allows the Warriors to score three-pointers at a higher rate. Let’s examine two videos of this below (it should be noted, these screens are, at best, fringe-illegal, but Bogut does a good job avoiding calls on such plays):
In both of these videos, Bogut sets a screen that allow Steph Curry to shoot an open three-point shot. His size and strength make it difficult for smaller guards (namely, Kyrie Irving) to escape around Bogut and help defensively. Because of this, missing Bogut’s size will allow Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith to recover quicker on defense, and more than likely the Cavs will prevent as many open and wide-open three point shots.
3. The final issue facing the Warriors stemming from Bogut’s absence is it effects their rotation. Generally, Bogut plays half of the first quarter, a few minutes in the second quarter, and half the third quarter. Depending on the game, he will sometimes play between two and three minutes in the fourth. This means Steve Kerr will need to find way to fill that time. He has four options: first, Golden State can cover most of those minutes with the death lineup; second, Golden State can use Festus Ezeli to eat up Bogut’s minutes; third, Anderson Varejao could be the Bogut replacement; and fourth, Kerr could utilize Marreese Speights, Brandon Rush, James McAdoo, and/or Shawn Livingston as rotation fillers.
Ultimately, Kerr will use each of these, but not without problems. If Kerr goes with the death lineup, it will be more effective, but will also wear-down. Part of what makes the death lineup so effective is its limited minutes. Frankly, that prevents the lineup from being worked to exhaustion. Ezeli is an interesting option, because statistically, he is a better rim protector than Bogut. However, the former’s mobility means he will get blown past by Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. The third option, Varejao, may actually be Kerr’s best choice. Nonetheless, it is difficult to know how many minutes he can actually play, because it’s been over 1.5 years since he has started an NBA game. Finally, expanding the rotation sounds good in theory, but is the worst idea in practice, because it means using lineups that have not played many minutes together.
Consequently, the Warriors will indeed miss Andrew Bogut. The Australian big man is a crux for Golden State’s defense, is a phenomenal screen setter, and a key part of Golden State’s rotation. With that said, given the four options above, Kerr should be able to fill Bogut’s seventeen (twelve during the finals) minutes per game relatively well. The biggest question becomes, are those 12-17 minutes decisive, and frankly we won’t know the answer until after game six.
The second development, furthermore, is that the Cavs may have figured out a way to keep up the scoring against the Warriors. Obviously Kyrie and LeBron will (more than likely) not score that many points the rest of this series, however, it is difficult to believe that J.R. Smith and Kevin Love score as little as they did in game five again either. Cleveland’s offense adjusted to Golden State’s switching in game three, and have been able to score ever since. Now, certain Warriors fans will say, “they can’t score with us, we just missed shots we usually make in game five.” The latter part of that is, indeed, true. But not entirely.
During game five the Warriors generated forty-four shot attempts that were open or wide-open and only made sixteen (36%). Throughout the playoffs this number has been forty-one attempts per game and 19.9 makes (49%) per game. Running a brief statistical analysis shows us that, if Golden State shot their average on those shots, the game would have been tied at the end of regulation.
Moving on to three-point shots, Golden State has shot an average of 39.5% on three-point attempts these playoffs, during game five they shot 32.6%. Had they shot their average during said game they would have made three more three-point shots and still lost by six points.
Consequently, had the Warriors shot like “normal” it, more than likely, would have made no difference. The Cavs’ offense was simply better during game five. Obviously Draymond Green will make a difference, though, and Cleveland will need to figure out how to maintain scoring with him in the game.
And the third development is the return of Draymond Green. Green has the best on/off court numbers for the Warriors in the NBA playoffs, he’s in all five of the Warriors’ top-five defensive lineups this postseason, and is in all five of the Warriors’ five best lineups this postseason. Simply put, during the 2016 playoffs, Green is the Warriors’ most important player. His return will provide serious offensive problems for the Cavaliers.
Additionally, Draymond Green allows the Warriors to have more flexible rotations. This is mainly because he has the ability to play and defend three different positions on the court. Thus, Draymond’s return will amplify the Warriors’ depth advantage, and make life even more difficult for the Cavaliers.
Ultimately, and it pains me to say this, I do not foresee Cleveland winning this series. In my eyes, when Draymond Green returns, the Warriors will have more depth than they did last night, and this will allow them to exploit the Cavs’ players’ energy levels. This, combined with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s shooting, should be enough to finish the series and repeat as champions. Nevertheless, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are both superstars who can dictate games, Kevin Love is an all-star who has underperformed in the finals, J.R. Smith is a deadly shooter, and Tyronn Lue is beloved and trusted by his roster. These factors could allow the Cavs to pull-off an upset. Let’s see what these teams do during game six!