LeBron James is great, and two games of the NBA Finals have shown he’s capable of leading practically any supporting cast to a championship level while he’s on the court.
But that still leaves a few minutes each game when he rests. In an airtight series that has seen two overtimes, those few minutes are crucial.
It appeared the Cavaliers were doomed offensively during those stretches – especially without Kyrie Irving, who scored or assisted all Cleveland’s points while LeBron sat in Game 1.
Instead, the Cavaliers actually outscored the Warriors, 4-2, without LeBron in Game 2.
Cleveland didn’t turn into an offensive juggernaut, scoring its four points on four real possessions (not counting Matthew Dellavedova picking up the ball in the backcourt in the final seconds of the third quarter). But with its stellar defense and 50 minutes of LeBron, that was enough.
Without LeBron, the Cavaliers mostly worked through Timofey Mozgov on pick-and-rolls. That failed to generate anything on the first possession. On the next two, the ball-handler – Iman Shumpert and then Matthew Dellavedova – got a screen from someone else before working into the pick-and-roll with Mozgov. Both times, Mozgov drew a foul made the pair of free throws.
Here are those sequences:
When LeBron rested for the third and final time late in the third quarter, Mozgov was off the floor. Cleveland tried running a pick-and-roll with Tristan Thompson instead, and the results could have been disastrous if not for Marreese Speights’ missed dunk:
If Speights makes that, LeBron’s resting periods – and the game – could have gone differently. Ditto if Mozgov, a 72% free-throw shooter on the season, misses one his attempts from the line. Or if Andrew Bogut makes one of his two during this stretch. Or if Draymond Green allows the Cavaliers to complete their intentional foul of Bogut on another possession here rather than missing a jumper. Or if…
In an overtime game, there are countless “what ifs?” But Cleveland came out ahead in Game 2.
Moreover, the Cavaliers found something that worked with Mozgov screening and rolling.
Intentionally fouling Bogut wasn’t a bad idea. It was among my suggestions, though I’d prefer to do it with LeBron in the game and getting a de facto rest during the defensive stoppage. But if Cleveland can play the Warriors to a draw, let alone an advantage, playing straight up without LeBron, all the better.
David Blatt should ensure Mozgov plays the entire time LeBron sits in Game 3. Leaning on Mozgov might not be sustainable, but I’d take my chances with that for now. It at least worked in Game 2.
Steve Kerr should focus on making the pass to Mozgov more difficult to complete or not giving him such a clear path to the rim. Andrew Bogut twice got caught in no man’s land between the ball-handler and screener with little ability to get a stop, and neither Stephen Curry nor Andre Iguodala adequately tagged Mozgov during either foul-drawing roll. One of those things needs to change, though the former could make it easier for the ball-handler to drive and the latter could make it easier for him to find spot-up shooters on the perimeter.
The Warriors didn’t defend poorly while LeBron sat, but this as easy of an opportunity as they’ll get in this series. They must take better advantage.