Golden State and the art of double teaming LeBron James

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OAKLAND — For three games, Golden State’s strategy was to make LeBron James work but make him a shooter — try not to let him rack up assists and get his teammates going. LeBron was single covered — by Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and occasionally others — and the other defenders mostly stayed home. This was moderately effective, LeBron wasn’t efficient, but he was putting up enough points to get the Cavaliers two wins.

In Game 4, the Warriors brought the help. They threw some double teams at LeBron.

However, there is an art to doubling LeBron — he is so gifted as a passer and scorer that if you don’t do it smartly he shreds your defense like Peyton Manning with time in the pocket. The Warriors were smart about it, having the doubles come from various areas and odd angles, plus at different times.

You’ve got to be smart about it because you know how smart he is in reading situations and being able to pick you apart with his drives and his court vision,” Stephen Curry said. “But once  definitely, once he’s committed to a move, he maybe puts his head down and tries to go through a guy, you can help in that situation because it’s harder to pass out of that type of offense.

“You don’t want to double when he’s facing up to the basket and can see everybody, because he obviously can make pretty much any pass in the book.  So if you allow him to see everything right in front of him, that’s where he hurts you.  So you want to avoid those situations.”

The other key Curry said was to be decisive — if the man coming to double is slow or hesitant, LeBron will destroy the plan.

The Warriors often took the man guarding Matthew Dellavedova or J.R. Smith — primarily Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston — and had them double LeBron and pressure him out of his comfort zone. The Cavaliers recognized what is happening, notice on the play below Iman Shumpert comes down and screens Stephen Curry to free up J.R. Smith, who could not hit the shot and make the Warriors pay.

Andre Iguodala has been on the front line guarding LeBron for much of the series and talked about plays like the one above, and how you have to push him out of his comfort zone at just the right time.

“A guy like LeBron who can pass the ball the way he can, you’ve got to see where his eyes are,” Iguodala said. “If he can see the whole floor, it’s tough to double a guy like that.  So it was more surprises.  Klay had a few random double teams that we didn’t even talk about as a scheme, and it worked out for us.  The majority of the time they worked.  But the one or two times we got bit because LeBron could see the floor.

“So it’s just about us being smart and, more importantly, communicating.  Because if I can hear a guy coming on double team, I know where to funnel.  We know how to rotate out of it, and it usually works for us.”

It worked to the tune of holding LeBron to 20 points on 22 shots, plus he had eight assists.

“It’s almost funny when you say a guy had a 20-point game it’s not up to par,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “That’s kind of funny.  But realistically we know that LeBron’s production is critical to us, and for the most part he’s given that and more, much more.”

That defense on LeBron takes a toll on the Warriors defenders as well (which makes Iguodala’s good shooting night in Game 4 even more impressive.

“(LeBron’s physicality) definitely takes your legs out, that’s when your shots come up a little short,” Harrison Barnes said. “That’s why I’ve focused this series to make sure I’ve got a wide base and get the shot up.”

The Warriors are going to bring the double teams again in Game 5 Sunday night at Oracle Arena. The questions are how will the Cavaliers adjust and handle it after watching the film, and will the open Cleveland players knock down their looks?