The Golden State Warriors are up 2-0 and didn’t just win those first two games, they won them in historic fashion. LeBron James is right, Wednesday night’s Game 3 is must win for Cleveland because if they go down 0-3 it is over. Here are five things to watch for on Wednesday night that will help determine the outcome (and if you want more detail, check out the PBT Podcast looking at Game 3).
1) What will the Cavaliers do about Draymond Green? Through two games the Cavaliers’ defensive strategy has been clear: They are not letting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson beat them by raining threes. The Cavs have extended their defense out and focused on shutting those two guys down, taking away opportunites. It’s worked, those two have a combined 47 points through two games and not shot well. The problem is, the Warriors have a whole lot of other guys who can beat you. In Game 2 the Cavaliers chose to leave Draymond Green open, and the All-NBA player made them pay hitting five threes on his way to 28 points. It was Warriors assistant coach (and soon to be Lakers’ head coach) Luke Walton who pushed Green to fire away in Game 2.
“He was on me a lot last game about shooting the basketball,” Green said of Walton. “He’s like, ‘Man, you’ve got to shoot. We know you can make the shots. You know you can make the shots, but I need you to take those shots with confidence when you’re open. Stop hesitating.'”
He stopped, and the game became a blowout. The Cavaliers can assign a guy to stick with Green, but that will leave another Warriors role player open — and if you think those guys can’t hurt the Cavs may I remind you of Shaun Livingston‘s 20 in Game 1.
“We just want to win. It doesn’t matter who scores the points or who gets the credit,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We do feel like the strength of our team is our depth, and we’re not overly reliant on one player, even the MVP. So our depth has shown so far, and I’m sure we’ll have different players continue to step up as the series goes on.”
I heard someone say all the Cavaliers are doing with their defensive coverages is dictating which Warrior wins Finals MVP. So far that is true. If the Cavs are to have any shot in Game 3 they need much more energy and much more mental focus on defense. Because the Warriors aren’t changing who they are.
2) Cleveland needs to play with urgency. My preferred style is to talk about matchups — which completely favor the Warriors so far — or to look at the analytics of a game, which also completely favor the Warriors through two. Often coaches will try to mask strategy and matchup concerns saying their team just needs to play with more energy/desperation/urgency/force.
In the case of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers really do need to start playing with more energy/desperation/urgency/force. The Warriors have won the offensive rebounding battles, they are getting to all the 50/50 balls, and they are just competing harder than the Cavs. One team looks like they want it more, and it isn’t the one from blue-collar Cleveland. If that doesn’t change in Game 3, nothing else matters.
“We haven’t lost here all Playoffs,” Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue said. “We play very well, and our guys understand that. They’re a good team. That’s why they won 73 games this year, and they play well at home. They had two big games and now we’ve got to come home and protect our home court.”
3) If Kevin Love is out, who steps up? Officially, Kevin Love is questionable for Game 3 as he goes through the NBA’s concussion protocol. There reportedly is optimism in his camp he will be ready to go, but if he does have a concussion that may not happen. It’s a game-time decision.
If he can’t go, what do the Cavaliers do? Tyronn Lue would not tip his hand, but most likely he starts Richard Jefferson and slides LeBron to the four. Iman Shumpert could get more run, and we may see more Timofey Mozgov. Jefferson was the Cavaliers’ second-best player in Game 2, and the only guy outside LeBron playing with real energy, but how many minutes can he go?
If LeBron does go to the four and more offense falls on him, he has to hit some jumpers — he was 1-of-9 outside the restricted area in Game 2. The Warriors are isolating one defender on him, bringing help when he puts it on the floor, and daring him to take midrange jumpers or threes. If he doesn’t hit some of those, the Warriors’ defensive strategy will make it hard on every other Cav.
It feels like no matter what the Cavaliers do, the Warriors have a counter move and better matchup they can fall back on (for example, remember they ran Mozgov off the court a year ago). Cleveland needs one of their role players to step up and change that dynamic.
4) Kyrie Irving has to be special. Do we really need to rehash the folly of the “if the Cavaliers just had a healthy Love and Irving everything would be different” argument? Things are different but not better because with those guys the Cavs want to play smaller and faster — which is right in the Warriors’ wheelhouse. Plus Irving and Love are not great defenders, they Warriors just keep exposing them.
Irving needs to have a big game. He’s been the ball stopper, the guy pounding the ball up and down too much, the guy playing too much isolation. The result has been him shooting 12-for-36 through two games, 1-for-7 from three, and he has six turnovers to just five assists He needs to be more decisive and get back to playing downhill.
“Just talking to Kyrie about attacking, attacking early on in the shot clock,” Lue said. “Don’t let the switching make him stagnant. But he’s one of the players that we have on our team that can go one-on-one, because they’re switching one through five. But he has to make sharp, quick moves. He understands that, but we need Kyrie to be aggressive.”
5) The Cavaliers need to hit their threes. Cleveland got to the Finals on a wave of threes — they shot 51 percent from three against the Hawks in the second round and better than 40 percent as a team heading into the Finals. Through the first two games they have shot 27 percent from three. In Game 3 the Cavaliers need to hit their threes, but if the Warriors keep closing out hard on those shooters as they have been the Cavs need to make them pay.
“In the half court, they’re doing a good job of shrinking the floor,” Lue said. “They’re long and athletic, so they’re closing out hard, so we have to drive the basketball. Richard Jefferson did a great job in the last game of catching it, straight line drive four times and got us four lay-ups. So we’ve got to do a better job of reading the situation. Because they’re running us off the three-point line and they don’t want us to take those shots. Now we have to be able to drive the basketball and get to the basket.”
Part of this gets back to ball movement. The Warriors defensive switching has the Cavs being hesitant, slowing down to look for mismatches rather than keeping the ball moving — if the Cavs keep the ball moving (and do some dishes off those drives) they will get some more looks from three. Then they need to hit them for a change. That means LeBron, Smith, Frye, maybe Love, and the rest have to just make some shots.