The Western Conference Finals between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors was closer than many anticipated, extending to seven games. It was more exciting than some of the prior rounds out West, but Golden State’s veil of invincibility was lifted in the process.
Now we’re getting the Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year in a row, and for many the scales have been reset in Golden State’s favor.
After watching the Cavaliers against the Boston Celtics — including a win on the road for Cleveland in Game 7 — I’m not so sure.
There’s no questioning which team has the better roster, management, and coaching staff. Those are check marks for the team from Oakland. But the Celtics series did show that Cleveland had the ability to respond, both tactically from Tyronn Lue and as Cavaliers role players finally, mercifully stepped up to the plate.
Much has been made of Cleveland needing peak performance from everyone surrounding LeBron James just to win a game in these upcoming NBA Finals, which feels like the right answer. But as we’ve seen, the Warriors can succumb to their own follies, turning the ball over, deadening their offensive attack with a lack of ball movement, and receding from the 3-point line.
The most significant variable when Golden State has underperformed during these playoffs has been Klay Thompson. The sharp-shooting guard has been up and down, notably efficient in most of the biggest wins of the postseason for the Warriors. Thompson has combined solid 3-point shooting, useful passing, and limited turnovers in wins by 10 points or more for Golden State.
Where Thompson has found trouble is when teams decide to clamp down on him from the 3-point line, leading to fewer made threes and perhaps more significantly, turnovers. During losses or in wins of nine points or fewer, Thompson’s assist-to-turnover ratio has jumped by more than half-a-turnover per assist. It’s part of a larger problem for the Warriors, who have generally struggled with changes of possession during these same types of games, playing sloppy and getting themselves into situations where they’ve needed to execute perfectly during the final quarters.
Thompson has also struggled away from Oakland, with his road splits telling much of the same story. On the road, Thompson’s assist percentage has been cut in half, his turnover ratio bumped by 30 percent, and his net rating has been negative. None of the big four for the Warriors have been particularly impressive on the road on average, but between Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green, Thompson’s results have been the worst, especially within the context of just how important his shooting and passing are to the general function of the Golden State offense.
The Warriors’ attack, which we think of as beautiful, flowing, and moving, has seen some stagnation over the postseason. Game 4 against the Rockets was particularly bad, with Golden State forcing shots through isolation sets for Durant, who scored 29 but shot just 36 percent from the field.
Focusing on turn-based offense hasn’t been all bad for the Warriors — Game 3 in that same series was magical for Curry, who owned the third quarter and didn’t make a single shot. But relying on pure talent is not part of Steve Kerr’s gameplan, even if the reigning champs have an abundance of it. They’d like to move the ball and win as a team, and a vital hinge in their offense is how Thompson shoots and passes the ball.
For Cleveland, locking down Thompson will be a matter of selective strategy and matchups. It’s not realistic to try and focus on one of Golden State’s stars to make the rest beat you, because they’ll do just that. But Lue and his staff might watch tape of when the Warriors have struggled and decide that forcing Thompson to do two things he hates — dribble and move away from the 3-point line — might just create a domino effect on the Warriors offense.
Golden State seems infinitely adaptable, and no doubt focusing on Thompson for a game or two will only lead to Kerr’s staff pinpointing an opening. Thompson’s struggles have been a common thread for when the Warriors play below their threshold, and while the Cavaliers might be strategizing on how to limit him, Kerr could just as well be cooking up a plan to optimize Thompson.
Game 1 tips at 6:00 PM PST on Thursday in Oakland, and the smart money still lies with the Warriors in a shortened series. These playoffs have been weird, however, and during the conference finals both teams gave us a bit of a surprise. Don’t be shocked if Thompson ends up being the key to a couple games early in the series for either team.