Warriors planned defense around LeBron James’ isolations

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During Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, Tyronn Lue repeatedly ran early, high pick-and-roll sets for LeBron James in order to force switches. This allowed James to then back out with the ball and attack against the likes of Al Horford and Terry Rozier instead of Marcus Morris, while also creating mismatches the rest of the Boston roster wasn’t ready for.

This plan worked like a charm — especially in crunch time — and during the last two matchups against the Celtics James scored a whopping 81 points. It helped push the Cavaliers to their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance against the Warriors. At the same time, this strategy gave Golden State oodles of game film to study and learn from Boston’s mistakes.

As Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals got underway on Thursday, the Warriors did much of what we saw them do in the last round against the Houston Rockets, who created quite a few mismatches through switches themselves. As James dribbled on the pick-and-roll to get players like Stephen Curry or Kevon Looney switched on to him, the Warriors held and pinched.

It was an ingenius wrinkle we saw Steve Kerr add halfway through the Rockets series, and they employed it again against LeBron on Thursday.

When Cleveland ran a guard across James’ man, Golden State’s guards made themselves skinny, offering little resistance. Warriors guards tried to make way for James’ defender to recover, while at the same time LeBron’s original defender employed a holding tactic, allowing the guard defender to slide through.

James, now without much room to spare, decided to play the role of the bully in the second half. As his original defender recovered or as help slid over on drives, LeBron pushed his way to the rim. He was particularly effective during the second quarter, when he made four of his five field goals from inside or directly near the painted area.

As much as we like to act as though James is superhuman, he could not spend the entire game bulldozing defenders out of the way. LeBron shot more from outside in the third quarter, and Golden State pounced. The Warriors, even when they did fully switch smaller or less appealable players onto LeBron, stayed alert of the shot clock, and several times caused havoc in Cleveland’s passing lanes with simple digs as Cavaliers players stood and watched.

Golden State played excellent help defense once LeBron took a step inside the 3-point line. The Warriors called out their switches swiftly and quickly, clearly executing a plan for when things broke down and James was barreling toward the paint. As a team, the Cavaliers shot just 27% from 3-point range, and players like Kevin Love and JR Smith were not valuable as corner shooters.

On switches, Golden State’s plan was to sell out on every Cavaliers shooter outside of LeBron at the 3-point line, making them shoot inside the arc. The result was several good switches, even from bench players, of which the Warriors used seven.

In this play above, after LeBron forced the switch on JaVale McGee, Draymond Green rushed to help from Love in the corner. McGee knew immediately to run toward Love in the corner on the switch, fully giving responsibility for LeBron to Green. The result was an excellent closeout by McGee, a missed 3-pointer for the Cavaliers, and a change of possession in favor of Golden State.

Cleveland played about as well as they could have given the situation, and they might have won if not for a few boneheaded mistakes, like not knowing what the score was at the end of regulation. Lebron scored 51 points to go with eight rebounds and eight assists, although the Cavaliers star racked up five of Cleveland’s 11 turnovers. James was a -13 on the night despite all his scoring, and as a team had just 18 assists compared to Golden States 31.

Defensive strategies change from game-to-game, but it will be interesting to see how the Warriors deploy this kind of defensive squeeze on LeBron in Game 2 and as the series rolls along.

Game 2 is on Sunday at 5:00 PM PST.

Kevin Durant keeps building up superstar accolades with second All-Star MVP

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CHARLOTTE – When Kevin Durant won All-Star MVP in 2012, he was asked whether he considered himself a star, a label he had resisted.

“I wouldn’t say that just yet,” Durant said. “Hopefully. Hopefully soon I can say that.”

The notion was silly then. Durant had already made two All-NBA first teams and finished second for MVP.

But that All-Star MVP started to change how Durant presented himself. He made another All-NBA first team, again finished second for MVP and led the Thunder to the NBA Finals that season.

“In 2012, I started to feel like I started to hit that elite level,” Durant said. “All that stuff in one year was pretty exciting to me.”

The hits have kept rolling since.

Durant has added an MVP, two titles and two Finals MVPs. Tonight, he claimed another All-Star MVP. The Warriors star scored 31 points on 10-of-15 shooting to lead LeBron James‘ team to a 178-164 win.

“I just keep trying to rack them up, I guess,” Durant said.

That’s seven years between his All-Star MVPs. Few players sustain that elite level – starring among stars – so long. Only LeBron James (12 years), Michael Jordan (10 years), Kobe Bryant (nine years), Oscar Robertson (eight years) have gone so long between their first and last All-Star MVPs.

Durant, 30, appears to have plenty left in the tank.

Of course, the impending question: Where? Durant can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and this weekend included plenty of speculation.

Tonight’s game gave Knicks fans reason to fanaticize. New York’s presumed targets with its double-max cap space, Durant and Kyrie Irving showed strong chemistry. Half Durant’s baskets were assisted by Irving, who sent five of his six assists to Durant (the other an alley-oop to former teammate LeBron).

Asked which of his All-Star teammates he best meshed with, Durant refused to name one.

“You don’t really have to do too much when you’re playing with so many great players,” Durant said. “You can do what you’re just best at.”

Team LeBron starts playing defense first, comes from 20 down to win All-Star Game

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s All-Star Game, Team LeBron started to care.

Down 20 at one point early in the third, Team LeBron came out of a mid-quarter timeout with a different energy. The “bench” guys on the court started defending with the kind of relative intensity usually reserved for the final minutes of this exhibition (when it’s close), the players on the bench were standing and cheering like it was a playoff game, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal started knocking down everything, and the game just shifted. It culminated when Damian Lillard tied the game up with a 35-foot three.

Team LeBron kept up the momentum, owned the fourth as Durant went 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in the quarter, and Team LeBron got the win 178-164.

“It was our second unit that came in — Dame, Klay, Brad Beal, LaMarcus, Ben Simmons, KAT,” LeBron said after the game about what turned the momentum. “They came in and just changed the whole complexion of the game. We got stops, and, obviously, Dame and Klay caught fire from beyond the arc, and that allowed us to get back in the game.”

Durant was named MVP, a clear choice with his second-half play in particular.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 38 points and 11 rebounds, while Paul George showed anyone that hasn’t seen him this season how well he’s playing — MVP conversation level — on his way to 20.

This All-Star Game opened with the level of defensive intensity we have come to expect in All-Star Games. Which is to say none.

Well, except when Stephen Curry was guarding Klay Thompson.

The one guy who was intense from the start was Antetokounmpo, who scored the first six points for Team Giannis. He didn’t slow down on his way to 20 first-half points, plus he had one of the game’s great highlights on a bounce pass alley-oop from Curry.

Antetokounmpo wasn’t the only Buck hot to start, Khris Middleton entered the game midway through the first quarter and drained three shots from beyond the arc in a row. In the first nine minutes of the game, the Bucks were beating Team LeBron 28-27.

The favorite crowd moment of the first half was when future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki walked on the court and splashed a couple of threes.

Dwyane Wade was the other Commissioner addition to the game, which means for one last time we got Wade throwing the alley-oop to LeBron.

Curry struggled late, going 3-of-11 in the fourth, but he still got to rub it in Thompson’s face a little.

“It was good to see Steph knock that shot down over Klay, because Klay is always talking trash to him,” Durant said after the game.

Team Giannis was in control most of the first half and was up 13 (95-82) at the half, not that 13 points is much of a deficit in the All-Star Game. Not when one team started to care.

Stephen Curry gets four-point play after Klay Thompson foul, Curry does some taunting

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry is enjoying going against Klay Thompson. Maybe a little too much.

In the first half, Curry was matched up on his Warriors’ backcourt mate and enjoyed that Thompson missed the shot.

Then in the fourth quarter, with the game tight, Curry drained the contested three and drew the and-1 on Thompson — and did a little taunting.

That’s some All-Star fun.

Stephen Curry bounces alley-oop way above rim, Giannis Antetokounmpo slams it down (video)

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CHARLOTTE – Stephen Curry bounced this so high!

I suppose it helps that Giannis Antetokounmpo has such ridiculous reach.