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.

Tom Thibodeau on Timberwolves not getting first-rounder in Jimmy Butler trade: ‘Getting good players was a priority’

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The Heat offered Josh Richardson and a first-round pick. The Rockets offered four first-round picks or Eric Gordon, Nene and two first-round picks. The Pelicans reportedly offered Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected first-round pick.

But the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric in a deal that included no first-round picks and Minnesota getting only one second-rounder.

Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau:

We wanted quality players. I think that that was important for us.

When you look at, to get two starters off a team that won 52 games, and they’re both young, and they’re going to get better, and they’re both very good defensively. They both shoot the 3, so we think they fit well with the guys that we do have.

And so once we once got to that point where felt we were getting multiple rotational players, then we felt it would be time to execute the deal.

It was what was best for the organization. Obviously, getting good players was a priority. But the pick part is important, and we felt we got a good pick from Philly.

It was what does it mean for the team? If you get two rotational players, that’s good. And then if you can get a pick, that allows you to do more things. And so I think that’s all part of it. You always try to think about what the possibilities could be.

Thibodeau might have taken the best offer for the the Timberwolves by the time he actually accepted a deal. Miami pulled the Richardson offer after his strong start to the season. Getting four first-rounders from Houston required taking Brandon Knight‘s negative-value contract, and it’s unclear exactly how the picks were protected. New Orleans has the best record of those three teams, so an unprotected pick carries less value.

But it’s also impossible to overlook Thibodeau’s present-minded attitude. That’s how he already approached everything. Now, he appears to be coaching for his job this season. Nobody ever expected him to prioritize long-term assets.

Covington and Saric are good players, but Minnesota was also 4-9 at the time of the trade. Are Covington and Saric good enough to lift the Timberwolves out of this hole and into the playoffs? It’s a tough ask. In 2020-21, Saric will be up for a big raise, and the Timberwolves already have a lot of money committed. They might have to downgrade the rest of the roster to keep Saric and avoid the luxury tax. This is a narrow window for Minnesota to get value from this trade.

That said, blame Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor for creating this situation. By allowing Thibodeau to remain in charge without much job security, Taylor is practically demanding Thibodeau emphasize the present. If Taylor wanted draft picks, he should have fired Thibodeau earlier.

Caris LeVert suffers injury so horrific, it brings teammates to tears and opponents to prayer (video)

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Caris LeVert has been one of the Nets’ biggest bright spots. The hard-working 24-year-old was a Most Improved Player candidate, and he seems well-liked throughout the organization. He’s even already hit a couple gamewinners this season.

But LeVert’s breakout campaign hit a devastating snag tonight, as he injured his leg.

The reactions of both his Brooklyn teammates and the Timberwolves say everything. This is a tough one.

Markelle Fultz takes ugly pump-fake free throw

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A key question after the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler: How would the demanding star affect Markelle Fultz‘s confidence?

Butler isn’t even playing for Philadelphia yet, but this isn’t an encouraging sign.

Maybe the ball just slipped out of Fultz’s hands on the way up, and he had to continue pushing it toward the rim to avoid a violation. That could happen to anybody.

But given everything we know about Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s impossible to take this as anything other than a ghastly low point in an ongoing problem.

LeBron James: ‘I almost cracked’ with Lakers’ slow start

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LeBron James has played in eight straight NBA Finals.

How’s he handling reduced expectations with the Lakers, who started 2-5 before rising to 7-6?

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

‪“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me. You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into,’” James told Yahoo Sports while laughing after Saturday’s win in Sacramento. “This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient.”‬

LeBron warned everyone to stay clear when he loses his patience, but he has never sounded close to losing it this season. He signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, said he doesn’t feel urgency to win quickly before his prime ends and seems content to wait for a co-star.

If anything, it seemed LeBron might be too relaxed, enjoying the Los Angeles lifestyle and focusing on showbusiness.

So, this is a welcome sign of his competitiveness.

Also kudos to LeBron for harnessing it unlike others in the organization. These Lakers need time to determine how these oddly shaped pieces fit together – unless a star becomes available. Then, all bets are off.