NBA Finals coverage: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a series
By OWEN PENCE
College Contributor Network
Group projects are a terrific lens into the intricacies of sociology, a living, breathing illustration of what happens when you force four overtired college students -- one smart, put-together and driven, one inherently lazy (*raises hand*) and likely hung-over, and two somewhere in between -- to work together in hopes of achieving a common goal.
There's always a point, usually within minutes of the first group meeting, when smart, put-together, driven student A surveys his or her uninspired compatriots and comes to an inevitable realization: "Well, if I don't do all the work for this group, it's not getting done."
If LeBron James didn't undergo that very realization during game one of the Finals (his 38 shot attempts would suggest that he had), it was evident what needed to be done once Kyrie Irving was lost to a broken kneecap, leaving James with a bleaker supporting cast than Kevin Spacey was dealt in season three of House of Cards.
James' Herculean effort, 39-16-11 in 50 minutes of action Sunday night, came in a game chalk-full of oddities, excitement and downright silliness, an instant classic that swayed the series from "foregone conclusion" status to something much more compelling: a case study on just how far LeBron can carry an overmatched, outcoached, undermanned squad with the entire world watching.
While it's tempting to reach into the depths of NBA history and compare LeBron with the handful of all-time greats who preceded him, the truth is, there's no precedent for what LeBron is attempting to accomplish here in 2015. Pitting LeBron against Michael and/or Kobe is a tremendous way to fill a segment of television programming (what else would Skip and Stephen A. talk about?), but neither Jordan nor Bryant ever found themselves the clear underdog in a Finals series without a wingman to complement their heroic persona.
The best example I could muster requires a 35-year time jump back to 1980 when the Los Angeles Lakers, up three games to two over Philly in the Finals, suddenly found themselves without MVP center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who'd sprained his ankle in a game five win. Heading back to Philadelphia, the Lakers turned to rookie Magic Johnson for the boost that would bring them yet another Larry O'Brien trophy. Johnson, whose stat-line for the series was nothing short of exceptional, turned in one of the NBA's most famous single game performances, pouring in 42 points while starting at the five against a stacked Sixers team that featured Julius Erving in arguably his most dominant season as a pro basketball player.
Now imagine having to shoulder that workload for an entire series, and suddenly you have an understanding of the task staring LeBron James in the face.
So how was Cleveland able to pull off Sunday night's gargantuan win, and will they be able to sustain such success long enough to make James an outlier in the scope of NBA history?
The former is an easier question to tackle, and provides a necessary starting point in the quest to predict how the remainder of the Finals will play out.
It wasn't sexy or cute and it certainly wasn't efficient, but the Cavs defense, one that has transformed from league-average to bordering on elite (pardon the small sample), was the difference en route to an ugly 95-93 season saving victory in Oracle Arena Sunday night. What Cleveland sacrificed on offense when Kevin Love and Irving went down, they gained on defense with the insertion of Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova into the starting lineup. Dellavedova was especially brilliant in game two, holding league MVP Stephen Curry to 0-8 shooting when the two were matched-up according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Dellavedova's ability to fight through screens from opposing big men, as well as his constant disruption of passing lanes and fervent ball-denial, makes him the Cavalier best suited to slow Curry, as has already been made abundantly clear. With Timofey Mozgov manning the paint (albeit not in overtime), Cleveland felt comfortable forcing the ball out of Curry's hands on simple pick and roll actions and letting one of the other four Warrior floor-mates attempt to score, a proposition that went the Cavalier's way in rather drastic fashion.
Things weren't quite as easy on the other end of the floor, but by using the freight train that is LeBron James to bully Golden State into submission, Cleveland was able to eke out just enough points to hand the Warriors their fourth home loss of the season.
The Cavs shot just 32.6 percent from the field, making history while driving anyone who would have rather been watching the Tony Awards (hi mom) or Game of Thrones to the brink of insanity.
Cleveland is at it's most effective on offense when they give themselves plenty of time to operate, something they need to do more often as I wrote earlier this season. Here, with 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock, the Cavs prepare to run a reverse pick and pop, using LeBron as the ball-handler and Dellavedova as the screener. This puts Golden State in a precarious situation; when the Warriors play small, as is the case here, Curry becomes the only defender on the floor who isn't adept at executing Golden State's "switching" style of defense, unable to guard bigger wing players (save for an impressive stop of LeBron late in the fourth quarter) thanks to his slight frame. Once the screen has been set, LeBron is able to turn the corner on his man (Andre Iguodala) and gather a head of steam, collapsing the Warrior D and leading to two wide-open spot-up shooters, one of which ends up knocking down the easy trey.
Cleveland needs to do more of this if they wish to steal another couple games from the league's top defensive team. As is the case with your typical group project, the supporting cast is at times complacent, choosing to stand around and watch the leader do their thing rather than getting involved and making a potentially useful contribution. But what happens if the group leader gets sick, or has a scholarship ceremony to attend? While the overall quality of the product declines, each supporting cast member takes on added responsibility and, with luck, steps their game up just a tad.
LeBron James rested for all of three minutes Sunday night, but during that time the Cavs were able to stay afloat by running a motion offense that should be deployed more frequently, both with and without LeBron on the floor.
Here, what appears to be another simple pick and roll featuring Matthew Dellavedova as the screener turns into a Mozgov-Shumpert action, catching the Warrior defense off-guard. With Andrew Bogut responsible for picking up the ball-handler, Klay Thompson still reeling from being screened, and Curry, the natural help defender, too small to reckon with Cleveland's rolling beast of a center, the Cavs have produced a high quality possession without their leader on the floor. Add James to a set like this and prepare yourself for Fast and Furious 8: The Cavs take Oracle.
Of course, our group project metaphor wouldn't be complete without acknowledging J.R. Smith, a.k.a. the guy who forgets to write his portion of the paper because he attended a Waka Flocka concert the night prior (oops). Why Smith was on the floor in crunch time and Mozgov, who played brilliantly on both ends all night, wasn't, is beyond me. Suffice it to say, Smith fouled out just in time, preventing his total number of boneheaded plays from becoming insurmountable for the remainder of the Cavs roster to overcome, and leading to yet another classic instance of J.R. being J.R.
Such suspect decision-making by coach David Blatt leads us to aforementioned question number two: can LeBron and the Cavs sustain this winning level of play for 3-5 more games?
As great as LeBron has been, I still think the margin of error is too small for Cleveland to bring home their first championship in franchise history. Yes, if Cleveland institutes some of the changes discussed above and LeBron continues to play at a ridiculous level, the Cavs should be able to improve their offensive efficiency from what it was in game two. But while it feels like Cleveland emptied their proverbial tank Sunday night, the Warriors remain full of gas entering Tuesday's looming game three. In other words, the Cavs are driving your uncle's pickup truck while the Warriors cruise across the country in a Fiat 500.
I don't care if Matthew Dellavedova grows five inches and develops the reaction time of a cheetah, Stephen Curry won't go 2 for 15 from behind the arc again this series. In addition to this highly anticipated positive regression to the mean, there are other adjustments coach Steve Kerr could make to help get his team back on a winning track.
As ESPN's Ethan Strauss originally mentioned, reinserting Iguodala back into the starting lineup would help prevent LeBron from getting into the early offensive groove he's enjoyed in games one and two. Iguodala is better at guarding LeBron than anyone else in the league not named Kawhi, and while he's a downgrade from Harrison Barnes on offense, stopping LeBron should be the number one priority of anyone donning the Warrior gold and blue.
Exploiting J.R. Smith's putrid off-ball defense is another thing Golden State could do (or do more of) to re-vitalize their momentarily stalled offensive attack. Simply screening Smith multiple times on the same possession will lead to open three-pointers for Warrior shooters, ones they don't tend to miss and love to take.
In all likelihood, more of these shots will start to fall as game three nears, and the historically dominant, uncannily healthy, brilliantly coached Warriors will right the ship in time to lock up an NBA title. But the fact that the ship needs to be righted in the first place is a testament to LeBron's greatness, one that certainly isn't underappreciated but gets dissected far too often.
And if LeBron is somehow able to finish this group project with a third championship ring?
Maybe God doesn't hate Cleveland quite so much after all.
Owen Pence is a freshman at Northeastern University. He was born in New York, raised in Maine, and resides in Boston. Follow him on Twitter: @OwenPence