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Cavaliers use old school plan to frustrate Warriors

Golden State stuffed by Cleveland's preference to deliberate play

POSTED: Jun 10, 2015 8:44 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Finals Hangtime Report

Sekou Smith, John Schuhmann and Lang Whitaker discuss the Finals so far between Games 3 and 4.

— The Golden State Warriors play faster than any team in the NBA, but the Cleveland Cavaliers have slowed them down.

The Warriors score more than anyone else in the league, too, but the Cavaliers have put a relative lid on their basket so far.

Golden State hasn't played "its game" nearly as much to this point in the 2015 NBA Finals as the Cavaliers have played theirs, and the 2-1 Cleveland advantage created by that had the Warriors sounding like the more frantic and flummoxed team Wednesday.

Coach Steve Kerr talked about consistency. Guard Klay Thompson said the issues have more to do with strategy than effort. But forward Draymond Green insisted the Warriors need to play harder, with more intensity.

"Nobody's panicking but we're all p---ed," Green said. "When you're down 2-1 in the Finals, you're not going to be happy.

"They're playing like a team desperate and in need of something. We're playing like a team not desperate and got something. And that's not the case."

That group you see over on the side, as Green talks so animatedly about Golden State's shortcomings so far? That's the Cleveland defense, which has imposed its grindy, gutsy will on these Finals.

Individually, we can point to LeBron James as a free safety or rover in the middle of the Cavaliers' dragnet, helping, challenging or daring as the case may be. Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert have been tenacious shadowing and keeping contact on Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. It's always handy to have a rim protector the size of Timofey Mozgov in the paint to clean up other defensive mistakes.

But there are three other factors notable so far in the series for their defensive throttling of the NBA's No. 1 offense:

1. Pace

It's not merely a cliché to remind folks that the best defense can be a good offense. Not that Cleveland can match the firepower or artistry of Golden State with the ball, not these days without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. What it can do is grind through its gears slowly, run clock and let air out of the ball more effectively than Tom Brady.

The Warriors averaged 110 points this season but are at 97.3 in the Finals. Their offensive rating of 111.6 has slowed to 101.5 and the pace of the Finals has clocked in at 89.7, a significant drop from the 98.3 at which Golden State prefers to play.

Half the battle in choking off Golden State's love of fast-break and transition points is to prevent the Warriors from racing downcourt in the first place.

"We've done a great job with floor balance," Shumpert said of Cleveland's offensive approach. "You have to make sure you're disciplined enough to take good shots. A bad shot can lead to a very good shot for them in transition extremely fast."

Using most of the 24 seconds available on the shot clock has been important. Even running afoul for shot-clock violations can work in the Cavs' favor, within the context of not producing any points, because they still allow Cleveland to set up its half-court defense. "We understand that this is a team that turns bad decisions, bad shots and turnovers into points really fast," Shumpert said.

It helps, too, to crash the offensive glass. Usually teams have to choose between getting their defense set in the backcourt or sending guys to the offensive boards, but the Cavaliers so far have managed to do both.

2. Familiarity

Certain teams are trouble during the regular season because their style is so exotic, or their talent so rare, that meeting up with them in the midst of a busy week or road trip doesn't allow for much focused countermeasures. Atlanta had that reputation this season -- tough when playing them in isolated games, not as tough when prepping to face the Hawks four, five or more times in a playoff series.

Golden State with his quick pace and long-distance salvos fits into this category too.

"There's no better way to focus than to know you only have to worry about one team for a whole series," said Shumpert, and in truth it's going on two weeks now that Cleveland's D has targeted the Warrior's O. "Our coaching staff has done an incredible job preparing us for strengths, weaknesses, different plays they're going to throw at us.

"Everybody's done a great job of doing their homework and being prepared -- they give us a big book at the start of each series and I think our guys have done a great job of reading through that and knowing percentages."

3. Experience

Or rather, Golden State's lack of same. Cleveland has made it clear -- its defenders will cling to Steph Curry and Thompson like wool socks without fabric softener, and help defense will come as needed. If that means allowing Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston to get good looks and potentially beat them, the Cavs seem fine with that.

Those other Warriors are kind of new to this stage and this spotlight, so those good looks can become burdens unto themselves. For example, we saw Green Tuesday pass up a wide open shot he absolutely would have launched, and likely have knocked down, in January.

That's why Golden State is so encouraged by the impact dusty forward David Lee had in the fourth quarter of Game 3. His presence gave Curry an outlet off pick-and-roll plays when he felt smothered, and the longer Lee can be effective -- assuming Kerr lets him on the floor -- the more chances that gives Curry to go all MVP on the Cavaliers.

The fact is, the Warriors still do have superior depth and superior talent.

The trouble for them is, the Cavaliers don't seem all that hung up right now on what they purportedly lack.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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