2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Film Study: Cleveland Cavaliers' corner threes, bad habits produce transition opportunities for Golden State Warriors

CLEVELAND – The corner three is one of the most sought-after shots in the game.

This season, the league made 38.7 percent of its corner threes, producing a value of 1.16 points per attempt. The only thing better was a shot from the restricted area, worth 1.22 points per attempt.

LeBron James is the best player in the world, in part because he can lead the league in baskets in the restricted area (468), while also leading the league in assists on corner threes. His 162 assists on corner threes were an NBA record and 66 more than anyone else had this season. If layups and corner threes are the shots you want and you need to know how to get them, the first answer is “get LeBron James on your team.”

The Cavs’ 353 corner threes in the regular season were also an NBA record, one more than the Houston Rockets recorded in 2014-15. They were a result of both volume (their 850 attempts were 160 more than that of any other team) and accuracy (they ranked fourth in corner 3-point percentage at 41.5 percent).

Kyle Korver (53-for-101, 52 percent) had the highest corner 3-point percentage among 71 players who attempted at least 75 corner threes. J.R. Smith (44 percent), Channing Frye (42 percent) and Kevin Love (41 percent) were three of the other 36 players who shot 40 percent or better on at least 75 corner 3-point attempts.

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Cavs were even better, shooting 48 percent on corner threes and making 26 more than the Golden State Warriors did through three rounds.

In Games 1 and 2 of The Finals, the Warriors limited the Cavs to just 16 total attempts from the corners. But in Game 3 on Wednesday, the Cavs took 18 corner threes, one shy of the most they’ve attempted in a game this season (19 in Atlanta on March 3, when they set an NBA record with 25 made 3-pointers).

The problem is that they made just three of those 18. And if they had shot anything close to 40 percent on corner threes, they’re down 2-1 instead of 3-0 going into Game 4 on Friday. Heck, if Korver (the guy who shot 59 percent on left corner threes in the regular season) just makes the shot from the left corner he got with 52 seconds left, the Cavs would have a chance to tie the series on Friday.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch the Cavs shoot 1-for-10 from the left corner and 2-for-8 from the right corner in Game 3.

Here’s the one negative thing about corner threes: In order to shoot them, you have to be in the corner. When you’re in the corner, you’re as far away from the opponent’s basket as possible. And that can be a problem if you miss the shot and the other team is as good in transition as the Warriors are.

In fact, most of the Cavs’ corner threes come off penetration from James or Kyrie Irving, which means that when the shot goes up, there are at least two Cavs below the foul line. In most cases there are more than two, with Tristan Thompson and/or Love looking to crash the glass.

That in itself might not be a problem if the Cavs had good habits in regard to transition defense. But their “collective first step” is not nearly as quick as it should be, and that has come back to bite them in this series, with Golden State registering a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 76.5 percent in the first six seconds of the shot clock.

In Game 3, the Cavs rebounded three of their 15 missed corner threes, drew a loose-ball foul on the Warriors on another, and earned a jump ball on another. Most of the others created transition opportunities for Golden State.

The Cavs were fortunate that they didn’t get burned on those opportunities more than they did. But there were examples of where shooting from the corner presented a problem.

The 3-on-2

On the first possession of the third quarter, the Cavs got an open corner three for Love off penetration from James. When Love shot the ball, he, James and Tristan Thompson were all on the baseline…

When Klay Thompson grabbed the rebound, James hadn’t moved and there were four Warriors ahead of both him and Tristan Thompson…

The result was a 3-on-2 break for the Warriors and an easy dunk for Draymond Green.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch the Warriors get a dunk in transition after Love misses a corner three.

Not enough to stop Durant

With the Cavs holding onto a five-point lead with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Korver got a shot from the right corner off a swing pass from Irving. When Korver released the shot, James was at the foul line…

But when David West grabbed the rebound, James was on the baseline…

J.R. Smith got back on defense from the opposite corner, but was unable to stop Kevin Durant with a head of steam in transition. Durant’s defender was James, who didn’t make it back in time. Like their opponents need to do when James has the ball in transition, the Cavs need to show Durant multiple bodies between him and the basket. Smith was just one man, and one of the smaller ones on the floor.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch Durant go through Smith in transition after a Korver miss.

The one they got away with

Earlier in the fourth quarter, Irving got into the paint and made a pretty incredible pass to James in the right corner. As James released the shot, Irving’s momentum had taken him a few feet below the baseline…

When the shot went in, Irving was still below the baseline…

He used some body english with the shot in the air and maybe that body english is what made the shot go in. Probably not, though. And no matter the result, it would have been better if he started running … or jogging … or at least walking toward the other end of the floor once the shot was released.

Bad habits

Through the first three games of The Finals, the Cavs have grabbed 35 offensive rebounds. But they’ve turned those offensive rebounds into just 23 second chance points, a rate of just 0.7 points per *second chance. And as noted, the Warriors are effectively shooting 76 percent early in the shot clock. Those two numbers should tell you that, for the Cavs, getting back in transition is much more important than trying for offensive boards.

* This number is actually high, because second-chance points can come after team rebounds that aren’t counted as offensive rebounds, where the ball goes out of bounds off the defensive team or where the defensive team commits a loose-ball foul after the shot. In fact, there was a 2013 Finals game in Miami after which James wondered how the Spurs got 21 second-chance points with just six offensive rebounds. The answer: team rebounds.

Durant’s vicious game-winner with 45 seconds to go? It came off that Korver miss from the left corner. The Cavs did a relatively good job of getting back, but didn’t do enough to make the Warriors put on the breaks and try to score against a set defense.

Corner threes are great. It’s a make-or-miss league and the Cavs aren’t going to shoot 3-for-18 on corner threes very often. James had no regrets about getting Korver that shot and he shouldn’t. Korver shot 59 bleeping percent on left corner threes this season.

“If I could have the play over again,” James said Thursday, “I would come off a three screen situation. Draymond would switch on me with five fouls. I would get him leaning. I would drive left. I would see K.D. step up. I would see Stephen Curry drop on Kevin. And I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest 3-point shooters in this league’s history, and give him an opportunity in the short corner. I would do the same exact thing.”

But when those shots are released, especially when they’re a result of penetration, leaving multiple Cavs below the free throw line, there’s no time for standing around and hoping they go in. These are the Warriors the Cavs are playing, not the walk-it-up Dallas Mavericks.

If the season ends on Friday, the Cavs should know they need to be a better defensive team next season. Good defense, especially against the Warriors, starts in transition. And bad transition defense is nothing new for the Cavs, who allowed 1.18 points per possession in transition, the highest rate in the league, in the regular season.

Better transition defense starts when the shot is released. Those first three steps are critical, and having them go in the right direction is a habit that needs to be built before April, May and June.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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