2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Film Study: Cleveland Cavaliers get Golden State Warriors' defense moving

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

OAKLAND – The Golden State Warriors are no longer undefeated in the 2017 postseason. And after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 3-point onslaught in Game 4 of The Finals, the Warriors have another 3-1 series lead and a good deal of pressure to close things out in Game 5 on Monday (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

The Warriors are home, will have Draymond Green in Game 5 this year, and have history on their side. No team in NBA history (in any round) has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series.

But things are trending in the right direction for Cleveland, particularly on their end of the floor. After effectively shooting 41 percent and scoring about 90 points per 100 possessions in Game 1, the Cavs’ effective field goal percentage and efficiency have both increased each game.

Maybe Game 4 was as good as it gets against a defensive team as good as the Warriors. Golden State wasn’t as sharp defensively as they had been in previous games, Kyrie Irving hit several ridiculous shots, J.R. Smith threw one in from 30 feet and LeBron James threw an alley-oop to himself off the glass.

Also, even though they registered fewer offensive rebounds in Game 4 (11) than they averaged in Games 1-3 (11.7), they converted those offensive boards (and a few loose-ball fouls) into 21 second-chance points, almost as many as they totaled in Games 1-3 combined (23). Some of that is better work from Tristan Thompson (who took advantage of switches onto the Warriors’ guards), and some of it is just the way the ball bounces.

But the Cavs have also found some things that work within their initial offense. Though they made almost as many uncontested 3s in Game 4 (17-for-31) as they did in Games 1-3 combined (20-for-76), Friday’s performance wasn’t just about makes and misses.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch the Cavs shoot 24-for-45 from 3-point range in Game 4.

Volume is important. After taking 60 total 3s in Games 1 and 2, the Cavs attempted 89 in Games 3 and 4. This season, the Cavs have been better offensively the more 3s they’ve attempted. After the two games in Cleveland, they’re 12-4 when they’ve taken at least 40 shots from beyond the arc.

Getting good looks from the perimeter starts with getting multiple Golden State defenders to move. The Warriors are primarily looking to make the Cavs play one-on-one and stay at home on Cleveland’s shooters. One big reason they switch screens is that so the other three defenders don’t have to get involved in the action and can keep passing lanes closed off.

When Draymond Green is playing center, the Warriors can switch every screen. But when Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee or David West is playing center, those guys are looking to hedge and recover back to their man after he sets a screen. That creates openings for the Cavs. And if they move the ball, they’ll get the other defenders moving and eventually find an open shot, often from beyond the arc.

In Game 4 on Friday, Cleveland scored 27 points on the 16 possessions in which Pachulia (9 on 6), McGee (10 on 5) or West (8 on 5) defended a ball screen.

Pick and JaVale

Richard Jefferson set less than three ball screens per game in the regular season and just 20 in his nine games through the first three rounds of the playoffs. But Jefferson has set 24 ball screens so far in The Finals, in part because McGee has been defending him in second-unit matchups.

On McGee’s second defensive possession of Game 4, Jefferson set a sideline screen for Irving…

As McGee stepped out to stop Irving, Jefferson quickly rolled to the hoop and caught a pass from Irving. That drew the attention of all three of the Warriors’ weak-side defenders …

With Kevin Durant’s long arms in the vicinity, Jefferson found J.R. Smith in the corner for an open 3. The shot missed, but it was a shot the Cavs are happy to get (though they have to be better with their transition defense off misses from the corner).

NBA.com/stats video: Watch Jefferson roll to the basket and find Smith open in the corner.

Later in the first quarter, Jefferson set a high screen for James, drawing McGee out toward the ball again. But the Warriors’ aren’t switching with McGee, so Durant stayed with James …

With two on the ball, Jefferson’s roll to the basket drew help from Green out of the left corner. And instead of rotating out toward Green’s man, McGee first tried to recover back to Jefferson, leaving Kevin Love in the corner by himself …

Jefferson made the delivery to Love for another open 3 before McGee could get out to the corner. That one went in.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch Jefferson roll to the basket and find Love open in the corner.

Late recover

Pachulia has been more effective defensively than McGee, but the Cavs have still been able to take advantage of him as a non-switching center.

Late in the third quarter on Friday, it was Pachulia defending Jefferson, who set another ball screen for James …

With two on the ball (Pachulia hedging, Iguodala recovering), James found Jefferson rolling to the basket again. And one more time, the help came from the corner …

The Warriors rotated, but the ball eventually found Kyle Korver on the left wing for another 3.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch the Cavs rotate the ball to Korver after a James/Jefferson pick-and-roll.

Through four games, the Cavs have put the Warriors’ three centers in 70 pick-and-rolls, twice as many as they’ve run at Stephen Curry (as the screener’s defender), their main target in last year’s Finals. McGee has been the pick-and-roll defender on 13 possessions, according to SportVU. And on those 13 possessions, the Cavs have scored 25 points.

In 116 minutes with Pachulia, McGee or West at center (not including garbage time), the Warriors have allowed 117 points per 100 possessions. In 53 minutes with Green at center, they’ve allowed just 92. McGee hasn’t played much, but with the Warriors finally dealing with some urgency, it might be time to strike his minutes from the rotation and play more with Green or Kevin Durant at center.

Skewing the switch

The Cavs have also run some actions off the ball to take advantage of the Warriors’ switching scheme.

Late in the second quarter, they ran an off-ball exchange between James and Iman Shumpert, with James setting a screen on Curry …

Andre Iguodala didn’t necessarily want to switch that screen and leave Curry on James. So he wasn’t in position to switch onto Irving when Shumpert immediately set a ball screen on Shaun Livingston, with Curry having been flattened by James’ initial screen …

Irving turned the corner and got to the basket. Iguodala was late to recover and could only foul Irving as he scored two of his 10 points in the paint.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch Irving convert an and-one after the Cavs run a screen-the-screener play.

Offense leads to defense

According to SportVU, the Cavs ran 9.0 miles per 100 possessions on offense in Game 4, more than they had run in any of the first three games (when they averaged 8.2). Their ball movement has increased with each game and it was complemented with more player movement on Friday.

Because their transition defense is poor, the Cavs’ ability to put the ball in the basket and get to the free throw line is extra important. For the most part, the Warriors can’t run if they’re taking the ball out of bounds (though there have been some exceptions in the four games). So it’s not a coincidence that, with the Cavs executing much better offensively, Golden State registered only nine fast-break points in Game 4 after averaging 27.3 through the first three games.

The Cavs have given themselves a chance (small as it may be) in this series and put some pressure on the Warriors. Stopping Golden State is a near impossible task, but Cleveland has found some ways to better keep up offensively, which in turn, helps the defense. And if their shots continue to go in, The Finals could get really interesting.

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

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