2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Film Study: Kevin Durant protects the rim in Golden State Warriors' Game 1 victory

OAKLAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Game 1 of The Finals with the most efficient postseason offense since the league starting counting turnovers 40 years ago, having scored 120.7 points per 100 possessions through the first three rounds.

Game 1 on Thursday was the Cavs’ worst offensive game of the playoffs by a wide margin. They scored less than 90 points per 100 possessions for just the fourth time in the 88 games that LeBron James has played this season. (All four, including both games they’ve played in Oakland, have been road games against the Western Conference.)

Turnovers were clearly problem No. 1. The Cavs’ 20 turnovers resulted in extra shots and transition opportunities for an opponent that has been almost as good offensively as the Cavs have been this postseason. With the Golden State Warriors committing a franchise-low four turnovers, the Western Conference champs got 20 more shots from the field.

The Warriors missed 20 of their 45 shots in the restricted area, but still outscored the Cavs 56-30 in the paint. And that wasn’t just because they got more shots, but also because the Cavs shot worse in the paint than they did.

Outside the paint, the score was Warriors 46, Cavs 41. According to SportVU, both teams shot similarly on uncontested jumpers: Cleveland was 10-for-34 and Golden State was 10-for-35. And Cleveland was a plus-9 (20-11) at the free throw line.

The difference in shooting was inside, where Cleveland was 15-for-33 (45.5 percent) in the restricted area and 0-for-6 on other shots in the paint. It was their third worst shooting performance in the paint this season and also their third worst in 55 playoff games over the last three years.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch the Cavs shoot 15-for-33 in the restricted area

Through the first three rounds, the Cavs were the second best shooting team (behind the Warriors) in the restricted area, mostly because James had taken more shots there than anybody else in the playoffs and ranked third in restricted-area field goal percentage (73.9 percent) among the 27 players with at least 40 restricted-area attempts.

On Thursday, both James and Kyrie Irving were 6-for-10 in the restricted area. Their teammates were 3-for-13. The Cavs missed some bunnies, but their futility in the paint was mostly about the Warriors’ defense.

The Cavs had 38 shots in Game 1 that weren’t classified as jump shots, according to SportVU. Of those 38 shots, 34 were contested and Cleveland shot just 11-for-34 (32 percent) on the contested non-jumpers.

The Warriors recorded only three blocks, but time and time again, their length bothered the Cavs. And there’s no longer Warrior than Kevin Durant.

Durant isn’t known as a defensive star, and he was the offensive star on Thursday, leading all scorers with 38 points on 14-for-26 shooting, while also dishing out eight assists. But as a 7-foot “small” forward with a ridiculous wingspan, Durant can’t help but make an impact on defense as well. And to make things tougher on James, he just has to stay in front of him.

According to SportVU, Durant defended James for 6:25 in Game 1, the most time any Warrior spent defending any particular Cav. And his work started in transition.

Transition contests

Early in the first quarter, James was looking to attack. After Zaza Pachulia missed one of his layups, James was in transition, but Durant was back and met him at the foul line…

Durant stayed with James and contested one of James’ four misses in the restricted area.

NBA.com/stats video: Watch Durant force James into a miss in transition

Late in the second quarter, Durant met James a little higher in transition…

A James crossover couldn’t shake Durant, who got some help from Draymond Green who was zoned up in the paint, and they forced James into one of his eight turnovers.

NBA.com/stats video: Klay Thompson intercepts a James pass after Durant and Green stop him in the paint

That turnover turned into one of Durant’s six dunks on Thursday. He shot 9-for-13 in the restricted area himself, but his work at the Cavs’ rim was just as important. No Warrior protected the rim as much as Durant did and Cleveland shot just 4-for-11 at the rim when he was there to protect it in Game 1, according to SportVU.

He also took a charge from James in the final minute of the second quarter, another transition possession where he was able to stay in front of the runaway train.

No switch

Sometimes staying in front of James takes a little more work. Stephen Curry’s defender set 13 ball screens in Game 1, more than the average from last year’s Finals, when Curry was the screener’s defender on a series-high 82 ball screens.

Sometimes, the Cavs got the switch that they wanted. But, in the second half especially, the Warriors didn’t give them that switch so easily.

Here’s J.R. Smith setting a screen on Durant, trying to get Curry switched onto James…

But Curry’s hedge pushed James away from the basket, which gave Durant time to discard Smith and get back in front of the ball-handler…

The Cavs got an open corner three on that possession, but it was late in the clock and the Warriors avoided the switch, kept the longer defender on James, and kept him out of the paint.

Weak-side help

When Andre Iguodala was in the game, he was the primary defender on James, but the Cavs did continue to get some switches that they wanted. Here’s James isolated on James Michael McAdoo…

Iguodala doesn’t want to help off the strong-side corner, so Durant, defending Kevin Love on the weak side, is the last line of defense. And when James gets a step on McAdoo, Durant is there to affect the shot…

NBA.com/stats video: Durant helps from the weak side to contest James’ drive


James is tied with Irving for the most isolation possessions in the postseason. And if he can get a step on the guy guarding him, it’s a pick-your-poison situation for the other four defenders on the floor. Help on the drive and leave a shooter open, or stay at home and allow James to get to the basket.

But if James’ defender can stay in front and bother him with length, those other four guys can keep the Cavs’ shooters from getting open. That’s why no player in the league is more qualified to defend James than Durant.

Here’s James vs. Durant, one-on-one, late in the third quarter of Game 1…

James tries to go left, backs back out, crosses over, and tries to go right. Durant stays with him stride for stride…

… and forces him into another miss at the rim, leading to a Curry three in transition.

NBA.com/stats video: Durant defends James in isolation

There’s nothing too complicated here. But staying in front of James, while also taking away his space on the perimeter is easier said than done.

LeBron is obviously a very good 3-point shooter,” Warriors coach Mike Brown said after the game Thursday, “so we wanted K.D. to make him try to drive at times as opposed to being able to dance at the top of the floor and measure a three. And try to use your length at the rim and see if he can score over the top of him.”

Scoring over the top of Durant is easier said than done, too.

Rim protection from your small forward

In order to create cap space for Durant last summer, the Warriors had to trade Andrew Bogut, a move that could certainly have hurt their ability to protect the rim. But Durant may be just as tall as Bogut, with longer arms and more athleticism. This season, Warriors’ opponents shot 59.8 percent in the restricted area, down a tick from 59.9 percent last season.

And through Thursday, Durant ranks as the second best rim protector (just ahead of Green) among players who have defended at least 50 shots at the rim in these playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard and Iguodala have each won the Finals MVP award in series where they were the primary defender on James. We’re still a long way from having that conversation about Durant, but if it comes, it shouldn’t only be about his offense.

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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