2018 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Finals Film Study: Warriors survive the James-Curry switch

The last couple of rounds of these playoffs have been about switching screens and hunting mismatches.

In the Western Conference finals, the Houston Rockets tried to get Stephen Curry switched onto James Harden as much as possible, so that Harden could attack Curry in isolation. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers tried to get Terry Rozier switched onto LeBron James, so that James could back Rozier down into the post.

Appropriately, we now have the Cavs trying to get Curry switched onto James in The Finals. And if you watched the end of Game 1, you saw a lot of just that.

The Cavs looked for a Curry switch onto James on their last seven possessions of regulation and their first five possessions of overtime. In total, there were 36 occasions on Thursday where the guy Curry was guarding set a screen for James or James set a screen for the guy Curry was guarding.

Sometimes, the Cavs got the switch, and sometimes they didn’t. And overall, the results were better for the Warriors than they were for the Cavs. On the 31 possessions in which one of those James-Curry screens were set, the Cavs scored just 31 points, a rate of exactly one point per possession. Cleveland scored 83 points (1.28 per possession) on their other 67 possessions of Game 1.

Overall, it wasn’t a great defensive performance for Golden State. Through the conference finals, the Warriors were the best defensive team in the postseason, allowing less than a point per possession over their 17 games. They held the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Houston Rockets well below their regular-season marks in offensive efficiency.

Warriors by round

With that in consideration, the Cavs were rather efficient in Game 1. James scored 51 points on 19-for-32 shooting, and also had eight of Cleveland’s 18 assists. But it wasn’t really because of all those James-Curry screens. In fact, only 23 of the Cavs’ 114 points (and 19 of James’ 51) were a direct result of a screen involving both James and Curry.

Of course, 10 of those 23 points came on the last seven possessions of regulation, when the Cavs came back from a six-point deficit to … almost win. If you focus on crunch time, the James-Curry actions may have seemed more successful than they were overall.

Late-game success

The string of 12 straight Cleveland possessions with a screen involving both James and Curry began with less than four minutes to go in regulation. And it began with the Warriors trying to avoid the switch (what they had been doing for most of the night) by having Curry “hedge” on the screen.

With J.R. Smith setting the screen for James, Curry stepped out to make James pause, so that Kevin Durant could recover…

Curry hedge

But Durant never got back in front of James, who had a direct line to the basket for a layup…

Curry hedge

From that point on, the Warriors chose to switch the screen, with the idea that a defender, even if it was Curry, would be in front of James at all times. On the very next possession, Cleveland set a staggered screen for James, with Curry as the target…

Curry switch

Curry made the switch…

Curry switch

But James acted quickly and got around him for a dunk…

Curry switch

A few possessions later, there was another switch after Smith set a screen for James…

Curry switch

When Curry turned his shoulders so that they were more parallel to the sideline, James saw an opening…

Curry switch

He attacked and powered through Kevon Looney for an and-one that put Cleveland ahead by two.

On the Cavs’ final possession of regulation, with Golden State up by one, the Warriors double-teamed James for the first time in the game after George Hill (guarded by Curry) set a screen…

Warriors double team

After that, both teams were kind of scrambled. James got the ball back with Curry defending him, but with Durant and Draymond Green zoned up at the foul line…

Warriors zone

Hill smartly cut to the basket to force Klay Thompson to either leave him open for a layup or leave Kyle Korver open for a corner 3-pointer. Thompson instead fouled Hill, giving him the opportunity to win the game at the line.

Of course, Hill missed the second free throw, Smith didn’t know the score, the Warriors won in overtime, and the brilliance of Hill’s cut was lost in the aftermath. And of course, the Cavs weren’t always so successful with screens involving James and Curry as they were late in the fourth quarter.

Late-clock struggles

Late in the first quarter, the Cavs got a Curry-onto-James switch with a staggered screen. Initially, the Cavs weren’t spaced well, allowing Nick Young to hang out in the paint…

First quarter switch

With Smith clearing out to the right wing, *James attacked once Young started moving in that direction.

* A common theme here: James attacking at the exact moment a defender’s movement creates a sliver of an opening. In the first example above, it was when Curry started to recover back to his man. Then, it was when Curry opened up his defensive stance. Here, it’s when the help-defender (Young) starts to vacate his spot in the paint.

But the Warriors collapsed into the paint before James could get into the basket, leaving three shooters open on the right side of the floor…

Warriors collapse

In Game 1, the Warriors did not pay for this kind of attention on James, as his teammates shot 7-for-30 (23 percent) from 3-point range. On this possession, Jeff Green missed a three from the corner.

Midway through the second quarter, the Cavs got the switch again, but it took two screens from Jordan Clarkson before the Warriors yielded, so there were only nine seconds left on the shot clock…

Warriors switch

James drove past Curry, but Durant helped off of Green to keep James from getting all the way to the basket (where he shot 9-for-10 on Thursday)…

Durant help

Jordan Bell was able to close out and run Green off the 3-point line. He eventually found Clarkson at the top of the key, but Clarkson had a rough night.

Both the Green shot and the Clarkson shot took place with six or fewer seconds left on the shot clock. The Cavs had the ball for almost six more minutes than the Warriors did in Game 1, and they obviously want to play more deliberately than Golden State. But according to Second Spectrum tracking, Cleveland shot 4-for-19 (including 0-for-9 from 3-point range) in the last six seconds of the shot clock. They also had a 24-second violation after a Curry switch onto James later in the second quarter.

The Warriors preferred to hedge those screens in Game 1, so that Durant could continue guarding James. But the good thing about the switches was that (for the most part) it kept a defender in front of James and forced him to use more clock. (They also forced him to use more clock by fighting through an initial screen and making Cleveland re-screen to get the switch.)

Cleveland probably won’t shoot 4-for-19 in the last six seconds of the shot clock again. But league-wide, shooting is worse in the last six seconds (effective field goal percentage of 43 percent) than it is with 7-12 seconds left on the clock (51 percent). Every second counts.

James has more than twice as many late-clock buckets as any other player in the postseason, but his teammates have not shot well in those situations. So if, after a switch, the Warriors can make him use more clock and then force the ball out of his hands, they should be pretty happy with the results.

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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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