The NBA is a make-or-miss league. Sometimes, it’s really that simple. Through two games of the NBA Finals, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers have netted just 42.8 percent of their looks while the Golden State Warriors have connected on 54.1 percent of their shots en route to a 2-0 series lead.
With such a large discrepancy in the shot-making column, it hasn’t mattered much that Cleveland’s pulled down 35 offensive rebounds to Golden State’s 11, leading to 17 more field goal attempts. Where the real divide has materialized is in the number of elite scorers each team rosters.
The Cavs boast LeBron James, who’s dragged this underwhelming roster to the NBA Finals and who might be the league’s all-time leading scorer when he hangs up his kicks for the final time, but that’s about it. The Warriors counter with three of the most efficient shooters ever in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Sell out to defend Curry’s off-ball energy or his off-the-bounce vigor and Thompson springs free for a triple; Double up against Durant on the elbow and he finds the open man; become entranced with Thompson’s incessant slicing and motion, and Curry suddenly has the ball, ready to uncork an open look in the corner.
Curry is the head of the snake, but both Thompson and Durant are more than capable of shredding up game plans that primarily revolve around eliminating Curry.
However, when Golden State’s bet the house against LeBron this series, it hasn’t walked away from the fire with burn marks as Cleveland lacks a second fiddle who can create his own shot with consistent success.
LeBron plus shooters has long been a successful strategy for nearly the last decade, but Golden State is more than willing to let the likes of J.R. Smith, Jeff Green (calling him a shooter is generous) or George Hill fire up open three-pointers rather than send overmatched defenders into one-on-one situations against The King. It’s why Warrior defenders have swarmed LeBron whenever possible, particularly on his bulldozes to the rim:
The Warriors defensive strategy in four pictures: pic.twitter.com/VSj2NdYEV7
— Justin Jett (@JustinJett_) June 4, 2018
It’s always been a delicate balance when teams attempt to concoct the best strategy for defending LeBron-led clubs. Do they cut off his avenues to shooters on the perimeter and let him amass a gaudy stat line with little support or do they engulf him once he’s anywhere near the hoop and live with teammates burying shots?
The Warriors have opted for the latter thus far, despite LeBron averaging 40 points, 10.5 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game, a strategy they also employed during the 2015 Finals when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were both sidelined due to injury. However, every other player donning wine and gold hasn’t inflicted enough damage to make Golden State rethink its schematic approach.
Wielding some of the deadliest passing vision to ever grace the NBA, LeBron is skilled enough to manipulate that tactic to his advantage. His teammates have proven less adept at doing so.
Most notably, it’s been their tendency to clank looks beyond the arc. Non-LeBron shooters are just 14-of-53 from deep (26.4 percent) and 13-of-48 (27.1 percent) on threes deemed “open” or “wide open,” per NBA.com.
While 10.5 assists a night is nothing to scoff at, it’s far from an accurate representation of LeBron’s facilitating during this series. Through two games, he’s registered 50 potential assists, which accounts for shot attempts when the passer would be in line for an assist had the shooter canned the field goal.
For reference, Curry (17), Draymond Green (16) and Durant (13) rank second, third and fourth in assists during the Finals, but have just 68 potential assists among them. In essence, only 42 percent of LeBron’s potential assists are finding the bottom of the net compared to 67.7 percent for Golden State’s triumvirate.
“I wonder if they did a stat*, Mike, [LeBron] had 13 assists, but what about the ones that got fouled and how many assists that would’ve led to baskets or could’ve led to baskets?” Jeff Van Gundy inquired late in the fourth quarter of Game 2 while Mike Breen recounted LeBron’s 29-point, 13-assist, 9-rebound outing.
*Writer’s note: They do, it’s potential assists, which were outlined just a couple paragraphs before*
Perhaps one of the plays etched into Van Gundy’s mind was this, seemingly encapsulating the many instances in which LeBron’s passing brilliance hasn’t manifested in the box score (to be fair, this would be marked down as an unofficial hockey assist):
Or some of these, when LeBron’s warped the defense with timely reads, leaving Golden State scrambling to recover:
The margin for error against Golden State is always slim, but it’s razor thin for these Cavs, who have largely been a one-man show this postseason, save for a few hot-shooting nights and breakout games from Love. Misfiring on plays specifically designed to produce wide-open jumpers only heightens the need for perfection from Cleveland:
The first play on this reel is a testament to the level of respect LeBron has commanded from Golden State. Following the LeBron-J.R. pick and pop, despite JaVale McGee looming in the paint, both Curry and Durant remain glued to LeBron, ceding an uncontested trey to Smith, a 37.5 percent three-point shooter for his career.
Smith has to make the Warriors pay on shots like that if they’re content to surrender those looks. It may not provoke them to alter their defensive game plan, but it will at least give them pause, something they’ve yet to do while watching three after three bounce off the iron.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s the fact that Cleveland’s role players have shot the ball better at home throughout this entire postseason run. That should continue on Wednesday when the Finals return to Quicken Loans Arena for Game 3.
LeBron has long acted as a unique archetype, one that hasn’t followed in Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant’s alpha-dog, shoot-first footsteps. Instead, he canvasses the floor in search of the right play, whether that be a pass or shot. He’s remained that way in these Finals, though the end result has rarely been rosy when he’s slung the ball to teammates, playing right into Golden State’s hands.
The deck was already stacked against the Cavs, but with every errant three-pointer, another card is piled on, making it increasingly difficult for LeBron and Co. to nab even a game against these juggernaut Warriors.
If Game 1 was any indication, it’s that even a wave of all-time performances from LeBron won’t be enough to dethrone Golden State. To steal a win(s), Cleveland needs to deliver beyond the arc and turn more of LeBron’s potential assists into box-score dimes. Otherwise, they’re staring down the barrel of a decisive four-game sweep.
All stats and videos via NBA.com and are accurate as of June 5.