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JaVale McGee is slipping (and rolling) through the cracks

JaVale McGee is slipping (and rolling) through the cracks

It’s easy to get caught up in the offensive star power of the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry is the most dangerous flamethrower in NBA history. Kevin Durant is a seven-foot cheat code. Klay Thompson is a deadly shooter in his own right. All three can get their shot off at the blink of an eye.

Normally, that amount of gravity is what helps — not “makes”, but helps — Draymond Green thrive as the point-forward. Green already possesses great court vision and is a good decision maker. Flank him with three of the best shooters ever and it’s easy to see how he picks teams apart in transition and 4-on-3 situations.

While Green is the most consistent benefactor of this dynamic, JaVale McGee has made his presence felt in a different matter. He’s been able to get busy as a finisher. At 7’0 with a 7’6 wingspan, soft touch, and pogo-stick hops, McGee is tailor-made for the rim-runner role the Warriors employ him in.

This was on full display in Golden State’s 110-102 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3. The Cavs were so focused on stopping Golden State’s elite shooters, namely an ice-cold Curry, that they continuously lost track of the biggest man on the court. McGee “only” finished with 10 points, but the way he scored was almost laughable.

Here’s his first bucket of the night:

This is a simple screen for Curry that’s designed to flow into a high pick-and-roll with Green. Before diving to the rim, McGee sets a wonderful screen on J.R Smith, throwing him behind the play. Kevin Love hedges out to take away a potential pass to Curry, and to give Smith a chance to recover. Green recognizes the advantage and finds McGee on the roll.

Pay attention to how LeBron James defends McGee on the catch. He hesitates to fully commit because his man, Durant, is wide open in the corner. McGee uses the space he has to secure the ball, gather, then flush it down.

That looks egregious, but think about the other “options” Cleveland had on the play. If Smith and Love switch, Curry would have Love on an island. That’s not what you want if you’re the Cavs. In an alternate universe where Tristan Thompson isn’t pressuring Green on the pass, maybe he could stunt towards Curry to take away the pass there. Realistically, there wasn’t much that could be done here.

McGee especially took advantage of the Cavs in the third quarter. He kicked off the frame with this lob finish:

Curry immediately looks to attack Love in pick-and-roll, knowing it would encourage a trap. Sure enough, the trap comes, but Curry hits Green in the corner a little early. McGee slips the screen as the pass is made, but no “tag” is made by LeBron because he has to stay attached to Durant. Tristan Thompson actually guesses right as Green drives, but there’s no way for him to disrupt the high pass.

A little later, McGee (and the Warriors) takes advantage of Love again:

Klay Thompson gets free after a scramble and pump fakes beyond the arc. George Hill does a fantastic job of closing out, then stays attached to Thompson as he rises up for the shot. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Love is so focused on the action that he completely loses track of McGee, who slips inside and seals off Love. Thompson delivers the goods, and McGee finishes with the kiss off the glass.

If you don’t feel sorry for Kevin Love yet, this play should do the trick:

Another high pick-and-roll from Curry drags Love into the action. Cleveland traps it while McGee slips to the rim a little early. Thompson drops down to take away the roll, but that leaves Green open in the corner. In hindsight, Cleveland should dare Green to shoot that three; in the moment, Love rotates over to take away the corner shot.

Green immediately pivots into a dribble handoff with Curry, baiting Cleveland into another trap. It comes, because of course, and Curry finds a rolling Green with a pinpoint pocket pass. Thompson stays at home for the most part, but Green is still able to find McGee with the lob.

Curry’s gravity as a shooter is the primary reason that breakdown happen, but McGee’s slip to the rim was just as important. The sudden nature of the slip throws Love off balance, and that kicks off the chain reaction that eventually leads to McGee being fed.

McGee finished Game 3 with 10 points, three rebounds (two offensive), a pair of blocks, and was a plus-3 on the night. Sounds pedestrian, right? How about this: the Warriors had a 120.8 offensive rating with him on the floor, and that dropped to 114.6 with him on the bench.

Sure, the difference amounts to “My God, how do we stop this?” and “Alright, man, turn your sliders down or I’m turning the game off myself”, but McGee deserves credit for making an unstoppable machine even more difficult to defend. For the series, the Warriors are scoring nearly 125 points per 100 possessions with McGee on the floor, a number that feels like a typo. They’re almost five points worse offensively without McGee.

The Warriors pose enough problems with their Fantastic Four. The Cavaliers don’t have the personnel (or the discipline) to defend the Warriors for long stretches. It’s a little understandable that the rim-running threat of McGee has been treated as the lesser of many evils, but it’s still an evil.