VIDEO: Stu Jackson breaks down how the Warriors guarded LeBron James
OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors went with the “Don’t let the other guys beat us” strategy in Game 1 of The Finals. And though it almost backfired, it ultimately helped them pick up a 108-100 overtime victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
LeBron James scored 44 points, but J.R. Smith shot 3-for-13, Iman Shumpert shot 2-for-6, Tristan Thompson scored two points, James Jones could only get one shot off in 17 minutes, and Matthew Dellavedova didn’t take a single shot. All five of those guys went scoreless (in almost 78 combined minutes of playing time) after halftime.
It sounds weird, but James’ 44 points were good for Golden State, not just because it kept his supporting cast relatively quiet, but because those 44 points came on mostly tough shots. James’ true shooting percentage* in Game 1 was worse than that of the Warriors’ two leading scorers and his two primary defenders.
*True shooting percentage measures scoring efficiency. TS% = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))
Golden State’s defensive success — they held what was the postseason’s best offense to about a point per possession — was a combination of strategy and skill.
The strategy: One-on-one
For the most part*, the Warriors defended James with just one player. On isolations or in the post, they left Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes on an island. Other defenders were ready to help, but didn’t commit.
* Here’s one possession where they double-teamed him. After James set a screen for Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson switched onto him, and he backed Thompson down into the paint. Andrew Bogut came over to double and the result was a Timofey Mozgov jumper.
This gave them the ability to recover to their man if James gave up the ball. Here’s Irving catching a kick-out pass from James, with Klay Thompson in position to contest his shot …
And here’s Curry closing out (despite a back-screen from Tristan Thompson) to contest a corner 3-pointer from Shumpert …
This is not enough space for Jones to get off a shot …
Through the first three rounds, only 32 percent (68/211) of Irving’s, Shumpert’s and Smith’s combined 3-pointers were contested. According to SportVU, that number was 45 percent (10/22) in Game 1, and the trio shot 1-for-10 on those contested threes.
There were a couple of times where the Cavs took advantage of Bogut sliding over toward James. Mozgov would try to time his cuts to when Bogut would step completely on the strong side of the paint to avoid a defensive 3-second violation. That timing resulted in this dunk and this Draymond Green foul in the first quarter.
But because the Warriors didn’t commit a second defender to James, his passing lanes were narrow. And more often than not, he was tempted into shooting the ball himself. According to SportVU, James had 26 isolations and nine post ups in Game 1. He shot on 21 of the 26 isos and on five of the nine post-ups.
A big part of James’ greatness is his ability to create open shots for teammates via the attention he draws from the defense. Not only does he get teammates open, but he’s both a willing and excellent passer. Nobody in the league can throw a quicker, more accurate pass to an open teammate on the other side of the floor.
The Warriors took that aspect of James’ game away in Game 1.
The skill: Stay in front
James is also the best finisher in the game. Over the last six years, he has shot 74.4 percent in the restricted area, the best mark among 127 players who have attempted at least 1,000 restricted-area shots in that time. As well, 37 percent of his shots have come from there.
On Thursday, only four (11 percent) of James’ 38 shots came from the restricted area. One of those four shots was off a broken play, where Bogut deflected a pass right to Tristan Thompson, who got it to James on the baseline. Another was in the final seconds of overtime when the Warriors, sporting a 10-point lead, simply conceded a layup.
The strategy of defending James one-on-one doesn’t work if you don’t have guys who can keep him away from the rim. But Barnes and Iguodala did that pretty successfully on Thursday. They stayed in front of him and didn’t get bullied under the basket.
Iguodala was particularly strong late in the third quarter and down the stretch…
VIDEO: James vs. Iguodala: One-on-one
The game was won in overtime, when the Cavs didn’t score until that conceded layup with 10 seconds left. They had as many turnovers (4) as points on their final 15 possessions, and Iguodala’s one-on-one defense was largely responsible for that.
On those 35 combined isolations and post-ups, James scored just 22 points, shooting 9-for-26. Iguodala said that his team’s goal was to “make him take tough shots.” Mission accomplished in Game 1.
Process and results
All that strategy and skill, and the Warriors still almost lost Game 1 at home. If James makes his final shot of regulation, their defensive game plan may have looked silly.
But Kerr and his team should be pretty happy with the shots they forced out of the best player on the floor, while keeping his supporting cast relatively quiet. And they should be pretty happy if they can do it again in Game 2 on Sunday.