Film Study: One-on-one with LeBron

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 …


He blocked it.

And here’s Curry closing out (despite a back-screen from Tristan Thompson) to contest a corner 3-pointer from Shumpert …


He missed it.

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.


  1. FBslice says:

    I thought warriors small ball with Green at center and Iggy on James looked like the best line up for GS. They’re quick and strong and Green outworks Centers in ways they’re not used to. Bogut looks a little slow trying to guard the quicker Mosgov and James and maybe a liability. If they lean heavily on that small lineup again, push in transition, and Curry gets hot, the Cavs will have their work cut out for them, although they are no doubt a competent team at this point.

  2. Indiana'sownLarryBird says:

    The Who, Alex, Mr NBA, i watched the game the Warriors didn’t look great, the game was tied at the end of regulation because the teams are equal. The Cavs had a chance to win, and like i said in my comment the Cavs without Irving will give the role players more chances to make players and play better team ball because Lebron makes plays for others, and Irving is score first, the, All i’m saying is the series is not over like ever body on here is saying!!!, give the Warriors the ship if you want but i’ve seen to much ball to know the series is just getting started.

  3. deangj says:

    I would like to suggest that all involved with athletes of all ages change the mental attitude that they must walk off under their own power when they have sustained an injury to their lower extremity. They are at risk for further injury that a ride in a wheelchair could prevent. Macho Man is not needed here.

  4. Celticgreen BRD says:

    and Lebron misses another clutch shot 😛

  5. kilo says:


  6. kilo says:

    The only way Cavs can win is if GSW plays 4 bad games… which is highly unlikely. Everybody keeps talking about how the Warriors just barely pulled this one off. How about when they actually play “good”? Watch for a game where Stef or Klay go for 30+ and then see how close the game will be.

  7. Phil says:

    That is the difference between MJ and all other basketball superstar like LBJ.

  8. Zvedka says:

    It’s good that GSW won, cuz lebron is going to come back and play harder. Thanks GSW for winning and getting lebron motivated ! Lebron will will it and will win it. As for Steph? he’s good, he’s the new generation but still is just a scorer. Allen Iverson anyday. What has steph done that we havent seen? shoot and score? ….

    Good luck GSW ! 😀

  9. the coach says:

    “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. ”

    Look Iggy played great Defense and leBron almost won the game by making the shot at the end of game

    Cavs almost beat warriors at their own home while besides leBron everyone else played horrible…

    Cavs lost game 1 to bulls too and Irving goes down, Dell comes up

  10. harriethehawk says:

    Andre Igudala…..I’m impressed.

  11. NBAfan says:

    Yeah thought this inefficient ISO/hero ball LeBron is playing this playoffs will play right into GSWs planning and its clear from game 1 the CAVs were completely out strategized by Kerr (and his staff). It was still a close entertaining game with James trying to drag his team across the finish line, but as others have said its a team game not 1 v 5, playing this way will not win the finals against a team like GSW.
    Its similar to last years finals with the clash of styles: team ball vs hero ball.. Only this year LBJ’s team does not have a solid offensive system or coaching staff to rely on for planning and support, will be interesting to see what adjustments they make.

  12. Indiana'sownLarryBird says:

    The Cavs are in this they won the Bulls and Hawks series with out Irving, now the others like JR, Shumpert, Deledova will get more shots, Lebron will get these guys the ball and easy shots, see Irving gets himself shots, now he’s a good player but the Cavs role players get more involed and they player better team ball, the Cavs will game 2 Lebron will have them ready.

    • theWHo says:

      man you just don’t know whta you’re saying. didn’t you watch the game? the supporting cast of bron won’t get good looks since they are being manned and born is being played one on one. try learning team basketball for once.

    • Alex says:

      Those were the Bulls and Hawks… don’t even come close to comparing to Golden State. Cleveland cannot win this series. Period.

      • MrNBA says:

        You’re comparing the competition in the (L)East from the West as if they’re equal. A depleted Cavs line-up wouldn’t have been able to get past the Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, or Rockets.

  13. BIG-GAME-JAMES-23 says:

    With Irving now injured, this changes everything… the warriors will most likely win this series, but nobody will surprised or shocked that they beat a depleted, short-handed team that does not have their full roster. LeBron is playing 1 vs 5 out there, nobody else is a consistent offensive contributor besides JR smith getting the occasional 3 pointer. Thats not going to be enough against a potent offensive team like the GSW.

    On the other hand, I think Cleveland is not getting enough credit for their pretty amazing defense. It wasn’t that GSW had a ‘slow start’ or played a bad game offensively, i think Cleveland just overwhelmed them defensively. If Cleveland can keep up the defense they’ve been playing and Coach Blatt can finally put Mike Miller in the game, who can drop 15-20 points on a good night, and the other players on the Cavs can step up then this series can still become interesting even without Irving. But overall it looks over for the Cavs.

    Its so disheartening when LeBron can score 44 points and still lose… what does he have to do for this team to win? This series is reminding ALOT of 2007 when the LeBron ‘willed’ his way to the finals as a 22 year kid and put the team on his back, only to get swept by the Spurs. Cleveland is just not deep enough or healthy enough to beat a team like the GSW. with Kyrie gone I just don’t see the Cavs winning this series.

  14. RUNTMC says:

    Warriors in 5.

  15. Anthony Perry says:

    Hate to be the burden of bad news, but if Kyrie Irving is out for any period of time, the Cavs are done. No way they can keep up offensively without Irving’s contributions. Lebron is one of the greats, but he cannot beat this Warriors team by himself:

    • Nick says:

      You’re forgetting that this is basketball – a TEAM GAME! Cleveland lost last night because they didn’t play team ball. You are dead right – Lebron can’t beat GS by himself. Too bad that’s what he tried to do last night! Have you forgotten the great team ball they played against the Celtics and Atlanta? That’s how they got to the finals. Dellevedova had great games, Smith, Shumpert, Thompson, Mosgov – all played very well. And you definitely must have forgotten how many games they won without Irving.
      No, they will not lose this series because of the loss of Irving. They will lose it by playing playground, one-on-one. That’s how Lebron played and it’s how Irving played. That kind of play can win games, but never wins finals.
      My opinion of both as consummate professionals has taken a big hit after last night. I thought for sure they knew better – especially Lebron after being taken to school by the Spurs last year!

      • Kal says:

        LBJ and Irving are as consummate professional as it gets. you wanna blame somebody? take a whack at Blatt but blindfold yourself first or there’s no fun in it…

        Cavs played a great game. did they rely too heavily on LBJ to save the day? yeah, they did. they’ll fix that next game. … the problem is, drumroll please…
        one team is significantly deeper than the other. (womp womp womp…)

        and i hate that this is the way most NBA Finals are decided. but it doesn’t change what the Warriors have and Cleveland has not. or what the Spurs had and Miami (and the Thunder and the Suns) had not. or what the Heat had and the Thunder had not. or what the Lakers and Celtics of recent years and years past have had. the Bulls too.

        with the right offseason, the Cavs next year might be one of those teams and then i’ll feel a bit sorry for whoever gets in their way… or not, because the West has so many stacked teams / stockpiles most the talent commonwealth.