Film Study: Warriors’ centers can’t contain Cavs

CLEVELAND — Some nights, Kyrie Irving has it going like he did on Monday. Some nights, he doesn’t.

Every night though, the Cleveland Cavaliers try to get him going early with the same action, a screen set by Tristan Thompson along the sideline. We saw it on the Cavs’ first two possessions of Game 1 of The Finals, as well as on the first two possessions of Game 2. It’s a play that, especially in transition, can get Irving going downhill and put the defense on its heels.

In Game 5, we first saw the Irving/Thompson sideline screen with the Cavs in a 9-3 hole…

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Thompson’s defender, Andrew Bogut, met Irving above the foul line…

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… and got beat to the basket.

On the very next possession, the Cavs ran the same action on the other side of the floor. Bogut didn’t come out so high…

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… and didn’t get beat to the basket. (Irving, instead, passed to LeBron James, who hit his first of eight buckets from outside the paint.)

Bogut made a quick adjustment and got a better result … if we’re talking about the shot and not the points scored on the play (three instead of two). The Warriors are generally happy with James shooting from the outside. In previous games, they’ve been content to have Bogut sag down to the low block and have Irving pull up for a mid-range jumper off that sideline screen.

Of course, James made twice as many shots from outside the paint in Game 5 as he did in any other playoff game this year and Irving’s shot-making was twice as ridiculous. Those guys would have had big games no matter who was on the floor for the other team, because there were too many moments where great offense beat great defense.

But that first Irving/Thompson sideline screen, where Bogut got beat off the dribble, was just one of many examples where the Warriors missed their most important defender. And it’s hard not to wonder if this series would be over had Draymond Green just kept his right hand away from James’ groin in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

Small ball has been the Warriors’ formula for success in The Finals. And small ball isn’t the same without Green. Prior to Game 5, the Warriors were a plus-54 with Green playing center and a minus-25 otherwise. In their Game 4 win in Cleveland, Green played almost 28 minutes at center.

But without him in Game 5, the Warriors had to play another way. They used all four of their centers in the first quarter, and they totaled 37 minutes of playing time in Game 5. Steve Kerr tried some small ball, with Harrison Barnes and James Michael McAdoo at center, for a few minutes here and there. But he mostly went traditional. And that made it harder for the Warriors to switch screens and keep the Cavs’ ball-handlers in front of them.

Here’s Festus Ezeli trying to meet James near the 3-point line after a Thompson screen on Andre Iguodala

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He got beat to the basket.

Even Iman Shumpert took advantage of Ezeli’s pick-and-roll defense, driving past him after a little hesitation move.

James vs. Marreese Speights?

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A dunk and a foul.

Irving vs. Bogut again?

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Another and-one.

Too often, the Warriors’ centers met the Cavs’ drives too high and paid the price. The biggest difference for Golden State in small ball vs. playing a traditional center has been on offense. But their defensive versatility with their Green-at-center lineups is a huge part of their success, especially when it comes to defending quick ball-handlers coming off a screen. A little mobility goes a long way.

Through five games, the Cavs have scored an efficient 1.32 points per possession after setting a ball screen for Irving, according to SportVU. They’ve scored 1.31 points per possession on drives from Irving or James. The Warriors, meanwhile, have allowed just 0.82 points per possession on ball screens when Green has been the guy defending the screener. In that spot, he’s been much more likely to entice an isolation play than any other defender.

Both Irving and James scored in a variety of ways on Monday. Their drives were actually down from previous games. But those sideline screens kept coming. One time when the Warriors did switch it (with McAdoo, their most reasonable facsimile of Green)…

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… they forced a turnover when the Cavs tried to go into the post with Stephen Curry guarding Kevin Love, a matchup that Golden State hasn’t been all that afraid of in this series.

We’ll see more of that and much more small ball from the Warriors in Game 6 on Thursday (9 ET, ABC). With Bogut likely out with a left knee injury suffered in the third quarter of Game 5, Golden State could start the game with their “Death Lineup” — Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green.

That, along with it’s Shaun Livingston derivatives, has been the Warriors’ most successful configuration against Cleveland. It will allow for more effective switching and less penetration if James’ and Irving’s jumpers aren’t falling as often as they did in Game 5. And we could see the difference early, when Irving dribbles up the sideline toward a screen from Tristan Thompson.

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