Seriously, what’s happened here? The Golden State Warriors went from looking borderline unstoppable to being shut down by Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert. LeBron James has been doing damage playing a sort of center field role by playing off Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala to play better help defense, but he hasn’t been the driving force of the Cavs’ stifling defense so much as a powerful safety blanket for what the guards have been doing on the perimeter.
It’s not like this is the first time the Warriors have seen a good defense either, as they played the Grizzlies in the second round. While Tony Allen and Mike Conley were battling injuries, they were still a very good defensive backcourt. The Grizzlies’ size in the interior was just as imposing as the Cavs, but why has Cleveland been even more effective at wrangling the Warriors in this series?
For one, Timofey Mozgov has locked down the paint and used verticality to his advantage when challenging shots at the rim. Second, Tristan Thompson, along with Mozgov, has played a big role in shutting down Draymond Green.
The biggest matchup inequity the Warriors have been able to exploit this year has been Green against most other forwards in the league. Green has been fast enough to get past most power forwards and big enough to post-up most small forwards, but Thompson has shown he’s big and fast enough to deter Green both off-the-dribble and in the post. The Cavaliers have also had success daring Green to beat them from the outside by leaving him wide open in order to focus more attention on the Splash Brothers, and that’s worked well.
But even with Thompson and Mozgov playing this well on defense, Green isn’t the team’s best player on offense. They have the league MVP to pick up the slack on that end.
It was nice of Stephen Curry to finally come back in the fourth quarter. He hasn’t looked like himself all series, and I have to give credit to the Cavs for corralling him as well as they have. They’ve not only kept Curry from scoring, but they’ve made passing difficult and neutralized his ability to get teammates quite as many of the open looks they’re accustomed to getting. Dellavedova deserves a ton of the credit here, but it’s truly been a team effort.
The blame doesn’t fall entirely on Curry though; the Warriors as a whole have struggled to do things that once came easily. A lot of this series has come down to the fact that the Warriors simply haven’t been making their shots, both uncontested and contested. Harrison Barnes was 0 for 8 in Game 3, and he was wide open for several of those shots, only to miss terribly. Green, as mentioned, is missing most of his open threes. Klay Thompson isn’t shooting all that well from long range in the series, and he’s been forcing some shots from distance.
A lot of the Warriors’ shooting troubles are coming from the Cavs playing good, phyiscal defense, but the Warriors have been hitting shots over good defenses all year, and a lot of the shots they’ve been missing this series have been under just as much defensive pressure as the shots they were making just a few weeks ago. Steve Kerr said it best in one of the huddles during Game 3: “We’re too good to be playing like this.” Give the Cavs’ defense credit, but sometimes the shots just don’t fall.
Two games in a row now, the Warriors have been down big in the fourth quarter and had to launch a big scoring run to come back. They tied it up in Game 2, only to lose in overtime, and almost did the same in Game 3. Given the Cavs’ depth issues, these runs might be the result of Cleveland’s players tiring out towards the end of the games and relenting on the defensive intensity. Thursday is basically a must-win for the Warriors, but a loss would also be a big hit to Cleveland. The longer this series lasts, the more Cleveland’s lack of depth is going to be a problem.