We’re on the precipice of an epic (a word I don’t throw out as frivolously as my younger generation) Game 7 in the NBA Finals between the Heat and Spurs. The series has alternated wins between the two teams and has been a tightly contested series even while four of the six games thus far have ended in differences of double digits.
What has so often been the deciding factor in these games is that whichever team is able to inhibit what their opponent is trying to do on offense has won the game. Both of these teams are so good at defense that it requires the offense to work hard with good ball movement, screens, back-cuts and the like. It has also required each team to have more than one player who is capable of creating offense on the court at the same time. While everyone who’s sane and not clouded by hate would agree that LeBron is far and away the best player in basketball right now, we’ve seen in this series what a good defense can do to keep him from taking over games at will. While it was a fun stat to say that Boris Diaw “held” LeBron to 1-8 shooting in game five, what it doesn’t include is that the Spurs are an excellent help defense team. In those iso situations where the Heat clear out so LeBron can go one-on-one with Diaw you’ll always see the San Antonio defenders cheating toward the paint to help out, knowing that LeBron’s nature would have him pass the ball which is far preferable to the hard drive to the basket by a proverbial tank. This series has shown that even LeBron James can’t do it all on his own. Even he needs help.
That’s why he went to Miami in the first place. Look, LeBron is a relatively smart guy when it comes to understanding the game of basketball. We can at least all agree that his basketball smarts are smarter than his PR smarts, right? He didn’t go to Miami to create a super-defense team. He already had that in Cleveland. LeBron went to Miami because he needed another player to shoulder the role of carrying an offense. That player of course was supposed to be Dwyane Wade. When the two players are both on top of their game it’s beautiful to watch. I hate this Miami team with an undying hatred, but even I can sit on my couch in awe of what they do when they’re operating at their max level. That’s what we saw in Game 4 when LeBron went for 33 with Wade really driving the offense and getting 32 of his own. When many of the smart people who cover these games watched that game they reasonably thought the rest of the series would be dominated by the Heat. And if Wade would have continued to play at that level then the series no doubt would be over by now.
The same has been true with San Antonio in this series. Tony Parker has been good for most of the series but the games where Manu Ginobili has been productive are the games that they have won. In Game 5 Parker didn’t have to do it all on his own because they got a strong game from Ginobili. And you also see what happens when those guys are operating at full capacity; their penetration opens up shooters like Danny Green who shot 6-10 from three in that contest. In Game 1 while Manu didn’t pour in the stats necessarily he did have an impact while on the court. Also in that game Wade was mostly ineffective as he’s been for the majority of the series and postseason in general.
Game 3 is an outlier in this discussion. None of the four primary creators for the two teams had good games. Wade and James were pretty pedestrian, Parker got hurt which held him back, and beyond six assists Manu didn’t do much. That game of course was when Green and Gary Neal went absolutely bonkers shooting the ball. And you’ll always have outliers like that every once in a while. Even this last game was a bit of an outlier in terms of my argument. There will be times when a player as great as LeBron will just take over and be unstoppable for stretches like he was in the fourth quarter and overtime. We of course saw him do that several times when he played for the Cavs, most notably in that epic Game 5 in Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. But those are the exceptions to the rule.
Take Oklahoma City for example. Most people would agree that Kevin Durant is the second best player in the NBA and has been for a few seasons. They made the Finals last season and the Western Conference Finals the year before. They’re a great team. But when they lost Russell Westbrook that all changed because that forced Durant to be the primary ball handler and offensive creator. Everyone yelled and complained the previous several playoffs that Westbrook dominated the ball too much, that he took too many shots, blah blah blah. Fans of that team aren’t saying those things anymore because they witnessed what it’s like when you have just one guy who can create offense.
What does this all have to do with the Cavs you ask? Excellent question!
There has been much furor this offseason and even throughout last season that playing a two-guard lineup of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters can’t work because both guys need the ball to be effective. In coverage of this coming draft many have contended that the team should select Ben McLemore to start at shooting guard because he doesn’t “need ” the ball, move Dion to the bench where he can be more effective, and play that Thrift Shop song in the arena. (Ok, that last point isn’t germane to discussion and really, because I’m not hip, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that song and was confused the first several times that reference was brought up in relation to McLemore. But I digress!!!) That theory is all well and good… in theory. But modern NBA defenses are just too good for you to only have one guy who can create offense. And that’s not a part of McLemore’s game. He’s a spot-up shooter. A dang good one, but that’s really all he is right now. Dion is a penetrator and a guy who opens up the offense. Kyrie is that and a terrific shooter. I love the chemistry with Kyrie and Dion on the court together.
What fans need to understand is that the on-court chemistry takes time. You can’t just throw players together and expect to work like magic in just one season. Just ask the Heat. That first year it didn’t all come together as easily as they thought. They didn’t really hit their stride until the playoffs. And speaking of said 2011 playoffs, you’ll remember that the Heat weren’t even the no. 1 seed in the East. That distinction belonged to the Bulls. But what happened in that Miami/Chicago series? Miami used LeBron to shut down Derrick Rose, Chicago’s sole offensive creator. After that it wasn’t much of a contest. The Bulls just couldn’t get the job done on offense and as great as their defense was they, weren’t a match for the Heat’s two-headed attack.
Just step back and look at this year’s NBA playoffs as a whole. No I mean, do it. Stand up from your computer or cell phone, take two steps back, and with your eyes still open look in your mind back at these playoffs as a whole.
Ok come back and sit down. What was the key to the success of the teams that won in these playoffs? The first key I’d say is defense, particularly for the teams who advanced to the conference finals. You can get by and make the playoffs without being a great defensive team but once those initial 82 games are over you’d better be able to stop the opponent’s attack or you won’t last long into May. Defense is so crucial to success in the NBA as we well know. The Cavs’ best seasons in their history, while with LeBron on the squad, also possessed great defenses that were the identity of the team. With Indiana and Memphis that’s where they hung their hat. They rode their defenses to the conference finals. The current iteration of the Cleveland Cavaliers clearly need to improve on the defensive end, which is probably the biggest reason that Byron Scott got canned and is the reason that Mike Brown is back coaching the team again. But defense is a discussion for another day.
The other aspect that made for successful teams in the playoffs is that they had more than one offensive option. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with two perimeter dribble-penetration guys if you have a strong post presence. Again, that’s what keyed Indiana and Memphis. The Pacers obviously have Paul George who is a great player and really came on in these playoffs. But they also have David West and Roy Hibbert down low. The Grizzlies have Mike Conley who controls the ball movement and supplement him with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the paint. The Heat and Spurs have even more ways to attack a defense, which is ultimately why they’re still playing and the Pacers and Grizzlies are not. The Spurs have Parker and Ginobili who create, Duncan operating the low post, and Green and Neal who are their shooters. The Heat of course have LeBron, Wade, and Bosh along with their arsenal of shooters in Allen, Miller, and Battier.
What ultimately doomed the Pacers and Grizzlies was their lack of offensive options, primarily on the perimeter, to keep up with the high-powered attacks of the Heat and Spurs respectively. While both George and Conley had very good postseasons and were helped at time by guys like George Hill and Jerryd Bayless, ultimately the load of carrying the offense for three series in a row became too much for them to overcome. You can do that against more one-dimensional teams like the Knicks or post –Westbrook injury Thunder but you don’t stand much of a chance against the juggernauts of the Heat and Spurs.
The Cavs right now have their backcourt in Kyrie and Dion. To mess with that at this point is dumb to me. It’ll take a little more time to be fully operational but when it does it will be very good. I’m not crazy enough to think it’ll be as good as LeBron and Wade good, but it’ll be good. The low-post presence for Cleveland is still a work in progress. While Andy Varejao has gotten very good at the pick and roll game he’s not much of a post presence otherwise. Tristan Thompson has shown massive improvements already in his two seasons thus far. I’m very intrigued to see how his low-post game will continue to come along. In the draft the Cavs have a great chance to get a guy who can be that dominant post presence to compliment the strong backcourt of Kyrie and Dion. What Chris Grant and company need to decide is if that guy is Alex Len or Nerlens Noel…and we’ll get more into that debate down the line.
Furthermore, the argument that “Dion Waiters will be more effective coming off the bench” is the stupidest, most “duh” argument out there. Of course if you reduced Dion’s minutes, reduced his defensive responsibilities, and let him operate on his own more often he’d be a more “effective” player while on the court. That’s true in just about all walks of life. If your boss came up to you and said, “We’re going to lessen your work load and your hours while giving you more breaks. This way you’ll be able to work really hard in the time that you are working. You obviously won’t get as much done because you won’t have as much but we really just want you to use your time efficiently, even if it’s less.”
That’s crazy logic!!! If I took longer breaks at my job and didn’t have as much do, the remaining work that I do have would obviously be done better than it normally is because I have more energy to do it. But by doing that is it the best use of my abilities? Absolutely not. You do that with guys who aren’t as good. Take a guy like Ray Allen on the Heat. At his point he doesn’t have the energy play 40 minutes a game. That’s why you see him playing an average of 28 minutes a game in the Finals. You don’t do that with LeBron James. If you played him for 25 minutes a game he’d be the most efficient player ever. But by increasing his efficiency you’re losing production. I’m probably making this more confusing than it needs to be really.
All I’m trying to say is that what the Cavs have with Kyrie and Dion in the backcourt starting together is a good thing. We shouldn’t be looking to move Dion to the bench. Instead we should be looking for other offensive weapons to start alongside those two guys, probably in the form of a post player.
I think we can relate this back to the draft, and how we are continuing to try to strive to figure out how to create offense right now. That is the biggest problem. And I think, especially the GM is seen as the leader of this, and so we need to try to figure out how to create offense better so we can solve this problem. Thank you.Follow @ClevelandFlack
 You’ll excuse me, kids, if I don’t think a really good piece of cake is worthy of the adjective “epic”. And even if you don’t, I don’t really care.