Tag Archives: LeBron James

Defending the Eastern Conference Crown

While champagne corks flew in the Warrior locker room last June, narratives of a valiant Finals performance flew around the runners-up. The popular reasoning for why the Larry O’ Brien trophy currently resides in Oakland is the obvious one: the title-deficient Cavaliers had the odds stacked up against them when 2 of their all-stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were deemed too wounded to participate on the NBA’s largest stage. However, a more dissentient narrative began to emerge.

The 2014-2015 Cavaliers were bogged down by ISO-laden mush over and over again. Against the versatile Warriors, who remarkably possessed several players with the uncanny ability to defend multiple positions, that sort of offensive strategy seemed doomed from the start. Instead due to injury, they trotted out a lineup focused on thwarting the Warriors’ offense by suppressing Curry at the 3 point line due to Thompson’s trapping ability and making the MVP work due to Dellavedova’s off-ball defensive prowess from Game 2 onwards. The unit of Dellavedova-Shumpert-James-Thompson-Mozgov allowed the 2nd ranked Warriors to score 93.1 points per 100 possessions, which would have placed them at 29th. Therefore, did this defensive oriented unit actually provide Cleveland with the better opportunity to come out victorious?

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While the anachronistic lineup provided GSW with a real scare, it ultimately didn’t possess enough offensive firepower. Obviously, that’s where the absence of Love and Irving plays a role. However, their defensive arsenals don’t contain the aforementioned skill sets that made Curry and GSW sweat. With a combined ~$32.5M allocated to them this year, if Cleveland desires to be considered a legitimate title threat, they need to construct a plan that allows them to executive at a top notch level defensively with Irving & Love on the floor. And they certainly have done that thus far.

After allowing a porous 104.1 points per 100 possession, which placed them 20th defensively, that number has dwindled to 99.1, which has skyrocketed them to 4th*. The return of Irving has not induced a decline in defensive play, as CLE’s DefRtg since the PG’s first game is 99.7*. In order to compensate for a lack of sheer defensive talent, the unit needed to operate as if it is connected by a string and to hinge on unpredictability by showcasing various schemes. Cleveland has mastered both of these elements.

When teams utilize screens, whether it be on or off-ball, in order to foster a 2 on 1 advantage, Cleveland has multiple strategies to snuff the threat. When a ball-handler accepts the on-ball screen, the Cavaliers’ most frequented counter-attack is to have the big man ice or sag back. Rather than allowing for this to be a 2 on 2 encounter, Cleveland has their off-ball defenders relinquish space from their original assignments in order to crowd the roller. This allows the 2 defenders involved in the pick & roll to swarm the ball handler without the worry of the easy pocket pass to the roll man. With the constant horde of defenders impeding the ball handler, Cleveland has only allowed said players to shoot 39% out of the pick and roll.

Thus, encompassing the roll men forces the ball handler to whip the rock to his shooters on the perimeter. If a pass is made, Cleveland’s off-ball defenders are highly cognizant of crowding the ball-handler’s space while maintaining manageable distance from and a straight-line angle to their original defender. Therefore, they’re able to recover and close out the airspace. This awareness has resulted in the Cavaliers surrendering only 21.7 3-point attempts per game, which is the 5th lowest mark.

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Irving and James both cover Green on his path to the basket and then recover back to their original assignments.

If the shooter is tremendously potent from deep and thus requires a strong fly-by to convince said shooter from pulling the trigger, the Cavaliers will throw another defender to thwart the shot or drive attempt. Cleveland’s magnificent at “helping the helper”, a huge reason why they give up the 3rd fewest wide-open shots (attempts where the closest defender is >=6 feet away). Not only do they flourish in these situations while orchestrating organized defensive maneuvers, they also provide timely aid for their teammate’s miscues for losing awareness of his man off-ball or surrendering a favorable angle to the offensive player.

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Dellavedova gets stuck on Pachulia in transition. But Thompson comes to his help, and Smith plays zone to cover both Matthews and Parsons. Once Pachulia makes his decision, Smith feasts.

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Dellavedova and Smith botch the coverage on the Curry back screen. But James picks Livingston up, and Thompson runs James’ original assignment off the 3-point line.

This ability illustrates Cleveland’s inclination to understand what the offense is prone to do and to thus swarm the next most likely receiver. That is also exemplified by how they execute another defensive strategy for the pick and roll: the trap. As mentioned earlier, Thompson’s agility allows him to be awfully effective at extinguishing the ball-handler’s path to the rim 30 feet away from the basket and therefore forcing the ball out of his hands. However, the Cavaliers additionally ensure that the only pass available is the most difficult one aka to the player furthest away from the ball-handler. With Thompson’s pressure, that’s a terribly difficult connection to make even for the most adept playmakers.

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Lastly, another defensive scheme that Thompson’s lateral quickness allows Cleveland to tap into is switching the pick and roll. Although Thompson’s not of Draymond Green’s caliber, he is competent enough where with some help, an area in which the Cavaliers have proven to be very proficient, the switch can pose to be tremendously effective. Not only does Thompson partake in switches, one will see Cleveland have their perimeter defenders, primarily Lebron James, switch off ball movement as well. It forces the offense to settle to isolation play when they were expecting to rely on ball movement to generate an open look, which again exemplifies why the Cavaliers flourish in forcing opposing offenses to hoist contested shots.

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Thompson switches multiple actions, which eventually results in this contested fadeaway from Porter.

If the Cavaliers are to return to the Finals and are healthy, they will naturally be deemed to have greater odds to capture their elusive championship. As we noticed against their pathetic performance against the Warriors on MLK day, there are certainly some large chinks in their defensive armor. However, the overall improved play on that side of the ball will still exponentially enhance those chances.

*Since written before MLK day, all stats are pertaining to play prior to the GSW game.

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What If Ray Allen Missed the Game-Tying 3-Point Shot in Game 6 of the Finals?

“Baaaaaaaang!! Tie game with 5 seconds remaining!” The shot that those words accompanied is hands down the biggest play in all of sports in 2013. Actually, let’s transcend that notion and make the claim for it being the most significant shot in the NBA in the last 15 years. As Ray Allen squared up to launch a potentially championship saving three pointer, little did he know there was so much more at stake. How about shouldering the legacy of his superstar teammate? So when that ball soared through the hoop to the delight of the 50,000 roaring fans drenched in white, Michael Jordan certainly had to relinquish the throne of player with recent most impactful basket in the NBA. That now belongs to the most heralded three-point shooter of all time. Ironically, it’s LeBron James who reaped the most benefit. So as we embark into the new year, I found it necessary to delve into the scenario if Allen’s right wrist had released the ball slightly off mark.

Shout out to Mike Breen for one of the best play by play calls I have ever experienced!

If the Heat locker room was immersed with devastation and grim silence after Game 6 as opposed to champagne following Game 7, the narrative would have taken a vastly different course. James’ two turnovers in the last minute that led to a couple of Manu Ginobili appearances at the charity stripe would have become a 4 course meal for the media. The perception that James did not possess the mental resolve necessary to guide his team to an illustrious title would certainly have been at the forefront of news articles all across the nation. James’ jump shot would have faced tremendous scrutiny as well. The Spurs were willing to allow LeBron beat them via the mid range and the three point shot by playing well off of him. Popovich never altered his defensive strategy against the Miami small forward since James did not convert enough jump shots to instill fear in the San Antonio coaching staff. These two aspects would have intertwined when James missed a potential game-tying three point shot with 15 seconds remaining. Every clanked mid to long range attempt that James had this season would have been proceeded by the media’s disapproval of James’ ascent to one of basketball’s greatest to have ever sported a NBA jersey. The fans’ demeaning nickname “LeBrick” would have strongly persisted, more than ever. But his game wouldn’t have been the only thing that had to endure constant questioning.

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 9.50.14 PMJames’ face when the Championship seemed out of reach couldn’t say it any clearer.

Currently, James’ free agent status seems as close to a done deal as can be. There doesn’t appear to be another organization with cap space this upcoming offseason that can offer LeBron the type of stability, personnel, and wherewithal to assemblequality pieces around James like the Heat can (As an avid Laker supporter, I really wish I could say otherwise). There would have been plenty of skepticism over that notion if Allen’s shot bounced off the rim. With Dwyane Wade’s knees becoming more of a liability as the days progress and the rest of the pieces aging drastically, most analysts would have wondered if Miami had it in them to spark another legitimate title run. Adding fuel to the fire would be Indiana’s transcendence to a title contender and Russell Westbrook’s return from knee injury accompanied by the emergence of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson which propels the Thunder back into the mix as well. Rather than the acceptance a two time champion has earned, the Heat would have had to deal with a negative buzz much like that of the tiny insects release by the game makers on Katniss and Peeta in the Hunger Games following the sort of losses Miami had against Boston and Sacramento. That would have caused the increase of the volume of the ‘LeBron is taking his talents elsewhere’ chatter. Boy does this year seem quiet in comparison.

I understand that there was an overtime period and an entire game to be played following that miraculous Allen shot. Yet that basket seemed to permanently tip the momentum in favor of the incumbent. It continues to give me chills every time I watch Norris Cole erupt on the bench and Dwyane Wade swing his hands up in the air in immense relief. Whether one’s allegiances lied with Miami or San Antonio during that classic NBA Finals, it has to be impossible to not cherish and value the magnitude of that three pointer. It will definitely be a story I will narrate to my kids. Hopefully they listen!

The 11-game Eastern Conference Finals between Indiana and Miami

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The last time the Pacers suffered a devastating seven game Eastern Conference Finals loss to the eventual NBA Champions led by the world’s most dominant player in 1998, the prospect of future battles with this opponent didn’t linger in Indiana’s mind. Michael Jordan had retired, and the Chicago Bulls had disbanded after losing Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as well. This time around, there was no dissolving of the threat that denied the Pacers from their first Finals appearance since 2000. The Miami Heat and their perennial MVP candidate LeBron James still remain as the biggest hindrance to Indiana’s quest to dispel the notion that tanking is the sole strategy for a team to transcend from mediocrity to being a conference champion (George was a late lottery pick, Stephenson was a 2nd round pick, Hibbert and Granger were both mid first round picks). Thus every time these two powerhouses are scheduled to enter the ring together, one better expect the gloves to be irrelevantly lying on the ground. But just as the Knicks’ two victories over Miami in November and December 2012 are seemingly currently insignificant to the NBA landscape, I will disregard the outcome of these affairs. Rather I will dissect the advantages and deficiencies for both teams that will play an integral part in this match up moving to their inevitable showdown in late May.

The Pacers’ foundation lies in their impeccable rim protection. Out of the ten players who have faced the most field goal attempts per game at the basket including defensive stalwarts Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, and Deandre Jordan, it’s Roy Hibbert who has allowed the fewest of these shots to descend through the hoop. Against Miami who has the highest percentage of makes from within five feet and the second largest from five to nine feet, Hibbert’s usual defensive antics become tremendously significant. Throughout their most recent game, the Heat penetrators Chalmers, Wade, James, and Cole were successfully able to foray into the paint whether it be off of a screen or a quick first step. Unfortunately for Miami, they were met by Hibbert’s monstrous 7’4” wingspan, which forces them to swing the ball back out to the perimeter. Now the ensuing activity determines the Heat’s offensive mindset moving forward.

ImageImageHere we see Chalmers freeing up after the Battier screen. But he runs into West and Hibbert, as Hill and George collapse on Chalmers as well. Although James and Battier are open, Chalmers can’t get off a good pass

In the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Miami’s first two offensive possessions resulted in Bosh and Battier freeing up and drilling the open jump shot because of Hibbert’s tendency to help on the ball handler following the pick and roll. The Pacers are willing to relinquish the mid and long range shot to the Heat just like they did on Bosh’s open three that tied the game at 92, as long as nothing easy comes inside. But if Miami begins to convert those attempts, more onus is placed on the perimeter defenders to not get dusted. Also this insinuates that Indiana cannot continue to collapse on the ball handler in the post after a screen. Thus Miami continues to attack off the dribble, and this completely throws off the Pacers’ defensive schemes, and they surrender 30 points in a quarter like they did in the first quarter of this game.

ImageImageStephenson and West both double Wade after the screen by Battier. Shane then receives the pass and drills the open 3.

In the American Airlines Arena, the Heat started 0 for 9 from three-point range. That gives the Pacers all the incentive in the world to crowd the paint. In addition, Indiana hopes that their internal pressure prevents the Heat penetrators from getting off a clean pass, which gives time to the Pacers to rotate defensively once the ball returns to the perimeter. In this circumstance, Miami loses faith in their dribble penetration and resorts to jump shots in order to spread the floor. This is exactly the trap the Pacers want Miami to fall into, which is why they attained a 15-point lead in the third quarter.

While the Pacers rely heavily on their interior defense, they also depend primarily on their post offense against a smaller opponent like Miami. The Heat attempt to prevent Indiana’s strategy from coming into fruition by executing effective ball denial defense against West and Hibbert. Anderson, James, Bosh, and Battier all ensure passes to their respective men will not be clean. So once the post up is taken away, the Indiana offense becomes flustered. They struggle to obtain any opportunities through their minimal off-ball movement since James and Wade are extraordinary perimeter defenders. This leads to forced, contested jump shots or unsuccessful penetration for the Pacers. When they attempt to gain some wiggle room, Indiana’s guards run the pick and roll. The Heat choose to double the ball handler just like the Pacers, but Miami instills their double team immediately and thus traps the ball handler outside of the perimeter since they perceive the guard as the bigger threat. The Pacer big who set the screen is open, but fifteen to seventeen feet away from the hoop. Instead of rotating on to the open Pacer, the three Miami defenders stay with their man to prevent ball movement and Indiana from getting a better look. In the second quarter of the second game, Luis Scola received several looks from this but was unable to knock down enough jump shots to make Miami reconsider their defensive strategy.Image

Image        Luis Scola catches the ball wide open after setting the screen and rolling, but is unable to make the shot.

With both defenses seemingly indestructible, a few wild cards exist that could swing the fortune in one team’s direction. For Miami, they need to deviate from their half court offense and live in the fast break. Indiana has coughed up the ball an average 18.5 times against their arch nemesis, which resulted in a mean of 19.5 points off turnovers. For as stellar as the Pacers’ half court defense is, their production is somewhat wasted by the offense’s inefficiency and tendency to give away the ball. One other wild card is the Heat’s approach to force Hibbert to the perimeter by having Anderson or Bosh navigate around the three-point line, while Miami tries to attack the post on the other side with James or Wade. Just like in Indiana’s pick and roll defense, Hibbert cheats off his man and attempts to stay close to the paint. The success of this play also relies on James’ and Wade’s potent post games. With a quick enough move, they can either drain an easy lay up or get hacked by a late Hibbert.

Image      Chris Anderson is about 17 feet away from the basket, and Wade’s posting up Stephenson.

For Indiana, it’s simple: can Paul George make enough plays for the Indiana offense to stay afloat? It’s a superstar’s responsibility to bail his team out of stagnant, ineffective half court offensive possessions. But life has been challenging for him while the 4-time NBA MVP has guarded him. George shot 3 for 9 and obtained a mere six points while James defended him, but was 5 for 7 with seventeen points with anybody else on him. George will need to discover better opportunities against James for his middling offense to keep above water.

With only one other team in the Eastern Conference above .500, it becomes more and more difficult every day to envision an Eastern Conference Finals without both Indiana and Miami. Thus with nine remaining match ups between the two (a seven game series is imminent), there will be plenty of chances to see how both sides’ respective chess moves play out. But patience is necessary, as March 26 is the next time the Heat and Pacers take swings at each other once again.