The crucial details that will decide Game 7

Game 7 is the perfect culmination to chat about legacies, defining moments and the game’s greats showing every entity vaguely familiar with the NBA why they are indeed historic figures. Every NBA game rides on the obvious measurements like knocking down open shots, avoiding mind boggling turnovers and defenses lapses, contributions from role players and, of course, the levels of brilliance posed by a team’s stars.

1. Cleveland’s screening savvy

Cleveland has sought out Steph Curry and Golden State’s traditional centers in pick-and-roll action with the type of vigilance Bernie Sanders lashed out at Wall Street throughout his presidential campaign. However, unlike Sanders, the Cavs have discovered success with their attacking tactics. But it’s the physicality and subtle positioning they use on their screens that produce such switches that escalates the problem into an untendable situation for the Warriors.

The Cavs perimeter players are bashing their bodies full force into the chests and obliques of whoever is guarding LeBron and twisting them when they attempt to fight through it, forcing the Warriors to switch the action or risk putting LeBron’s man too far behind the play to recover.

If Golden State’s perimeter players are willing to get aggressive and handsy themselves, they can disrupt the screener’s positioning enough to dissuade the switch, but such a task saps energy and requires a collective level of commitment and communication to refute the switch at nearly all costs. But during crunch time, the Cavs won’t settle for letting Golden State get by without flipping a match up advantage, bringing screening reinforcements to ensure a switch occurs. Suddenly, the battle devolves into a race against the shot clock, which if delayed can force the Cavs into situations where their only bail out is for the magnificence of James and Irving.

But screening with guards and wings is kindergarten curriculum for the Golden State compared to when the Cavs introduce school yard bully Tristan Thompson into the fold, who has totaled 10 screen assists (screen that lead directly to a basket) in the past two games of the series, according to nba.com. Thompson doesn’t merely just ram his shoulder into Golden State defenders, but he tilts the angle of his screen to encourage a downhill rampage by LeBron, where even if Golden State does somehow halt LeBron’s momentum, Thompson is already surging down the lane on his rim roll in front of the dude he just flattened with his screen.

Even when Golden State’s defender evade smacking into a Thompson screen head on through displays of svelte lateral movement and effort, Thompson doesn’t accept defeat and uses his rump as his secondary weapon, jutting it out to buck Warriors guards off their path.

2. Golden State’s hard cuts

Credit Ty Lue and the Cavaliers for putting in the work in the film room and on the court to clean up their defense on Golden State’s off-ball pindowns, stagger screens and split cuts. In Games 1 and 2 the Cavs looked hopeless in this regard with the standard go-to defense being overcommitting to one player or standing flat-footed, frozen by indecision as the Warriors ripped them apart for opens 3s and layups.

Cleveland still isn’t immune to aloof breakdowns, but no one is. That’s how a team wins 73 freaking games in a season; the Warriors’ offense is just as much of a test of one’s basketball intelligence as their physical capabilities. However, overall the Cavs have improved immensely with the aid of small ball lineups featuring Richard Jefferson as switching Jefferson onto Curry or Klay Thompson doesn’t cause the mass panic it does with Kevin Love.

The tradeoff between Love and Jefferson has been acutely dissected, perhaps to the point where the actual difference in performance between the two may be overblown (it’s more about how the Cavs as a team react when Jefferson and Love are tasked with the same defensive responsibilities). Regardless, the Warriors haven’t been as ruthless in forcing the Cavs’ defense to execute and communicate as they’ve shown previously during this incredible two-year run. Sure, they are still constantly seeking out Love in pick-and-rolls when he’s on the court; ditto for Channing Frye, which is why he’s disappeared in this series, but the Warriors haven’t been consistently making the hard, decisive cuts like this one that tests a defense’s maximum malleability.

Too often the Warriors have set soft screens on the perimeter, where they barely make contact, then have the screener sloth their way out to the 3-point arc. When the Warriors are humming, completely locked in and driven to annihilate every opponent they face, those casual post-screen strolls to the 3-point line or down the lane become full-fledged sprints, where defenders are caught relaxing after initially executing a switch and beaten backdoor.

The Cavaliers are no longer left point fingers and waving their arms in exasperation like they were in the first two games of the series, but the defense is still prone to cave ins when the Warriors are relentless and defined in their movements.

This is Game 7 with everything on the line, and Golden State has forfeited its margin for error with lackadaisical and tepid offense since taking a 3–1 lead. If it wants to escape a an all-time collapse, it can’t afford to take the Cavs lightly or conserve energy on that end.

3. LeBron’s artful passing mastery

Steph Curry was lauded all season for his ability to compromise defenses simply by being an active participant in a basketball game. He introduced “gravity” into the descriptive lingo of a player’s on-court dominance. The threat of his shooting was a glitch in the norms of basketball, causing help responsibilities and defensive coverages to invert its traditional teachings and search the reservoirs of NBA philosophy for a mechanism of resistance.

LeBron James once was linked with the word gravity, but it was of a different sort as praise for his unnatural leaping ability and athleticism. Such physical traits have gradually deteriorated, but LeBron provides a similar elixir to Curry in terms of his presence and ability automatically translating to offensive production. James’ passing and overall playmaking can serve as a near equal to Curry’s jump shooting when collapsing defenses.

The court vision, mental acuity for the game and still vastly-superior athleticism allow James to see teammates and whip passes at angles other players don’t even think about it. James’ accuracy on such plays gives his teammates valuable split seconds of time to uncork a 3 ball before a defender has a chance to really contest the shot.

James has efficiently ripped apart the Warriors the past two games with his uncanny passing wizardry, accumulating 18 assists versus three measly turnovers.

4. Golden State’s pseudo screens

Andrew Bogut’s effectiveness in the playoffs varied from series-to-series and often game-to-game before he went down with an injury in Game 5, but he still clogged up the lane as a hefty rim deterrent defensively. Offensively, he was responsible for orchestrating dribble handoffs in the high post and surveying the floor as Golden State whizzed around set back screens and back cuts. However, Bogut was also one of the more celebrated screeners in the league, combining a massive frame with a passion for the unheralded art, which included cheap tricks such as side stepping into the path of a defender or swinging his hips as if he was on a dance floor. Bogut racked up three screen assists in Game 5 before going down, according to nba.com.

Without Bogut, Curry and Thompson had to put forth more effort to generate separation on their own before flying off picks in Game 6. Curry and Thompson have mastered leveraging their bodies as a wedge against handsy defenders to pull free for clean looks, but without a screener like Bogut, it exhausts more of the fuel tank.

It’s not a foreign request for the Splash Brothers as Golden State’s offense is designed to have perimeter players set a bulk of screens, meaning their sharpshooters are more responsible for getting themselves open, but without Bogut, the Warriors are no longer living in luxury in that area.

The sneaky-illegal nuances of screening that have made Bogut and Tristan Thompson esteemed stewards on the subject is another way for the Warriors to generate space without Bogut or another traditional center on the floor. Golden State can’t be weary of applying such tactics if Curry and Thompson are having trouble getting lose in Game 7. Referees let those things go a lot, struggling to draw a fine line, or they may just not see the little quirks at all.

Also those screens can’t be considered illegal when the defender doesn’t make contact and takes an extra step to elude the screen entirely, which serves the purpose of a space-producing pick anyway.

5. Communication and effort in transition

Cleveland blasted Golden State with fast break opportunities during its back-to-back wins in Games 5 and 6 to tie the series, scoring 19 points in transition in Game 6 and a whopping 28 in Game 5. Experts pinned cross matches (when a player doesn’t defend who’s defending him on the other end) as a major factor heading into the series, but in favor of Golden State, considering the Warriors’ defensive versatility and Cleveland’s liabilities in Love and Irving. The issues for the Cavs came to roost in Games 1 and 2 when they were left in scramble mode overreacting to unfavorable matchups following a Golden State push in transition.

However, in the last two games, Cleveland has secured a major advantage by running exposing a lack of communication and effort in transition on the part of the Warriors.

In this clip, three Warriors are understandably worried about impeding LeBron’s momentum in transition, but they leave Thompson alone as he forays into the paint, forcing Andre Iguodala to account for him. Klay picks up Kyrie on the wing, but Iman Shumpert is wide open, who, of course, LeBron finds in the corner. Barnes casually jogs to pick up LeBron even though Livingston has already clearly picked up the ball handler, and Fetus Ezeli just decides mid-play he can’t catch up to Thompson and points him out for Iguodala to pick it up; this is a prime example of poor effort and communication from Golden State.

Golden State has hemorrhaged easy buckets on the break, and when LeBron turns the back the clock to the days of his peak, he morphs into a full-steam locomotive.

James is a physical marvel, but this particular case, as is the case with most transition opportunities is about effort. LeBron just pushes himself harder than a handful of Warriors charging ahead and separating for an easy, albeit thunderous alley-oop slam.

Golden State had slack to let loose after gaining a 3–1 lead, but they’ve squandered that now and the rope is tight. One more tug in the wrong direction and their ship is will go under while LeBron and his Cavaliers rest atop the basketball world feeding a starved city of an ever-elusive championship.

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