After the most interesting regular season in franchise history (perhaps NBA history) and a fabulous/shocking comeback against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, everything about how way the Warriors (and all basketball fans) feel about their 2015-16 campaign rides on how they perform tonight. It seems unfair, but not all games are equal. This is the biggest game the Warriors may ever play.
After LeBron James went unhinged at the end of Game 4, he’s gone from really, really good to an unstoppable force. The Warriors won’t be able to stop him tonight, but they must slow him or this season will be considered a disappointment for the rest of time.
I have no idea what’s going to happen, and neither do you. I picked the Warriors to win this series in six. After Game 2, it seemed like a sweep was possible. After Game 4, the Warriors were primed to win in five. Now it looks like James might run away with this series, bringing Cleveland their first championship in multiple generations.
The Warriors can turn this around, but they can’t just ride Oracle Arena’s energy to victory. The following things must occur … according to the dummy who wrote this post, anyway.
Steph must Steph
Festus Ezeli has followed the lead of the Warriors’ Twitter account so many times, saying, “Steph gonna Steph” after Curry’s brilliant performances. Those used to come once every two or three games, but Curry has looked mortal more often than not during the playoffs since getting hurt twice in the first round.
The last time I wrote about Stephen Curry needing to play a certain way for the Warriors to seize the upper hand in this series, he scored 38 points a few hours later and the Warriors took a 3-1 lead. I see no reason to change my advice heading into tonight’s game from what I wrote last Friday, but I’ll add something.
If he can’t play isolation offense against Kyrie Irving, and a screen is necessary, don’t set a screen with the Warrior guarded by Tristan Thompson or LeBron James. If Kevin Love is out there, target him every time. Otherwise, screen for Curry with the men guarded by J.R. Smith, Richard Jefferson, or Matthew Dellavedova. And don’t be afraid to let Curry cook against Irving (who hurt his foot in Game 6; oddly no one has discussed this much). But Curry can’t get past James or Thompson quickly enough to find openings inside, and several possessions have been wasted when Curry tried beating the Cavs’ best frontcourt defenders.
Double LeBron, but leave Draymond out of it
The Warriors have gotten killed by Tristan Thompson in this series. Thompson is +38 in a series where both teams have combined to score 610 points each. Whenever James probes, he waits, waits, waits, until Thompson’s man starts to help. That’s where the lob happens. Draymond Green needs to stay home on Thompson — this could also lead to fewer offensive rebounds for Cleveland.
Other than Thompson dunks, or Irving recreating his amazing Game 5 performance, if I’m the Warriors I wouldn’t worry about anyone else on the Cavaliers. This is Game 7, on the road. So I would trap James and either force him to pass to Smith, Jefferson, Love, or Shumpert … or, if his ego comes into play (very possible at this point), James might try to force the action against double teams, a la Kobe Bryant in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. James isn’t going to go 6-for-24 like Bryant did, but if the Warriors can get back to holding James under 50% shooting, they should win this game.
I wouldn’t worry much about Curry defending James, either. He’s done a surprisingly good job in both Finals. My biggest concern: if Andre Iguodala’s back locks up again, the Warriors are going to have to depend on Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston or (gulp) Harrison Barnes to be James’ primary defender.
This is gonna sound weird …
When the Cavs score less than 100 points, the Warriors win. It’s pretty simple. That highlights the strange way this series has gone, as the Warriors haven’t succeeded when the pace has quickened. So it’s time to make Game 7 a slowdown, grind-it-out game. Their halfcourt defense is more than capable of handling Cleveland, especially with tonight’s officiating crew (Danny Crawford, Monty McCutchen, Mike Callahan) likely letting a lot of contact slide.
The Warriors have had a difficult time finishing at the rim, even in transition, due to their fear of James possibly arriving at the last split-second to swat their layup/dunk into the first row. It’s more important to make sure the floor is balanced, so James doesn’t get the ball on a quick outlet running downhill as often as he has during the Cavaliers’ wins, than it is to get quick buckets they aren’t 99% guaranteed to convert.
I can’t believe I’m telling the Warriors — a team I wanted to run more than anything back when Mark Jackson was head coach — to slow the pace. But they’re a better defensive team than Cleveland. It didn’t look that way in the first quarter of Game 6, but the Warriors missed a ton of shots they normally make on Thursday.
Lastly: Listen to Kerr
I sat through the Warriors head coach’s press conference, and his ability to portray calmness in a situation like this is unbelievable … except then you remember that he’s been through every single high pressure situation a basketball player can experience. The guy even talked about doing hot yoga with Luke Walton before every game, joking that you won’t see Bill Belichick and his staff doing the same.
A message to the Warriors they won’t read, but here goes anyway: Don’t listen to the crowd! They’re going to go insane when the Warriors make threes, then murmur uncomfortably whenever the Warriors fall behind and the shots start clanking. When Kerr calls timeout, the Warriors should not just think of Kerr’s advice as standard coach speak, but instead as the wisdom required to keep the nerves calm and the game within reach.