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Staring down a 3-0 hole in the NBA Finals for the second straight year, the Cleveland Cavaliers are on the brink of elimination for the fourth time this postseason.
As much of a lopsided series as this would appear to be, the Cavs haven’t been that far away from being up 2-1. If JR Smith remembers the score at the end of regulation in Game 1 and gets a tie-breaking shot up, the Cavaliers steal Game 1. If they don’t blow a fourth-quarter lead in a tightly contested Game 3 at home, that’s a series lead heading into a Game 4 in Cleveland.
No NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit in playoff history. This doesn’t mean the Cavs shouldn’t just lie down and die. They responded with a big 137-116 Game 4 win just a year ago, avoiding a sweep and sending the series back to Golden State.
The Cavaliers are 3-0 when facing elimination this postseason and have played well for most of the series. Here’s how they can once again cancel Golden State’s potential sweep and keep their season alive.
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Rodney Hood had played just four minutes and 12 seconds of garbage time in these Finals before Game 3 after struggling for much of the postseason.
Head coach Tyronn Lue promised that Hood would have a role in this series, and he responded big in Game 3, with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 26 minutes. He finished third on his team in scoring behind LeBron James (33 points) and Kevin Love (20).
“Just coming into the game not even thinking about offense,” Hood said. “Coming in, I picked up the ball and pressured full court, and that got me going. Offensively, it just took off from there. I just focused on the defensive end.”
This was a breath of fresh air for a Cavs bench that’s struggled to accumulate points. Jordan Clarkson was just 3-of-13 shooting in Games 1 and 2, prompting Lue to bench him in favor of Hood.
“I’m very happy for Rodney,” Lue said. “Played a good game. He was aggressive, attacking the basket. And he gives you a guy who can shoot the basketball from 3 and also put the ball on the floor. I thought he did a good job attacking tonight. He gave us a lot of momentum throughout the course of the game.”
One key for Hood was his shot selection and aggressiveness to get into the paint for close looks. At 6’8″, Hood has an incredibly long reach for a shooting guard and took advantage of smaller opponents whenever possible.
Not knowing who their third-leading scorer is going to be on any given night, the Cavs need another big game from Hood.
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On a night when the Cavaliers held one former MVP to just 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting, another former MVP torched them for 43 points on 15-of-23.
“[Durant’s] one of the best players I’ve ever played against that this league has ever seen,” James said. “His ability to handle the ball, shoot the ball, make plays at his length, his size, his speed.”
Durant thrust himself into the position of front-runner for Finals MVP once again, giving the Cavs nightmares with his mid-range and three-point game.
“If my shots were there, I just take them patiently and with poise,” Durant said after Game 3. “I found some good spots, and my teammates did a great job of setting screens for me, setting me up. Coach did a great job of calling plays for me, and I just tried to come through and be aggressive, just to do something, you know?”
Cleveland switched up its playing style throughout Game 3, trying to get the ball out of Durant and Curry’s hands. With so many other threats, this is easier said than done.
“You know, we blitzed them a little bit early,” Lue said. “And then they brought Iguodala in at the 4 and Draymond at the 5. It’s tough to blitz with those guys because they can make plays once you put two on the ball.”
This may be, but the Cavs were way too passive with their switching defense. Too often, they were content with a smaller guard switching on to Durant with no recovery by James, Jeff Green or another wing.
Cleveland should be far more concerned with making Durant work for his offense instead of being able to shoot over smaller guards. If he does get the switch he wants, the Cavaliers have to have a counter or have another big in waiting to keep the 2017 Finals MVP from dropping 40-plus points again.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Kyle Korver averaged just 4.4 points on 31.3 percent shooting from three against these Warriors in the 2017 Finals, as their switch-everything defense left with him few open looks.
This year has been even worse.
The 37-year-old is down to 1.3 points on 16.7 percent from deep, basically serving as a floor-spacer and little else for the Cavaliers’ offense.
“Yeah, I mean, as you’ve seen with Kyle here, he’s been able to get off shots and open up the lane for not only LeBron but all of our guards when he’s able to get three,” Love said. “But I think you saw it in last year’s Finals as well. … I know Iguodala just played tonight, but some of their other wing defenders, and particularly Klay [Thompson], he’s just so good at shutting that stuff down and forcing him into tough shots, not letting us get to that pin down action. So it’s been, I think, a tough series for Kyle.
“He had some open looks tonight. He had that one where he pump-faked, he traveled and he looked like that shot was going in after they had made the call. But you know, we need him to just come out and be himself, and we need to find ways to get him shots.”
Running Korver off pindowns is always a good idea to start with, forcing his man to chase him off a screen or make the switch, meaning a big like Love is being guarded by Korver’s original wing defender.
From there, Cleveland needs to be more creative with its flare screens, especially since they have been committed to using a true center (Tristan Thompson or Larry Nance Jr.) at all times. If Lue needs a good model to follow, he need only watch how the Warriors flare-screen for their shooters.
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As good as the Warriors operate in the halfcourt, their play in transition may be even better.
Teams are forced not only to stop the ball but to then sprint out to Stephen Curry, Thompson and Durant on the perimeter before they nail a wide-open three-pointer.
Golden State has outscored Cleveland 64 to 41 in fast break points this series, one area the Cavaliers hoped they could at least break even in. A lot of those Warrior points are self-inflicted by the Cavs as well.
“We took some bad shots, and sometimes, a bad shot is just as good as a turnover because we’re not expecting it,” Lue said. “And they get out in transition and get an easy basket. So us missing some shots and taking some bad shots, they were able to capitalize on it.”
It takes a near-perfect game to beat these Warriors. Run them off the three-point line, and they punish you in the paint. Take away one All-Star, and there are three more waiting to decimate your defense.
“You can’t—I mean, it’s almost like playing the [New England] Patriots,” James said. “You can’t have mistakes. They’re not going to beat themselves. You know, so when you’re able to either force a miscue on them, you have to be able to capitalize, and you have to be so in tune and razor-sharp and focused every single possession.
“You can’t have miscommunication, you can’t have flaws, you can’t have ‘my faults’ or ‘my bads’ or things like that because they’re going to make you pay. When they make you pay, it’s a 3-0 or 6-0 or 9-0 run, and it comes in bunches.”
As good as they have played for most of the series, the Cavs have to be even sharper with the ball and their shot selections so as not to let Golden State get out and run.
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Yes, Game 4 could be James’ last as a member of the Cavaliers. And yes, the Cavs need to do everything possible to make sure it’s not.
There’s no doubt James is going to put on an impressive performance, being on the brink of elimination. It’s up to Lue to make sure he has as much help as possible.
This likely means playing smaller lineups with more shooters in order to provide James with a wide-open floor in which to operate and more shooters for him to find should the defense collapse.
This could lead to using Love at center, a move Lue started the season with and has strongly craved throughout the season. This maximizes Cleveland’s offensive potential and sends Thompson back to the bench.
One of the Cavaliers’ best five-man rotations this postseason has been Love at center, James at power forward and George Hill, Korver and Smith on the wing. In 138 minutes together, this group carries a net rating of plus-10.0.
With Korver struggling and Hood showing signs of life, a James-Love-Hood-Hill-Smith lineup would give James the driving lanes he needs while also putting four shooters around him. The Cavs could still switch most everything defensively given Hood’s size.
For Cleveland to win, anything below 40 points from James probably isn’t going to cut it. The Cavaliers need to put him in the best possible position to succeed.
Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.