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Screens should be big in Cavs-Warriors trilogy worthy of the big screen

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lebron steph

                                                                                                                                     USA TODAY Sports

The top of any list of great sequels in cinema could easily double as a list of some of the finest – and most financially successful – movies ever made. The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, The Dark Knight, Terminator II, Aliens – we could go on.

That’s typically where the creative juices stop flowing.

Sure, there are some noteworthy third acts. The Return of the King is the best Lord of the Rings movie, though that’s more properly viewed as one colossal installment instead of three smaller ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both made up for the weirdly terrifying Temple of Doom and was popular enough for Harrison Ford to keep playing the character as a senior citizen. Goldfinger was arguably the best James Bond movie and has inarguably the most sexually suggestive name for a character in pop culture history. Naked Gun 33 1/3 was … well, it was O.J’s last starring role in something less than nefarious.

There haven’t been many third acts in the sports world, which is just one small reason why Cavs-Warriors: Part III should be so compelling. The Lakers and Celtics have met in 12 Finals, but never three in a row. It’s a first for the NBA and just the fourth such threequel in American professional sports history, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Red Wings and Canadiens battled for three straight Stanley Cups in the 50s.

We’ve already detailed the lack of big-screen triumphs when it comes to third acts, but the success of screens could have everything to do with a Finals that’s rightly drawing as much hype as anything since the days of Jordan, Magic and Bird. Let’s take a look at what the Cavs need to do to repeat and what the Warriors can do to make these Finals more Rise of the Machines after last year’s epic Judgment Day.

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When you have 30 percent of the All-Stars from a few months ago in one Finals series, it’s easy to get excited about matchups. Will Steph Curry or Klay Thompson guard Kyrie Irving? Does LeBron have no choice but to spend most of his time checking Kevin Durant? We know Draymond can cause issues for Kevin Love, but can Love be matched up with him on the other end?

Those seven will all find one another at some point, but the winner of this rubber match figures to be the team that consistently creates, and then takes advantage of, the most opportune mismatches.

That the Warriors move the ball and move away from the ball better than any team in the league is no great secret. It’s what almost every team in the league dreams of emulating and one day building themselves. Setting screens is still a major part of an offense that hums like a Ferrari when it’s at its peak, but ball screens are a different story. Golden State set 3,324 of those in 2016-17, per STATS SportVU, its third straight season bringing up the NBA rear in the category. Orlando was 29th, yet the Magic set more than 4,000.

There’s less movement in Cleveland’s offense because it’s less necessary. Possessions can come to a screeching halt in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock and Irving and James can save the day as few individual players can. Irving was the best isolation player in the league this season at 1.12 points per ISO, and he’s been even better in the playoffs. James can’t blow by defenders 1-on-1 like he used to, but his 42 percent success rate from 3 in the postseason adds a more complicated wrinkle for opponents than Batman suddenly wielding an assault rifle would for Gotham miscreants.

The Cavs relied on ball screens to generate offense less this season than they had in the past two, funneling through around 57 per game instead of the 65 or so they’d used in James’ first two seasons back home. Whatever way you slice it – and given the overall levels of talent and execution, this shouldn’t be a surprise – both Cleveland and Golden State get a lot out of their screens. Individually, the Warriors were third in the regular season in points per play (a screen that results in a field-goal attempt, foul or turnover by either the ballhandler or screener) at 0.934; the Cavs were fifth (0.925). As far as team points per possession – this adds in the other three offensive players on the floor as potential factors post-screen – Golden State was fourth (1.12), a tick ahead of Cleveland (1.11).

But those numbers take into account Derrick Williams setting a pick for Kay Felder on a cold February night in Minnesota or James Michael McAdoo trying to free up Patrick McCaw on a November back-to-back in Milwaukee. Let’s eliminate some of the noise and concentrate on what both teams should be focusing on – and what they must work to avoid at all costs.

Golden State DO: Get Curry/Draymond rolling

There was no Love in the 2015 Finals and there was no Irving for the final five games, and while those two are a generally dubious defending combination on ball screens, the Curry/Green combo likely couldn’t have done much better if they were both on the floor. Those six games featured 85 Green screens for Curry, which resulted in the Warriors eviscerating the Cavs defense for an average of 1.26 points.

Fast forward to 2016 and it turns ugly for Golden State. Seven games, a total of 39 Curry/Green ball screens and just 0.78 team points per action.

Green is fronting for Curry 6.7 times per game in these playoffs with excellent results: 1.30 team PPP. If that number stays in that vicinity – like it did two years ago – start sizing up the Warriors for their rings, and perhaps 16-0.

Cleveland DO: Target Curry when he’s guarding the screener

Irving has been known to struggle when he’s checking the ballhandler in the pick and roll, often never finding his original man or the roller and easily providing the opposition with a 2-on-1 toward the hoop. But that Irving/Love combo we discussed a few paragraphs ago? They actually defended quite well when put on an island in the 2016 Finals. There were 19 ballhandler/screener combos that defended at least 10 screens last June, and Irving/Love was by far the MOST effective despite getting torched overall in the postseason (1.31 PPP). Irving fared pretty well in the Finals when paired with Tristan Thompson as well.

Ballhandler Screener Screens Defended Team PPP
Irving Love 39 0.59
K. Thompson Green 12 0.73
Iguodala Livingston 14 0.77
Livingston Green 11 0.78
Irving T. Thompson 41 0.85
Curry Bogut 18 1.00
kevin kyrie

                                                                                                                                   The Plain Dealer

As for Curry, Cleveland preferred to have whomever he was guarding set the pick for the ballhandler. With Curry already banged-up to some degree in the Finals, the Cavs were physical while guarding him and made him work overtime at the other end. Curry was involved in 88 screens as the screener, nearly 50 more than the Warriors made Irving take on. A look at the difference in how both point guards were attacked in the pick and roll in last year’s sequel:

Player Screens starting on ballhandler Team PPP Screens starting on screener

Team PPP

Irving 118 0.805 33 1.06
Curry 68 1.096 82 1.07

On Christmas Day in Cleveland, the Cavs ran Curry through nine more with him initially on the screener, scoring 12 points. Klay Thompson was the targeted on-ball defender – often on Irving – with Cleveland putting him through 28 screens and scoring 40 points. Overall, the Cavs celebrated their comeback win at The Q with 75 total points (1.19 team PPP) as the result of screens – 51 more than Golden State (0.71).

Cleveland DON’T: Let Iman Shumpert get screened into submission

The Warriors’ holiday in Northeast Ohio may have been dampened, but they took out seven months’ worth of frustration on the Cavs three weeks later in Oakland. Golden State used 46 ball screens in this one and particularly attacked Iman Shumpert on the ballhandler, often when he was checking Curry. Ten screens of Shumpert led to 22 Warriors points, further lending credence to this stat: In the 128 minutes Shumpert was on the floor in the 2016 Finals, the Cavs were outscored by 13.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 208 he sat, Cleveland enjoyed a plus-9.1 edge.

Golden State could drive Shumpert off the floor entirely in these Finals. In theory, he’s an ideal guy to stick on Curry or Thompson to hide Irving for a bit, but in reality he tends to get lost when he’s asked to do more than guard someone 1-on-1. Richard Jefferson played a key role against the Warriors last season and seems more suited to have a chance of defending Durant than Shumpert. With Kyle Korver a potentially vital offensive piece to stretch the floor, Shumpert may wind up a DNP-CD (can’t defend).

Golden State DON’T: Ignore Kevin Durant as a ballhandler

Let’s get to the elephant in the room of why many expect this series to be short. The Warriors added one of the three best players in basketball at the expense of Harrison Barnes, who went 5 for 32 from the field once Golden State went up 3-1 last year.

As we’ve covered, the Warriors aren’t going to rely nearly as much on the ball screen as the Cavs. But when things start to break down – particularly in the fourth quarter – there will be instances when it could be a necessity.

Logic tends to dictate that should a critical Golden State possession become bogged down, Durant will ISO, Curry will launch a 3 or, perhaps, Durant will come to the ball and screen for Curry. But there’s another option.

durant

                                                                                                                                                USA TODAY Sports

Durant has an awfully good handle himself. Curry screening for him should allow KD a moment to turn the corner and pop away from the secondary defender for an open 3. And if Curry can’t get free, Durant proved during the regular season that he was fantastic finishing in these situations. Of the 144 players who participated in 300 screens as the ballhandler, only Wilson Chandler and Paul George scored more points per individual screen than Durant (0.48).

It’s been even more absurd during the playoffs. Durant’s 0.66 average is a full tenth of a point better than any of the other 46 players who have participated in at least 50 screens. From a team perspective, the Warriors’ 1.36 PPP off screens with Durant as the ballhandler is second – and the chart below shows how infrequently that’s used compared to some of the other big names at the top.

Ballhandler Screens Team PPP
Stephenson (IND) 56 1.38
Durant (GS) 77 1.36
James (CLE) 271 1.35
Leonard (SA) 222 1.28
Curry (GS) 256 1.25

They’ve only broken the Curry-screening-for-Durant combo out 13 times during the playoffs but it’s led to 21 Warriors points, and frankly, there was no need to even do it that much. It’s a wrinkle that Steve Kerr and Mike Brown have largely been saving to unleash only when they need it, and that alone should terrify the Cavs.

Cleveland and Golden State DO: Get the big men involved

There have been 72 two-man combos that have run at least 30 screens in the playoffs, and the top two involve, as you might expect, James and Curry. But the other half of those equations probably isn’t who you’d expect. JaVale McGee has teamed up with Curry for 52 screens that have resulted in 1.47 Warriors PPP, tied with James and Tristan Thompson for the most effective in the league this postseason.

The James and Thompson combo has been a special kind of deadly on their 112 screens. James has hit 7 of 14 3s directly after Thompson frees him up, and the duo is 31 of 53 (58.5 percent) overall immediately after Thompson screens for James. Thompson is one of the league’s best at rolling off a screen and flushing an alley-oop from James or Irving, and he and James went for an impressive 1.14 PPP in last season’s Finals as well.

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There you have it. There’s no shortage of storylines in the most star-studded Finals since Lakers-Celtics was in its mid-80s heyday. Durant’s chasing his first title. LeBron is chasing MJ’s legacy. Curry and Green are seeking Finals redemption. Klay Thompson wants to prove his subpar playoffs so far have been a fluke. Love wants to show that he can play – and play effectively – against the Warriors. Irving wants a few more weeks in the spotlight to pepper America with his flat-Earth theory.

Golden State knows what’s coming. It’s up to the Warriors to keep Cleveland from catching them in bad ball screen combos while picking and choosing their own spots to use them in an offense that rarely does.

In a third act worthy of the big screen, we’re about to find out how big the screen can be.

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NBA Finals Preview: Spurs vs. Heat

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Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker don't want to hear about any other Big Threes (Sports Illustrated).

Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker don’t want to hear about any other Big Threes. (Sports Illustrated)

Let’s give a round of applause to the Indiana Pacers, who despite looking like they’d never played organized basketball together Monday night, did two things in taking the vaunted Heat to a Game 7.

1) Gave the Spurs, and the rest of the league, at least somewhat of a blueprint for attacking Miami’s vulnerabilities.

2) Gave the world the gift of the yapping caricatures on ESPN and elsewhere only having two days – rather than the week we’d have had if Pacers-Heat ended in 5 – to break down and overanalyze this series before it begins.

This is the matchup the NBA needed, featuring two teams that have combined to win five of the last 10 titles. As soon as Russell Westbrook’s knee collided with Patrick Beverley’s in Game 2 of Oklahoma City’s first round series, this became the clear-cut marquee finals matchup, and despite Indiana’s best efforts, it’s here.

You hear a lot about legacies around this time of year, and what it means to the NBA afterlives of guys should their team triumph or come up short in the finals. You’ll hear what it would mean to Tim Duncan’s status as the game’s best power forward to win a fifth title, how Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can cement their Hall-of-Fame cases with a fourth, how Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the game’s greatest coaches if he can join Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley in the five-timers club.

Tim Duncan with a whale, because, why not? (Mark Langford)

Tim Duncan with a whale, because, why not? (Mark Langford)

Ignore it. Duncan is the best power forward ever, and that doesn’t change even if he shows up for seven games of this series drunk and wearing Tobias’ “The Thing” costume from Arrested Development.  Parker is a Hall of Famer. The Spurs have won SEVENTY-FOUR percent of their regular-season games when he’s been in the lineup, he’s a five-time All-Star who has been the game’s best point guard (sorry, Chris Paul) for the past eight seasons and has won a finals MVP. Ginobili may be as well based on his international achievements, but these finals won’t make or break his case.

But the one legacy that will at least take somewhat of a hit, fairly or unfairly, is that of the man Joe Thiesmann thinks can be an NFL quarterback.

Look, LeBron James is already one of the five best players to ever set foot on the hardwood. He’s transcendent in every sense of the word, a true showman who is, right now, arguably at the apex of his powers. Every night you turn on the TV to watch the Heat – or in Justin Bieber’s case, show up at center court looking like an M.C. Hammer video vomited on you – you’re witnessing perhaps the pinnacle of the best basketball player ever.

And that’s why he’s the only one with much at stake here. A loss to the Spurs isn’t going to take away from James’ accomplishments. It’s not going to take away his status as the league’s premier player. But it would leave him 1-for-4 in NBA finals appearances.

Let’s take a look at some of the other greats of the game. Any reasonable top 10 list of NBA players would include Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Duncan. Those seven in the finals are a combined 37-13. Only Wilt, more interested in individual awards and being a Ladies Man, had a losing record in the finals of that bunch (2-4).

When you look at many of the 13 series losses of that group, though, many came against another player on the list. Chamberlain’s teams lost twice to the Russell-led Celtics. Kareem and Magic’s Lakers lost to the Bird-led Celtics and again to a 76ers team led by Moses Malone, who’s not far down that list of all-time studs. Bird lost twice to the Lakers.

Heat? This guy might get some if his team loses. (AP)

Heat? This guy might get some if his team loses. (New York Daily News)

Neither of the teams LeBron has lost to in the Finals even won its division in the regular season. Not that that’s some sort of all-encompassing barometer of measuring failures, but getting swept by San Antonio in 2007 – even if Sasha Pavlovic was prominently involved – and losing three straight against a clearly inferior Dallas team in 2011 are hardly resume highlights.

And that brings us here. This Spurs team isn’t exactly an all-time great – San Antonio’s plus-6.4 point differential during the regular season was only the EIGHTH-BEST of the Duncan era – but it’s still a machine with two slam-dunk Hall of Famers, Ginobili, the best coach of the last 15 years, Matt Bonner’s non-tan and Tracy McGrady’s warmups. This isn’t a green Oklahoma City team from a year ago that the peaking Heat saw as ripe for the picking. This is the best organization in the league since Jordan left.

Potential free agency is a year away. Dwyane Wade’s career is aging as well as hot milk. Chris Bosh is a replaceable third banana.

Lose here and the LeBron era in Miami officially becomes a lame duck.

That dinosaur is ANGRY. (AP)

That dinosaur is ANGRY. (AP)

1.) Miami vs. 2.) San Antonio

What’s in the past: For the Spurs, a lot of rest. The last time a team had as long a layoff between the conference finals and the NBA finals was also the last time there was a conference finals sweep – the 2003 Nets had TEN days off between sweeping Detroit and facing – you guessed it – San Antonio in the finals. A lot of help that did the then-Jersey dwellers – they lost Game 1 by 12 points and the series in six stale, uneventful games.

For all the credit they get for going 4-for-4 in the finals, this is really the Spurs’ first legitimately interesting matchup in the championship round. San Antonio got the eighth-seeded Knicks after the lockout season in the 1999 finals, a Nets team that had very clearly gone as far as it was going to go four years later, a Pistons team that was on its 212th game in a 20-month stretch by Game 7 in 2005 and a woeful Cavs team in 2007 that James willed through a watered-down Eastern Conference.

The Heat have only had two days to recover from what was a toll-taking seven-game series against the Pacers, while the Spurs have had nine days off since finishing off Memphis. Might those brittle old bones get a bit stiff from going more than 200 hours without playing competitive basketball? Think again. San Antonio is 7-0 in playoff series openers on five or more days of rest since its Big Three has been together.

Can the Heat shake off their injuries and emotionally move on from Indiana in just a couple days? Take a look at last year’s postseason and you may have your answer. After coming back from 3-2 down to beat Boston in Game 7 of the East finals, the Heat had exactly two days to recover before starting the NBA finals in Oklahoma City. Miami rode that emotion to a 13-point first-half lead but ultimately lost by 11 before winning the series’ final four games.

All those Rest vs. Rust angles would seem to give the Spurs an edge in Game 1. It’s hard to disagree.

What’s to come: It’s hard to believe, but the Spurs vs. Heat as currently comprised – and by that, we mean with their respective BIG THREES (remember, we’re in an era where each team MUST have a Big Three. Even if it’s Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions) – have played only twice in three seasons. They both came back in 2010-11, and don’t look to draw too much info from those matchups considering they traded 30-point home victories.

There are fascinating matchups all over the floor in this series, but the most interesting will be how Miami handles Parker. Parker doesn’t necessarily have to be the best player in the series for the Spurs to win – that LeBron guy figures to get his – but he most certainly has to be San Antonio’s best player. He’s been that throughout the postseason, and in a conference finals matchup with Mike Conley that some people felt was fairly close to even, Parker owned him, averaging 24.5 points and 9.5 assists.

Rajon Rondo has given the Heat fits over the past two seasons and Parker presents similar problems with his penetration – with the bonus of being a far better finisher. Parker had few issues getting into the lane against Memphis’ excellent perimeter defense, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have many issues with Norris Cole or Mario Chalmers chasing him through pick-and-rolls.

LeBron stopper? Not really. But the Heat might want to keep Kawhi Leonard out of the paint. (Getty Images)

LeBron stopper? Not really. But the Heat might want to keep Kawhi Leonard out of the paint. (Getty Images)

The game changes a little bit if Miami chooses to apply some ball pressure just past half-court to get the ball out of Parker’s hands. But Ginobili is capable of creating himself, getting into the lane and finishing at the rim or kicking out to shooters like Danny Green, Bonner or Kawhi Leonard. In crunch time, or possibly earlier than the final five minutes should Erik Spoelstra deem it necessary, look for James to be in front of Parker. When that’s the case, look for Popovich to counter by having Parker off the ball, where he’s still quite dangerous. The Heat will happily have James deal with Parker should he have the ball late in games, but they want no part of him chasing Parker off the ball.

Indiana had 54 more rebounds than Miami in that seven-game series but was ultimately done in by its lack of reliability in the backcourt. The Spurs won’t have that problem, but they’ll also want to trot out a big lineup whenever it’s prudent to keep the Heat off the glass. Miami’s four losses in the postseason have had a transparently common theme:  The Heat have been outscored by an average of 12 points in the paint and outrebounded by 15 per game.

That should mean plenty of minutes for Tiago Splitter, who was outstanding in the final three games against Memphis, and plenty of time for the versatile Boris Diaw. Aron Baynes probably won’t get much time, but I’d be surprised if Popovich doesn’t give DeJuan Blair some run inside.

You want another key for the Spurs? Leonard is going to have his hands full defending James much of the time, but he can’t afford to give up his looks on the offensive end. Leonard has taken 59 shots from eight feet or closer to the basket in the playoffs and made FORTY-SEVEN. He’ll presumably spend much of the time here with James fronting him as well, so looks may not be as easy as they were against the likes of Tayshaun Prince and Klay Thompson.

We haven’t even gotten around to discussing Duncan, who is basically exactly what Miami just struggled with in Roy Hibbert on the defensive end. Duncan may not have the springy legs to get to and affect as many shots as Hibbert does these days, but he’s as intimidating in the paint as ever.

You want Gregg Popovich coaching your LIFE. (San Antonio Express-News)

You want Gregg Popovich coaching your LIFE. (San Antonio Express-News)

He’ll certainly challenge James at the rim, but I think if Miami is going to win this series it will be because of the re-emergence of their shooters. The Heat need to get more than they got from Wade and Bosh in the Indiana series, for sure, but they also need to recommit to making the corner 3 a priority after the Pacers largely shut their perimeter game down. Opponents are shooting 40 percent from the corners against the Spurs in the playoffs, while Miami has largely taken that shot away from their opponents, holding them to just 25.4 percent. These, of course, are advanced stats that our man Popovich isn’t necessarily a fan of.

“I think today we’ve had a proliferation of geniuses who have come up with new formulae to prove what wins and what loses,” Popovich told USA Today on the increased presence of advanced stats. “… So everything being copacetic, maybe shots and making stops on demand wins a lot of games.”

The Heat basically abandoned Shane Battier against the Pacers, and why not? He’s shooting 23.0 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. But Ray Allen gave them some big shots in Game 7 in Indiana and they’ll need him again here.

While the shooters must be better, Bosh, to me, may be the biggest X-factor for Miami. He’s averaged 23.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and shots 60.5 percent in five games against the Spurs since arriving with James to South Beach, and if he’s anywhere near 100 percent, the Spurs don’t have a ton of great options to deal with him. They won’t want to have Duncan as far away from the basket as Bosh typically plays, and he’s capable of overpowering someone like Diaw if he’s right.

But I don’t think he is. James won’t shrink from the moment at all in this series, but I think San Antonio have just a little bit more in the tank and more around Parker than James has around him.

The pick: Spurs in 7