Rileyball Strikes Back


Long ago, in a Garden far, far away, Pat Riley ground the entire NBA to a halt, crafting consistently competitive teams around the core philosophy of playing nasty, grind-it-out basketball that typically resulted in final scores like “83-75”. The games were damn near unwatchable, with every matchup turning into a slugfest featuring staunch defense, huge humans crashing the boards and slow, tedious isolations.

Sound familiar? The horror of 90s basketball is rearing its head in the form of the Cavaliers, led by LeBron James isolations on one end and a simple stay-at-home defense, anchored by Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, on the other.

The Jordan Rules, a set of rather aggressive defensive principles designed to slow down one Michael Jordan that was practiced by the Detroit Pistons, were largely adopted by Riley when he took over the Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. They fought with the Chicago Bulls in some of the most contentious playoff series of the 90s, and made a point of affecting Chicago’s dynamic wing duo of Jordan and Scottie Pippen at every opportunity.

That style of play proliferated throughout the decade and into the early 2000s. It began to change with an increased emphasis on 3-point shooting and the change in hand-checking rules. The trend towards an open offense, with a ton of shooters and constant ball movement, was an outgrowth of Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system as run by Steve Nash. Even Pop, Tim Duncan and the Spurs were a classic post-up, smashmouth defensive unit until they ran into the Suns. The trend towards more open offense, with a corresponding change in defensive strategies, has seemed to be the inevitable future of the NBA.

And yet, here we are. Cleveland’s tactics aren’t as brutal as the Rileyball Knicks or Heat, but they seem that way against the backdrop of battles against the Warriors, and the Hawks before them. Both Atlanta and Golden State are heavy practitioners of the motion-heavy offenses and quick, agile defenses best designed to stop them currently en vogue in the league. Both are struggling heavily to deal with what Cleveland has become; a throwback team with two bruising bigs and one athletic wing star.

Cleveland is crashing the boards, milking the clock, swarming Stephen Curry – the opponent’s wing star – and generally trying to win by playing the same style that Riles re-created himself with, coincidentally leading to his position as the czar of the Heat, where he helped lure LeBron and win a couple of titles. The Cavs have ground down the entire concept of modern basketball, taking a subpar, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love-less roster and grabbed the homecourt advantage from heavy favorites Golden State.

For those in the League Pass Anonymous support group this could be a bit of a disaster. Slow-down offenses aren’t the stuff that purists’ dreams are made of. There exists a sentiment that Nash and D’Antoni saved the game, finally snuffing out the doldrums of the 90s. How true that is remains up for debate, but Cleveland’s approach is a distinct threat to the free-wheeling approach that’s prevalent in today’s NBA.

This is not just LeBron dragging a team to the precipice of a championship. Cleveland absolutely could not be doing this without him, but he also couldn’t do this by himself. That has been proven more than once. Nothing should take away from the incredible work the King is doing on offense. That does not mean the game is won and lost by him.

The Cavaliers have a real chance of stealing a series that they probably have no business being in at all. They are there for two reasons: they employ, largely through an accident of birth, the greatest basketball player on the face of the planet; and they’ve embraced one of the most successful and infuriating playing styles of the 90s.

Why is Golden State’s offense breaking down?

The most telling moments of Cleveland’s Game 2 win against the Warriors were those when Golden State was forced to walk the ball up and get into their halfcourt offense. There they are being forced into tough shots and difficult passes, resulting in turnovers and misses that are quickly gobbled up by LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. The Cavaliers’ strategy of muddying up the game with isolation heavy offense and stout defense, all while controlling the glass on both ends, has been the key to keeping them in two close games to open the Finals.

The Warriors weren’t immune to mistakes during the regular season, ranking in the middle of the pack in turnover rate. In Game 2  they turned the ball over 18 times, and shot below 40% from the field and a measly 23% on 3-pointers. What about Cleveland’s approach so frustrated one of the league’s top offenses?

Matthew Dellavedova played fairly inspired defense on Stephen Curry, but that didn’t turn the game. Lest we forget, Kyrie Irving’s Game 1 performance guarding the MVP was one of his best as a pro. The reason that the Cavs have shut down the Warriors’ offense comes down to two things: pace and pressure.

The game proceeded at would could charitably be described as a snail’s pace for long stretches, with multiple 24 second violations the result of Cleveland’s slowed-down, iso-heavy approach that saw James attempt 34 of his team’s shots. In spite of the Cavs’ focus on offensive rebounding, Golden State was largely unable to make them pay by getting out in transition. With Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green struggling to deal with Cleveland’s rebounding the rest of the team had to be careful leaking out for fear that they would surrender 2nd chance points.

Merely getting the ball back after a strong defensive stand was so difficult that it effectively cut out a large part of what made the Warriors such a tough team to stop throughout the rest of the season. Without the ease of transition buckets any potential cross-matching problems for the Cavs were erased. That left the Warriors attempting to break down a set defense anchored by the James-Thompson-Mozgov front line.

With that group in place Cleveland proceeded to do some intriguing double and triple teaming of Stephen Curry to prevent him from getting off a clean shot. He missed some looks that he would typically make, but on the whole Cleveland’s pressure on him seemed to work wonders. At one point he was forced into the corner with four Cleveland players surrounding him. These situations resulted in a number of desperate passes and bad shots. When Curry was able to find a teammate they weren’t always able to do anything with the ball.

This is a problem Cleveland doesn’t face with LeBron; give him the ball, and any number of help defenders can rotate over to him and he’ll still be able to fire off great passes to open teammates. He is even capable of making reads on when the defense is moving out of the lane to avoid a three second call and adjust on the fly. Curry can’t see over the defense or makes those reads as well, and Cleveland is banking on that to turn possessions to their favor.

Steve Kerr countered by playing Curry off the ball and allowing Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala initiate the offense, but Cleveland largely refused to get bent out of shape chasing Curry around the floor, in much the same way that they treated Kyle Korver during his time in the Eastern Conference finals. The value of a shooter is in his defense-bending abilities as much as the points he actually puts on the board.

Golden State needs to find ways to prevent the hard trapping Cleveland is sending at Curry enough to give him time to make a quick read and get the ball out. That may mean having him operate high out on the floor more often, where it is harder to trap. Curry can make those shots from 30 ft. – it may be time to let him set up shop out there and dare Cleveland to extend its defense vertically, opening up holes behind the initial trap. This strategy would also either force Cleveland to commit extra players up to contain Curry or open options on either side of the floor for passes. It will be interesting to see if Golden State incorporates this or another strategy to try to break through Cleveland’s defense, but they need to do something to get Curry free.

LeBron’s “Supporting Cast” Is Better Than They’re Given Credit For

It’s easy to credit LeBron James for keeping the Cavaliers in game one of the NBA Finals as long as he did. It’s even easy to credit him for dragging the team as far as he has in light of the injuries to Kevin Love and now, once again, Kyrie Irving. James did, after all, score 44 points in the game, take 38 of the team’s 94 total shots, and manage to rack up six assists in the process. He was pretty good, all while shouldering the burden of carrying his entire team.

That line of thinking undersells the contributions from the rest of the roster which, though it may not often be said, is pretty damn good. Cleveland has assembled a much more powerful supporting cast than the one they provided from 2003 to 2010, and that has paid huge dividends in the postseason. In particular, the comparisons prior to the Finals to the 2007 Cavs team that relied almost exclusively on James to win games (and which subsequently flamed out upon reaching the Finals and facing a team with more than one driving force) were absurd.

Through a combination of luck and shrewd midseason moves Cleveland’s front office has assembled a deep and useful roster, trimming the fat as they’ve gone and coming out the other side with a strong top seven or eight players followed by several specialists and veterans who can slot in if the situation demands. The unused portion of the bench is a who’s who of effective players from five to ten years ago, with Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Brendan Haywood and Kendrick Perkins all glued to the bench even with injuries to the team’s second and third best players having opened up playing time.

The group that is seeing playing time around James in the absence of Love and Irving is not made up of a set of unqualified scrubs. J.R. Smith, the most hit-or-miss in the group, is still an upgrade on the value provided by Dion Waiters, for whom Smith is the de facto replacement. While he played poorly in game one, he’ll inevitably have one stretch – be it a game, a half or a quarter – in which he cannot miss, and it will completely change the tenor of the game. His teammate in New York, Iman Shumpert, has possibly been even more valuable in the playoffs, hitting open 3-pointers at an unexpectedly high rate and providing solid defense.

Those two have provided solid depth on the wings, but the real story has been up front, with Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson anchoring a surprisingly effective defense and doing strong work on the glass to keep the possession battle tilted in Cleveland’s favor. The reaction to these two makes it seem as though they were pulled from the ether, which overlooks the fact that it should not have been this surprising to see either succeed.

Mozgov is a 7-foot tall Russian with good athleticism and a solid sense of what he needs to do to get the ball in the basket once he’s near the rim. Best remembered prior to these playoffs for getting posterized by Blake Griffin, he’s been toiling in obscurity since then with the Nuggets, where his best teammate, by far, has been Ty Lawson. No offense to Lawson, but James is a bit of a step up in terms of quality. Mozgov can move well to wall off the paint and is an effective anchor to Cleveland’s suddenly effective defense. At the same time he seems to be constantly trying to atone for his poster-worthy past by winding up for dunk attempts left and right.

Thompson should be the less surprising of the two. A former fourth overall pick at the end of his fourth season in the league, he is exactly the type of player that should be breaking out. He has very good jumping ability and the hands to snag rebounds, plus a tenacity fighting for boards that allows him to outwork slower players. His defensive capabilities have always been noteworthy as well; Thompson has the lateral quickness to hang with perimeter players on switches and to jump out on pick-and-rolls and still recover back to his original man. He hasn’t always been able to turn those athletic gifts into results on that end, but few young players do. It’s not a shock that he is beginning to find his way on the first good team he has ever played on after spending a few years in the league.

Playing better with James leading the way is unsurprising in general for rotation players. These guys are all pretty good, and would carve out something like a respectable bench or fringe starter role on pretty much any team in the league. If Thompson or Mozgov were to find themselves on another team they would still contribute, and in much the same way. Irving’s injury problems may spell the end of Cleveland’s hopes for a title this season, but it’s time to take a moment to appreciate the quality of the other guys on the roster. They may not be stars, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

The One Night That Ended the Fun of the Playoffs

Thus far, aside from the outlier of the Spurs-Clippers first round slugfest, the playoffs have been just…horrible. This comes on the heels of one of the finest regular seasons in recent memory, one that featured legitimately important playoff ramifications down to the final day.

New Orleans and Oklahoma City, two cities whose basketball legacies were once intertwined in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, were battling it out for the right to get wiped out in the first round by the Warriors. In the Eastern Conference the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers were fighting to be the last team in to face the Hawks. The most important seeding battle decided on that last night of the season, though, was the multi-way race for the best seeding in the Western Conference playoff picture.

On that final day, the San Antonio Spurs lost out to the Pelicans, the Grizzlies topped the Pacers, and the Rockets knocked off the Jazz. While the Pacers and Thunder were knocked out of the playoffs, the hope for a dramatic and competitive Western Conference bracket secretly died as the Rockets clinched the second seed, the Grizzlies landed fifth and San Antonio was relegated to sixth.

Memphis, rather than landing an exciting first round series against recurring playoff foes San Antonio or Los Angeles, drew the easiest matchup by getting the injury-riddled Portland Trailblazers. Unfortunately for them, that also meant a second round matchup with the aforementioned Warriors – which turned out to be one of the more exciting series in the West once it was all said and done – but didn’t give the Grizzlies much hope of advancing, especially once Mike Conley was forced to miss time.

Meanwhile the Clippers/Spurs first rounder turned out to be one of the all-time best first round series, but in the process it precluded the possibility that Golden State would have to go through at least one of what were probably the second and third best teams in the conference. That the winner of that series was destined to face the other legitimate challenger to one of those positions, the Houston Rockets, only exacerbated the ease of the Warriors’ path to the Finals. All told, Stephen Curry and company only had to face one of the three best challengers for the Western Conference title.

Had the balls bounced differently on that night in April the Spurs may not have been knocked out in round one by an athletically superior team who still had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin operating near 100% for the bulk of the series. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard represented the best possible competition for Golden State, but they never got close to playing them. The Clippers, who provided the next best chance at a competitive series with the top seed, eventually succumbed to the Rockets due to injuries to Paul and their lack of depth, and those Rockets were without a single viable defender to stick on Curry without Patrick Beverley.

Despite the talk of LeBron James’s Cavaliers skating through to the Finals thanks to the light Eastern Conference competition, the Warriors got about as much help as they could from a Western Conference playoff bracket that has for several years been a bloodbath. That was all decided by a few games that, in any other season, would have been meaningless contests between bench players in mid-April.

How Will the Cavs’ New Style Fair In the Finals?

Over the course of the Eastern Conference finals, and the playoffs in general after Kevin Love’s arm got ripped off, the Cleveland Cavaliers have developed a more old-school approach, with Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov both thriving closer to the rim. While Love’s floor-spacing provided the path to a modern offense, Thompson’s insertion at the power forward spot has introduced a more smash-mouth brand of basketball that relies on size to wall off the paint defensively and grab rebounds off misses on the offensive end.

That setup worked well against the depleted Eastern Conference squads of Chicago and Atlanta, both of which suffered from missing players and nagging injuries. The Cavs, aside from Love and lingering tendinitis issues for Kyrie Irving, are at full strength, and are benefitting from the depth brought in from mid-season trades. Of course, saying that Cleveland is only missing Love and Irving is akin to saying that a boxer is only down one arm and an eye.

The dropoff from Love to Thompson could have been more severe. In a vacuum, the only skill Thompson possesses that Love does not is the quickness to hop out on pick and rolls. It would have been completely expected to see the Cleveland defense take a step forward with the nimble Thompson replacing Love, but the offensive impact provided by a power forward who can knock down 37% of his 3-pointers is staggering. On the balance there’s no way that removing Love should have provided a boost to the offense, and yet Thompson’s promotion to the starting lineup has seen the Cavs’ offense take off.

A lot of that has to do with one LeBron James, who has seemingly enjoyed taking over a few more possessions, and, with Kyrie Irving out for a couple of games, running the point. Irving has been no slouch either when he’s been on the floor, but it’s not like Love was out there catching passes and immediately whipping them into the 16th row. He is and was a good player in Cleveland, even as he adjusted to his new role as more of a spot-up shooter.

The difference has been Thompson’s prolific offensive rebounding. He’s averaging over four offensive boards per game throughout the playoffs, and that has been a huge help with James’ jumper not finding the bottom of the net. Love has never been a slouch on the offensive boards himself, but when stationed beyond the 3-point line it’s hard for him to get in to challenge for position to grab a rebound. Thompson has no such issues because he can’t shoot, and along with Mozgov makes for a killer rebounding threat inside that the beat-up front lines of Chicago and Atlanta could not challenge.

Golden State won’t face these problems competing on the glass. Andrew Bogut can go toe-to-toe with Mozgov, and Draymond Green, while undersized, has shown no shortage of fight himself. Bogut’s presence is the key. While none of the teams that Cleveland encountered in the Eastern Conference really had a big 7-footer to lean on to do the dirty work once the Cavaliers started muddying things up with the two-big lineup, the Warriors will start a lineup that has the bulk and skill to tilt that advantage to something like neutral, and there are good rebounders available off the bench as well.

With the rebounding edge likely to have evaporated Cleveland’s spacing issues will rear their head. Mozgov flashed his surprisingly effective jumper in the playoffs after largely laying off it since his trade to Cleveland during the season, but it’s surprising more for its novelty than its effectiveness. He has, in prior seasons, connected at a rate that suggests the midrange jumper could become a real weapon, but that won’t scare the Warriors; if Timofey Mozgov’s 16-footer is going to be their undoing they are probably doomed anyway.

Without any reliable spacing from the bigs, and with Iman Shumpert spending significant time on the wing (those percentages from deep can’t hold up forever) the offense is going to be very cramped. For the first time in the playoffs Cleveland will be facing a team at their level who isn’t hamstrung by a number of injuries, while Irving’s health and Love’s absence will lower the team’s ceiling. Huge games from James and Irving, plus some timely insanity by J.R. Smith, may be enough to make the series interesting, but now is when Love’s loss will finally begin to sting the most.