Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will be a study in sustainability.
Kyrie Irving and LeBron James scored 41 points apiece against a sputtering Warriors defense during their series-extending Game 5 win. They did it spectacularly, and all unanimous MVP Stephen Curry could do was watch as his team missed clean looks while failing miserably to compensate for Draymond Green’s absence.
In search of redemption, a second title and that still-elusive transcendent Finals moment, Curry and the Warriors head back to Cleveland for Thursday’s Game 6. They’ll bring an honest, healthy appreciation of what the Cavs did to them, as evidenced by Klay Thompson’s comments after Game 5, per J.A. Adande of ESPN.com:
Warriors lockerroom extremely quiet. Curry still sitting at locker in uniform alone and in thought.
Was the Cavs’ victory an anomaly or a turning point?
Golden State can’t afford to treat it like the former, but a closer look at the particulars suggests Cleveland will have a hard time recapturing its Game 5 form.
According to SportVU data (via Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com), Golden State missed 15 of 19 three-pointers categorized as “wide open” and 28 of 44 field-goal attempts that were uncontested (no defender within 3.5 feet), per NBA.com.
Because the Warriors defense tends to get credit whenever an opponent shoots poorly, the Cavaliers deserve praise for their Game 5 performance. Tristan Thompson wore down Curry whenever tasked with switching onto him on the perimeter, Iman Shumpert quietly stifled both Curry and Thompson in the second half, James ably defended the rim and Irving always gives a little more effort on defense when he’s going supernova on the other end.
But the Cavs still lost contact with both of the Splash Brothers routinely, and avoiding a downpour was mostly a matter of luck. Relying on Curry—the guy who just smashed the record for made triples in a season—going 2-of-10 on uncontested attempts is no way to live.
The Warriors were uncharacteristically inaccurate in Game 5, and because the difficulty of the attempts they missed was so low, it’s probably a mistake to expect the trend to continue.
If Irving puts on a show in Game 6 like he did during Game 5, it might be time to consider naming the Finals MVP trophy after him.
What he did was genuinely incredible—you aren’t supposed to make 10 of your 15 shots when you dribble the ball up the court and don’t pass it once (per ESPN Stats & Info). You aren’t supposed to drill nine of 13 two-point shots outside of the restricted area.
Those are hard, low-percentage propositions. And the most amazing thing about Irving’s 17-of-24 clinic was that so many of his remarkable buckets looked hard. Throw-aheads in traffic, spins, fades, wrong-footed runners. Flips, floaters, banks, three-pointers with defenders draped on him—Irving hit them all.
Appreciating a brilliant performance like that is distinctly different from expecting to see it again. And assuming Irving won’t repeat one of the most compelling individual efforts in memory isn’t a knock. It’s an acknowledgment that he’s human.
He might go for 40 again, but he won’t do it while setting the degree of difficulty on fire.
Thompson’s length will be a bigger factor, and the smaller lineups we expect to see from the Warriors will facilitate more switching—which limited Irving to 12-of-36 shooting through the first two games of the series.
Banking on continued excellence from James feels a whole lot safer than doing the same for Irving—even if the emergence of the former’s missing perimeter stroke and buckle-down defense felt sudden.
James’ track record of big-game success is unparalleled—his scoring average of 32.4 points per game when facing elimination is the highest in NBA history, per SportsCenter. So unlike Irving, we know James’ extra gear can last an entire series.
Yes, it’s surprising to see James’ busted jumper yield a 4-of-8 conversion rate from three-point range. And it’s eye-opening to watch him morph into a dominant lane-protector (Golden State shot just 12-of-31 at the rim). But this is one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen. He’s been in the Finals six times in a row.
James is almost guaranteed to play well, but the Warriors will reintroduce a key Game 6 variable that could prevent Cleveland’s best player from turning in another historic performance.
Irving and James will have a harder time with Draymond Green back on the floor.
Saying anything less is a disservice to the two-time runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. He is Golden State’s defensive signal-caller, its glue, its most reliable helper and switch-enabler.
Without him, the Warriors had to play either conventional centers (who couldn’t switch pick-and-roll coverage and couldn’t keep up with Irving even when they conservatively dropped into the lane) or backup bigs like James Michael McAdoo, Anderson Varejao or Marreese Speights—none of whom belong on the court at this stage.
The only player on the roster (and maybe in the league) with the length to protect the rim and the speed to stifle point guards on the perimeter, Green is integral to Golden State’s defensive functionality. After believing that in theory all season, everyone saw it play out in reality Monday.
James’ jumper will be a major bellwether in Game 6, but if it isn’t falling, he’ll run into this when he has to drive:
Nobody else has the brains to redirect teammates, the mental quickness to shift position so deftly and the length to contest from a standstill like Green.
With a sprained knee likely sidelining Andrew Bogut, expect the Warriors to start and lean heavily on the Death Lineup with Green at center. If he logs 40 minutes at the 5, it won’t be a surprise.
It will be a surprise if Cleveland has its way with the Warriors defense again.
In Game 5, Harrison Barnes was 2-of-14 overall and made just one of his six three-point attempts. He finished at the basket like he was wearing shoes on his hands and bobbled plenty of passes to gum up the Warriors’ ball movement.
Kevin Love was just as bad, no Golden State center played well and Matthew Dellavedova lost his spot in the second-half rotation to Mo Williams.
These teams didn’t get to the Finals without relying on depth at least once in a while, and the Warriors just won two series with Curry ailing. There’s talent beyond the stars on both rosters, and if someone—Shaun Livingston? Channing Frye? Festus Ezeli?—can provide even a few minutes of stellar play, it could be the difference in Game 6.
Richard Jefferson for Finals MVP, anyone?
Don’t be fooled by the 38 points in Game 4; Curry still isn’t himself.
He can’t get around Tristan Thompson on the perimeter, he’s not finishing in the lane anymore and his lazy, looping passes continue to fuel Cleveland breakaways. If it’s not the lingering effects of his sprained MCL, it’s fatigue. If it’s not fatigue, it’s some other undisclosed injury.
Failing all of that, we have to assume a voodoo hex is to blame.
Whatever it is, Curry has not played like an MVP for the bulk of his post-injury return. In fact, Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals stands out as the only true up-to-snuff Curry performance of the last two months.
This isn’t an excuse, and neither Curry nor the Warriors are making it. It’s merely an observation supported by the way Curry is moving on the floor and his diminished production.
He found a way to get past his limitations for one game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, though. If he can do it again, the Warriors will have a major edge.