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Are the Cavs relying too much on isolation to get past the Golden State Warriors?

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving appeared to do much of their damage in isolation settings, but a closer look reveals more to the Cavs' Game 5 dominance. WFNY talks to the key players.

The San Antonio Spurs made us all believe that the best way for an NBA offense to navigate about the floor was through picturesque ball movement and layers of off-ball screens that appear more ballet than basketball. At the Spurs' prime (as defined by the near-decade of time that predated the recent Golden State run), it was first described as "Euro" style thanks to guys like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili executing it flawlessly, but more so in the way that the entire game was seemingly played below the rim. Sure, the Los Angeles Clippers and "Lob City" led to better highlights, and the Seven Seconds or Less Suns were so, so much fun to watch as the point totals rose, but there was Gregg Popovich and his floor spacing, half-court style of play that simply waited for one defender to be a split second too late before it pounced. From there, we saw branches from this tree begin to sprout throughout the league. Mike Budenholzer brought it to Atlanta. The Golden State Warriors, large in part to the passing prowess of Draymond Green, have done the same, but with way, way more three-pointers. something happened on Monday night as the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the Warriors on their home court to take Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The Cavs tallied 112 points (on just 98 possessions) yet only assisted on 15 of their made baskets. Just a few weeks after shredding Budenholzer's Hawks with multi-pass, drive-and-kick styles of play, here were LeBron James and Kyrie Irving with their backs against the wall, literally taking matters in to their own hands as the two players scored, assisted or are credited with creating 98 of the team's 112 points on that very night. Two players effectively taking turns going one-on-all to see who be the next to add to the Cavaliers' point total. ESPN's J.A. Adande called it "Old School" as if it were something from the Miracle of Richfield days.  Adande's colleague Amin Elhassan said it was "unsustainable." CSN Bay Area referred to it as a "prescription for disaster" against a good team.

But were all of these feelings predicated upon actual data, or is it more shock and awe that two men could dominate five in such a fashion? After all, with the way San Antonio tilted the axis of what was fashionable in the NBA, how could these zero-pass sets bear fruit? At the crux of it all: Was what James and Irving did to the Warriors on Monday night done so through "isolation" basketball?

In their Game 5 win at Oracle Arena, James and Irving combined to take 54 field goals (James with 30, Irving with 24). According to Synergy Sports, of those 54 attempts, only 19 of them were true "isolation" with the duo going 11-of-19 in those situations. In addition to these iso metrics, James and Irving were credited with going 8-of-10 in transition and 9-of-19 in pick-and-roll. Of course, when it comes to Kyrie Irving and how quickly he was getting into the Cavs' offensive sets, the lines between "transition" and "pick-and-roll" situations can be 12-beer blurry.

"People have different versions of isolation basketball," said Tyronn Lue to WFNY. "When you post a basketball, nowadays guys are posting 15 or 16 feet out. You can call it a post-up or some people call it an isolation. Anytime you're playing below the free-throw line, I consider it a post-up. We post LeBron against matchups or mismatches, which I think is good for us. But then also, I think the way they play of switching one-through-five, you're going to have to play some iso and one-on-one basketball. But you've got to be able to attack and attack early. I thought LeBron and Kyrie did that in Game 5.

If there were a catch-all term for the barrage of dribble drives that the Cavaliers used to dismantle Golden State over those 48 minutes, it would be "attack." In the play above, coming off of a 9-0 run by the Warriors, Kyrie Irving was barely across the midcourt line before Tristan Thompson is flashing up 30 feet away from the rim to start a pick and roll. Being this far away from the rim effectively put Warriors center Andrew Bogut on an island at the elbow. Steph Curry's defense was so poor that the roll man was rendered inconsequential as Irving was given a free lane to the rim for an easy—albeit gracefully finished—two points. the mood for more numbers to provide a little proof of concept? In the last three games for Kyrie Irving (completely ignoring that horrid Game 2), the point guard has gone a combined 55 percent in isolation and pick-and-roll situations. In Game 5 alone, he was 10-of-17 in these types of sets while producing ridiculous 6-of-6 clip in transition. At the 11:52 mark in the third quarter with the Cavs looking to strike first, Irving dribble drove from the top of the key all the way through the lane as if the Warriors were downhill slolum poles, finishing with an and-1, once again at the expense of Bogut. Sideline commentator Mark Jackson took that moment to remind everyone at home that that was why you don't worry about his assist totals .

LeBron James, conversely, has had an even more dominant postseason finishing at a 68 percent clip when at the rim. His 52 percent shooting in isolation was undoubtedly aided by the bevy of mid-range jump shots he drained in Game 5, but his 83 percent mark in transition plays is the main reason why Ty Lue has been speaking so much about pace.

Certainly, the loss of Draymond Green for Game 5 played a large role in how the Cavs were able to scheme around a Golden State Warriors defense that averaged just 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions over the regular season, good enough for the fourth-best clip in all of basketball.  But in the same regard, if that defense doesn't have a chance to set up and get into a groove where their ability to switch on any and all pick-and-roll situation, team-wide efficiency is rendered useless and the game is entirely in the hands of how a player can defend one-on-one. 

"I think it's a fine line," LeBron James told WFNY. "I think true basketball people know the difference between certain iso basketball plays and others. When too many dribbles wear a possession out and guys are not actively involved, there is a difference between that and also when guys are just attacking early in transition or they have a half-court match-up. So yeah, there are different forms of it."

In the play above, the Warriors are in an extremely small lineup late in the third quarter as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are flanked by Andre Iguodala (6-6), Shaun Livingston (6-7) and James Michael McAdoo (6-8). Even if Green (6-7) was on the floor, that subtle screen by Tristan Thompson to shade McAdoo to the weak side was all James needed to get to the lane. Had James slowed up or passed to Irving who was playing off of the ball to his left, the play would have unfolded much, much differently.

Of course, it's worth noting that Irving and James' isolation game throughout this series has not been impeccable. In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers missed a team-wide 28 shots in the paint. The Warriors, when full strength at home, were able to switch effortlessly, placing hard-nosed defenders on the Cavaliers' two dominant ball handlers. The seminal moment over the first two games came midway through the second quarter of Game 1 when Andre Iguodala, last season's NBA Finals MVP due to his defense on James, seemingly dared Kyrie Irving to do some of that dribble-drive voodoo along the right sideline. Igodala forced Kyrie just far enough to the baseline and played as if the point guard had beaten him to the rim, only to swipe down with his right hand and start a fast-break opportunity the other way. Just like that: A four-point swing.

"I'm not really good when I'm not being aggressive, or when I'm off of the ball and not being able to get weak-side action," said Irving to WFNY, having watched plenty of film of his struggles. "There is a polar opposite between Game 1 and Game 2 in terms of trying to play in between, and I can't do that. I have to just have the mindset of continuing to be aggressive, and when I'm getting downhill, that's when it will open opportunities."

This isn't to pretend that all of the Cavaliers' damage was done at the rim. In fact, two of Irving's seven misses on the night came at nearly point blank range. Thankfully for both men, however, their mid-range game was nearly as impeccable as their transition work. According to ESPN Stats & Info, In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, James was 8-of-18 shooting outside the paint, his most such shots and his second-most made shots in a game this season. With defenders like Iguodala and Green swarming near the restricted area, these mid-range shots are integral in keeping the Golden State defense honest.

Then, of course, there are just some plays where LeBron James reminds everyone that he, despite the voting of writers over the last two seasons, is the most valuable player on the floor at any point in time.

Some nights, you just have it going. And when LeBron James has it going, there's not much else one can do but appreciate it for what it is and hope it is, in fact, unsustainable.

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