ARE YOU READY FOR THIS? It's Sunday, June 19, 2016 B.C., and America is a handful of hours away from two of the most magical words in sports: Game 7. Tonight, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will take the court/stage of Oracle Arena to decide the NBA Championship. The stakes are high as possible, or at least as high as possible for a game that originated with a peach basket nailed to a wall: it's only the 18th Game 7 of the NBA Finals ever, only the 5th since the end of the 80s, the first since 2013, the fifth Game 7 for the Cleveland Cavaliers in any playoff series ever, and only Cleveland's third opportunity to clinch a championship since 1964 (the first two did not end favorably). The individual legacies of two players who are on trajectories to be top-10 players of all time, as is the collective psyche and self-worth of an entire region.
Because it's Father's Day and one of the biggest games in Cleveland sports history, fans are weighing their options and calmly (or frantically) trying to settle on their game plans and designs. The more ritualistic fans already have their day planned to the minute: "7:35 p.m., gently unfurl 80s throwback Mark Price jersey from engraved cherry wood chest; 7:36 p.m., rewatch Youtube video of the Miracle of Richfield. ..." Others are debating whether to watch at the local tavern with friends or alone via a tablet in the bottom of a foxhole dug in their backyards (so to better isolate them from human contact and protect others from their own wild anxieties). Many more are channeling their unbridled energy into checklists and party provisions: "Did we tell Jim to bring the guacamole? DID WE TELL JIM TO BRING THE GUACAMOLE? [Tearfully rips out fistful of hair with each hand.]"
But, believe it or not, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has more important game plans to worry about (as does Warriors coach Steve Kerr). This series has come increasingly compelling since Game 3, as the Cavaliers have discovered a few things (some perhaps by happenstance), that have been effective against a team that has eluded deciphering for the past two seasons. The table below shows the lineup data (percentage of time used and plus/minus per 48 minutes) from the first three rounds of the playoffs (to the left), and from the first six games of the Finals against the Warriors (to the right). 1.
- The series is, through six games, a total wash. The total margin of victory is 0. Both teams have scored 610 points.
- If you'd like to neglect Game 5 because Draymond Green was suspended (which would be understandable), the Warriors margin of victory is 3.0 points per game (basically the margin of error between two close teams). The Warriors have been the better team overall with Green without question, but not by much (and not over the last three games with Green).
- The Cavalier starters have outscored the Warriors by 5.6 points per 48 minutes. That's significant. So, in the season's decisive game, the Cavaliers No. 1 Go-To Lineup is outperforming whatever the Warriors are throwing at it? Do you think we'll see a lot of the Cavs' starters in the last game of the season? Probably.
- Despite what a lot of people would have expected, the Cavs are not playing well going generically "small." They're doing better going "big" (with two or more traditional big men). Not all small lineups are created equal.
- The small lineups the Cavs are winning with are those with multiple wings, not just guards. I noticed this in Game 3, when the Cavaliers' defense slowed down the Warriors with their longer lineups. So, think lineups with Jefferson instead of a guard like Dellavedova. The Warrior offense is bothered more by length than speed. Stephen Curry can blow by Dellavedova and shoot over him. But he hasn't been able to blow by Iman Shumpert, and the likes of Richard Jefferson are harder to shoot over. So while three-wing lineups have outscored the Warriors, three-guard lineups are getting torched by the Warriors.
- The Cavs' best individual lineup in the series has been one of these wing-heavy lineups: Irving-Smith-James-Jefferson-Thompson. That lineup has outscored the Warriors by 38 points, the only individual Cavalier lineup with an overall plus/minus of +8 (and a +31.6 per 48 minutes!).
- Dellavedova has fallen off a cliff. After being a reliable backup and an essential cog in devastating lineups all season and playoffs, the Warriors have embarrassed him by either having a taller Shaun Livingston shoot over him, or using his aggressiveness against him to create instantaneous foul trouble for Delly. In Game 6, coach Lue gave his minutes to Dahntay Jones and Mo Williams.
- The Love hate (not to be confused with the Love love/hate) is overboard. Love was attacked in the first two games of the series before the Cavaliers adjusted (-13.2 per 48 minutes). But since the Cavaliers made changes to put Love on the likes of Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes, the Cavs are +5.5 per 48 minutes with Love in the game. That's a huge swing.
- Again, the Cavaliers should go big — specifically by playing Love and Thompson together — or go long with wing-heavy lineups. With Love and Thompson on the floor together, the Cavs are outscoring the Warriors at pace of 7.1 points per game. Thompson compensates for Love's defensive weaknesses, and Love spaces the floor on offense while Thompson either stands around out of the way or sets screens. As I pointed out last week, Love is actually doing a great job contesting shots near the hoop, with the Warriors shooting 17.7 percent worse than expected with Love contesting shots within six feet of the hoop.
- Can we get Channing Frye some minutes? Even if it's just in the second quarter, to see how it goes? The man's taken only three shots in the series, but last I checked (just now) he's shooting 56.5 percent from three in the playoffs. Give it a few minutes — if it goes poorly, pull him. But if Frye gets to see that first shot go through ... I think Frye could swing the game in Oracle.
- Though this isn't really illustrated in the chart, but the smartest move Lue made all series was to put James on Draymond Green as much as possible. He's strong enough to stifle Green in the paint, and athletic enough to explode any pick-and-roll the Warriors throw Green in. If the Cavs win the Finals, this move will probably be the main reason why (I'm not kidding). It does explain how lineups with James at the four have outscored the Warriors, and it's protected Love when he's in the game by putting him on someone less frightening in the pick-and-roll.
- In a surprise to no one, the Cavaliers have not been great with James on the bench. Actually, they've been disastrous. I think it will be important to give James a few minutes' rest, though. I don't think it's wise to play him 45 minutes, but I suspect he will. (I'd aim for like 43, which is still crazy high.)
So, with all those things in mind, here's what my lineup would be for Ty Lue would be for Game 7 (though there will undoubtedly be more substitutions than I propose).
- 12:00-6:00: The starters (Irving-Smith-James-Love-Thompson)
- 6:00-2:00: Irving-Smith-Jefferson-James-Thompson (bring Jefferson in for Love to change things up, combat the Warriors small-ball lineup)
- 2:00-0:00: Irving-Shumpert-Jefferson-Love-Thompson (get LeBron a rest)
- 12:00-8:00: Smith or Shumpert-James-Jefferson-Frye-Thompson (give Frye a few minutes to knock a shot down)
- 8:00-4:00: Irving-Smith-James-Jefferson or Shumpert-Thompson (wing-heavy lineup with Kyrie, LeBron, and Thompson)
- 4:00-0:00: Irving-Smith-James-Love or Shumpert-Thompson (if Love's effective, leave him in, otherwise go with the lengthy, wing-heavy lineup)
That's a simplistic game plan. There will obviously be more maneuvering than that depending on what the Warriors do, foul trouble, offense-defense switching, etc. The second half will also be managed slightly different than the first (for instance, stagger Jefferson in the fourth quarter so the Cavs can end with that Irving-Smith-Jefferson-James lineup if Love hasn't fared well). But the main principles are the following: 1. Play Love and Thompson together; 2. Play Thompson the whole damn game; 3. Go wing-heavy when not big; 4. Rest LeBron strategically (if at all).
There's your game plan Coach Lue. You don't have to use it. But if you do, just make sure to thank me. It should be a fun Game 7 — enjoy it, Cavs fans.
1. Feel free to ask me for my methodology on how I determined big/small, shooters, etc. It requires several hundred words of explanation to explain it in totality.