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How Can The Cavs Beat The Warriors At Basketball? By Playing Football

OAKLAND — For the Cleveland Cavaliers to upset the heavily favored Warriors for the second-straight year, a lot of things will need to fall into place. Their defense, maligned throughout the regular season, will need to perform far better than it has all year. They’ll have to figure out who’s responsible for covering Golden State superstar Kevin Durant. Cleveland also has to get something out of its bench, especially since the Warriors have been a lackluster team when they often choose to rest Durant and Stephen Curry at the same time.

But above all else, winning the title may come down to something Cleveland figured out by the end of last year’s NBA Finals: The best way to beat the Dubs is to score on them quickly, before Draymond Green and his teammates can set set their stingy defense.

Cleveland was 4-1 in the Finals last year when it managed to post 15 fast-break points or more. The Cavs averaged 20 points in transition in their Finals wins, up from the the 12 points they averaged in Finals losses. And while the Warriors are solid defensively in transition, they’re far less impactful during the first six seconds of the shot clock1than they are later in a possession, when they have time to ruin offensive sets with their length and versatility. So, short of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving simultaneously going supernova the way they did toward the end of last year’s series, getting early looks will be key for the Cavs.

In other words, the Cavaliers’ best offense might be to rely on Kevin Love’s uncanny ability to launch 65-foot passes down the court after each Golden State miss. Seriously.

During the regular season, Love successfully threw 24 outlet passes2 that traveled at least 50 feet, according to an analysis run by STATS SportVu data analyst Brittni Donaldson at FiveThirtyEight’s request. To put that into context, that’s more than any individual NBA team had this past season. The number becomes more ridiculous when you consider that Love missed 22 games due mostly to a February knee injury.

TEAM/PLAYER GAMES PLAYED 50-FT OUTLET PASSES COMPLETED
Kevin Love 60 24
Warriors 82 22
Kings 82 20
Bulls 82 19
Hawks 82 18
Kevin Love threw more 50-foot outlet passes than any NBA team

Includes any 50-foot pass thrown and completed immediately after a player recorded a defensive rebound during the 2016-17 regular season.

Source: STATS SportVU

There’s reason to believe Cleveland can make use of this strategy against the Warriors in particular. Love and the Cavs cleaned the defensive glass very well against Golden State during this past regular season, limiting the Warriors to an 19 percent offensive-rebound rate that, over the course of a full campaign, would have ranked near the bottom of the NBA (The Warriors offensive-rebound rate jumped to 27 percent with Love off the court, a figure that would have put Golden State right near the top of the league in the statistic).

Because the Warriors take a lot of long jumpers, in some ways they’re more susceptible to two things: Having longer rebounds off the rim and having perimeter defenders several steps closer to the opposing basket. Only seven teams allowed more 50-foot outlet passes than the Warriors this past season.

This was on display during Game 7 of the Finals last year. Watch as Cavs swingman J.R. Smith leaks out after briefly challenging Steph Curry’s 3-point try. After a long rebound, LeBron James — who tied for the second-most 50-foot outlet passes in the NBA this year with 11 — in one fluid motion finds Smith racing down the floor for an easy layup.

It should go without saying, obviously, that Cleveland needs to do far more than simply push the ball after the Warriors miss. They need to actually force the misses first; a task that becomes a lot tougher now that Durant is in a Warriors uniform. And it’s unclear yet whether Love will be good enough defensively, particularly against Golden State’s quickest and best shooting groups, to be on the court as much as he’d otherwise be.

Beyond that, Love’s ability to find open receivers streaking down the court makes him the NBA’s answer to an NFL quarterback. In fact, when it comes to connecting on long passes, he was better than several actual NFL quarterbacks this season. Love’s 17 “completions” that traveled 20 or more yards in the air were more than five NFL teams across a 16-game season (the sad-sack Cleveland Browns across town were not in this group — barely).

TEAM/PLAYER COMPLETIONS THAT TRAVELED 20 YARDS
Kevin Love 17
Los Angeles Rams 17
Denver Broncos 16
Baltimore Ravens 13
Jacksonville Jaguars 13
San Francisco 49ers 13
Houston Texans 12
Kevin Love completed more 20-yard throws than some NFL teams

Includes passes that traveled 20 yards in the air before being caught during 2016-17 NFL and NBA regular seasons. Doesn’t include plays on which a receiver’s run after the catch helped push it past the 20-yard mark.

Sources: STATS SportVu, ESPN Stats & Info

To be sure, Love is like any other QB in that he needs to connect on his long pass attempts and avoid turnovers. His attempts can occasionally land in the hands of defenders when he’s off the mark — or in the second row when’s really off the mark. He committed five turnovers while making outlet passes during the course of the regular season, according to a play-by-play analysis run by STATS SportVu.

Love, in a past interview with The New York Times, said that he honed the skill in part by watching film of Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, an unusually gifted outlet passer who played with Love’s father, Stan, during the 1970s. In the piece, Love said he undergoes a quick mental calculation after grabbing a defensive board, concerning where his teammates are. But the math becomes pretty easy if he sees James running down the floor. “If I see LeBron with any sort of advantage,” he told Times reporter Scott Cacciola, “I’m going to throw it.”

If the Cavs are smart, they’ll look down court for more leak-out opportunities in this series. Love is completely comfortable finding James, as they have been the NBA’s top outlet tandem the past couple years. They led the league with 12 connections this year3, and had a league-best 17 last year, per STATS SportVu. (Love-to-James led NBA tandems with the most long outlet passes, and James-to-Love tied for second place, with seven times.) Love also hit Irving, Smith and ex-teammate DeAndre Liggins with multiple 50-foot outlets this year.

Regardless of whether the Cavs are capitalizing on long outlets, however, the more important objective is to run whenever possible. Pushing the pace and finding quick hitters will help the Cavs catch the Warriors off balance — like they did here when Love missed a 3-pointer about four seconds into the shot clock.

The shots won’t go down in every instance. But getting good, clean looks against this Warriors team is hard. And the task only gets harder the longer you wait to break them down.

Footnotes

  1. They rank 11th out of the NBA’s 30 teams in opponent’s effective field-goal percentage during the first two seconds of the shot clock, and sixth in the league during the four seconds after that. But they rank within the top four of each shot-clock scenario — early (15 to 18 seconds left), average (7 to 15 seconds left), late (4 to 7 seconds left) and very late (0 to 4 seconds left) — after those first six seconds pass.

  2. Defined as a pass someone threw — and that a teammate caught — immediately after grabbing a defensive rebound.

  3. The next closest pairing, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, had seven.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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