During the regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers did not run very much. Head coach Tyronn Lue has been preaching the virtues of a faster-paced offense since he took over for David Blatt in January. It was slow to catch on. The Cavaliers were the third-slowest team during the season, using fewer possessions per game than the glacial Memphis Grizzlies or the ancient San Antonio Spurs, and in the playoffs, they’ve become even slower. It was easy to laugh about Lue suggesting after a Game 1 drubbing at the hands of the Golden State Warriors last week that the Cavaliers simply needed to pick up the pace. And when Cleveland was flattened again in Game 2, that book appeared to be closed.
But in Game 3, on Wednesday night, the Cavs came out hot — and fast. They went up 33-13 in the first quarter and blew out the Warriors 120-90. For the game, they were 8-for-16 with between 22 and 18 seconds left on the shot clock (the sweet spot for the seven-seconds-or-less school of pace) after going just 8-for-19 in the first two games of the Finals combined.
The Warriors, meanwhile, are getting just 8.3 shots per game in that range. This might seem like a positive to those who listened to pundits talk about the “quick shots” that were sinking Golden State against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But during the regular season, the Warriors were absolutely unstoppable early in the shot clock: They averaged 14.9 of those field goals per game, including 6.2 3-point attempts; their shooting averages were 65.7 percent from two and 47.9 percent on those threes, for an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 68.3, which led the league, though not by much.
The team in second place? Those plodding Cavaliers. The Cavs had an eFG% of 66.1 on seven-seconds-or-less plays, and the gap between them and the third-place Atlanta Hawks (62.7) is about the same as the gap between the Hawks and the 13th-place Thunder (59.2). LeBron James was more efficient in possessions of this sort than Klay Thompson or Steph Curry was — even in a year in which his 3-point stroke inexplicably cratered. The difference is, the Cavs had only 9.6 attempts per game early in the clock, more than five fewer than the Warriors.
But go ahead and read that back to yourself: The Warriors ran over the league using pace and shooting, but the Cavs, when they deigned to break from trot to gallop, played their game nearly as well as the defending champs.
Of course, “early shot clock” possessions are often just another name for transition or semi-transition (that little window after a fast break ends but before the defense can get set). By the Game 3 box score, Cleveland outscored Golden State 15-8 on fast-break points, and according to the player-tracking data, the Cavs had 18 transition chances to the Warriors’ nine and did a little better per play. Transition begins with defense, and after reportedly getting a wake-up call from assistant coach Phil Handy, the Cavs were noticeably more lively on that end in Game 3. Kyrie Irving’s numbers weren’t great (player-tracking has him on the hook for allowing 63.3 eFG% on 15 shots), but he was making a visible effort; J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert were both much better than they had been, though, and Richard Jefferson, who started for Kevin Love (ruled out because of a blow to the head), was all over the court, closing out and contesting shots. He ended up allowing opponents to shoot just 45.5 eFG% on 11 attempts.
For the Cavs to pull off an upset in this series, more stars will have to align than merely their finding some pep in their step and playing a 35-year-old benchwarmer major minutes. But a few have begun to slide into place: Irving, a hugely talented offensive player, found his stroke after going quiet for the first two games, and Curry has looked genuinely out of sorts for most of the series. While it’s still a very long shot that the Cavaliers can come back and win the Finals, it’s a far better one than if they’d gone down 3-0 playing old and slow.
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Our sports podcast Hot Takedown discusses the NBA Finals.