Two games into the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers face a set of seemingly unsolvable problems. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are scoring at will, key role players like J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson have been erased from the series, and the pace of play has been so frenzied that even LeBron James seems to be tiring. Other teams have had similar issues with the Warriors in these playoffs, and none came up with a remedy. But there’s one thing Cleveland can do that may be a start: Hit the open shots.
The Cavs are missing the gimmies. They’re generating 14 “open” 3-point shots1 per game and hitting just 32 percent of them. When they get “wide open” 3s,2 they’re even worse, shooting 22 percent on nine attempts per game. Both percentages have fallen off steeply from the Cavs’ playoff numbers on these shots before this series (42 percent and 49 percent, respectively, on a similar number of attempts per game) and from their less spectacular but still very good regular-season figures (37 percent and 42 percent). In a series in which every missed Cavaliers shot seems to bring the end of the season one possession nearer, and in which long rebounds from missed jump shots summon the deadly Golden State fast break into existence, these are shots the Cavs really can’t afford to miss.
But it’s not as though these percentages are being pulled out of a random-number generator. The shots may be designated as “open,” but in context against the Warriors, they take on a far different meaning. Other teams aren’t as capable of relentlessly attacking Kevin Love on pick-and-rolls, robbing him of the energy he brings at the beginnings of quarters. Other teams can’t field a scorer like Durant to overwhelm Smith and Iman Shumpert and force LeBron to anchor the defense in addition to the the offense. And other teams can’t chase the Cavs over off-ball flare screens so easily, forcing extra passes instead of in-rhythm shots. Simply put, other teams can’t run the Cavs so ragged, and ragged legs miss jumpers.
FiveThirtyEight: How the Cavs can push back in Game 3
The Cavs aren’t alone: Golden State’s playoff opponents have shot a combined 34 percent on open and wide-open looks from 3. Attempting to keep pace with the Warriors up and down the court seems to take so much out of teams that making the easy ones isn’t so easy.
That shouldn’t be a comforting thought for the Cavs, because slowing the pace isn’t exactly a great alternative. Golden State has the best half-court defense in the league; it gave up just 88.3 points per 100 plays in the regular season, according to Synergy Sports Technology, and has given up 88.1 in the postseason, both No. 1 in the league. There are tactics Cleveland could explore, such as forcing Curry to defend pick-and-rolls on every half-court possession, a technique the Cavs got away from in Game 2, but the Warriors are better prepared for that than they have been in the past.
It’s possible that a shift back to Cleveland will help the Cavs recover some of their form, but the team actually shot slightly better on the road than at home on its open looks this season, so it’s not like the Cavs turn on the aimbot once they get back to Quicken Loans Arena.
Simple as it sounds, the Cavs probably just have to hope their shooters find a second wind, tired legs or not. Coming into the series, Love had been 35-for-69 (51 percent) on open or wide-open 3s in the playoffs; Smith had been 16-for-36 (44 percent). In the Finals, Love is down to 2-for-9 and Smith is 1-for-2. Even Kyle Korver is shooting just 1-for-5 on these looks, though his playoffs have been more uneven than Smith or Love’s. Eleven Cavaliers are shooting 35 percent or better from 3-point range in the playoffs, but James, Love and Kyrie Irving are the only Cavs who’ve made more than one open or wide-open 3 in the Finals.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said Tuesday that Smith will get the start over Shumpert in Game 3, but it’s unlikely there will be drastic lineup changes. The Cavaliers need to play better, not different. Thompson must find a way to insinuate himself into a game he’s been schemed out of, LeBron must find a way to ration his energy so he has something in reserve late in the game, and the Cavs as a whole must do something about all these missed shots. They have the shooters, and they have the open looks. They just need make them.