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The Warriors Were Ready For LeBron

For now, the chatter around Christmas Day game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors is about its lousy ending, thanks to lousy instant replay rules. The Cavaliers held a lead early, coughed it up in the third quarter, and hung around for what should have been a stirring finish before two no-calls on LeBron James drives derailed the game. Our loss. (Cleveland’s, too.) But underneath the dramatics was a game plan that saw the Warriors’ defense negate the Cavs’ best asset: LeBron’s driving and dishing.

The Cavs were 6-for-21 with a 38.1 effective field goal percentage off of passes from James on Monday, according to data from Second Spectrum. On James’s 21 drives, he shot 4-for-6 but generated just one assist against three turnovers. Those numbers are uncharacteristically bad for one of the most effective driving facilitators in the game. Because the Golden State defense could switch so effectively — trading Kevin Durant for Draymond Green or Klay Thompson doesn’t exactly give LeBron the mismatch it does against other defenses — and could recover to shooters so well, the drive-and-kick game got itself into trouble.

Sometimes, this led to turnovers by James when he was trapped or by his teammates when they received a pass under tighter coverage than they’re used to (one bad turnover by Kevin Love on the right wing comes to mind). Other times, passes from James were a little farther off-target than usual, requiring a shooter to gather and reset before firing, or they sailed out of bounds entirely. (LeBron is usually so precise that he can focus on whether teammates want seams or no seams when they receive a pass — high, low or midsection.) And even when things went to plan, the open shot at the end of a kick-swing-swing sequence sometimes fell to a non-shooter like Dwyane Wade. Often, the Warriors’ defense discouraged the drive altogether — a large chunk of James’s passes to shooters came above the free-throw line, to a shooter who’d flared on a pick-and-pop or a simple screen, far from the deadly help-defense-obliterating machine that usually powers the Cavalier offense.

Here are all 21 shots created directly by James’s passes:

James hasn’t always struggled to generate offense against this Warriors team. Even in a one-sided series like last season’s NBA Finals, the Cavs tended to shoot much better when James was passing to them than otherwise. But on Monday, they were miserable on plays LeBron set up and only very slightly less miserable on the ones that he didn’t.

Maybe the Cavaliers can make enough gimmes to get back to their game in future matchups — they did miss a lot of open shots, too. And perhaps Patrick McCaw, a strong defender who is getting extra minutes while Stephen Curry is out with an ankle injury, changed things up a bit — McCaw probably won’t play quite the same role down the road. But those late-game no-calls aside, Durant’s defense on LeBron (and backup point guard Shaun Livingston’s on Wade) fundamentally changed the way the Cavs offense usually works.

It was just one game, and the personnel should look vastly different when they play again just a few weeks from now with the returns of Curry and Cleveland guard Isaiah Thomas, who was in uniform Monday but glued to the bench. But what happened on Christmas in Oakland didn’t look like a one-off: It looked like a plan.

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Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.