With everyone expecting the Cleveland Cavaliers to fold without Kyrie Irving, they stuck to their newfound identity in Game 2 of the NBA Finals and evened out the series. Losing Kyrie and Kevin Love in the playoffs has simplified the Cavs attack, as they are running all their offense through LeBron James for almost the entirety of the game. The Cavs play lockdown defense in the halfcourt, they rebound the basketball, they control the tempo of the game and they pound the ball into LeBron. It’s not pretty basketball but it has been remarkably effective. Cleveland has uglied up the game and prevented Golden State from getting in any type of rhythm in the Finals.
LeBron’s efficiency numbers have plummeted but that’s what you would expect given the style of basketball the Cavs are playing. The key for Cleveland has been keeping Golden State out of transition and controlling the number of possessions. The Warriors ability to extend out on defense, pressure the ball and force turnovers is one of the main reasons why they have been almost unbeatable at home this season. That game-plan isn’t nearly as effective when LeBron is holding the ball for 15 seconds, taking it into the paint and then shooting it himself or giving someone a pass for the shot.
One change the Cavs made in Game 2 was going away from their two big man line-ups with Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. While the two started each half together, David Blatt mostly alternated them in order to open up the floor for LeBron to play near the rim. Since neither Mozgov nor Thompson can shoot 3’s, the Warriors were playing a quasi-zone with their defenders when they were playing together. Taking the ball into the lane and kicking it out for 3 is all that’s left for Cleveland and that becomes almost impossible when Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green are camping out in the paint.
Going forward, the big question for Blatt is which one of his big men to play next to LeBron. He has typically gone with Thompson because he is such an active rebounder and he can switch on pick-and-rolls but Mozgov has been having a breakout performance in the playoffs. That continued in Game 2, when he had 17 points and 11 rebounds on 12 shots in only 29 minutes. Unlike Thompson, whose only points of the game came when the Warriors intentionally fouled him, Mozgov can force the defense to account for him before the ball goes up in the air for the shot.
At 7’1 250, Mozgov is one of the biggest C’s in the league and he has displayed an excellent combination of being light on his feet and having touch around the rim in the playoffs. A big man needs both of those things in order to play against smaller players on both ends of the floor. He has been most effective diving to the rim after LeBron gets two guys to commit to him on defense, as he is way too big and physical to be stopped by the vast majority of the Warriors defenders when they rotate over, especially when they are playing small. He can also step out and knock down a 15-foot shot, giving the Cavs offense a needed safety valve in the half-court.
It’s no coincidence that Draymond Green made a bunch of defensive plays on LeBron late in the game on Sunday. When LeBron starts getting a head of steam towards the basket, Green is abandoning Thompson and coming over to help. Mozgov can pretty much always get a decent look in the two-man game when he’s playing in enough space - either on the mid-range jumper or attacking the rim with one dribble. Given how much the Cavs have been starved for points late in the game, featuring Mozgov more is the obvious adjustment they can make headed back to Cleveland.
As a rule, role players tend to play better at home than on the road, and the Cavs will be counting on much more sustained offensive production from guys like JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellevadova when they get back to the Q. At the same time, the Warriors are the No. 1 defense in the NBA and they have waves of long, active and athletic defenders they can throw at the Cavs' perimeter players and their ability to switch every pick-and-roll removes one of the main ways for Cleveland to generate offense from their secondary players in the half-court. Since they can’t afford to increase tempo given how thin their bench is, it’s not like the Cavs can expect “the others” to get easier shots as the series continues.
Even though they have succeeded in dictating the style of the game, the Cavs are going to have to figure out a way to score more points to beat the Warriors three more times. Golden State might be the most explosive offensive team in the NBA and it’s hard to expect Steph Curry to continue to shoot as poorly as he did in Game 2. For the most part, he took the same questionable shots he always takes. He just didn’t make them. If he shoots a number anywhere close to his normal percentage on Sunday, Cleveland doesn’t have enough offense to pull out a split on the road.
The Cavs' line-up in Game 2 that had the most flow on offense had LeBron at the 4 and Mozgov at the 5. With the other three spots in the line-up all spotting up along the three-point line, there was enough room for Cleveland to feature both of their frontcourt players on offense. That’s really the best place to attack the Warriors defense - win 1-on-1 match-ups in the frontcourt, compromise their defensive identity and force them to send help in the paint. The only two Cleveland frontcourt players who can consistently win offensive match-ups are LeBron and Mozgov.
Keeping Mozgov on the floor late could force Steve Kerr’s hand in terms of whether he uses a five-out line-up to close out the game. With the way the Cavs have been struggling to score in the fourth quarter, letting Mozgov try to score over Green or Harrison Barnes in the low block is as good an option as any. He has some moves with his back to the basket and he’s strong enough to put a smaller guy on his back and establish position in the paint. Cleveland’s not going to win this series by letting Golden State dictate the action - they need the game as ugly as possible, which means having as much size on the floor as they can.
For the most part, the Cavs have executed the gameplan to perfection in the first two games. The more wide open and uptempo the action is, the better it is for the Warriors. Golden State wants to win by playing the two-minute drill for 48 minutes - Cleveland plays three yards and a cloud of dust. The same dynamic that allows a RB to dominate a football game without averaging a high yards per carry is what allows LeBron to succeed with a low points per shot ratio. He’s grinding out just enough offense to win and limiting the other team’s time of possession.
In both basketball and football, a key aspect of winning the clock battle is having the edge in the trenches and that’s where Mozgov comes into play. He’s much bigger than the Warriors small-ball units and he’s a much more dangerous offensive player than either Bogut or Festus Ezeli. When he is in the game, Cleveland has an advantage either in size or scoring ability at the 5 position. The Cavs don’t have many match-up advantages in the Finals so they need to maximize the ones they have to the fullest.
LeBron has been surrounded by all types of big men throughout his career in the NBA but he has never played with a 7’0 with the skill-set of Mozgov. Either he has played with a lumbering big man who could step out and knock down jumpers but couldn’t move his feet (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) or played small next to an undersized 5 like Anderson Varejao or Chris Bosh. Mozgov gives him the best of both worlds in terms of size and activity on defense when combined with touch and finishing ability on offense.
As LeBron gets older and continues to lose more explosiveness athletically, the best way to overcome that will be by dominating games based off size and controlling tempo. The key is spreading the floor with three athletic three-point shooters on the perimeter and then playing him with a 7’0 who can help control the glass and protect the rim while still being a dangerous offensive player at 12-15+ feet. While Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are in line for big bucks in the offseason, Mozgov is the key for the Cavs frontcourt both in the Finals and going forward.
Still only 28, Mozgov is just now establishing himself in the NBA after getting lost in the crowded C rotation in Denver. Like just about any other player in the league, he is better playing next to LeBron. If he and LeBron can continue to grow together over the next few seasons, that duo could be the ultimate answer to the small-ball formula exemplified by the Warriors that is taking over the league. He is the first two-way 7’0 that LeBron has ever played with and if the Cavs are going to pull off one of the more remarkable upsets in NBA Finals history, their best bet is pairing LeBron with Mozgov and trying to win three more Bully Ball games.