The top of any list of great sequels in cinema could easily double as a list of some of the finest – and most financially successful – movies ever made. The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, The Dark Knight, Terminator II, Aliens – we could go on.
That’s typically where the creative juices stop flowing.
Sure, there are some noteworthy third acts. The Return of the King is the best Lord of the Rings movie, though that’s more properly viewed as one colossal installment instead of three smaller ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both made up for the weirdly terrifying Temple of Doom and was popular enough for Harrison Ford to keep playing the character as a senior citizen. Goldfinger was arguably the best James Bond movie.
There haven’t been many third acts in the sports world, which is just one small reason why Cavs-Warriors: Part III should be so compelling. The Lakers and Celtics have met in 12 Finals, but never three in a row. It’s a first for the NBA and just the fourth such threequel in American professional sports history, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Red Wings and Canadiens battled for three straight Stanley Cups in the 50s.
We’ve already detailed the lack of big-screen triumphs when it comes to third acts, but the success of screens could have everything to do with a Finals that’s rightly drawing as much hype as anything since the days of Jordan, Magic and Bird. Let’s take a look at what the Cavs need to do to repeat and what the Warriors can do to make these Finals more Rise of the Machines after last year’s epic Judgment Day.
When you have 30 percent of the All-Stars from a few months ago in one Finals series, it’s easy to get excited about matchups. Will Steph Curry or Klay Thompson guard Kyrie Irving? Does LeBron have no choice but to spend most of his time checking Kevin Durant? We know Draymond can cause issues for Kevin Love, but can Love be matched up with him on the other end?
Those seven will all find one another at some point, but the winner of this rubber match figures to be the team that consistently creates, and then takes advantage of, the most opportune mismatches.
That the Warriors move the ball and move away from the ball better than any team in the league is no great secret. It’s what almost every team in the league dreams of emulating and one day building themselves. Setting screens is still a major part of an offense that hums like a Ferrari when it’s at its peak, but ball screens are a different story. Golden State set 3,324 of those in 2016-17, per STATS SportVU, its third straight season bringing up the NBA rear in the category. Orlando was 29th, yet the Magic set more than 4,000.
There’s less movement in Cleveland’s offense because it’s less necessary. Possessions can come to a screeching halt in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock and Irving and James can save the day as few individual players can. Irving was the best isolation player in the league this season at 1.12 points per ISO, and he’s been even better in the playoffs. James can’t blow by defenders 1-on-1 like he used to, but his 42 percent success rate from 3 in the postseason adds a more complicated wrinkle for opponents than Batman suddenly wielding an assault rifle would for Gotham miscreants.
The Cavs relied on ball screens to generate offense less this season than they had in the past two, funneling through around 57 per game instead of the 65 or so they’d used in James’ first two seasons back home. Whatever way you slice it – and given the overall levels of talent and execution, this shouldn’t be a surprise – both Cleveland and Golden State get a lot out of their screens. Individually, the Warriors were third in the regular season in points per play (a screen that results in a field-goal attempt, foul or turnover by either the ballhandler or screener) at 0.934; the Cavs were fifth (0.925). As far as team points per possession – this adds in the other three offensive players on the floor as potential factors post-screen – Golden State was fourth (1.12), a tick ahead of Cleveland (1.11).
But those numbers take into account Derrick Williams setting a pick for Kay Felder on a cold February night in Minnesota or James Michael McAdoo trying to free up Patrick McCaw on a November back-to-back in Milwaukee. Let’s eliminate some of the noise and concentrate on what both teams should be focusing on – and what they must work to avoid at all costs.
Golden State DO: Get Curry/Draymond rolling
There was no Love in the 2015 Finals and there was no Irving for the final five games, and while those two are a generally dubious defending combination on ball screens, the Curry/Green combo likely couldn’t have done much better if they were both on the floor. Those six games featured 85 Green screens for Curry, which resulted in the Warriors eviscerating the Cavs defense for an average of 1.26 points.
Fast forward to 2016 and it turns ugly for Golden State. Seven games, a total of 39 Curry/Green ball screens and just 0.78 team points per action.
Green is fronting for Curry 6.7 times per game in these playoffs with excellent results: 1.30 team PPP. If that number stays in that vicinity – like it did two years ago – start sizing up the Warriors for their rings, and perhaps 16-0.
Cleveland DO: Target Curry when he’s guarding the screener
Irving has been known to struggle when he’s checking the ballhandler in the pick and roll, often never finding his original man or the roller and easily providing the opposition with a 2-on-1 toward the hoop. But that Irving/Love combo we discussed a few paragraphs ago? They actually defended quite well when put on an island in the 2016 Finals. There were 19 ballhandler/screener combos that defended at least 10 screens last June, and Irving/Love was by far the MOST effective despite getting torched overall in the postseason (1.31 PPP). Irving fared pretty well in the Finals when paired with Tristan Thompson as well.
As for Curry, Cleveland preferred to have whomever he was guarding set the pick for the ballhandler. With Curry already banged-up to some degree in the Finals, the Cavs were physical while guarding him and made him work overtime at the other end. Curry was involved in 88 screens as the screener, nearly 50 more than the Warriors made Irving take on. A look at the difference in how both point guards were attacked in the pick and roll in last year’s sequel:
On Christmas Day in Cleveland, the Cavs ran Curry through nine more with him initially on the screener, scoring 12 points. Klay Thompson was the targeted on-ball defender – often on Irving – with Cleveland putting him through 28 screens and scoring 40 points. Overall, the Cavs celebrated their comeback win at The Q with 75 total points (1.19 team PPP) as the result of screens – 51 more than Golden State (0.71).
Cleveland DON’T: Let Iman Shumpert get screened into submission
The Warriors’ holiday in Northeast Ohio may have been dampened, but they took out seven months’ worth of frustration on the Cavs three weeks later in Oakland. Golden State used 46 ball screens in this one and particularly attacked Iman Shumpert on the ballhandler, often when he was checking Curry. Ten screens of Shumpert led to 22 Warriors points, further lending credence to this stat: In the 128 minutes Shumpert was on the floor in the 2016 Finals, the Cavs were outscored by 13.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 208 he sat, Cleveland enjoyed a plus-9.1 edge.
Golden State could drive Shumpert off the floor entirely in these Finals. In theory, he’s an ideal guy to stick on Curry or Thompson to hide Irving for a bit, but in reality he tends to get lost when he’s asked to do more than guard someone 1-on-1. Richard Jefferson played a key role against the Warriors last season and seems more suited to have a chance of defending Durant than Shumpert. With Kyle Korver a potentially vital offensive piece to stretch the floor, Shumpert may wind up a DNP-CD (can’t defend).
Golden State DON’T: Ignore Kevin Durant as a ballhandler
Let’s get to the elephant in the room of why many expect this series to be short. The Warriors added one of the three best players in basketball at the expense of Harrison Barnes, who went 5 for 32 from the field once Golden State went up 3-1 last year.
As we’ve covered, the Warriors aren’t going to rely nearly as much on the ball screen as the Cavs. But when things start to break down – particularly in the fourth quarter – there will be instances when it could be a necessity.
Logic tends to dictate that should a critical Golden State possession become bogged down, Durant will ISO, Curry will launch a 3 or, perhaps, Durant will come to the ball and screen for Curry. But there’s another option.
Durant has an awfully good handle himself. Curry screening for him should allow KD a moment to turn the corner and pop away from the secondary defender for an open 3. And if Curry can’t get free, Durant proved during the regular season that he was fantastic finishing in these situations. Of the 144 players who participated in 300 screens as the ballhandler, only Wilson Chandler and Paul George scored more points per individual screen than Durant (0.48).
It’s been even more absurd during the playoffs. Durant’s 0.66 average is a full tenth of a point better than any of the other 46 players who have participated in at least 50 screens. From a team perspective, the Warriors’ 1.36 PPP off screens with Durant as the ballhandler is second – and the chart below shows how infrequently that’s used compared to some of the other big names at the top.
They’ve only broken the Curry-screening-for-Durant combo out 13 times during the playoffs but it’s led to 21 Warriors points, and frankly, there was no need to even do it that much. It’s a wrinkle that Steve Kerr and Mike Brown have largely been saving to unleash only when they need it, and that alone should terrify the Cavs.
Cleveland and Golden State DO: Get the big men involved
There have been 72 two-man combos that have run at least 30 screens in the playoffs, and the top two involve, as you might expect, James and Curry. But the other half of those equations probably isn’t who you’d expect. JaVale McGee has teamed up with Curry for 52 screens that have resulted in 1.47 Warriors PPP, tied with James and Tristan Thompson for the most effective in the league this postseason.
The James and Thompson combo has been a special kind of deadly on their 112 screens. James has hit 7 of 14 3s directly after Thompson frees him up, and the duo is 31 of 53 (58.5 percent) overall immediately after Thompson screens for James. Thompson is one of the league’s best at rolling off a screen and flushing an alley-oop from James or Irving, and he and James went for an impressive 1.14 PPP in last season’s Finals as well.
There you have it. There’s no shortage of storylines in the most star-studded Finals since Lakers-Celtics was in its mid-80s heyday. Durant’s chasing his first title. LeBron is chasing MJ’s legacy. Curry and Green are seeking Finals redemption. Klay Thompson wants to prove his subpar playoffs so far have been a fluke. Love wants to show that he can play – and play effectively – against the Warriors.
Golden State knows what’s coming. It’s up to the Warriors to keep Cleveland from catching them in bad ball screen combos while picking and choosing their own spots to use them in an offense that rarely does.
In a third act worthy of the big screen, we’re about to find out how big the screen can be.