NBA FINALS PREVIEW: A Deep Dive Into the Conference Finals Presented by ShotTracker

hy are we here again?​ Well, besides LeBron, Steph, KD, Klay, Dray, and CP3’s hammy, why are we here again? How did Golden State and Cleveland both prevail, each in a thrilling seven-game series – the first time we’ve seen both conference finals go seven games since 1979? I’m glad you asked. Let’s dive in.
We all know that this year’s conference finals, despite showcasing the most talented players in the world, weren’t the most visually appealing brand of basketball. But just how stagnant and isolated were these games? Over 40% of all half-court possessions didn’t have a single ball reversal or paint touch. Houston was the worst of the four teams in this possession type, scoring just 0.796 points per possession. To compare, if they reversed the ball and got it into the paint on the same possession, they scored 1.327 PPP and shot 14 of 23 from three. Unfortunately for Houston, this only happened in 9% of half-court possessions. Golden State had more possessions with no BR or PT (45%) but scored slightly better – 0.816 PPP. What’s scary for Cleveland in the Finals, besides trying to guard (arguably) the three best shooters in the world on one team, is that that the Warriors have the potential to be so much better than they already are. In the other 55% of half-court possessions, which included a reversal or paint touch, GSW scored 1.337 PPP and shot exactly 50% from three. That’s 133 points per 100 possessions if you’re into looking at it that way.

But enough about the positives for now​, back to the ugly side of these games. Even when we excluded possessions that start with an offensive rebound, over 50% of all half-court possessions had one or no passes. It’s no surprise that Golden State was the best in these iso situations with KD and Steph being the primary ball handlers – 20% of their half-court possessions had zero passes, but they scored 1.073 points per possession and shot 15 for 31 from three. Conversely, 33.5% of Houston’s half-court possessions had zero passes. While they scored 0.946 PPP, they shot just 19 of 54 from three for 35%.

How many of those possessions was James Harden, the league’s presumed MVP, responsible for? 122. That’s over 17 possessions per game in which he brought the ball up and took a shot or turned it over without anyone else on his team touching the ball. In all fairness, he did score 0.943 PPP, but he shot just 30% from three when there were no passes. Steph Curry had 56 of these possessions but scored 1.054 PPP and was 9 of 19 from three. Kevin Durant? Well, he was simply incredible. He scored 1.206 PPP in 34 possessions in which he brought the ball up court and refused to pass it. LeBron was the worst of these superstars scoring just 0.887 PPP with no passes in a possession. In all other half-court possessions that had at least one pass, LeBron scored exactly 1.000 PPP and shot 42% from 3 (13 – 31).

When taking a deeper look at LeBron’s half-court efficiency​, 44% of his possessions didn’t have a paint touch or ball reversal. Even though he shot 44% from three in these 84 possessions, he scored just 0.690 PPP as a result of shooting 9 – 33 from two. But when #23 got into the paint he scored 1.225 PPP. Cleveland was at their best when they got into the paint – specifically when they threw the ball into the paint either on a post-up or cut. When the Cavs caught the ball in the paint they scored 1.383 PPP compared to 0.995 PPP when they drove the ball into the lane.
As a team, Cleveland took 66% of their shots in the half-court off the dribble – resulting in just 0.892 points per shot. If it wasn’t obvious already, they need to spend more time passing the ball. The Cavs scored 1.305 PPS on catch-and-shoot attempts. Kyle Korver took that to another level shooting 11 for 24 from 3 (46%) on catch and shoot opportunities vs Boston. Look for GSW to switch most screens involving Korver to minimize these looks. Although Eric Gordon shot nearly the exact same on C&S threes (10 – 23), the majority of his attempts came off drive and kicks while Korver’s were off a variety of screens.

Where Cleveland has room to improve​ against Golden State is converting on their uncontested catch-and-shoot threes. CLE was just 8 – 26 on these open looks, including 0 for 7 in transition. While they need to capitalize on these attempts, they obviously need to limit GSW’s open threes which they struggled to do against Boston. The Celtics shot 18 – 42 (43%) on uncontested catch-and-shoot threes but look for the Warriors to easily top that mark as they shot 29 – 53 (55%) against the Rockets.
Easier said than done, but the Cavs must get a hand in the face of the Warriors shooters if they want to avoid losing 3 out of the last 4 Finals to this group. When the Rockets actually contested a 3PTA, the Warriors dropped from 55% down to 34% (32 – 95) or right at one point per shot. Better than contesting, CLE needs to run GSW off the line forcing them to take mid-range jump shots. Golden State isn’t against shooting the ball from there because they did shoot a respectable 44% (49 – 111) from twos outside the lane against Houston but that still only equates to 0.882 PPS. These shots actually accounted for 20% of all of their FGA. In comparison, HOU shot just 9 – 29 (31%) on twos outside the lane for 0.620 PPS.
How is Cleveland in this area? Well, 18% of their FGAs came from this zone, converting on just 36 of their 99 attempts (0.727 PPS). Golden State is by far the best in this area as Boston scored 0.756 PPS here, but it’s clearly their Achilles heel. Because they’re better than most at shooting from two outside of the restricted arc, they allow themselves to settle for these shots. While many still criticize Daryl Morey and his philosophy of wanting to take only threes or shots at the rim, you can’t discredit the numbers. Like all teams, Golden State is best inside the restricted arc as they scored 1.465 PPS against Houston. As you move outside the arc and stay in the lane, GSW drops dramatically to 0.756 PPS. As we discussed previously, they shot 0.883 PPS on twos outside of the lane and overall they shot 1.165 PPS from three.
If Cleveland can make Golden State take more than 40% of their shots from two and outside of the restricted arc, they can make a real impact on the Warriors offensive efficiency. To do this Tristan Thompson has to be the force around the rim that he was two years ago. The Cavs have to run the Warriors off the 3 point arc and let GSW take those mid-range pull-ups and floaters. But as good as the Warriors are the first time around, Cleveland must limit their second chance opportunities as they scored 1.269 PPP after an offensive rebound against Houston. Offensively, both CLE and HOU shot about 0.950 PPS from 3. The difference lies at the rim.

Houston scored just 1.225 PPS inside the restricted arc compared to Cleveland’s 1.453. Although, 79% of all of Houston’s FGA were threes or at the rim. Conversely, Cleveland shot just 64% of their shots from these locations.

Bottom line, if Cleveland stands a chance, they have to take all of the pages out of Houston’s book, add their own chapter titled, “Move the Damn Ball”, and hope that the Basketball Gods are all Witnesses.

COREY WACKNOV Corey ​is an Analytics Coach at ​ShotTracker​ ​where he serves as a key resource for ShotTracker teams. He’s currently a master’s student at Northwestern University, pursuing a degree in sports administration with a specialization in analytics. Corey has worked in the front office for the Orlando Magic as a basketball operations associate, assisting with draft and analytics research. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas while working for four years as a student manager for the men’s basketball program.
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