OAKLAND (AP) — Golden State Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams, who has designed defenses for more than four decades, looks at defending LeBron James as an equation.
Finding a solution goes beyond points, assists or any common metric. Instead, the 67-year-old Adams approaches the problem like this: add up what the Warriors are willing to give up to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a whole — forget about what James does individually — and subtract it from the number of points Golden State expects to produce.
“We’re not going to react to the stat sheet when he scores if it fits into our equation of what we’re trying to do,” Adams said Friday, a day after James scored 44 points in Golden State’s 108-100 overtime victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
“There are certain things you’re trying to take away from a team. And understanding that you’re doing that, there are baskets that you may give up — hopefully not uncontested baskets — but there are things you know that you can be vulnerable to, and it’s important that your team knows that so that you don’t build frustration into your work.”
The formula has worked wonders for the Warriors in the playoffs.
After getting past fellow All-NBA first-teamers James Harden, Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis, Golden State seemed content to let James carry Cleveland on his own in the finals opener. The Warriors, with the top-rated defense during the regular season, refused to double-team the four-time MVP while mixing up defenders on him.
Others flashed as if they would provide help — but they never did. And King James could only do so much with limited support from his subjects, only five of whom ever scored.
“LeBron’s going to dominate the ball and make plays,” said Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala, who spent more time than anybody defending him. “We have to just make it hard on him every possession. Don’t give him any easy buckets, and not let anybody else get a rhythm, and that’s what we’re going to try to do every game we play against them.”
Basically, the Warriors want to do exactly what the Atlanta Hawks didn’t against James in the Eastern Conference finals.
Atlanta backed off James and let him sprint into the paint. Hawks defenders collapsed in the middle when James drove, giving up an average of 9.3 assists per game.
In the finals opener, James made 18 of 38 shots and had seven rebounds and six assists. The Cavs relied heavily on isolation plays with James, especially after point guard Kyrie Irving left late in the fourth quarter with a fractured left kneecap, which will sideline him for the remainder of the series.
Game 2 is Sunday in Oakland, where the burden will be on James more than ever.
James, trying to carry a worn-down team again, discounted Golden State’s strategy. He said he takes what defenses give him and earns every point he scores.
“You don’t let me have 40. I go get 40,” James said. “It’s not like they’re just getting out of the way. So those guys aren’t saying we’re OK with letting him have 40. You don’t let me have 40. I’m making those shots.”
The most challenging part for the Warriors is following through with the plan.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who defers to Adams on defensive tactics, writes a few points of emphasis on the whiteboard before every series. One of the keys against Cleveland was to “stay with it,” knowing James would have his moments of brilliance and the Warriors needed to overcome them.
“You hear that all week and it’s kind of ingrained and planted in your head — stay with it,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “It can get a little frustrating, but we’ve done this all year.”
The Warriors used a combination of Iguodala, Green, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson to try to wear down James, showing those “STRENGTH IN NUMBERS” shirts given to fans at every home game are more than just a slogan.
It didn’t work well early, as the Cavs built a 29-15 lead in the first quarter. He kept the Cavaliers close and had a chance to win in regulation, missing a contested jumper over Iguodala just inside the arc.
The strategy showed up huge late. James missed his first three shots — and Cleveland clanked its first eight — in overtime, when Golden State ran away with the win.
“This is kind of a live process from start to end. If you’re in a business and you have a business plan of some sort, you stick with it because you feel you can be successful by sticking with it. That’s what we do,” Adams said. “But there are no guarantees. We’re playing a really good team with a great player, and the margin for error is thin.”