CLEVELAND — While Jordan Bell was down in Los Angeles this past summer, working out in the vaunted pick-up games at UCLA with former Bruin Kevon Looney, he was tasked with guarding LeBron James. He didn’t have much of a choice.
“I put him on LeBron,” said ever-insistent Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green.
LeBron James did what LeBron James does, but, Green said, Bell persisted. Bell guarded James “probably as well as I’ve seen anyone guard him,” said Green, who saw Andre Iguodala earn the NBA Finals MVP in 2015 for doing just that.
Bell, like the rest of the Warriors’ second-line defenders, have made James work over the first three games of the NBA Finals. It’s why, going into Game 4, James’s shooting percentage has declined each of the last three games. It’s why Kevin Durant was freed up to score 43 points in Game 3. It’s why the Cleveland Cavaliers — with little else outside of James and Kevin Love — are staring down a sweep.
“The room for error versus a team like this is slim to none,” James said. “It’s like playing the Patriots. It’s like playing San Antonio. The room for error is slim to none.”
Unlike the Patriots, though, the Warriors don’t just have one truly shining star. They have four — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Green — along with the highest-paid babysitter in the league in 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. That’s not all.
“Obviously, from a talent perspective, if you’re looking at Golden State from their top five best players to our top five players, you would say they’re stacked better than us,” James said. ” … Then you add on a Finals MVP coming off the bench, a number one pick in [Shaun] Livingston and an All-Star in David West.”
After Game 3, Bell — a rookie who saw his minutes wane after a pair of ankle injuries this season — told Yahoo! Sports that he will regularly chirp at the man he’s guarding to set a screen, so he can switch onto the four-time MVP.
Resident LeBron-stopper Iguodala, in his first game back from a bone bruise in his knee that cost him six games, guarded James 14 times. James scored four points. When Bell heard that stat, he immediately asked how he did. Over three games, on 14 possessions, James has scored four points against Bell, as well.
“He believes that he can guard him, and … that’s half the battle,” Green said. “Just having a guy that’s willing to compete and willing to step up and take that challenge on is important for us.”
James said, resignedly, on Thursday, that the Warriors have “championship DNA.” Bell may not have been a part of the Warriors’ last three Finals teams, but he is a smart, physical role player who operates well in a system, and can learn and expand his game.
“I bug the hell out of Andre about how to guard people,” Bell said. “Even in the Houston series, I was really bugging him on how to guard James [Harden] and Eric Gordon and Chris Paul. He gives me a lot of good, little small things. He gives me a lot of little, small things. He doesn’t want to fill my head too much, overload. He just gives me little things.”
On Wednesday, it wasn’t something Iguodala told Bell, so much as inadvertently showed him. As Bell watched Iguodala guard James in the first quarter, he noticed the 12-year veteran extended his right arm far away from his body, while keeping his left arm low at his knees, or between his legs. The left-handed James likes to go left, so, naturally, the idea is to stop him from going that way, and forcing him to go right.
“LeBron kept going right, so I thought, ‘Damn, that’s actually working,’” Bell said. “When I was guarding him, I did the same exact thing, and it worked. He didn’t even try to go left one time. He went right. He would spin back left, and I contested the jump shot.”
James missed. He finished shooting 46.4 percent on the night, his lowest since the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics.
“If he would have made that shot, nobody would have been mad at me. They would have been like, ‘Good defense, Jordan, that’s just better offense; that’s all it is,'” Bell said. “It’s LeBron.”
That’s been the problem for the Cavaliers: It’s just LeBron. Outside of James, who’s shot 52.5 percent from the field in the series (41-for-80), the rest of the team is shooting 39.8% from the field.
With under a minute to go, in game 3, James switched off of Kevin Durant on a phantom screen by Stephen Curry. Instead of guarding Durant — having the best game of his playoff career — James allowed Rodney Hood — who had played four minutes in Game 2, and nothing since — to guard the best scorer of his generation.
He didn’t fight through the screen. He didn’t guard Durant. He let one of his LeBronettes do it. Durant stepped up and hit the defining shot of the NBA Finals.
“[People] just think that you go out, and, Oh, LeBron, you’re bigger and faster and stronger than everybody, you should drive every single time and you should dunk every single play and you should never get tired, never,” James said on Thursday. “Like it’s a video game and you went on the options and you turned down fatigue all the way to zero and injuries all the way down to zero.”
In all three games, three-point sniper Kyle Korver — who Tyronn Lue has called just as dangerous as Curry or Thompson from beyond the arc — has tone 1-for-6 from three, and 1-for-10 from the field in 44 total minutes.
In Game 1, Kevin Durant went ice cold, shooting 8-of-22 from the floor. James went off for 51 with nine rebounds and eight assists, and still, because of his supporting cast — or lack thereof — he lost.
In Game 3, James got his supporting cast involved, with 11 assists. Love scored 20 with 13 rebounds. J.R. Smith — the goat of Game 1 — scored 13 despite a 3-of-10 shooting night. Hood — who played a grand total of seven minutes in the previous seven games — went 7-of-11 from the field for 15.
In that game, Thompson and Curry went 7-for-27. If you were to draw up a blueprint for James and the Cavaliers to win, it would require exactly that: At least two of Golden State’s four All-Stars to go quiet, while James’s supporting cast excelled.
He still lost. At home. JaVale McGee, Bell and Iguodala played stellar defense and facilitated the offense for 22 minutes. Bell scored 10 points in 12 minutes. McGee went 5-of-7 in 14 minutes.
“Andre … gave us much-needed minutes. I didn’t expect to play him 22 minutes,” head coach Steve Kerr said after Game 3. “One thing with Andre is that he’s not like most players in terms of needing rhythm and needing minutes to get his conditioning back. He just never gets tired, even when he’s been out two and a half weeks and hasn’t really been running much at all. He’s still able to play through all of that.”
LeBron James and the Cavaliers needed everything to go right for them, and everything to go wrong for the Warriors to have a chance in this series. It very nearly has, and they still don’t.
“How do you put together a group of talent but also a group of minds to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?” James said on the eve of Game 4. “That’s what GMs and presidents and certain players — it’s not every player. Every player does not want to — sad to say, but every player doesn’t want to compete for a championship and be in a position where every possession is pressure.”