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Cleveland Cavaliers need to alleviate some of LeBron James' burden and Iman Shumpert can help

By Chris Fedor • Jun 5, 2017 at 3:30 PM

OAKLAND, Calif. — Given Kevin Durant's offensive explosion in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and the negative impact it seemed to have on LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue needed to find a new plan for guarding Durant.

Easier said than done, of course.

Richard Jefferson? He got that assignment at the end of the Christmas Day win, the last time the Cavaliers beat the Warriors. He was one option. Derrick Williams? There was some chatter about the Cavs dusting him off at some point in this series, using his size, speed, athleticism and youthful vigor to combat the Warriors' lethal small-ball lineup. Tristan Thompson? Kevin Love? Someone? Anyone?

Turns out, there was another option: Iman Shumpert.

Lue's plan worked in stretches, which is why the Cavs should keep using it as the Finals go on.

Ignore Shumpert's unappealing stat line -- six points on 1-of-6 from the field, including 0-of-2 from 3-point range to go with a mixture of questionable shots -- for just a moment. This tactic isn't entirely about Shumpert, who played so hard Sunday night that he needed IV's after the game. It's about James.

In the first two rounds, Lue wanted to conserve James' energy. That's why shortly before the Indiana series began, Lue surprised everyone, including James, when he challenged J.R. Smith to contain Indiana All-Star Paul George.

But just like this NBA Finals series, that move wasn't about Smith being a better defender, forcing George to work more for his offense. It was, in part, about keeping James fresh, allowing him to spearhead the Cavs' offensive attack. Had he been matched up with George, James would've been run through a gauntlet of screens and who knows the kind of toll it would have taken.

The other part of the decision centered on the Cavs' defensive scheme. Had James been matched with George, he likely would've been pulled away from the hoop, leaving Cleveland more vulnerable inside. Instead, Lue's subtle tweak enabled James to play free safety, sagging off Monta Ellis and patrolling the middle like the basketball version of Ed Reed.

James' speed, athleticism, size and smarts helped mask many of the Cavaliers' defensive deficiencies as the series progressed.

He got in the passing lanes and disrupted movement. He manned the back line of the defense, altering shots and forcing kick-outs. He was one of the help defenders, still swift enough to recover in time and contest shots. That's when the Cavs' defense looked stingy.

Flash forward to the second quarter Sunday and it was apparent once again.

Shumpert, whose postseason role seemed cloudy in Round One, was up for the challenge against Durant, who scored eight points to go with three assists in a first quarter where James was often his primary defender. Durant wasn't rumbling down the lane untouched, but rather scoring in half court sets with drives to the basket, pull-up jumpers and 3-pointers.

It was time for a different look.

With his customary toughness, intensity and aggressiveness, Shumpert crowded the 7-foot scoring machine and even came up with two steals.

The Cavs preached disrupting the Warriors' offensive flow In Game 2 and Shumpert was at the center of it.

"They made a lot of adjustments," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. "They put us on our heels."

Durant scored seven points in the second quarter. But that didn't matter. The Shumpert move freed up James to lurk around the paint, his mere presence forcing the Warriors to rethink shots in the lane, which created turnovers, or kick the ball outside to lesser shooters (Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green).

"I mean, they just played with energy and physicality and aggressiveness, and you had to expect that," said Stephen Curry, who had six turnovers in the first half. "The defense, they changed their lineups a little bit and they went a lot smaller, so they were a little faster around the court and whatnot. My turnovers were mostly just dumb ones for me, just throwing the ball, jumping to pass or to make a play and not knowing what I'm doing with the ball and just slinging it somewhere. Stuff that I can easily correct. There were a couple they made some athletic plays to get it, but for the most part those are just things that I just need to watch the film and figure out how to slow down and make the simple play."

Still, for Golden State, the second was the least productive quarter of the night, scoring 27 points and committing five miscues. The Cavs won the quarter by three.

At this point, the Cavs are looking for anything. James, is, and always has been, the team's best shot to climb back into the series.

But that requires taking some of the responsibility away. Keeping James on Durant is simply too much. He's not having success and he's being consumed by the matchup. James looked gassed late in Game 2 -- just like Game 1.

Maybe Durant is too much, the perfect addition to make the Cavs' adjustments negligible. Maybe the Warriors are too good and this will be a quick knockout. But the Cavs will go down swinging. Lue will do everything he can to keep Cleveland competitive -- even if this 0-2 hole seems deeper than 2016.

"They're a different team," James said following the Game 2 loss. "You guys asked me, 'What was the difference?' And I told you. They're a different team."

It's all about Durant. He's going to get his.

"He's one of the most dangerous guys we have in the world already," James said before the series started. "So it makes it even more dangerous when you equip that talent, that skill with those guys."

Taking the primary defensive assignment away from James will at least give the Cavs a fighting chance in other areas.

For the bulk of two games thus far, James and Durant have gone at each other repeatedly. As well as James played Sunday, recording another postseason triple-double and plowing through defenders with an ultra-aggressive mindset, Durant got the better of him for the second straight game. Durant scored 13 points on 6-of-9 from the field with James as the main defender.

The current plan is not working. It's time to lift some of James' burden. Shumpert going into the starting lineup might be the best answer.

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