‘No Blood, No Foul’: An NBA Finals Game 7 Preview

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Nazr Mohammed, Power Forward / Oklahoma City Thunder - The Players' Tribune

Damn, I love Game 7s. It takes me back, man.

In 2005, when I was with the Spurs, we played against the Pistons in the Finals. I was surrounded by guys who had been there before — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, to name a few — but this was my first time on the big stage … and I was a mess. I had so many mixed emotions going into that series. Of course you’re excited to be there, but that’s also balanced out by a fear of losing out on the opportunity of a lifetime. A lot of really great players in this league retire without ever winning a championship. Hell, some never come close. If you make it all the way to the Finals, you’re so scared of missing out on your chance. Winning your conference is great and all, but let’s be real, history only remembers the champs.

When we played Detroit in 2005, it was just like the series this year between the Cavs and the Warriors — an emotional roller coaster. We won Games 1 and 2 at home and felt like we were sitting on top of the world. But then we went to the Palace in Detroit and got blown out by the defending champs in Games 3 and 4. They made it look like we didn’t even belong in the Finals. Game 5 was also in Detroit, and it started off looking like more of the same, with the Pistons just taking it to us. We were down, but that’s when the experience of those guys who had been there before kicked in. You see, being a champ isn’t about always being up, it’s also about how you respond when you’re down. Just when the game almost felt unwinnable, the tide started to turn. A stop here, a basket there … and suddenly I look up and it’s a one possession game.

Then Big Shot Bob went to work.

That road win put us up 3–2 heading back home for the final two games. The Pistons won Game 6, which set up an all-or-nothing Game 7.

I’ve played basketball for my entire life, and that was easily the most nervous I have ever been before and during a game. I mean, I couldn’t believe I was a starting center in the NBA Finals. My mind was racing the entire time. I wasn’t thinking about playing the best game of my life. I was more concerned with not making mistakes. I really didn’t want to shoot the ball unless it was a dunk (lol). The season is so long, and the playoffs are incredibly draining — so when it all came down to one game to decide everything, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t make the mistake that cost us a championship. So I focused on playing my game. I was going to do my job and let the guys who carried us all year carry us just one more time.

And I think that’s why we won that game. On the big stage, it’s easy to lose your cool and try to do too much. But to win a Game 7, you should lean on what got you to that point.

Based on my experience, here’s why I think every NBA fan should be incredibly excited for this Game 7: It truly is another level of basketball.

For players, it’s a level that you never knew you had in yourself. It’s a level that not everyone can or is willing to rise to. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience that you don’t wake up from until after the game. Frankly, I’ve surprised myself sometimes with what I have been willing to do to my opponent in order to win a deciding game. And in an NBA Finals that’s been as competitive and fiery as this year’s, I think that’s particularly relevant.

In order to win, you have to play as if there are no refs on the floor. No one is going to bail you out. No blood, no foul. Honestly, I remember almost being surprised whenever play was stopped. You’re just that locked in, play by play.

Your preparation needs to be consistent, and must begin as soon as Game 6 ends. For me, the process was all laid out. I had to hydrate, rest, get physical therapy and study film. I also had to make sure I knew the game plan, our personnel and the other team’s tendencies.

Finally, you have to take yourself out of the equation.

At this stage nothing is about you. This isn’t the time you should be thinking about making a name for yourself by having the game of your life. It’s all about team. If the coach takes you out, it’s the right decision. If the coach doesn’t put you in all game, then you deal with it and be the best damn cheerleader and coach from the bench that you can. Whatever you’re asked to do, you do it with absolutely everything you have.

It’s all worth it to be part of a team that wins it all. Trust me.

With that in mind, here are a few keys to Golden State winning Game 7:

  • Up to this point, the Warriors have been the epitome of greatness and focus. That’s what they need to tap into right now. Steph, Draymond and Klay just need to continue to do what they have been doing all year. That means Golden State needs to push the tempo after every Cavs miss. Walking the ball up the floor allows Cleveland to set their defense. But the Cavs tend to make coverage mistakes when they are crossed-matched in transition.
  • Another key is for Golden State to have at least a somewhat healthy Andre Iguodala, because he makes LeBron work on offense. If you’re the Warriors, you have to live with LeBron making contested threes and long twos. You can’t pressure him out on the perimeter, because then he’ll get his shoulders by the defender and it’s over. Bad things happen when LeBron gets into the paint. Andre has the most experience guarding him, and his knack for getting his hands in for strips and deflections is pretty much the best (only?) way to guard LeBron.
  • On offense, Harrison Barnes has to find his shooting touch. When he’s playing his game, Golden State pretty much always has a chance to win. In addition to that, either Festus Ezeli or Anderson Varejão have to provide something offensively when they’re involved in pick-and-rolls.. In two of our losses in the Western Conference finals this year, Andrew Bogut and Festus made us pay for our aggressive coverages on Steph and Klay. When they’re catching lobs, finishing in the lane and Harrison is making shots, it loosens up the defense on Steph, Klay and Draymond. Everyone talks about the Warriors long-range shooting (which is off the chart), but the best shots in basketball are still layups and dunks. The Cavs know they can’t win if they give them up.

Now, here’s what Cleveland needs to do to win its first championship:

  • An attacking Kyrie and a downhill LeBron on offense are the keys to a Cavs victory. Recognizing where the help is coming from on defense will allow the Cavs to get easy layups for Tristan and open shots for J.R. Whenever someone drives or thinks they have a mismatch, Golden State is sending the double team. Not sometimes, but every single time. Just like in Game 6, when the Warriors double the Cavs will have Tristan open for lobs or the strongside and weakside corners for open threes.
  • The Cavs have to consciously go into every possession knowing that the double team is coming. Their success will be determined by their decision-making in those situations, whether it’s finding the open man or attacking the basket. They can’t be surprised if there’s a no-call when they penetrate and try to shoot over two or three defenders. Traditionally the refs let the players decide the outcome of a Game 7, so don’t expect any calls for marginal contact. Like I said, No blood, no foul. When the Cavs make contested drives to the basket, it will lead directly to fast break points for Golden State.
  • On the other hand, taking good shots will allow the Cavs to get back in transition and have favorable matchups. Golden State will have trouble winning this game if they have to rely on their half-court offense. I think defensively, the Cavs should stay small, with Tristan at center and LeBron at the four. This will allow the Cavs the opportunity to aggressively switch everything, and that could make the difference. On their switches they have to continue to crowd Steph and Klay sending them one way (preferably baseline) taking away three-point opportunities and making them finish at the rim over the Cavs’ length. Don’t overreact when they do finish a few of those layups or make a few contested threes. Stick to the game plan no matter what. They are great players so remember you’re not trying to pitch a shutout. The defense just needs to make it tough for them.

Just like all of you, I’m a basketball fan. I’m incredibly pumped. Games like this just don’t happen too often. It’s going to be a show.

I mean, damn, I love Game 7s.

nazr

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