Thickfreakness—Cavs vs. Warriors Game 3: Behind the Box Score

Cleveland Cavaliers

Golden State Warriors – 91
Cleveland Cavaliers – 96
Cavs lead NBA Finals 2-1
Box Score

In a postgame interview following Game 2 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James bestowed upon his Cleveland Cavaliers — who had just tied their series with the Golden State Warriors at 1-1 — with the nickname “the Grit Squad.” It seemed like an apt moniker, not only because “the Mod Squad” was already taken by a 70s crime drama with an absurd plot, but because the Cavaliers had so thoroughly embraced a toughness- and grit-centric identity.

What the hell is grit, anyway? Grantland‘s Brian Curtis defined grit as “playing ugly but effective ball in the face of superior talent,” at least in the sportswriting context.1

What do I think grit is, other than a lazy adjective for sportswriters and smart-ass bloggers (ooh, that’s me!) to use as shorthand for inelegant but inspired play? I think Curtis pretty much nailed it from a literal standpoint, but not necessarily an aesthetic one.

Gritty play connotes “ugly” play, but ugly isn’t always unattractive or undesirable. When I think of gritty music, I hear electric guitars moaning distressed riffs and cymbals clanking cacophonous rackets. I hear the clamor of rock music warped by blues drenched with heartache and soul, blaring from old battered amplifiers that have been kicked down the stairs and stored in too many minivans. It’s sexy, but in the “‘doin it’ in late August with no AC” kind of sexy. It’s reminiscent of the early-2000s music of Akron-native band The Black Keys, from albums like Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness.

And the Cavs have appropriated that gritty Black Keys style to their play all series, crashing the finely crafted symphony being played by the Golden State Warriors by maximizing the distortion and turning the amps up to 11. The Cavs brought a whole lot of Thickfreakness to the Q in Game 3 when they had a chance to take a series lead. Maybe that’s grit, and maybe that’s not, but it appears that it’s earned a bit of admiration from Kobe Bryant. Let’s take a peek behind the box score and see how the Cavs went up 2-1.

107 – There are a lot of important stats in the series so far, but the most important one now (for a variety of reasons) is LeBron James’ 107 field goal attempts. So far in his career, James has averaged barely over two games per season (playoffs and regular season) with more than 30 field goal attempts (26 games total), and he’s jacked up that many attempts in each game of the 2015 Finals games so far. The hyper-efficient 2012-14 LeBron James would have been panicked and self-conscious at the notion of shooting that much (for good reason), but it’s been what the Cavs have needed. It would be desirable for James to shoot a higher percentage (14-of-34 for 41.2 percent in Game 3), but LeBron’s strangehold on the game has done a lot of things: compensated for the missing scoring volume from Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving (LeBron scored another 40 points on Tuesday night); allowed players exerting themselves on defense (like Matthew Dellavedova) to rest a little on offense; slowed Golden State’s warp-speed tempo; disrupted the Warriors’ offensive rhythm; limited turnovers (even though they had 14 on Tuesday); helped the Cavs transition defense setup quickly; attracted the attention of the Golden State defense and frew hesitant help; earned James high percentage shots near the hoop (that haven’t fallen at a high rate); and earned a lot of trips to the free throw line. Using shooting volume to somehow keep the Cavs in this series may be James’ greatest Jedi mind trick of his career.2

38.0 – Throughout the playoffs, opponents defended by Timofey Mozgov are shooting 38.0 percent at the rim, which ranks only behind Anthony Davis as the lowest opponent percentage at the rim.3 Also, Warriors players defended by Mozgov are shooting only 13-of-39 so far in the series (33.3 percent), collectively 14.5 percent (!) below their average. Mozgov had four blocks on Tuesday night, and his impact cannot be overstated. He did everything for the Cavaliers: helped string out Stephen Curry on the pick-and-roll; recovered to bother Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green when they rolled to the hoop, even did an admirable job switching when needed (Curry hit an impossible three over Mozgov in the fourth quarter). Mozgov didn’t score as much as he did in Games 1 or 2 (only six points as he had trouble handling the ball in Game 3), but he’s been the Cavaliers’ second best player in the series behind James and has impacted the game in every way imaginable, such as tipping rebounds out to Cavs players for which he doesn’t receive credit.

20 – Matthew Dellavedova is an improbable NBA player who was the improbable hero in Game 3, adding 20 points and becoming the Cavs second leading scorer. Outback Jesus is the star of a basketball fairy tale right now, and is quickly becoming a Cleveland folk hero. A player once known for his effort and the wrath he inspired from fans from that effort’s results, he’s becoming known for his effort and playoff heroics. Dellavedova played for 38 minutes (18 more than his regular season average), serving as the Cavs lead point guard by default and the chief defender of reigning league MVP Stephen Curry. Curry eventually caught fire in the fourth quarter (a bonkers 17 points), but Dellavedova frustrated him enough in the first three quarters (10 points on 4-of-11 shooting), to allow the Cavs to carry a 17-point lead into the deciding frame. Also, Dellavedova was mysteriously taken off Curry for a large part of the fourth quarter, so he’s largely not to blame for the Curry-splosion. Dellavedova mixed in enough floaters, three-pointers, and free throws to distract from James, and was part of the game’s two signature plays: the alley-oop assist to James that LeBron trusted he could deliver (above); and the and-one bank runner with Curry molesting him from above the three-point line into the paint. If James is the lead guitarist defining the team’s grit-and-grind play, Dellavedova is the serviceable drummer keeping the rhythm by being the first man on the floor for every loose ball. It was a superhuman effort from Dellavedova in Game 3, so much so that James told Doris Burke that Delly was “made of steel” in the postgame interview. Later, Dellavedova went to the Cleveland Clinic with “severe cramping,” with his status to be updated on Wednesday. Let’s get that kid 10 bags of IV fluid and megaliter of Gatorade.

7.5/100 – With the losses of Anderson Varejao, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving (and someone else I’m probably forgetting), the Cavs really only have 7.5 serviceable NBA players. Mike Miller pitched in with five much-needed minutes (including some early hustle plays and late inbounds passes), but can only be relied upon for limited contributions. The rest of the minutes went to LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, and James Jones — that’s all the Cavs have. Warriors coach Steve Kerr played 10 players, including the presumed-dead David Lee. The Cavaliers needed six players to play over 30 minutes (two over 40), while the Warriors only needed four players to play over 30 minutes (one over 40). With the two overtimes in Games 1 and 2, LeBron James is averaging over 47 minutes per game. But it’s the amount of time logged by the seven-and-a-half players that is emblematic of the Cavaliers’ determination and success. They refuse to take any possessions off, as evidenced by Tristan Thompson and Dellavedova. They’re constantly playing hurt, as shown by Dellavedova and Shumpert (who missed much of the first half with an apparent arm injury). They do what is asked of them, as shown by Miller and Mozgov. They play relentless defense, as demonstrated by Dellavedova and Mozgov. I don’t know if it’s “grit” or “heart” or “LeBron will yell at me if I don’t” that’s driving the Cavaliers players to such incredible efforts, so I’ll just call it Thickfreakness — and the Cavs have Thickfreakness by the megaton, and it’s quickly making them one of the most memorable and likeable teams Cleveland has ever seen.


  1. Notably, he also described the word “grit” at “dumb” and “casually insulting.” []
  2. But it would still be nice to reduce those field goal attempt totals, if possible. []
  3. Via’s tracking data, among players playing over 15 minutes per game and whose opponents are attempting more than four field goals per game against them at the rim. []

  • crobarred

    Reading the comments you can tell who are the Cavs fans and who are the Golden State fans.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I don’t know but it’s ironic given the crap I’ve taken over my fondness for Boston sports. Between you and me I could care less.

  • crobarred

    I never really read the comments section on that site. I just did today for kicks. I live in Atlanta where people’s allegiances to pro teams seem to change daily. It’s cool that you have an affinity for Boston sports teams. I was never mad about it. I also appreciate that I can’t recall you ever going “steeler fan” on us and talk about how great your teams were to ours…so it’s all good.

  • BigDigg

    I’ve watched most live but will cop to missing a few and watching next day after i know the outcome. These games end late and it’s tough to calm down after these nail biter finishes. That coupled with early meetings, getting kids ready, etc.

    Wish they started these games an 8pm but understand the need to draw a big TV audience.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I was being a little antagonistic just a little I agree with the lateness making it tough especially for people with children but still it’s been 51 years. Regardless we are all different and have to do what is best for ourselves. It’s all good. Go Cavs!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You must have missed it because I’ve been guilty of flaunting the greatness of Boston sports but it stemmed more from the hate and doubt shown to those teams especially the Red Sox. Then you add in all of the drama with the Patriots and well there you go. But it looks like things will be rough once again the Sox are struggling, the mighty Bruins didn’t even make the playoffs, the Celtics best part is the draft coming up so really that only leaves the Patriots. And you thought 51 years was bad, sheesh! Just kidding.

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