Lowe: Which lineup gives LeBron best chance to beat the Warriors?

Know who I thought about Tuesday for the first time in weeks?

Jae Crowder.

It’s not a good sign that anyone contemplated Crowder’s untapped relevance for this Finals — and whether the guy Cleveland got for him, the crumbling Rodney Hood, might win back his role in a series that requires maximum wing players.

There has been a lot of scolding in the media toward those bored by Cavs-Warriors IV. In truth, I’m a little bored. How many times can we watch LeBron call up Stephen Curry’s man for a pick-and-roll, force a switch, and calculate his options? Is it still fun seeing the Cavs trap Curry on the other end, and dare Golden State’s non-shooters to beat them?

It would be different if this were a matchup of equals. Alas. As Kevin Pelton noted, this is perhaps the biggest mismatch in Finals history. This isn’t Celtics-Lakers. This is Celtics-Lakers if you gave Kevin McHale a concussion, and replaced Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson with league-average (or worse) players.

LeBron represents the small possibility of a miracle. That possibility titillates now, but the intrigue will dissipate if the Warriors destroy the Cavs in the first two games at Oracle Arena — as they have by a combined 89 points in the first four games of the last two Finals. Golden State destroys everyone in Game 1s. Their unconventional offense — the star power, and relative lack of pick-and-roll — seems to impose a one-game learning curve. The absence of Andre Iguodala, and the obstacles it creates in Golden State pivoting more to Draymond Green at center, gives Cleveland at least some chance of hanging in one of these first two. (The Warriors in the Finals have generally blitzed Cleveland with Green at center. The series have been close to even otherwise.)

LeBron no longer has the luxury of feel-out games. The Cavs no longer have the luxury of saving their energy for when their backs are against the wall. The Warriors will just throw them through the wall.

LeBron isn’t just having a historic postseason. He is having arguably the greatest postseason in basketball history. He is the only player to average more than 30 points, 8.5 assists, and 8.5 rebounds per game over at least 15 playoff games. (LeBron is pouring in 34 per game.)

Only nine players have ever averaged 30 points per game in a playoff run of that length: LeBron (four times); Michael Jordan (eight, LOL); Jerry West (three); Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal twice each; and Allen Iverson, Rick Barry and Hakeem Olajuwon once apiece. LeBron’s field goal percentage (54 percent) ranks sixth among those 24 combined campaigns. His ridiculous 60.1 percent accuracy on 2-pointers ranks second, behind only his own mark, just last season. Ditto for his true shooting percentage.

When LeBron dials it up on defense, we are seeing the best sustained all-around play in the history of the sport. I’m not sure that is debatable.

And that brings us back to Crowder. A year ago, LeBron had to defend Kevin Durant. The Cavs had no other choice in their starting lineup. Richard Jefferson was their relief option. Some suggested the Cavs try Tristan Thompson on Durant, and they’ve actually done it on a handful of possessions. One thing lightened LeBron’s burden: sloughing some ballhandling onto Kyrie Irving. Whoops.

It is hard to imagine LeBron has the stamina to chase Durant and carry Cleveland’s offense by himself. The Cavs demanded Crowder in the Irving deal precisely because they needed a bigger wing to absorb some of the Durant assignment. (As long as Andre Iguodala is out, Durant will likely have to guard LeBron almost every minute James plays. The difference: Durant is four years younger, has logged about 700 fewer minutes this season, and has three star teammates to create offense.)

And that has raised the question: Should the Cavs start Jeff Green, and have him guard Durant?

Option No. 1: 2015 Redux (No Love)

George Hill, JR Smith, LeBron, Green, Thompson

In 2015, after Irving joined Kevin Love on the injured list, a few among the Warriors’ brain trust speculated the Cavs were a tougher matchup without their secondary stars: surround LeBron with grimy defenders, let him drain the shot clock on offense, slow the game like a smashmouth football team.

Minimizing possessions is probably Cleveland’s best shot at a competitive series, and this lineup is one pathway there. If Love misses Game 1, the Cavs will probably start it.

This group can mimic Houston’s switch-everything scheme. They would still end up in painful matchups — Hill on Durant, Green on Curry, Smith on anyone — but there is value in simplifying the mental demands against Golden State.

Hill is an especially important player — Cleveland’s best defensive point guard since coffee-addled Matthew Dellavedova. They need something like 18 points per game out of Hill on 40 percent 3-point shooting.

On defense, Hill is big enough — 6-3, with a 6-8 wingspan — to switch across more positions than typical point guards. That is handy against the dread Curry-Durant pick-and-roll, a tool the Warriors (frustratingly) save for only the highest-stakes moments. In last season’s Game 5 clincher, Golden State ran 20 such plays, the highest single-game total since Durant joined them, per Second Spectrum tracking data. They set 59 total ball screens for Curry — also their post-Durant high.

The Steph-Durant dance presented the Cavs with a fatal choice: switch Irving onto Durant, or trap Curry, let Durant roll free, and initiate scramble mode.

They can at least try switching with Hill onto Durant. That is still a mismatch; Hill gives up nine inches. But if he wriggles under Durant’s base, he can at least force some long 2s. Durant holding the ball and surveying the scene saps Golden State’s rhythm. If Durant drives, Cleveland should have help ready off of Golden State’s poor shooters.

The Rockets wobbled Golden State by luring them into this style. The Warriors should be on high alert against falling into the same trap. Keep moving, and Cleveland’s switching scheme will break down.

(Notice Smith on Durant there. Yeah, they’ve tried that too.)

The Warriors know how to move when opponents ignore their least threatening shooters. Stray from one, and that guy pivots into an off-ball screen for Curry or Thompson. Andrew Bogut was a ninja at this, and all of Golden State’s lesser shooters have mastered it: