NBA Finals Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
How we got here: Golden State dominated their entire way through the NBA playoffs. The Warriors are a perfect 12-0 and are looking every bit like the unbeatable super team we all thought they would be when they added Kevin Durant to the line-up last off-season. They swept Portland in the first round with ease. Then they did the same to a very good Utah Jazz team. Shockingly they did it again to the San Antonio Spurs – although they were without Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
I said at the start of the play-offs that this is the first team I have ever seen that could go 16-0 through the playoffs and I wouldn’t be surprised.
Curry and Durant have delivered for the Warriors in these playoffs. Steph has had the best playoff run of his career averaging 28.6 points per game on 50.2% shooting including 43.1% from three. KD has been averaging 25.2 points on 55.6% shooting to go along with 7.8 boards and 1.2 blocks as he’s taken his game to another level on the back-end as he’s reinvented himself as the Warriors’ top interior defender.
Beyond the two men who have won the last three MVP awards, Draymond Green has been outstanding. He’s leading the team in every category but points with 8.7 boards, 7.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 2.1 blocks. As much ink as Durant and Curry get, Green is the heart and soul of this Warrior team. Even when he’s out there getting suspended and kicking dudes in the nuts. Green’s passion and intensity really set the tone for the team and he’s brought his likely defensive player of the year level play up to an even higher level as he’s leading the playoffs in both defensive win shares and defensive rating.
With their three biggest stars playing at an elite level, the Warriors have looked like the most unbeatable team possibly ever.
But they’re about to meet the one team that can beat them. With the man that’s haunted their nightmares since last year’s playoffs.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a similar easy run to the NBA Finals. They swept the Indiana Pacers in round one, trounced a lifeless Toronto Raptors team in round two and beat the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
They have absolutely decimated teams on the strength of their top player, possibly the best player in NBA history and certainly the best I have ever seen in my lifetime: LeBron James.
At age 32 and in his 14th NBA season, LeBron is having the best playoff run of his career. He’s the leading his team in every category but rebounds. He’s averaging an incredible 32.5 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks. He’s shooting 56.6% including 62.3% from 2 point range and 42.1% from 3. He leads the playoffs in total points, in win shares and in value over replacement. On the way to the Finals he’s passed Michael Jordan as the NBA’s leading playoff scorer moved to third in all-time playoff assists, 2nd in all-time playoffs steals and third in all-time playoff threes.
Now he can cement his legacy as the greatest player ever to play this game in a way that even the most ardent Michael Jordan apologist can’t deny if he is able to lead this Cleveland team over quite possibly the best team ever assembled.
This is it. Probably the most anticipated NBA Finals match-up ever. The third straight meeting between these two teams. It’s never happened before. In 2015, the Warriors beat a Cavs team without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love in six games. In 2016, Cleveland came back from down 3-1 to beat the 73-9 Warriors and win their first ever NBA Championship.
Now the Warriors have swapped out Harrison Barnes for Kevin Durant and the Cavs have got LeBron playing possibly the best basketball of his career for the rubber match.
How the Warriors can win: Kevin Durant. That’s really the biggest weapon that Golden State has this year that they didn’t last year. Cleveland has no real answer to him and he can absolutely punish them. It was hard enough for the Cavs to figure out how to guard the Warriors last year but not they have to shut down line-ups that include the most efficient volume scorer in NBA history.
They’ve added Durant to a line-up that you can’t double team because of three point shooting. He is more than capable of taking over a game or even a series in those conditions. To be honest, I don’t even know who or how the Cavaliers will guard him consistently. LeBron can’t do it for an entire series where he’ll be relied on to carry the offensive load.
One of the keys to victory for Cleveland last year was going at Harrison Barnes who had a very poor showing in the Finals including going 5-32 over the last three games of the series. They won’t get that mismatch again. The key to a Warriors victory is going to be Durant.
You can expect that one of Durant or Curry will be in the game at any given time. And they have to be. They need to outscore the Cavs at every possible opportunity. Especially when LeBron is resting. When the King is in the game these play-offs, Cleveland’s defensive rating is 102.2. When he isn’t, Cleveland’s defensive rating is 117.9. The Warriors have to take those opportunities, however brief they might be and torch the Cavs as much as possible. Mike Brown has had the luxury of deploying line-ups without Curry or Durant a lot throughout these playoffs, he can’t against the Cavs. One of them needs to be on the floor at all times to take advantage of potential mismatches and punish non-LeBron line-ups in the brief window they will get without him.
In order to win this series, the Warriors have also got to limit their turnover rate. Golden State is 40-4 this year when they stay below 15 turnovers. They’re 39-11 when they commit more than 15. Granted, that record is still very impressive, but the Cavs are a team that can absolutely punish them off of turnovers. The Cavs are coming off a series against the Celtics where they averaged 14 fast break points per game. If the Warriors try to get cute with ball handling and turn it over, the Cavs will make them pay.
The Warriors absolutely have to do a better job of getting to the line than they did in last year’s Finals. The Cavs got there 22 more times than Golden State did. The Finals were decided by 4 points. Getting to the line and making those free throws can be the difference in a close series and there is little reason to believe that we’re going to see a blow out in this one.
Golden State also is going to need that to rely on all of its weapons. The thing about the three ball is that shooters can cool off. In the event that Curry goes through a cold spell, they’re going to need to be able to rely on their other options. Fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson is only averaging 14.4 points in the playoffs. It’s not because he’s playing poorly either. Thompson has been asked to take on a different role for the Warriors and he’s done so as the third option behind Durant and Curry. They are going to have to rely on him to come up big.
Additionally, there will be times when Draymond Green, having an all-time great playoffs, will be relied on to play a bigger role in the offense. Green is more than up tot he task. One of the most impressive aspects of his all-encompassing playoff performance has been his three point shooting as he’s hit 47% from downtown. The Warriors are going to need him to keep up that level of offensive production at times and maintain his all-world defensive play.
As mentioned every time I write about this team, there is no margin for error when playing the Golden State Warriors. That in itself is a compelling argument for why they will win this series.
How the Cavs can win: In much the same way as Kevin Durant is the focal point for Golden State, LeBron James is it for Cleveland. James is playing the best basketball of his career in these playoffs. Andre Iguodala won the 2015 Finals MVP largely for defending James and LeBron still averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in that series and really should have won the MVP. The King had to do everything without Love and Irving. LeBron averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists in the 2016 Finals with Love and Irving and with Iguodala guarding him.
This year Iguodala is hurting and likely won’t be healthy enough to guard James in the same way he has in the last two Finals. They’re going to have to throw different options like Durant, Green and Shaun Livingston will see time against LeBron but LeBron has so weapons in his arsenal that it will be a nearly impossible task. If the Warriors have no answer for James, it bodes well for the Cavs. The Warriors and Cavaliers have played each other 18 times over the last three years. When LeBron scores over 35 points, they are 5-2 against the Warriors. When he hits at least three times from three point range, they are 5-1. LeBron is the most important player in this series.
Guarding the King will make it harder anyone to be impactful on the other end and also open up Cleveland’s other options which you can count on LeBron finding.
One of them will definitely be Kyrie Irving who Cleveland will need to match his outstanding Finals performance last season which saw him average 27.1 points and shoot 40% from three point range. Most importantly he won the point guard match-up with Steph Curry. If he’s able to do that again, the Cavaliers will have a chance to win this series. They will likely find themselves matched-up a lot and Irving is going to have to shut down Curry when they are and outperform him on the other end. A monumental task for sure but one that Irving has already accomplished in last years’ finals.
When Kyrie isn’t on Curry, the Cavaliers are going to have to rely on switches and other ways to create mismatches for Curry. They did this quite memorably and effectively in last year’s Finals when Kevin Love found himself coming out to guard Curry and actually shut him down quite memorably in one of game seven’s key sequences. Love has actually had a lot of success this year in drawing those switches and making them work.
Stopping Curry is the most important task for the Cavaliers defense. With Steph on the floor, the Warriors are outscoring opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions. If the Cavaliers can’t slow down or stop that production, they won’t stay in this series very long.
Cleveland will need to dominate the glass in this series. Tristan Thompson has elevated his game to new heights this season. He has been an absolute force inside and is leading the playoffs in offensive boards and is shooting and hitting free throws at a career best pace while averaging just below a double-double for the playoffs. The Cavs will be able to rely on Thompson and Love for boards and should win the interior match-up considering that the Warriors don’t have a strong interior defensive presence and have relied on Durant for that all season.
But where Thompson will be most important is winning his defensive match-ups. Especially when he draws Durant or even Curry during switches. If Thompson is able to hold his own against the tough match-ups he is going to get, the Cavaliers will have a chance. His interior presence and his ability to dominate inside are going to make him as important in his series as Love or Irving in some ways.
JR Smith is also going to be looked to a lot as the Cavs are going to have to keep pace with the Golden State scoring machine. Smith went missing in the first two games of last year’s Finals and the Cavs found themselves in a 2-0 hole as he only scored 8 points on 3-9 shooting over those two games. Cleveland cannot afford to going down by two games to this Warriors team. They will not beat them 4 out of 5 this time. Smith is going to have to establish his offense early in this series and be a reliable scoring option all the way.
One area where the Cavs have an edge is their bench which boasts an absurd 120.7 offensive rating through three rounds of the playoffs and a net rating of +8.6. The Cavs have a variety of catch-and-shoot targets like Kyle Korver and Channing Frye and have also seen a revitalized Deron Williams play an important role in key situations, including a record 25 point comeback in game three against the Pacers, while sporting a net rating of +16.4 in the post season. The Cavs second unit production and ability to vary line-ups could be a major factor in this series.
What will happen: Pretty much everyone is picking Golden State to win this series. It’s not hard to see why. The Warriors went to seven games with Cleveland last year and now have Kevin Durant. They should win this. They probably will win this and it would honestly be a pretty major upset if they didn’t win this.
I’ve picked the winner in every series this year except one. I went with my heart over my head in the Bucks-Raptors match-up. I’m doing it again here. Everything says the Warriors will win. Except for one very important factor: they don’t have LeBron James.
The Cavs have a guy who can exploit Golden State’s biggest weakness: the interior as well as keep pace on the perimeter. They have the best basketball player I have ever seen in my life. I can’t pick against that.
Cleveland can also match the Warriors three point shooting and will win the rebound battle. Those factors will matter in this series as will the second unit production they have been able to count on throughout these playoffs and their ability to cause more trouble for Steph Curry than seemingly any other team in the NBA.
I’ve talked myself into it. I’m taking the upset. I’m picking the Cavs to win this series and for LeBron to silence every single critic he’s ever had because let’s face it: Michael Jordan never beat a team this good. If the Cavs pull this off, we probably never have to hear another conversation about legacies again and I would welcome that given how played out that discussion is.
LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his career at 32 years old and in his 14th NBA season. There is no answer to him. The Warriors might have Curry and Durant, but I can’t pick against LeBron. Not this year.
It’s going to be a well-matched hard fought series that will grind both teams down. We’re going to see the Warriors blow out the Cavs at least once and a million narrative changes through every game of this series, but ultimately Cleveland will come out on top and LeBron will win another Finals MVP.
Prediction: Cleveland in seven.