Handicapping the 2015 NBA Finals

As you probably already know, the matchup for the 2015 NBA Finals is set.  The Warriors and Cavaliers will be squaring off for the Larry O’Brien trophy, but first, they’ll be healing key injuries, as there is an eight day layoff between the end of the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals; that is a new NBA record. There are two key injuries for the Cavaliers in this series.  One is star point guard Kyrie Irving, who has been dealing with knee tendinitis since midway through the Cavaliers’ conference final series against the Bulls.  The other is to power forward Kevin Love, who separated his shoulder in the team’s first round series; he won’t be back.  The key injury for the Warriors is to Steph Curry’s running mate, Klay Thompson.  He suffered an ear laceration after being accidentally kneed in the face in Game 5 of the West Finals by the Rockets’ Trevor Ariza: (Warning: some may find video graphic and/or disturbing.)

That unsurprisingly manifested itself into concussion-like symptoms which was changed today to, *stunner*, a concussion. (This is pathetic, especially in these times of medical research and caution with regards to head injuries, but that’s another article for another time.)  Warriors’ back-up power forward Marreese Speights has been out with a right calf injury, but he could be available to play after the long layoff.

As for the two teams’ seasons?  Let’s start with the Cavaliers.  They played hot and cold at the beginning of the season, and were staring straight down the barrel at a 19-20 record and a low playoff seed on January 13th.  During their struggles, LeBron James was never really healthy, and as a result, took time off to heal from various injuries. After that, however, they ripped off a twelve-game winning streak, and catapulted up the Eastern Conference standings in the process; LeBron was back to his healthy and MVP-candidate self.  Most importantly, however, the team escaped the season largely healthy and unscathed, save for Anderson Varejao, who tore his Achilles on December 23; news has recently surfaced that Varejao could be activated for the Finals. However, disaster struck on April 26th, when in game 4 of the Cavs-Celtics series, Love separated his shoulder fighting for a rebound with the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk. The team has pressed on, however, without Love, and newly-pressed starter Tristan Thompson has given the team another dimension of toughness and grit, especially with his rebounding.  They defeated the Bulls in the Conference Semis in six games and then swept the 60-win Hawks in the Conference Finals.  They were expected to be here.  as for the other team…

The Warriors, with a rookie head coach (Steve Kerr) and a team that returned most of the same players off of last year’s team that lost to the Clippers in the 2014 Playoffs’ first round, were simply not expected to win or compete for a title this year, especially in the stacked Western Conference.  This year, however, they made their grand entrance into the league’s title discussion, in more ways than one:

Most surprising about the Warriors emergence, however, has been the utter dominance with which they have defeated their opponents. They outscored opposing teams by an average of 10.1 (10.1!) points per game this year, and their true dominance came at home. They were 39-2 in the regular season, and their only two regular season losses came at the hands of the Spurs and Bulls.  They’ve only lost once at home in these playoffs, and that was to the Grizzlies in the second round.  Point being, this team is nearly impossible to beat at the place they call “Roar-acle”, and in the one game the Cavaliers played there this season on January 9th, the Warriors came out with a 112-94 victory.  Simply put, the Cavs need to win at least one road game, but more likely two, to win a championship, and I just don’t know if they can.

As for the two teams now, the Warriors are still remarkably healthy. Other than the Thompson and Speights injuries, they basically have none.  They survived a scare when Steph Curry suffered a vicious fall in game 4 of the team’s Western Conference Finals series against the Rockets.  However, Curry was largely unhurt, and came back to the game.  Video of the fall can be found right here: (Warning: video may be disturbing for some.)

The difficulty for the Cavaliers in this series is, assuming they are both able to play, stopping Golden State’s splash brothers: Thompson and Curry.  They should be guarded in this series by Irving and J.R. Smith respectively, and that could cause Cleveland big problems. Look for the Cavaliers to play Matthew Dellavedova more in this series, as he is a defensive nuisance who will look to instigate trouble with the Warriors players.  Another matchup problem for the Cavaliers is Draymond Green, whose shooting, defensive, and play-making ability will keep the Cavs on their toes at both ends of the floor.  On defense, he will assuredly have the assignment of guarding LeBron, and LeBron may guard him for the Cavs defense as well. Andrew Bogut has also played well for the Warriors these playoffs, averaging nearly nine rebounds per game, serving as a catalyst for the Dubs’ wide open offense, and protecting the rim on defense.  The same can be said for back up center Festus Ezeli, who has spelled Bogut when he has had to go to the bench for foul trouble or rest.

The Cavaliers can counter Golden State with jump shooting of their own.  Smith and Irving are excellent jump shooters in their own right, and, if given to him, LeBron can spray the defense with his as well.  If bench players James Jones, Dellavedova, and Iman Shumpert get open looks, they are all quite dangerous as well.  However, the Cavaliers will have to win this series with their defense. They allowed 98.7 points per game in the regular season, good for 13th in the NBA. However, in the Playoffs, that number has sunk to 92.6 points per game. Also, they have allowed 91.7 points per contest without Love around, a harbinger of the Tristan Thompson effect (Hint, hint: Thompson is a better defender than Love).  Their defense was much maligned in the regular season, but it has really tightened up in these Playoffs.  With much concern for the Cavs in Cleveland and beyond from writers and those who follow the sport (including myself), their defense has helped ensure their playoff longevity.  Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, the team’s big men, need to help the team win the rebounding battle, which they should be able to do, considering that they are first in these Playoffs with a rebound differential of +6.5. (The Warriors are third in that category in the playoffs at +4.0.)  This is how they secure the upset and bring a title, something, anything back to Cleveland for the first time since 1964.

My feeling about this series is that the Warriors are an absolute juggernaut. They are difficult to stop, and even though some analysts think that a jump shooting team cannot win an NBA title, I disagree. Here’s why: they’re not just a jump shooting team offensively.  They penetrate, pass for open shots, and the jump shots they take are usually good ones.  The jump shots that Curry and Thompson take may not always look like good shots, but with them, any shot they take can go in, so is there such a thing as a bad one?

Most of all, the Warriors can win in many different ways, and I don’t think the Cavs’ defense can slow them down for a full game.  Take their last game against the Rockets, for example.  Curry was not having his best game and Thompson missed virtually the entire second half with foul trouble and his concussion (*-like symptoms*). The Warriors still won by 14 because a new player emerged in the fourth quarter: Harrison Barnes.  He kept the team afloat offensively, and their defense was the catalyst for their offense, causing MVP runner-up James Harden to turn the ball over 13 times, a new NBA record.  They consistently find new ways to win, and who knows, maybe another player emerges at a critical juncture for Golden State. Maybe it’s Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala off the bench that helps them win an all-important game down the stretch.  Or maybe it’s Curry and Thompson, like we all expect.

Like I expect.

While the Cavaliers have a fighting chance because of James, Irving, and their defense, I don’t see many (if any) ways that they can win this series.  It will be competitive, and maybe more competitive than it should be, because I think the Cavaliers are over-matched here.

The Warriors will win this series in six games. How do you feel about that, Riley Curry?

All statistics courtesy of espn.com and Basketball-Reference

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