Four Score: NBA Finals Preview

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For a few fleeting moments, the fourth Finals meeting between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed in peril. Both teams went down 3-2 in their respective Conference Finals and neither had home court advantage when each series went to a decisive Game 7. But, as has been said for the past three calendar years in the modern NBA, none of those things mattered.

We are getting a fourth installment of the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, whether we want it or not. Frankly, most everyone knows how this will end. The Warriors are a lot better than Cleveland and just eliminated a 65-win team despite only playing to their potential for one quarter per game, at most.

Nonetheless, let’s do a little Finals preview, shall we?

Iso What?

When Kevin Durant left the Thunder to sign with the Warriors in 2016, he left one of the most stagnant and isolation-dependent offenses in the league to join one of the most free-flowing offenses in the history of the sport. It worked out that way last season, but it hasn’t been the same this year.

In last year’s playoffs, Golden State ran just 6.8% of their possessions in isolation; this would typically come in the form of a favorable one-on-one matchup with either Durant or Steph Curry. This would happen towards the end of the game if Golden State really needed a bucket or at any other time they did. Over their first three Finals runs, ball movement and player movement were the staples of one of the best offenses in NBA history, and that didn’t initially change when Durant entered the fold.

Now, however, it has.

In these playoffs, the percentage of possessions that Golden State uses in isolation action has risen to 11.2%, up nearly 65% from last season.  That’s perfectly fine when you have Durant and Curry, but at some point, your offense stagnates and other players aren’t involved in the action. Of course, this is an uptown problem for one of the most talented rosters in NBA history; the Cavaliers have had higher isolation percentages the past two playoffs and they aren’t nearly as skilled as Golden State. But the Warriors destroyed Cleveland in the Finals last season averaging 29 assists and 121 points per game in just over 100 possessions per game. Against the Rockets, Golden State averaged 21 assists per game and just over 107 points per contest on an average of slightly under 94 possessions. When Cleveland beat Golden State in 2016, each game of the Finals averaged 92 possessions.

The only way the Cavaliers win this series is if they don’t get snookered into playing the Warriors’ style of basketball. The problem is that the Warriors are struggling to play like that themselves.

Worst Supporting Actor(s)

The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been a one-man show. This year, however, the gap in talent between LeBron James and his teammates is more frightening and stark.

In these playoffs, James is averaging 34 points per game and shooting just over 54% from the field. The rest of the Cavaliers are not faring as well; the supporting cast is averaging just 67 points per game and they have been bailed out in these playoffs by seven 40-point games from James. The problem for Cleveland, then, is this: how much more can LeBron do and how difficult will it really be for the Warriors to shut down the Cavs’ offense?

The fact of the matter is that the Cavaliers role players need to be better. While Jeff Green chipped in 19 and J.R. Smith had 12 in Game 7 against Boston, these performances were more of an anomaly than the rule in these playoffs. Kevin Love missed Game 7 with a concussion suffered in the previous game, and even though he provides perimeter shooting and quality rebounding, he will have a very difficult time trailing the likes of even Draymond Green on the perimeter. If the Warriors look to get Cleveland into switching action, he would likely have to defend either Curry, Durant, or Klay Thompson. If that happens (and it will, if/when Love returns), advantage: Warriors, particularly if Andre Iguodala is in the starting lineup (more on him later).

Honestly, the Cavaliers’ supporting cast has never been talented enough to win a championship, whether that was before or after the team nuked its own roster at the trade deadline. Sure, GM Koby Altman did the best he could at that point because the Cavaliers, at the time, were a directionless car moving aimlessly towards the chaotic intersection that is the NBA Playoffs. But even though Cleveland got younger and faster in February, that does not mean they necessarily got better.

LeBron James will have to carry the load once more for the Cavaliers if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. It may be too much for him to handle, not because he isn’t capable, but because the Warriors are too good and his supporting cast is too bad.

Andre Iguodala

This one pretty much explains itself. Iguodala missed Golden State’s last four games of the Western Conference Finals with a knee injury. In the three games with him in the lineup against Houston, the Warriors averaged 116.7 points per contest. Without him, they averaged 100.5. The difference with and without him on the floor is drastic, as Iggy has a +11.1 rating per 100 possessions when he is on the floor in these playoffs.

It seems strange to say this about a team that has four of the 15 or 20 best players in the game right now, but Andre Iguodala is the adhesive that keeps the Warriors clicking on both ends. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said today that the Warriors would have beaten the Rockets in five games with the former Finals MVP healthy, and I have to say that I can’t disagree with him. Golden State likely wins the knock-down, drag-out, 90s-esque battles in Games 4 and 5 with him on the floor, and the fact that the Warriors were able to overcome a 3-2 deficit against a 65-win team without him is a testament to just how much talent is on their roster.

The talent disparity between them and the Cavaliers would become even greater if he finds a way to play in these Finals.


I will admit that I’ve done more comprehensive previews for these series in the past, and apologies if comprehensive is what you were looking for here. The fact of the matter is, though, that the Warriors are at least ten times more talented than the Cavs and, even though it’s a far worse fate than he deserves, LeBron James will get bounced in short order by a team he can’t single-handedly take down for the second straight year.

I’ll give the Cavaliers one win out of respect for the greatest player of all time being on their roster. But I can’t fathom a way in which they win this series, unless the Warriors fall back on the same bad habits that nearly got them knocked out of the Playoffs by a shorthanded Rockets team.

Pick: Warriors in 5



The NBA Finals Is Upside Down, So Let’s Just Enjoy It

lebron james game 6 stats nba finals 2016 points rebounds assists steals
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nothing easy… we’re going to Game Seven baby!  Game Seven! GAME SEVENNNNNNNN! – Zaza Pachulia

I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say.  It took a long time to get to this point, but since we’re here, I might as well tell the truth.

I give up trying to figure out these NBA Finals.  The twists, the turns, the mouthpiece tosses.  I really don’t know how Game 7 will go and I’m still trying to figure out how we got here.  It’s not worth it to sort out the particulars of the first six games of this series because the Finals actually makes less sense to me when I do.

But we can at least try to decipher the first six games and look ahead to Sunday night’s Game 7.  The key word: try.

For one thing, we’ve found our Finals MVP.  Ironically, it’s the same person that should’ve won the award last year: LeBron James.  He’s actually leading every statistical category in this series, as noted by ESPN Stats and Info:

James has so clearly been the best player on the floor in this series.  Moreover, no player on the Warriors has distinguished himself nearly enough to wrest the award away from him, and that holds true even if Golden State wins Game 7.  If you’re only watching the Finals and didn’t follow the regular season, you would think that LeBron was the unanimous MVP and not Steph Curry.  That’s saying something.

And there’s more bad news for the Warriors.  Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP and primary LeBron defender, suffered a back injury in last night’s game.  While he’s definitely going to play on Sunday, his health may be the difference in the game. There’s another thing I never thought I’d say.

And Iguodala’s injury has other ramifications, too.  The Warriors are already thin in the frontcourt, with Andrew Bogut out for the Finals with a knee injury.  Without his minutes and the normal services of Iguodala, players like Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes would likely have to spend more time guarding James.

Green may be able to hold his own, but the bigger question mark is Barnes.  After I wrote about how Barnes would need to play better for the Warriors to win a championship, he promptly had the worst game of his life in Game 6.  Barnes went for 0 offensive rebounds, 0 assists, and 0 points last night.  This is hard to do (especially as a starter), but the legitimately did nothing on the offensive end of the floor.  So who knows where his mind is right now.

Yet another issue for the Warriors comes from an unlikely source: Steph Curry.  The back-to-back MVP struggled with foul trouble in Game 6, fouling out for the first time this season. After his sixth foul, he had this memorable reaction.  He would assuredly like to forget it:

Soon after Steph fouled out, his wife, Ayesha, tweeted out this thought.  I don’t even know what to say about it that would correctly encapsulate its stupidity:

Ayesha Curry puts out a theory (via Twitter).

Ironically, after saying she “won’t be silent”, she deleted the tweet.  It was a good move, as the tweet only received at least 28,758 retweets.  It’s not like the whole world saw it or anything.

But, regardless of his wife’s thoughts, Steph needs to stay out of foul trouble in Game 7.  The Warriors need his offense on the floor to win their second straight championship.  Even though he’s been outplayed by Kyrie Irving in this series, he is still capable of going off at any particular time.  His chances of doing so are exponentially greater if he doesn’t have to go to the bench with early foul woes.

And then there’s the issue of the Warriors’ “death lineup”.  While it had flourished earlier in the series, it was outscored 27-9 in Game 6.  Part of that is the injury to Iguodala, but the Cavs deserve a great deal of credit here.  On multiple occasions, the team used pick and roll action to switch Curry or Klay Thompson on James.  Curry’s foul trouble, combined with LeBron’s massive height and strength advantage over both players, led to several easy baskets for Cleveland.

The other problem is that without Bogut’s rim protection, the Warriors have no way of stopping these switches.  If Green (who plays center in the death lineup) helps on LeBron, he leaves Tristan Thompson open.  Because Bron is such a good passer and Thompson is so good at cutting toward the basket, the result often ends in an alley-oop dunk, as it did several times in Game 6.

Golden State has several issues.  These issues are so significant that they may make the difference in this series.  But this is about more than the Warriors; it’s also about LeBron.

We’ll never know why James was so much less assertive in the first four games as compared to his last two.  However, since he and Kyrie Irving decided to take things into their own hands the last two games, the Cavaliers have been a totally different team.

There is one Cavalier player, though, who could seriously step things up in Game 7: Kevin Love.  Last night, Love only played 12 minutes, plagued by foul trouble and ineffectiveness.  At this point, Tyronn Lue may want to bring Love off the bench outright, as he’s only getting role player minutes in his current capacity.  Richard Jefferson once again stepped into his role and outplayed him, and he may be worthy of the Game 7 nod.  Then again, the Cavs got here with Love, so their allegiance to him in their starting lineup is very understandable.

At this point, I’m about out of ways to figure out this series.  I don’t know how we’re here, with the greatest regular season team in NBA history on the verge of the worst collapse the league has ever seen.  But this series really is even; both teams have scored 610 points over the course of the last six games.  In spite of the fact that none of the games have been within single digits, the NBA Finals is as even as it could be.

I have a feeling Game 7 is going to be epic.  It will pit the league’s two biggest stars against one another in a winner-take-all bout to determine legacies and history.  I’ve given up trying to figure out this series, so I’m going to enjoy Sunday night’s game as the culmination of a fascinating NBA season.

You should too.

Here We Go Again: NBA Finals Preview

Warriors vs. Cavaliers: Score, Highlights and Reaction from 2016 Regular Season
Photo Credit: Tony Dejak/Associated Press

After four games of the Conference Finals, the respective fates of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were greatly in question.

Both teams experienced unexpected outcomes; the Cavs split the first four games of their series against the Toronto Raptors, including two losses in Canada, while the Warriors fell behind three games to one to the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Both teams were expected to win their respective conferences; Cleveland, in particular, was expected to sweep the Raptors or defeat them in five games.  Consequently, it was shocking to see both teams appear so vulnerable for such long periods of time.

Both teams also had notable regular seasons, to say the least.  The Warriors set the single-season wins record (73), breaking the previous record of 72 set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.  The Cavaliers, on the other hand, fired head coach David Blatt on January 22nd and replaced him with Tyronn Lue.  After Blatt started the season 30-11, Lue finished it 27-14; the combined 57-25 record was good enough for the Cavaliers to earn home-court advantage for the entirety of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  However, many questions still remained about the team’s ability to beat the best teams in the West.

And yet, here we are.  The Cavaliers took Games 5 and 6 in decisive fashion to beat the Raptors and get LeBron James to his sixth straight NBA Finals.  The Warriors improbably became just the tenth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 playoff deficit and took down the Thunder in seven hard-fought games.

Both teams overcame obstacles to get to this point.  Golden State endured a knee injury that forced point guard and 2-time MVP Steph Curry to miss two weeks in early May.  In spite of this, the Dubs went 3-1 in four full games without him.  The MVP would come back in Game 4 of the team’s second-round series against the Trail Blazers. With Golden State up two games to one, Curry came off the bench and dropped 17 points in overtime, an NBA playoff record, to carry the Warriors to a 3-1 series lead and full control over Portland.

Curry scored 40 points for the game and announced himself to the rest of the world as fully healthy.  That did not necessarily apply to his rhythm and comfort level in game action, however.

Curry would struggle to find his mojo in the first four games of the Western Conference Finals.  In those four games, Steph would shoot just 31-74 (41.9%) from the field and a pedestrian 16-43 (37.2%) from deep.  He surely did not look like the best player in basketball, and many were curious as to why.  This report from The Vertical shed some light on the situation, stating that Curry was not fully healed:

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Nineteen points on 20 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

While it was nice to have a potential reason for Curry’s struggles, the Warriors needed to win the next three games to make it back to the NBA Finals.  Without having Curry’s usual production, this goal looked almost unattainable.  And then Klay Thompson happened.

Thompson, the other half of the Splash Brothers duo, has been the Warriors’ best player in the postseason.  He’s shot 45% from three-point range, averaged over 26 points per game, and carried the team at various times coinciding with Curry’s struggles and injuries.  After a narrow victory in Game 5 and the continuation of Curry’s woes to start Game 6, he would need to put the Warriors on his back once more to extend their season.

And Thompson would answer the call in grand fashion.  His 11 three-pointers set a new playoff record and propelled the Warriors to a 108-101 victory to force a Game 7.

The exhibition was one of the most memorable single-game playoff performances in recent memory.  It was almost as if Thompson wasn’t even looking at the rim on some of his deep shots, and yet it didn’t seem to matter.  He carried the Dubs to Game 7 all on his own, and the rest of the team would take it from there.  Curry erupted for 36 points in the clincher, Thompson added another 21, and the Warriors defeated the Thunder 96-88 to advance to their second straight NBA Finals.

The Cavaliers’ playoff journey has not been nearly as arduous.   Nonetheless, it has been just as impressive as their West counterparts. Cleveland started the playoffs with a sweep of the Detroit Pistons, a series that featured three close games and this Kyrie Irving dagger to finish off Game 3:

Kyrie, 🗡

A video posted by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

 

The Cavs followed up their first-round performance with an equally impressive second-round sweep of the Atlanta Hawks.  Wins in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals pushed Cleveland to a 10-0 start to the playoffs.  The team missed its chance to tie the 1989 Los Angeles Lakers for the best start in playoff history (11-0) with a loss in Game 3, but starting the playoffs on a historic tear doesn’t usually guarantee a title.

Although the Cavs’ series with the Raptors went to six games, it wasn’t especially close.  Cleveland outscored Toronto by an average of 15.5 points per game; for context, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs outscored the Heat by 14 points per game in that year’s Finals, and that series only went five games.  Even though the series was tied heading into Game 5, the Raptors never really stood a chance.  Their fans were pretty darn awesome, though:

With the Game 6 win, LeBron James advanced to his sixth straight Finals and became only the eighth player to achieve this feat.  Here are the other seven:

  1. Bill Russell
  2. Sam Jones
  3. K.C. Jones
  4. Satch Sanders
  5. Tommy Heinsohn
  6. Frank Ramsey
  7. Bob Cousy

If you didn’t latch on right away, all seven players were on the Boston Celtics’ 1950s-60s teams that went to ten straight NBA Finals from 1957 to 1966.  The fact that James has joined their company with more parity in the league and with two different organizations is nothing short of remarkable.

With all of this being said, the 2016 NBA Finals should be a compelling series.  Oh, and did I mention it’s a rematch of last year’s Finals?  This, as well as the individual players and collective talent on both teams, should make this year’s Finals very competitive and entertaining.  Let’s preview the series with a couple of major keys to the outcome of the series.

Pick-and-Roll

Some would argue that last year’s NBA Finals turned in the 4th quarter of Game 3.  In that 4th quarter, the Warriors discovered David Lee, his passing, and the efficiency of the high pick-and-roll.  In 13 minutes, the cast-off former double-double machine was +17 and went a perfect 4-for-4 from the field.

Lee is gone now, but the pick-and-roll game of the Warriors remains. Whether Curry, Thompson, or Shaun Livingston is the primary ball-handler, roll men Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and Festus Ezeli will present unique challenges for the Cavaliers. Bogut is one of the best-passing big men in the game and is almost always looking to pass when he rolls to the rim. Ezeli can finish with authority inside while Iguodala and Green can drive to the rim, take a jump shot, or make an extra pass to the Warriors’ dangerous shooters.

But there’s another reason why the pick-and-roll will be such a huge key for the Cavaliers, and it lies in the players who will be defending it.  As Zach Lowe of ESPN writes, the two-man combination of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is not exactly adept at pick-and-roll defense:

But Irving and Love have been the central players in Cleveland’s worst breakdowns. Opponents in the playoffs have scored 1.09 points per chance when they involve those two as the primary pick-and-roll defenders in a play that leads directly to a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That would have ranked last by a mile among 119 two-man combos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular season, per that SportVU data set.

Toronto was able to exploit this weakness with the two-man pick-and-roll combo of Kyle Lowry and Bismack Biyombo.  With the Warriors’ offensive firepower, they could rely on pick-and-roll action to stifle the Cavs’ defense.  Look out for this early on in Game 1 as a harbinger of how the game, and, for that matter, the series, will go.

LeBron’s Jumper, His Fatigue, and How They’re (Kind of) Related

It’s no secret that LeBron James’ jump shot is not quite as effective as it was in years past.  Statistics back this up: his three-point percentage this season was the lowest since his rookie year (30.9%) and his deep shooting has regressed every year since winning his last MVP in 2012-13.  Accordingly, Bron has adjusted: his average distance on field goal attempts is at a career low (9.6 feet) and he’s taking the most attempts from inside three feet in his NBA career (45.9%).

Part of this adjustment can be attributed to James’ realization that he must get better shots.  However, one can also credit the King’s improved shot selection with Tyronn Lue’s offense, one in which the ball moves as frequently as the players.  LeBron just isn’t asked to do as much in Lue’s system, and that’s a good thing: his Usage Rate in these playoffs is down significantly from last year’s.  Of course, last year’s Cavs were decimated by injuries, but a fresher LeBron means a better LeBron.

And a better LeBron means a better Cavalier team, certainly better than the one that lost to the Warriors in six games a year ago.

Pace…. And Space

The Cavaliers have possessed the most efficient offense in these playoffs, averaging over 119 points per 100 possessions.  Cleveland only averages 89.7 possessions per game, which is relatively low, especially compared to their Bay Area counterparts.  The Warriors average nearly 100 possessions per game and feast off the opponent’s misses and turnovers for fast break opportunities and easy baskets.

Aside from the pick-and-roll defense of the Cavs, this will probably be the biggest indicator of the outcome of this series.  If the Cavaliers’ offense is allowed to set up in the half court and run its sets, Cleveland will be in very good shape, especially considering how their offense has fared these playoffs.  However, if the game is played at a more up-and-down tempo, the Dubs should fare well.

While Tyronn Lue has sped up the Cavs’ offense since taking over as head coach, the team still needs to execute.  If they can execute, they could feast on a Warrior defense that has been susceptible to slumps this postseason.  Another reason why the Cavaliers’ offense has been so lethal is because of new additions.  Aside from getting Love and Irving back healthy, the team has added Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye via free agency and trade, respectively.  Frye is shooting 26-45 (57.8%) from deep this postseason while Jefferson has provided valuable minutes off the bench.

Needless to say, LeBron James won’t have to do it by himself this time around.  He has some very dangerous weapons beside him now.

The Prediction

I really struggled with this one.  There are good arguments for both teams winning the Larry O’Brien trophy, and either way, it should be an enjoyable, competitive, and (hopefully) long series.  There are so many interesting storylines to this year’s Finals (Cavs vs. Warriors rematch, Steph vs. LeBron, etc.) and I think I’m speaking for everyone in saying that I hope it lives up to the hype.

Nevertheless, I have to make a pick.  I’m taking the Golden State Warriors to win their second straight title.  I have the series going the distance, and I really think it could be one of the best NBA Finals series ever.

But here’s to hoping injuries don’t determine the outcome like they did last year.

**All Statistics courtesy of BasketballReference unless otherwise noted