The Warriors Finally Look Like Themselves

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Ever since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the Summer of 2016, the team has had enough talent to toy with the NBA whenever it wants. This year has been slightly different, though; the Rockets pushed Golden State to the wall in the Western Conference Finals and very well might have eliminated them if they had a healthy Chris Paul. The Cavaliers pushed the Warriors to overtime in Game 1 of this year’s Finals behind 51 points from LeBron James. But besides these two examples, the Warriors can knock out their opponents and pick the round, too.

Last night, they decided to knock out the Cavs.

Behind 33 points and nine three-pointers from Steph Curry, 26 points on 10-14 shooting from Kevin Durant, and 20 more points from a hobbled Klay Thompson, the Warriors crushed the Cavaliers 122-103 in a game where Cleveland was only down by five before Curry and company took it over. Last night, we saw the closest thing to last year’s Warriors dominance that we have seen since, well, last year’s Warriors. Even though it appears as if Golden State lacks motivation at certain points in games, they are still far more talented than any other team in the NBA and when they put it all together, the rest of the league gets put on notice.

That’s what happened last night. Keep in mind that the Warriors are doing this without Andre Iguodala, who is recovering from a bone bruise in his knee and has not played since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. While Iguodala may not necessarily seem like one of the most important figures in the Warriors’ dynasty, he absolutely is, and their occasionally absent-minded play without him should be proof of that. He one of the few people on Earth willing and able to consistently defend LeBron James, and if he returns in this series (which he might), the Warriors have a better chance of containing LeBron.

Until then, however, it will likely be either JaVale McGee or Kevon Looney occupying the final starting spot for the Warriors. Both men are capable bigs, but neither has the ability to guard James or space the floor on the offensive end. The Warriors, after starting Looney for the five previous games, decided to go with McGee in the starting lineup last night, and even though he had a +/- of 0, the move seemed to pay dividends; McGee had 12 points and most of his action came under the basket when the Cavaliers’ defenders were more preoccupied with Golden State’s three-point shooters. Whether you take McGee seriously or not, he is a live body who can cause havoc on the glass and makes the most of his opportunities in close. That’s all the Warriors need him to do until Iguodala returns from injury.

And think about the luxuries that Steve Kerr has with a team this versatile and talented. On the other side, Cavs coach Ty Lue doesn’t have nearly as many good options to go to off the bench (for instance, it’s more difficult for Lue to put Kyle Korver on the floor against a Warriors lineup looking to attack any defensive mismatch the Cavs have to offer). And, instead of having a steady presence like Shaun Livingston coming off the bench, Cleveland has Jordan Clarkson, who has shot 3-13 in the first two games of the series and makes multiple ill-fated attempts to take over the Cavs’ offense when he steps on the floor.

But instead of maligning all of the matchup problems the Cavaliers have in this series, it’s more important to look at what the Warriors have done right. That can be boiled down into one player: Steph Curry.

Last night, Curry broke an NBA Finals record last night by hitting nine three-pointers; he finished with 33 points but his impact goes beyond his scoring. The psychological impact of his hot shooting, particularly at Oracle Arena, cannot be quantified. And there is something to be said for the blow an opposing team takes when they play masterful defense for 23 or more seconds, only to have Curry drain a turnaround fadeaway from five feet behind the line. When you add that to the individual talents of Durant and Klay Thompson, the Warriors offense becomes virtually unstoppable when it’s clicking.

There should be at least a slight momentum shift when the series heads back to Cleveland for Game 3. But the Cavaliers will almost certainly need to win both games at Quicken Loans Arena to have a chance in this series; even though LeBron James and the Cavaliers have come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals before, there’s a reason it’s only happened once since 1947. Even with the greatest player in the history of the league on their side, Cleveland will have a very difficult time coming back against the most talented team the league has ever seen.

That team is the Golden State Warriors. Even though they’ve had their trials and tribulations throughout the season, we always knew that they could flip the switch and play to their dominant, ruthless potential whenever they wanted to. They did that last night, mainly with the help of their two-time league MVP. Oh, by the way, they may very well get the ex-Finals MVP they have lying around back before this series ends.

The Warriors have returned. Maybe they never really left. Either way, the NBA’s sleeping giant is awake, alive, and humming on all cylinders. That usually doesn’t end well for anyone in its way.



Are the Warriors Too Good For the Cavaliers?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the most talked about person surrounding the Warriors-Cavaliers showdown in Oakland wasn’t Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, or LeBron James.

It was Rihanna.

The fact that the Barbadian singer stole the headlines away from the game itself shows that the contest couldn’t have been all that competitive.

Sure enough, it wasn’t. The Warriors easily took care of the Cavaliers, 113-91, in a game that was never truly in doubt after halftime. Kevin Durant led the way for Golden State with 38 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists; even more impressively, Durant did all of this without committing a turnover, becoming the first player to have 30 points and five assists without a turnover in a Finals game since Michael Jordan accomplished that feat in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. Steph Curry poured in another 28 points on 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc.

LeBron James paced the Cavaliers with 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, and Kyrie Irving scored 24. As strange as this may sound, the individual performances of James and Irving were not nearly as good as their numbers would suggest, as the Cavaliers were -18 when both players were on the floor last night. The Cavaliers were thoroughly dismantled in the second half, and their defense had no answers for the Warriors’ multi-pronged attack, which was centered around Curry and Durant.

Cleveland’s performance in Game 1 begs an important question: is this version of the Warriors too good for these Cavaliers to beat in a seven-game series?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Cavaliers played far from their best game last night. The team combined to shoot just under 35% from the field (30 for 86) and made just 11 of 31 attempts from the three-point line. Cleveland’s turnover problem was exacerbated by the Warriors offense, which turned the ball over just four times in 48 minutes. The Warriors had a really, really good night and the Cavaliers…. well, let’s just say they didn’t. That being said, it is worth examining whether or not Cleveland’s struggles are an anomaly or a disturbing trend.

For example, the Cavs’ transition defense is something that can be fixed. Take this play from late in the first half last night. Watch as the seas part for Durant to finish the fast break with a thunderous slam (pun 100% intended):

If I’m Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, I would play that clip on loop for the next 48+ hours before Game 2. The Warriors finished Game 1 with 56 points in the paint and could’ve had closer to 70 had they not missed or, in the case of Zaza Pachulia, passed up on several open layups. The Cavalier defense was so concerned about the Warriors’ vast array of shooters (Curry, Klay Thompson, even Draymond Green) that they completely neglected to protect the rim. This strategy, one that basically rejects every fundamental tenet of basketball defense, turned Game 1 of the NBA Finals into Kevin Durant’s own personal dunk contest. That strategy can definitely be adjusted/fixed before Sunday night’s Game 2 rolls around.

But the Cavaliers must sort out other issues if they want to win their second championship in as many years.

Even though James and Irving are the undisputed leaders of the Cavs’ attack, the team simply needs contributions from other sources in order to be successful. For example, Kevin Love shot just four-of-thirteen from the field last night and had quite possibly the quietest 21-rebound performance in NBA history. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland’s other two starters, combined for just three points and one made field goal on seven attempts.

That’s not all, though, for the Cavaliers’ individual struggles. Deron Williams, who scored fourteen points in seventeen minutes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, struggled to get anything going last night. Williams’ game was so truly awful that he amassed a whopping offensive rating of ten (offensive rating is a measure of how many points a player accounts for per 100 possessions while he is on the floor). In case you haven’t figured it out, ten points per 100 possessions isn’t that good. Similarly, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, acquired from the Hawks in a midseason trade to give the Cavs more of a perimeter presence off the bench, accrued an offensive rating of 21 in nineteen minutes; he didn’t score in the game.

The Cavaliers simply cannot survive the Warriors’ merciless onslaught without contributions from their secondary pieces. While Irving is one of the best point guards in the league and James is the best player on the planet, they cannot singlehandedly carry the Cavs to their second straight championship. Players like Williams, Love, Korver, Smith, and Thompson must stretch Golden State’s defense with their perimeter shooting if the Cavaliers want to take this series deep.

There’s also this to consider: the Warriors should have an off night offensively at some point in this series, as even an offense as talented as Golden State’s is prone to go cold from time to time. Last night, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined to shoot 6-for-28 from the field and score just fifteen points. However, both made an impact on the defensive end; Thompson performed the unenviable task of guarding Irving while Green held an 85 defensive rating in his 36 minutes of action (with the defensive rating statistic, a lower number equates to better performance). Near the end of last night’s game, FiveThirtyEight writer Chris Herring pointed out the difference in the teams’ supporting casts:

It’s true; while Thompson and Green struggled mightily on the offensive end, they still impacted the game with what they were able to do defensively. The Cavaliers’ other pieces have not been able to do that, and how did they impact Game 1 when their shots weren’t falling? Answer: they didn’t.

Granted, the Warriors played extremely well in Game 1. Their four turnovers tied for the fewest in NBA Finals history and conventional wisdom would think that the performance will be difficult to replicate. But consider this: for all of the praise Golden State’s offense is getting today (and deservedly so), they only shot 42.5% from the field last night. For as well as they performed on the game’s biggest stage, they had far from their most efficient game of the season. That’s part of why I picked them to win the series; even on a bad night, they can still destroy you offensively. And while last night wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a bad night, the numbers show that they can play even better than they are right now. That is a frightening and scary thought for Cleveland to wrestle with.

The Cavaliers have fixable, albeit major, problems to rectify before they hit the Oracle Arena floor for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. They need their bench to produce and their shooters to start hitting from behind the three-point line. They also need to play better transition defense, and they can accomplish that by simply standing in front of the player with the basketball at that particular time.

And they need to quickly make these adjustments to save the NBA Finals from turning into Kevin Durant/Jeff Van Gundy vs. Rihanna.

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