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.
There is a pantheon of dumb plays in the history of both college and professional basketball. It has some awesome entries; Chris Webber trying to call timeout when his team didn’t have one, Rasheed Wallace leaving Robert Horry wide open to lose Game 5 of the 2005 Finals, and JaVale McGee’s entire career. These moments, whether they come in the regular season or the biggest games of the year, are the reason why “Shaqtin’ a Fool” exists.
But aside from the occasionally brain dead moments that happen during a basketball game, these are some of the best players in the world. They always get the basic stuff, like the time and score of the game, correct, and they know how to react depending on the game situation, right? Right?
To prove this, I present you with the human example that is Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith. Smith made headlines earlier in the season when he launched a bowl of soup at an assistant coach in what was definitely the seventhoreighth–weirdestmomentintheNBA this season. Smith is an erratic player with an evidently erratic personality; his occasional moments of brilliance on the court are augmented by brain-neutral plays and mind-numbing decisions. With that context in mind, I present to you the end of the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals:
There is so much wrong with whatever happened there. First of all, George Hill is an 80% free throw shooter for his career and should have made the free throw. When Smith gets the rebound, he has the opportunity to lay it in, albeit over a 6’10” Kevin Durant, to give Cleveland the lead. When he pulls the ball out to the three-point line, the Cavaliers should have called timeout. Instead, none of these things happened and Cleveland didn’t get a shot off in the final 4.7 seconds.
And, after all of the stupid things you read in the last paragraph, you would think that it doesn’t get any dumber than that. I’m here to tell you that it does.
The only possible explanation for whatever it is Smith did in the closing seconds of the fourth was that he didn’t know the score and thought the Cavaliers were winning. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue seems to believe that’s the case; after the game, he said that Smith thought his team was ahead and tried to run out the clock. Smith, on the other hand, insists that he knew the game was tied at 107 and thought Cleveland would take a timeout. Choose who you want to believe in this situation, but Smith has made dumb plays in crunch time before, and that particular instance involved another episode of scoreboard amnesia. Therefore, I have to go with the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson over the guy who threw soup at one of his coaches. It’s just that easy.
As much as we should all collectively laugh at this, however, it is one of the most costly blunders in recent Finals history, and it may have cost the Cavs any chance they had at winning this series.
Think, for example, about all the things that went right for Cleveland last night:
LeBron James goes for the 6th 50-point game in Finals history
Golden State only goes +6 in the third quarter (team had averaged a +7.6 3rd quarter scoring margin in the playoffs before last night)
Kevin Durant and Steph Curry score 55 points on 45 shots
Kevin Love goes for 21 points and 13 rebounds
Cleveland wins offensive rebound battle 19-4
Despite all of this, the Cavaliers lost in overtime. There were some breaks that didn’t go their way, like a controversial foul towards the end of the game on James that was changed to a block from a charge on Durant. After the game, Lue voiced his displeasure with the call, and even though it was a bang-bang play, he has a right to be upset, as foul calls are usually not up for review. However, the Cavaliers should not, in any way, blame last night’s defeat on poor refereeing. They had a chance to make a free throw, then they had a chance to get a basket, then they had a chance to call timeout to draw up a play to get said basket, and they somehow managed to do none of those things despite the odds being, for once, in their favor.
For Cleveland fans, that is the shame of what transpired last night. The Warriors are decidedly more talented than the Cavaliers but did not play their best game last night. The underdog had a chance to take out the favorite last night and put the defending champs in a 1-0 hole. They couldn’t get the job done, and even with the best player in the world performing at quite possibly the highest level of his career, the Warriors still found a way to pull it out.
Before this series, I picked the Warriors to win in five games. One of the ways Cleveland could have dragged out this series would have been by winning the first game and stealing some momentum out of Oracle Arena. Granted, they could still win Game 2, but against one of the all-time great teams in NBA history, it’s very difficult to win a seven-game series after allowing a golden opportunity like last night’s to slip through your fingers.
Let’s also remember that Smith, who blew the end of regulation, took an unnecessary gamble on a Curry heave at the end of the first half. It cost Cleveland three points and made a significant difference between them winning and losing the game.
What caused a bigger difference, though, were the events that took place in the final five seconds of regulation. But when you think about who had the ball, it’s not a surprise.
And thanks to J.R. Smith losing his counting skills and critical thinking powers, the Cavaliers’ margin for error in this series has gotten even smaller.
Ten days ago, the Cavaliers were dead. Today, they’re NBA champions.
How and why we got here has everything to do with the savior of Cleveland and one of the best players to ever play this game: LeBron James.
In our country, we like to have debates about James’ greatness and whether or not he’s one of the best players of all-time. We also question his ability to come up big in clutch situations; after all, he was just one game away from going to 2-5 in the Finals.
But frankly, these discourses are ridiculous. They have become outlets for Twitter eggs LeBron haters to vent their frustrations about the best player in the game’s supposed “flaws”. These people come in all shapes and sizes, and, as last night showed, from many different walks of life:
Kyrie last 5 games: 30 in win, 34 as LeBron disappeared, 41 in win, 23 in win (tone-setting 20 in 1st half), 26 & game-winner in Game 7. MVP
This is absurd. Anyone who makes a sincere argument about James’ legacy compared to Jordan’s clearly doesn’t understand just how much basketball has changed over the past 20 years. These people also don’t understand that the two men are completely different players who do completely different things on the court. LeBron has always been aware of this, thankfully.
He is LJ, one of the best individual talents the league has ever seen. Nothing more, nothing less. Let’s stop having preposterous debates about whether or not he’s better than Michael Jordan. It really does not matter and I could not care less.
What does matter, though, is what he just accomplished with these Cavaliers: winning an NBA championship, the first for the city of Cleveland since 1964.
Moreover, it was the way they did it, coming back despite seemingly impossible odds to defeat the greatest regular season team in NBA history, that makes this so remarkable. The Cavs demonstrated Cleveland resiliency with a flare for the dramatic, both during the playoffs and over the course of the regular season.
Let me put it to you this way: in mid-January, did you think there was any way this Cavs team could beat the Warriors? On January 25th and in the wake of the firing of former head coach David Blatt, I wrote this about Cleveland’s prospects of winning a championship:
This is not a question about whether or not the Cavs can come out of the East. That question has been answered. However, Cleveland will have serious issues if they are matched up with the Spurs or Warriors in the Finals, and they may get beaten handily by either team.
Which is a fact that neither David Blatt, David Griffin nor Tyronn Lue can do anything about.
Okay, needless to say, I was wrong. But I wasn’t alone; the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers by 34 the week before, and James’ team lacked any semblance of chemistry or connectivity; many saw this as a red flag for Cleveland’s title hopes. Blatt was out as the head coach by that Friday and GM David Griffin immediately hired Tyronn Lue as the team’s permanent coach. Lue’s previous claim to fame was as the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals.
The move paid dividends; Lue constructed his lineups to the team could play small. Playing small is what allowed Cleveland to compete with the Warriors for seven games.
Another thing Lue did was take control of the locker room. He did this by holding his star players, including James, accountable for their actions, something that Blatt always struggled with. For example, in a huddle in the middle of a regular season game, Lue told LeBron to, well, you know.
Nevertheless, in spite of Lue’s control over the team and their new style of play, the Cavs would still need players to make individual sacrifices. In some cases, these concessions came from their best players. For example, Kevin Love missed Game 3 of the Finals with his concussion. Prior to Game 4, he told Lue that if he was cleared, he would do whatever was necessary to win the game. That included coming off the bench, which is exactly what he did in favor of a smaller lineup with Richard Jefferson. The Cavs lost Game 4, but Love’s individual sacrifice of minutes and his usual starting role set the tone for the rest of the team.
With all of this being said, Cleveland still found itself down 3-1 in the Finals. This deficit, exacerbated by the fact that Game 5 was at Oracle Arena, left the Cavs in a tough position; no team before this year had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. James and sidekick Kyrie Irving would need to step up to keep the team’s season alive.
That’s exactly what they did, combining for 82 points in a 112-97 victory to force a Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena. Each player scored 41 points, marking the first time in NBA history that two teammates scored 40 or more points in a Finals game.
James continued his domination in Game 6, with a 41-point, 11-rebound, 8-assist performance to take the series to a deciding seventh game. That game, and the NBA season, would come down to the wire in a fitting end to the Cavaliers’ year.
Game 7 was tight throughout, as the largest lead for either team was seven points. A Klay Thompson layup with 4:39 to go in the fourth quarter tied the game at 89, and it would stay there for almost four minutes. The Warriors’ best chance to score during this period came on a fast break with just under two minutes left. As Andre Iguodala went up for the lay-in, James made what is likely the best block of his career and maybe one of the best in NBA history:
Roughly a minute later and with the game still tied at 89, Irving got a mismatch against Steph Curry. The rest is history:
A Curry miss on the next possession gave the ball back to Cleveland. James was fouled on a violent dunk attempt over Draymond Green and, in spite of hurting his wrist on the play, was able to sink one of two free throws to put the Cavs up four.
The Warriors missed two shots on the next possession, ending the game, the season, and Cleveland’s suffering. After the game ended, many Cavalier players collapsed to the floor, overcome by the emotion of the moment and the enormity of the victory.
And after all that, the Cavs are, albeit improbably, champions today.
To conclude, the Cavs were a team of adversity this season. They faced issues with chemistry, coaching, and injuries to do something that’s never been done before: come back to win the NBA Finals after being down 3-1. James was the unanimous Finals MVP; he averaged nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists… for the entire series. Yeah, not bad. Not bad at all.
He may not be the best player of all-time, or even in the NBA today. That doesn’t matter. LeBron James just pulled off the greatest accomplishment of his career: bringing a championship back to The Land.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.