NBA Finals Preview: Warriors v Cavs II
Well, we are finally here.
After watching the Warriors defeat the short-handed Cavaliers in 6 games last year, almost everybody outside of San Antonio and Oklahoma City have been anticipating, and likely hoping, to see a series between these two teams at full strength.
With no intent to attempt and diminish Golden State’s championship run, last year’s version of Cleveland, in which LeBron did everything short of washing the equipment in a herculean effort, looked nothing like the Cavaliers that will be showing up on Thursday night. The Cavs will have a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and have also bolstered their depth by bringing in Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. LeBron averaged a mind boggling 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game in last year’s Finals, yet still came up short. He likely won’t have to do that again, but the Cavs still face an uphill battle against the record setting Warriors.
It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Warriors would capture another title this year throughout the season, with whispers that they may be able to go a perfect 16-0 throughout the playoffs, but their recent series against the Thunder and Blazers show that there are chinks in their armor. Personally, once Golden State went down 3-1 against Oklahoma City, I didn’t think there was any way they made it through to the Finals. I probably shouldn’t have doubted a team that went 73-9 all year, but I did. However, they definitely don’t seem invincible like they did heading into the playoffs, considering that they are a mere 12-6 in the playoffs while Cleveland is 12-2.
Here are a few things to watch for as this series unfolds:
LeBron James and Steph Curry have won 6 MVPs between them, with LeBron having won 4 and Curry winning his 2nd in a row this year. There have only been a handful of Finals matchups featuring teams that each had a player with multiple MVP awards:
-2015/2016: Cavs vs. Warriors (L. James/S. Curry)
-2013/2014: Heat vs. Spurs (L. James/T. Duncan)
-2007: Cavs vs. Spurs (L. James/T. Duncan)
-1997/1998: Bulls vs. Jazz (M. Jordan/K. Malone)
-1984/1985/1987: Lakers vs. Celtics (K. Abdul-Jabbar & M. Johnson/L. Bird)
-1983: Lakers vs. 76ers (K. Abdul-Jabbar & M. Johnson/M. Malone)
-1968/1969: Lakers vs. Celtics (W. Chamberlain/B. Russell)
-1964: Warriors vs. Celtics (W. Chamberlain/B. Russell)
Looking at this list shows that when these matchups occur, they tend to be historically important. The two greatest rivalries in the NBA’s history, Bird/Magic and Wilt/Russell, created 6 of the 13 Finals on this list. Could James and Curry be a blossoming rivalry right before our eyes? Time will certainly tell. But with the Warriors recent rise to prominence and this being LeBron’s 6th consecutive Finals appearance, there is a good chance this isn’t the last time these two teams meet in the Finals. Curry is also trying to become only the third player in NBA history to win consecutive MVP awards and championships in the same years, where he would join Michael Jordan (1991-1992) and LeBron himself (2012-2013).
What is going on with Draymond Green?
After being heralded for his efforts against Portland while Curry was injured, Green’s per game averages fell from 22.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists during the Portland series to 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 4.3 assists against the Thunder, while seeing a sharp decline in his shooting percentages and an increase in turnovers. Green was also clearly frustrated throughout most of the series, culminating in the controversial blast to Steven Adams’ ballsack. Green was recently voted as 2nd Team All-NBA, occupying a forward spot alongside former MVP and recently bounced Kevin Durant. Green was nothing short of phenomenal this year for the Warriors, being a 1st Team All-Defensive team selection and a key playmaker on offense, but he seemed to vanish during the Western Finals. Perhaps most troubling for Green is the 20.8% 3PT during the series against the Thunder, which is a significant drop off from his season average of 38.8%. There are many opportunities for open looks within the Warriors offense, as defenders have to chase Curry and Thompson to far beyond the 3 point line, leading to penetration and kick-outs. However, if Green is unable to find his shooting stroke, Cleveland may not have to close out as hard which would limit Green’s playmaking, which often comes off of driving by larger, slower defenders on closeouts. Players such as Channing Frye and Tristan Thompson would benefit tremendously if they were able to afford Green extra space and wall off his dribble penetration, where they previously would be unable to because of Green’s shooting ability. Draymond will need to play better in the Finals than he did against Oklahoma City, and it is also worth noting that another flagrant foul, either 1 or 2, would result in an automatic suspension for Green.
Channing Frye: X-Factor?
One player who could certainly make an impact is mid-season acquisition Channing Frye. The 6’11’’ big man has been red hot throughout the postseason, shooting a lights out 57.8% from 3 and 62.1% overall. For comparison, Thompson and Curry have been shooting 45% and 40.7% from 3. When Frye has been on the floor for the Cavaliers, they have been thrashing opponents to the tune of 148 points per 100 possessions. However, Fyre was exposed during the Eastern Finals by Toronto’s Bismack Biyombo’s relentless attack on the offensive glass, and it may be difficult to find a suitable defensive matchup for Frye when the Warriors begin shifting their line-ups. The Warriors quickly figure out pick and roll combos to isolate specific defenders, as they did against Enes Kanter and Steven Adams in the Western Finals, and they will likely look to do the same with Frye. Line-ups will be constantly changing over the course of this series, but don’t be surprised if Frye gets hot during a game and changes its direction.
Will a role player step up and shine?
A series featuring LeBron, Steph, Klay, Kyrie, Draymond, and Love certainly does not lack in star power. However, as we have seen in years past, there is always the potential for a role player to step up and shine. JJ Barea delivered some memorable performances during the Mavericks 2011 championship run, Mike Miller drilled threes against the Thunder and Spurs during the Heat’s back-to-back titles, and Timofey Mozgov led a Finals game in scoring last year. While I already talked about the role Channing Fye might play in this series, two other guys who may fill this role are JR Smith and Harrison Barnes. Smith is typically a hit or miss player who has played well during the playoffs, yet still has as many games with 6 or fewer points as he does with at least 20 points. His shooting ability is critical to the Cavaliers spacing and at times his ability to create his own shot can be utilized to relieve some of the burden off of Kyrie and LeBron, particularly when one of those two is on the bench. For Golden State, Barnes has had a relatively quiet post-season, averaging 8.9 points and yet to score more than 13 points in a game. While the majority of the shots on his team are going to go to Curry and Thompson, Barnes is certainly capable of providing a little more punch, especially since he has been playing over 30 minutes a night. He was replaced in the starting line-up for Game 7 by Iguodala, and it may remain that way for the duration of the Finals. Barnes is set to hit restricted free agency this summer, and he could certainly earn himself a nice contract with a strong showing in the Finals. Outside of these two, look for Dellavedova, T. Thompson, Speights, and Livingston to play significant minutes and possibly fill this role.
Both of these teams are lethal when they get going beyond the arc. The Splash Bros pace the shooting for the Warriors, but Channing Frye, Kyrie Irving, JR Smith, Richard Jefferson, and Iman Shumpert are all shooting at a higher clip than both Thompson and Curry from 3. If either of these teams get hot, watch out. If they both get hot in the same game, we could be witnessing something truly special.
Cleveland spent the majority of the year being scrutinized for a variety of things, most notably the mid-season dismissal of David Blatt, but are back in the Finals and look like a well-oiled machine. Golden State has spent the year as the perennial favorites to capture their 2nd consecutive championship and are riding an emotional high after completing their improbable comeback against the Thunder. Although the Warriors easily dismantled the Cavs in both of their regular season matchups, the playoffs are a whole different animal.
I think it will be a thrilling series to watch and really just can’t wait until tomorrow to see this show get underway. LeBron and Steph are without a doubt the two best basketball players in the world (sorry, Kawhi, Russ, and KD) and this is how the Finals should be played.
Game 1 Prediction: Cavaliers 98, Warriors 93.
I think Cleveland will come out focused and ready to go, led by LeBron finding another gear like he did last year in the Finals. However, with a bolstered lineup around him, LeBron can settle into more of a facilitator role where he is more comfortable, unlike last year where he was forced to do everything. The Warriors may experience a bit of an emotional letdown following their Game 7 victory, and I have a feeling that both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are anxious to prove their doubters wrong on the biggest stage in the game.
Finals Prediction: Cleveland in 6.
Finals MVP: LeBron James.