In a fantastic Game 7 recap over at SB Nation, Rodger Sherman argues that, thanks to the gut-wrenching way they lost, it might have been easier if the Thunder had simply sucked against the Warriors. Sherman is likely writing with tongue-in-cheek, but his words raise a valuable point: the NBA Finals matchup that begins tonight has seemed inevitable all season long.
We knew the Warriors discovered a new level in last year’s Finals. We didn’t know that level would win them 73 games, but it was clear that they were going to be the team to beat. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have been determined all season to get another shot to play for a championship. They spent a ton of money to upgrade their team and have provided LeBron with one of the deepest rosters of his career.
The Cavs and the Warriors were both here last year, but their paths to this year’s Finals were very different. The Cavaliers stormed through the Eastern Conference thanks to a barrage of red-hot shooting and a playoff-high 116.2 points per 100 possessions. They have both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy this year and Channing Frye, who has become one of the best trade-deadline acquisitions of the past few years, is shooting an ungodly 58 percent from deep in the playoffs. The Warriors, meanwhile, have faced arguably more adversity than they did during their 73-9 record-breaking run through the regular season. Between Steph Curry’s injury and the Thunder taking them to seven games, it’s fair to ask if the Warriors have truly been themselves.
Just because it has seemed inevitable doesn’t mean it won’t be entertaining as hell. Golden State-Cleveland II tips off tonight at 9 p.m. Here are a few things I’ll be watching as this series unfolds.
1. What will the Cavaliers decide to do defensively?
The Cavaliers simply do not have the personnel to compete with the Warriors defensively. Their offense has been great, especially in the playoffs, but their defense has left a lot to be desired, as Zach Lowe details here. Irving, Love and Frye are all below-average individual defenders and the Warriors have a known penchant for seeking out and destroying those types of players.
How this plays out during the Finals will be fascinating to watch. The Cavaliers could simply try and roll with all-offense units and hope they hit enough shots from deep to outscore Golden State. If LeBron can do just enough defensively and those shots do in fact go down, there’s a definitely path to victory there. The Warriors, however, have the greatest offensive player in the league in Curry and trying to outscore both him and Klay Thompson, whose Game 6 performance is still boggling my mind, seems nigh-impossible.
How Cleveland decides to guard Curry and Thompson will also be interesting. The Warriors will undoubtedly run Love and Frye through dozens of pick-and-rolls in an effort to create a mismatch. Will the Cavs have Love guard Harrison Barnes to try and eliminate that? Will the Warriors then counter by using Barnes as a screener? Will Tyronn Lue simply be unable to find minutes for Love? Thompson may be an even tougher task because Cleveland lacks an ideal matchup for him. J.R. Smith deserves credit for improving his defense this year, but he remains prone to lapses and if he fails to communicate when Thompson comes off a screen we may see a repeat of Klay’s 11 three-pointer performance.
Communication and concentration will be key. The Warriors are more than happy to get out and run and the Cavs will need to identify matchups in transition and give maximum effort to help out on mismatches. They’ll need to be careful of the super-dangerous Curry-Thompson split action and not get beaten back door or give up wide-open threes. If Smith, Irving or Iman Shumpert lose focus for even a second, the Warriors will be putting the ball through the hoop.
For the Cavaliers to stay in the series they’ll need to eliminate or seriously mitigate many of the errors Lowe outlines. Their defense isn’t going to be perfect, (that won’t happen against the Warriors) but if it can create enough stops to keep the game close, the Cavs’ shooting prowess and LeBron’s all-around brilliance could prevail.
2. Which team’s bench plays better?
The Cavaliers’ unexpected discovery of their own version of the famed Lineup of Death has been a big part of their success in these playoffs. The grouping of LeBron James, Matthew Dellavedova, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson has tortured opponents and rained fire from deep. That lineup scored 14 straight times against the Raptors in Game 4 running the same play over and over.
That lineup could be very successful if the matchups break right. Steve Kerr went back to using lineups that featured none of the Curry-Thompson-Draymond Green trio in Game 5 of the OKC series, something he did all season, and its success may embolden him to try it again in the Finals as well. Frye should be salivating at the idea of Marreese Speights trying to guard him.
On the flip side, a Warriors bench that struggled to find points against the Thunder might rediscover its offense against the Cavaliers. Shaun Livingston, in particular, should have a much better series. Dion Waiters’ strength and the Thunder’s collective length shut Livingston’s mid-range and post-up game down. The Cavaliers, with Shumpert and Dellavedova, simply won’t be able to replicate that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Livingston plays well enough to swing a handful of quarters and, potentially, a game the Warriors’ way.
3. The Warriors’ Lineup of Death
The best five-man group in the league, the Warriors’ unit with Green, Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Andre Iguodala has played a huge role in making these Warriors historically great. At least it was until the Thunder squashed it during the Western Conference Finals with their unbelievable athleticism and defensive effort. OKC forced Kerr to go away from the Death Lineup, something that seemed unthinkable prior to that series, before it saw a mini-renaissance in Games 6 and 7.
How much will Kerr use it in the Finals? Will he be bold and open the game with it, as he did last year? Playing the Death Lineup is probably Golden State’s best way of neutralizing the Cavs’ shooting-heavy lineups with either or both of Love and Frye on the floor. With Green at center, the Warriors can simply switch every action, double LeBron down low and chase shooters of the three-point line with their quickness.
The Lineup of Death also has, of course, tremendous potential on offense. It’s a unit that creates a tremendous amount of spacing for the game’s two best shooters and fantastic playmaker in Green.
I don’t see a single Cavaliers grouping that would make the Warriors wary of giving up too many offensive rebounds or points in the paint. Sure, the Cavaliers could dust off Timofey Mozgov to try and eat on the glass, but it would kill their spacing and the Warriors would be sure to put the giant Russian through an endless series of pick-and-rolls on defense.
The Warriors have struggled to truly find their game in this postseason. Curry’s injury forced them into new things and the Thunder very nearly forced them out of the playoffs. But, this Cavaliers matchup offers their best chance to get back to the things that won them 73 games. Make no mistake, this Cavaliers team is better than last year’s and LeBron has a ton of weapons around him. But this Warriors team won 73 games for a reason. It is a terrifying group with the ability to score 10, 15, even 20 points in the blink of an eye.
The Warriors beat the Thunder, at least in part, by demoralizing them. The Thunder played spectacular defense, but, in the end, it didn’t matter. Curry and Thompson hit bomb after bomb and beat them anyway.
The Cavs are great, but they probably won’t be able to defend the Warriors well enough to win a title. Curry and Thompson will have an easier time getting their shots and, as they did all season, continue to hit bomb after bomb.
The Pick: Warriors in five.