It’s hard to believe this series has gone seven games. After watching the Warriors dominate the first two, it looked like we had a four, five-game series tops. And it started to play out that way. The Cavaliers took Game 3, the Warriors took Game 4, a crucial road victory for the defending champions, to put them up 3-1 on the verge of back to back titles.
And then, well then the Cavaliers flipped the script. Kyrie and LeBron played one of the most impressive games ever seen from a pair of teammates. Their 82 combined points carried them to a win in Game 5 and King James lived up to his title in Game 6. Now we have a 3-3 series, and well let’s just say anything can happen, because a lot of things have already happened in this series.
In the immortal words of Zaza Pachulia: Game 7. Nothing easy!
Here are our seven key questions leading up to the biggest and last NBA game of the year.
Can the Warriors rediscover their defense?
Max: As Zach Lowe has reported several times, the Warriors think of themselves as a defensive team first. They are prouder of their work and communication on defense than they are of their three-point shooting.
That defense was poor in both Games 5 and 6. LeBron hitting his jumpshots has changed the equation, but the energy and effort required has been lacking. The Warriors can likely live with Tristan Thompson getting a lot of offensive rebounds, but they can’t let him get buckets as well.
The Cavaliers have done a tremendous job of hunting Steph Curry and the Warriors need to adjust. They need to get better on their switches and give stronger help when Curry needs it. The rotations- one player helps Curry, one slides down to box out Thompson- need to be better.
I also wonder if Steve Kerr will go back to Steph Curry guarding Kyrie Irving. J.R. Smith is a pretty reliable bellwether for Cleveland- when he has a good game they usually win. Placing Klay Thompson on him turns Smith into a zero and might bait Irving into more isolated hero-ball sequences.
Can the Splash Brothers team up for the performance of the year?
Kelly: Klay Thompson and Steph Curry teamed up for what I believe was their best combo performance of the playoffs in game 7 against the Thunder. Curry dropped 36 points that night with 7 3-pointers, while Klay hit 6 threes as a part of his 21 points along with a block and a steal. They need that level of production or even more, to put down the Cavaliers once and for all.
Curry has been criticized throughout the postseason for not being at the top of his game and at points in time it seems like he just isn’t all there. He was super fired up after getting ejected in the last game, however and if he can carry that over – I know it’s over a few days – to Game 7, that might just be the spark needed to get him going on offense. If Thompson could pull something close to what he did against the Thunder in Game 6 to keep his team alive, that duo could be hard to stop.
What will the Warriors’ rotation look like?
Max: With Andrew Bogut injured, the Warriors started their Lineup of Death in Game 6. Assuming Iguodala’s back is better, they’ll likely start Game 7 the same way. But they’ll need to do a better job of finding production out of their backup centers. The Warriors will need one of Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao or Marreese Speights to contribute productive minutes so Draymond Green can rest. All three have been dreadful this series, on both sides of the ball. Will Steve Kerr be forced to go back to James McAdoo?
One option might be to eschew center minutes entirely. It would probably hurt the Warriors on the glass, but giving Barnes backup center minutes and asking a little more of Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and maybe even Brandon Rush would allow the Warriors to remain small on offense and give Steph Curry a reliable passing option out of the pick-and-roll. The Death Lineup can probably all play 40+ minutes. If the Warriors’ bench can win those final eight minutes it will be huge.
Will Kevin Love be a factor at all? Will Harrison Barnes?
Kelly: Kevin Love has been let’s say, a bit of a non factor in this series and has garnered quite a bit of attention and criticism, but so has Harrison Barnes. In Game 6 Barnes played for 16 minutes and went a whopping 0 for 8. In Game 5, the Warriors 5th starter played 38 minutes and went 2 for 14 for 5 points. Love, meanwhile, had just 2 points in Game 5 while going 1 for 3 for 7 points in Game 6. Somehow Love’s poor production hasn’t hurt in the Cavs – in fact it’s allowed them to space the floor better and have better perimeter defenders on the court to keep pace with the Warriors.
In Barnes’ case however, the Cavaliers have completely abandoned guarding him and he has missed crucial wide open shots that would have allowed his team to cut the deficit or stop a Cleveland run. He hasn’t been able to do that and it is crippling the Warriors’ small lineups. His confidence looks completely shot. Barnes needs to be just semi-productive in Game 7 to give his a team a shot at a back to back title.
Can Cleveland’s role players be effective on the road?
Max: We’ve seen it time and again this playoffs- role players usually play better at home. J.R. Smith scored 18 combined points in three games at Oracle Arena in this year’s Finals. He scored 20 in the Cleveland’s Game 3 win at home. Even with the incredible performances James and Irving have submitted this past two games, the Cavaliers will need more scoring. Kevin Love has been invisible and can’t be counted on. If the Cavaliers find themselves counting on Iman Shumpert to provide secondary scoring, the Warriors will have won one of the key games within in the game.
Does LeBron have one more superhuman effort in him?
Kelly: After his 41-point performance in Game 5, I said that this was an absolutely incredible performance from LeBron, but he wouldn’t be able to do it again in this series. I figured he would put up 30-32 and the Cavs would need to get those other 10 points from some of their other guys like J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert. However, King James flat out proved me wrong. He went for 41 again – without Kyrie’s 41 this time – and carried his team in Game 6 to tie the series at 3-3.
Why would I doubt him now? Whenever the chips seemed to be stacked against him, that’s when he plays his best, that’s when he shines the most. The Cavs need him to be Superman again, and I think he will do just that. The question remains can the Warriors either outscore him or shut down his helpers enough to combat his stellar performance.
What’s at stake?
Max: This playoff run, where the Warriors have now lost almost just one fewer game than they did during the regular season, has been turbulent to say the least. It may have quieted the talk about this Golden State team being the greatest in NBA history, but a huge win in Game 7 puts that right back on the table.
Likewise, LeBron James has never had a better chance to silence all of his doubters. A win Sunday night, for his third championship, after coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a 73-win team, would be the greatest accomplishment of his already outstanding career. Michael Jordan’s Finals experiences were admittedly different, but LeBron defeating this Warriors team might be more impressive than anything Jordan ever did.
Kelly: Warriors. LeBron James is the best player, but I’m not picking against the best team. Steph Curry hasn’t had his best game yet – Game 7 is ready for him to shine.
Max: Warriors. Since Steve Kerr took over as head coach, the Warriors have never lost three consecutive games. I’m picking the team that won 73 games and earned the chance to play Game 7 at home.