NBA Finals Preview

It was a frightening proposition for NBA fans. After the Clippers defeated the Spurs in seven games, I immediately fretted that we had already experienced the climax of the 2015 NBA Playoffs in the opening round. The conference finals came and went with nothing more than a hiccup of competitive play, and now all the hope of any moment matching the excitement and intensity of that Clippers, Spurs series rests in the immortal powers of LeBron James.

lebron

Perhaps it was due to the prehistoric adage that jump shooting teams don’t win titles[1], or maybe it was because they haven’t actually won anything yet, but it was and still is befuddling the Warriors haven’t gained the confidence of nearly every unbiased NBA mind with their dominant play. It’s not every season a team flirts with 70 wins, posts a double digit net rating, finishes first in defensive efficiency as well as second in offensive efficiency and wins 40 games in its home arena. With time the Warriors will represent something more than a break from the mold of a traditional champion, they will be remembered as one of the best single season teams of all time…as long as they can take down the King, his running mates and the supposed clown that has navigated his team through immense chaos to reach the NBA’s brightest stage.

kerr and team

Now, let’s break down some of the critical components of this NBA Finals.

Matchups

Player matchups, as with every series, will be an ongoing subplot during the pursuit of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, and much of the intrigue swirls around Kyrie Irving’s defensive deficiencies. Similar to the Eastern Conference Finals, it will be difficult to hide Irving against a mediocre offensive threat. Obviously the Cavs would like to ease Irving of the plaguing task of defending Steph Curry as he runs Irving through the gauntlet of his offensive arsenal. However, chasing Klay Thompson around screens and digging in on his postups isn’t optimal and the size difference against Harrison Barnes may be too much for Irving to handle. The Rockets had a similar problem with Jason Terry, but for the most part they left Terry on Curry in hopes that he could at least tread water. I would expect the Cavs to follow suit with Irving when both teams’ starters are on the floor, leaving the rest of the matchups to fall into place based on positon. However, if Curry dismantles Irving, Blatt may switch things up giving Shumpert the Curry assignment and daring the Warriors to beat Irving with Thompson and Barnes postups. The Cavs will enviably make an effort to give sizeable minutes to lineups in which Shumpert defends Curry while feeling comfortable enough to compromise with the other matchups as they fall.

kyrie vs steph

Curry in pick-and-rolls is a devastating assignment for opposing to coaches to gameplan for due to his otherworldly shooting and his supreme playmaking skills. Against the Hawks, the Cavs defended pick-and-rolls by going under screens and daring Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder and Shelvin Mack to beat them with outside shooting. This also allowed the Cavs to defend such plays with only two defenders, giving would-be help defenders the luxury to stay home on their assignments; something that ultimately snuffed out Atlanta’s pass-happy scheme built on beating a defense’s rotation.

Blatt can scratch this gameplan against the Splash Brothers due to the lights out shooting, leaving Blatt and his staff with the option to either switch or hedge and recover since icing pick-and-rolls would consent too much space for Curry or Thompson to launch backbreaking triples. Both switching and hedging places a heavy burden on Cavalier big men[2]. The Rockets decided to switch these pick-and-rolls and their collective fan base likely let out reluctant groans when they saw Curry unleashing his ballhandling mastery against the likes of Terence Jones, Josh Smith, etc. or Draymond Green punishing undersized guards in the post.

Transition Game

The Cavaliers will have enough trouble defending Golden State in the halfcourt, they can ill afford to oblige in the Warriors inclinations to engage in a track meet in the open court if they are to make this a competitive series. The Dubs are lethal in transition[3] with shooters abound and a four man, in Green, who can run the break with efficiency. Plus the Cavs will have to be diligent with their communication and effort to not get burned if they have to orchestrate cross matches. However, the Cavs were very successful in squashing the Hawks’ transition opportunities in the conference finals, and they didn’t have to sacrifice aggressiveness on the offensive glass in order to do it. This luxury is something the Cavs must replicate in order to remain competitive in this series.

Rebounding

For the Warriors, getting out in transition will be determined by their ability to counter the Cavs edge in the rebounding department. How Golden State is able to manage Cleveland on the boards will be a universal factor in this series. Along with LeBron, Cleveland’s rebounding capabilities has been its greatest asset in the postseason, and it dominated Atlanta on the glass, to the point where Atlanta’s desperate attempts to gang rebound neutralized their ability to push the pace.

thompson vs ws

The Cavs have rebounded 28.5 percent of their missed shots during the postseason, tops in the league, resulting in 15.8 second chance points per game. The spearhead behind the Cavs rebounding insurgence has been Tristan Thompson, and Cleveland will need him to continue his springy, madman type effort on the glass. It’s especially crucial that Thompson makes Golden State pay when they go small with Green playing the five. However, the Dubs are such a polished team in which even their supposed flaws come only as a result of nitpicking. They have been just average among postseason teams in securing defensive rebounds, but only the Grizzles have allowed fewer second chance points per game. Thompson and company may be able to punish the Warriors on the boards, but whether they can make them pay on the scoreboard will offer a worthy indicator regarding the length of this series.

Defending LeBron and Kyrie

bron and kyrie

Defensively, Golden State possesses a full-fledged tag team to throw at LeBron forcing him to adjust his offensive game accordingly. Steve Kerr and his staff will thoroughly explore each possible defensive matchup after seeing the effects it had on James Harden in the conference finals. After assigning Thompson to Harden for Games 1 and 2 enabling Harden to bust out his cooking dance on numerous occasions, Kerr unleashed Barnes and Andre Iguodala onto Harden in the last three games who encountered much more success in containing him.

In LeBron’s case, Barnes will likely draw the initial matchup, and Golden State has reason to feel confident about Barnes’ ability to hold his own. His length was a problem for Harden and will invoke similar frustrations from James, but more importantly Barnes showed grit and resistance in the post against Zach Randolph and the Grizz in the conference semis. With LeBron growing his estate on the block as the playoffs progress, Barnes’ post defense may give him a leg up on the deposed corpses of those who have went to battle against LeBron during the postseason thus far[4]. Expect to see Thompson, Iguodala and the defensive Swiss Army knife, Green, get their share of cracks at LeBron as well.

james vs barnes

One of the luxuries of having so many capable wing defenders to fend against LeBron, is the Dubs will have one left over to relieve Curry of guarding Irving for stretches. Curry has developed into a good defender, who utilizes his length well, but he still struggles at times and Kerr won’t want his star feeling any effects of fatigue due to his defensive tasks. Irving will see plenty of Thompson, while Curry hides on J.R. Smith, Shumpert, Delly or even James Jones. Irving’s injuries and LeBron’s shooting inefficiencies have been well-documented, but in spite of that, they have still imposed their dominance offensively in the postseason, acting as the lone fulcrums of offensive creation for the Cavaliers. However, they have yet to face an opponent stocked with the collection of individual defenders like Golden State which will force them to consistently undertake an uphill battle against new matchups.

Small Ball Chess Match

The presence of small ball lineups will be an overwhelming subplot of this series as both teams are ecstatic to embellish in the offensive delicacies and defensive versatility of such matchups. Cleveland created a handful of matchup issues against Chicago and Atlanta because of the Bulls’ and Hawks’ preference to work within the confines of traditional two big lineups. The small ball lineups provide a bevy of shooters around LeBron, dissuading excessive helping from defenses, while the ability to switch pick-and-rolls as well as more successfully recover on shooter closeouts has, at times, slowed down opposing offenses.

Blatt will trot out his small ball lineups in order to keep pace with Golden State’s high-octane offense, but it may actually be a greater asset on the other end of the court. With LeBron shifting to the four and defending Green, Cleveland would be much better equipped to defend Curry-Green pick-and-rolls, and switching in that scenario would actually put a more difficult matchup on Curry. That would still leave Green with a postup advantage in some capacity on Irving or Dellavedova[5], but it’s no longer a fun game of Wheel of Fortune for the Dubs, regarding which matchup they prefer to expose. However, if Iguodala is in for Barnes, or if Irving can hold his own on Barnes, it makes Shumpert available to defend Curry giving the Cavs the ultimate switching scenario in pick-and-rolls.

david blatt

Sadly for the Cavs, I have heard no news of a safe falling on Kerr’s head, meaning it’s entirely unlikely he would allow the Cavs to play small without countering with his own small ball lineup featuring Green at the five and turning Golden State into an offensive juggernaut. If both teams are playing small, a chess match of player matchups will ensue between Kerr and Blatt. Blatt now has a logical hiding place for Irving on one of the trio of Iguodala, Shaun Livingston or Leandro Barbosa, however, if it’s Livingston, Blatt may be better suited stealing a page from Kerr’s coaching book. With Irving on Livingston, he would avoid having to defend in space and scurry around picks, but Livingston would plant himself on the block with a sign reading “Open for Business”. These Livingston postups wouldn’t be devastating, but because he isn’t much of a shooting threat, it would be interesting to see if Blatt considered switching Tristan Thompson onto him, like Kerr did in the Memphis series when he defended Tony Allen with Bogut. This would not only allow Thompson to roam the paint as a rim-protecting aficionado, but it would place LeBron back onto Green, gumming up the fatal Curry-Green pick-and-roll in small ball lineups.

green

Another possibility if the Warriors go small, would be for Blatt to downsize even more, with LeBron playing the five, armed with some four man combination of James Jones, Shumpert, J.R., Delly and Irving. While rim protection would be non-existent with this lineup, the Cavs become a collection of versatile wings, wreaking havoc with their long, switch-happy defensive style. Going small against Golden State has been a deadly proposal because it gives Kerr the freedom to play his small ball lineup at his own leisure, but the Cavs are at their best offensively and defensively when playing small, and they will almost certainly be willing to accept a Mozgov-Bogut tradeoff for long stretches of play.

As much as the media loves building up the hype of Curry vs. LeBron and other popular storylines for casual fans, the variety and impact of matchups is what will make this series entertaining. Blatt must be willing to try nearly everything, matchup-wise to compensate for Cleveland’s personnel deficit. However, there is a reason stars such as Curry and LeBron take center stage that goes beyond fan interest and legacy talk. Stars are the X-Factors, the players who can elevate their game to new heights, rendering matchups and schemes secondary to their dominance. The Warriors have a clear advantage in this championship series, but the Cavs have the game’s ultimate X-Factor, LeBron James.

Prediction: Warriors in 5.

[1] 2011 Mavs, 2013 Heat, 2014 Spurs…These were all teams greatly reliant upon perimeter shooting.

[2] This task is very problematic for Mozgov, but is one of the most valuable assets of Tritan Thompson’s game. However, even the most nimble bigs struggle to defend Curry or hedge on Curry then scramble back to Green.

[3] The Warriors scored a league-leading 20.9 fastbreak point per game in the regular season and have upped that number to 21.6 in the playoffs.

[4] Jimmy Butler and DeMarre Carroll can each take solace in the substantial raises they are about to receive as a form of consolation.

[5] This is if the Warriors expose Cleveland’s attempts to hide Kyrie on Barnes. If Cleveland is able to accomplish this, it opens up an entirely new level of defensive efficiency because the Cavs could stick Shumpert on Curry.

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