Golden State-Cleveland holds tremendous promise. With all of the hype and rightful adulation surrounding the game’s two biggest global superstars, LeBron James & Stephen Curry, there is no way it can disappoint. Without diving into it, a lot of naysayers dispute Cleveland’s status as worthy champions since they bulldozed their way through a dilapidated Eastern Conference the last month and a half.
That belief could not be further from the truth. Despite Kyrie Irving’s nagging knee injury and Kevin Love’s season-ending shoulder surgery, peak LeBron has lifted the Cavs all the way near the top. Though a LeBron-led team is never an UnderDOG, they are considered as such in this case because of Curry’s dominant Dubs.
The Warriors deserve a standing ovation after running through a gauntlet of tough Western Conference teams (New Orleans, Memphis, Houston) to get to the ‘ship. Stephen Curry’s MVP campaign just might culminate in a championship victory. As we’ve stated all year long, the starting five of Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut is unmatched.
They mesh extremely well and receive even more ammo once Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala enter the game.
Draymond Green, in particular, will play a vital role in the series. After defending James Harden, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard his last time out, he continues to show why he may be the most versatile defender today. Green will likely start on Tristan Thompson but will definitely see plenty of time on LeBron as the series rolls along. Green’s offense (34% from deep) is important to stretch the floor too.
Because Cleveland loves to deploy Thompson and Mozgov together for great interior defense and rebounding, Green has to knock down the long ball so Coach Kerr will trot him out as a small-ball center. Green at center, along with Barnes, Iguodala, Klay and Curry is an offensive nightmare for any team. And without a healthy Kyrie, Curry will blitz Cleveland and push the break for easy looks in transition.
To counter, Cleveland has its own indispensable trump card in the form of James. Coach Blatt and Coach Kerr are very inventive with lineups, so we expect to see something crazy…LeBron at the 5! Imagine him running with JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and Kyrie; that’d definitely be a sight to behold.
Matchups like those are why we expect this to be a very memorable Finals. It’s the best-case scenario for The NBA in terms of ratings and narratives. LeBron v. Curry., Steve Kerr v. David Blatt: Two First-Year Head Coaches, Cleveland’s 1st NBA Title v. Golden State’s 1st Title in 40 years.
With the star power and intrigue of two “unfamiliar” squads, this could be the best final round since 1998.
But who takes it?
Tristan Thompson (CLE; Siberian Husky- hard-working energetic)
Outside of LeBron, Thompson is going to have the biggest impact for the Cavs this series. With his prowess as an offensive rebounder (averages 4 OREB/night) and the ability to contest shooters on the perimeter, he will be on the court at all times. Blatt has the luxury of playing him at center as well since Bogut is not a traditional back-to-the-basket scorer.
If he can shore up his finishing around the rim and poor foul-shooting, Thompson will easily average a double-double (12-14 points, 12 rebounds).
Harrison Barnes (GSW; English Pointer- low to non-existent aggression, laid back)
The Warriors need Barnes to keep playing with a consistent effort in order for them to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. In Game 5 of the WCF, Barnes scored 24 pints (on 20 attempts) and pulled down 7 boards. While he is not the type of player to shoot 20 times per game, a confident tone must be set.
Barnes could be matched up with Irving in a veiled attempt to hide him on defense. Aggressively going to the post is the recipe for success.
1. How will Klay Thompson (concussion) & Kyrie Irving (knee) impact the series?
Klay and Kyrie are both cleared to play in Game 1, which is good news. The bad news, however, is that concussions are always tricky and Kyrie’s knees have not responded well to treatment. Even if one (or both) of them is delegated to just a set shooter, their presence is enough for the other team to adjust.
Klay should be close to 100% though, so expect him to wreak havoc all series long. Kyrie, on the other hand, is the wild card (avg. just over 13 ppg in the Conference Finals). If he is making plays and performing at a respectable level defensively, it opens up the action for everyone else.
2. Can Cleveland’s role players remain consistent?
Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Matt Dellavedova, and James Jones have all shot lights out in the playoffs. With the looming possibility of going small, all four guys need to be ready to pull the trigger once the defense collapses on LeBron’s penetration and (Tristan) Thompson’s offensive boards.
In addition, Dellavedova might play some clutch minutes with Kyrie hobbled. He HAS to continue to prove he can stay in front of his man and hit spot-up threes.
The Warriors boast an extremely tough second unit, with contributors like Andre Iguodala & Shaun Livingston capable of taking over games. Heck, even Leandro Barbosa and David Lee may get some burn if necessary. It will be interesting to see if Shumpert, Smith and co. can make enough shots to survive.
3. How will Steve Kerr strategize against LeBron’s playmaking?
“To double, or not to double?” That’s the big question for the Warriors going into Game 1 tomorrow night. Unlike many other teams, Golden State has a lot of different defenders to slow down LeBron…that kind of defensive depth is uncanny. Let’s think back to this postseason for evidence:
BOSTON- Jae Crowder primarily guarded LeBron; Evan Turner & Marcus Smart were insurance policies
CHICAGO- Jimmy Butler defended him for the ENTIRE 6-game series
ATLANTA- Paul Millsap/DeMarre Carroll were primary defenders; Kent Bazemore stepped in after Carroll was limited via injury
The Dubs have 4 legitimate defenders that they can rotate: Green, Thompson, Iguodala & Barnes. Even 6’7 Shaun Livingston might get a few cracks at him too. When forced into tough coverage, LeBron is human…he makes plenty of mistakes. With so many quick-footed, relentless wing defenders, are they enough to wear down his attack?
4. Will LeBron switch on Curry down the stretch of the series?
LeBron is definitely not the lockdown defender he once was but his intelligence and unrivaled athleticism makes him capable of guarding virtually every position effectively. In the past, he was placed on Derrick Rose & Tony Parker to slow them down in the final period of close games. Curry is a different animal because he is a better ball-handler and shooter (obviously) than both of them.
LeBron might get called upon for a few plays but look for Dellavedova and Shumpert to try and corral Steph’s activity.
5. Are David Blatt’s adjustments going to be enough?
By now, Cleveland’s defensive strategy is pretty clear: switch and/or hedge out hard on P&R while daring opposing guards to beat them via the long ball. In the early rounds, it worked because they faced backcourts that could not consistently make them pay. It will be interesting to see what position Mozgov is put in (Bogut is Steph’s primary screen-setter), as he is unable to hedge on either Curry and Thompson after screens.
With him in the lineup, Cleveland has held 11 of their last 14 opponents under 100 points. But he and Bogut, who is pivotal to the Dubs’ interior passing and offensive flow, could lose time due to the speed of the game.
For the Cavs, this means you should anticipate A LOT of Tristan Thompson at the 5, along with LeBron, to play tighter D. And for the Warriors, expect Festus Ezeli to get the majority of backup minutes at both front court spots, as well as Green shifting to the pivot. Coach Kerr is comfortable with small ball, so don’t expect his approach to significantly change.
This is one of toughest Finals to gauge in many years. Although Golden State’s depth and shooting seems to give them the edge, defeating LeBron FOUR times in seven tries is a very daunting task.
We don’t want to trivialize Cleveland’s accomplishments by solely anointing LeBron as the only reason they still stand but his ability to maximize each player’s potential is remarkable. Stephen Curry is crossing over into that threshold as well…and winning it all would do nothing but reinforce that thought.
You can crunch the numbers over and over, the fact is that it will come down to which team can execute in the fourth quarter more often than not. Is LeBron going to devastate Golden State with his playmaking? Will Stephen Curry break down the entire Cleveland defense for back-breaking triples & dishes?
That remains to be seen. In a close, 7-game series, we feel the Cavaliers will eventually come out on top and hoist their first ever NBA Championship. Despite all of the odds against them, including overcoming a lack of home-court advantage and a full roster, it just seems like their year. For it to happen, LeBron must overwhelm with his attitude and relentless attack from Game 1.
On the biggest stage and in perhaps the most important series in the history of Cleveland sports, LeBron will shine through.
CAVS IN 7