The third installment of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers rivalry is here, and it could be the best one yet.
There are asterisks next to each of the last two Finals. In 2015, the first time these two met, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were hurt, and it’s believed that a fully loaded Cavaliers team would’ve been enough to down Golden State. Last year, the greatest regular season team had injuries of their own, and Draymond Green did his part in helping cost the Warriors their second-straight title. On the flip side, LeBron James and Irving played out of their minds and deserved all the credit for leading that mind-boggling comeback.
Now, the Warriors and back. And better than ever. Kevin Durant jumped sides on Russell Westbrook and joined the very same team who bounced him in the Western Conference Finals. The damage is done. Whether you think it was a weak move or not, Golden State is now incredibly fun to watch. Cleveland didn’t make any headlines in the offseason, and their post-All-Star skid generated just as much buzz as Durant’s signing. “Do the Cavs have enough to make it to the Finals?” “Are the Boston Celtics a legitimate threat?”
These hypotheses fell on deaf ears. James and the Cavs steamrolled the Eastern Conference, just like Golden State did with the West. Cleveland swept Indiana; Golden State swept Portland. Toronto also got swept, as was Utah. The Celtics managed to win one game, but a Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs team wasn’t so lucky.
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It’s no longer a debate about who the NBA’s two best teams are — Golden State and Cleveland are at the top of the mountain, and most of the league is at the bottom. Those who aren’t are barely at the halfway mark, and while the lack of parity is a turnoff for some, I think it’s great for the league. Reflect on the 1980s, which is considered the NBA’s golden age. From 1980 to 1991, Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers went to nine Finals — nine. That came during a 12-season span. Their opponents were the Celtics (three times), Philadelphia 76ers (twice), Detroit Pistons (twice) and Chicago Bulls (once). The Houston Rockets were the only other team to make the Finals during that stretch. That’s an awful lot of parity, right? Ironically enough, this came as Magic and Bird were saving the NBA. In the 70s, there were seven different champions. And all of them did coke before they won. There shouldn’t be an issue seeing the top players on the two best teams in the Finals.
Golden State and Cleveland lead the playoffs in net rating at plus-16.8 and plus-16.1, respectively. A differential this wide means they’re playing both sides of the ball exceptionally well. Since the Warriors are the best team in the league, I’ll start with them.
Golden State Warriors - The League’s Newest Villains
The NBA hasn’t seen a superteam like this in a very long time. Remember back in 1971 when the Lakers had Jerry West and Gail Goodrich in the backcourt with Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor up front? Yeah, Golden State is like that. Except on steroids. On paper, a fully-healthy ‘71 Lakers team would obliterate almost anybody — and Wilt and Elgin were past their primes (and Baylor was hurt). Those four guys eventually found their way into the Hall of Fame.
X-Factor: Draymond Green
As weird as it is, everything starts with Draymond Green. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are the two best players, but Green has the versatility to make the Warriors the NBA’s greatest headache. Offensively, there’s nothing Draymond can’t do. He’s averaging 13.9 points and 7.2 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 47.2 from three. Golden State looks toward him to be their primary facilitator, and, even though Durant and Curry can create shots on their own, having Green run the offense gets those two much easier looks. Defenses become so pre-occupied, and the Warriors constant motion makes them a hassle to keep up with.
Green’s improved shooting is why their offense looks so much better. Teams are forced to guard him now. Golden State puts up 115.8 points per 100 possessions, which is second to the Cavaliers. However, their assist percentage is in another stratosphere. At 64.8 percent, the Warriors are vastly more unselfish compared to Cleveland (54.6). Cleveland shoots better as well, but the Warriors hard-nosed defense and passing is what separates them from the pack.
Golden State is elite at stopping opponents. They’re allowing 99.1 points per 100, and that’s incredible with how fast they play. The team moves as a unit, and they’re able to play ultra-aggressively because they trust each other. Once again, Green is the epicenter. He’s their anchor. With 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals a night, Draymond’s all over the place, but neither is his most jaw-dropping stat. That, my friends, is opponent shooting percentage — specifically, inside of six feet. Keep in mind Green is 6-7(ish). This postseason, teams are shooting just 49.3 percent inside six feet when guarded by Green, 11.1 points below their season average. That’s remarkable.
Durant & Curry
If I’m Cleveland, Durant is more of a concern than Steph. In the last two Finals, Curry has underperformed compared to the regular season, and Kyrie Irving outplayed him last year. Was he hurt? It’s possible, but could you imagine if LeBron didn’t produce? We wouldn’t give him that luxury. And I don’t want to afford to Curry either. He’s arguably a top-five player, but, Durant is on another level. He’s fresh off the most efficient regular season of his career, and that was with a fair three-point shot (37.5 percent). Before finishing off the Spurs, Durant was up-and-down in the scoring department; he followed up a 38-point night with 18, and then again with 34 and 16. Durant then bounced back with 33 and 29 in the series-clincher, and he’s going to make-or-break the series offensively for Golden State.
The Warriors don’t have anyone who can stop LeBron, but the Cavaliers don’t have anyone who can stop Durant. He had 36 points on Christmas Day and 21 in the second meeting where he played just 28 minutes.
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Just because I spent that last paragraph-and-a-half fluffing up Durant doesn’t mean I’m downplaying Curry’s importance. Thus far, he’s been terrific. The former MVP is Golden State’s leading scorer at 28.6 points a night, and he looks like the Curry who everyone fell in love with last season — except now he’s got a full beard. With shooting clips of 50.2 percent overall and 43.1 from three, Curry is getting what he wants almost whenever he wants it, and not having him orchestrate the entire offense makes him more of a threat. Teams are already worried about him breaking down someone off the dribble. Now, they have to chase him around a series of screens. I’m gassed just writing about it. The Warriors offense is 24.6 points better with Curry on the floor this postseason. When he’s off, the offense suffers considerably. And that’s something the Cavaliers need to be wary of.
Klay & The Bench
Klay Thompson — as great as he is — is a huge question mark. He’s performed the worst of the Fantastic Four, and the main reason his disappearance isn’t causing more concern is that they have the firepower to deal without him. Thompson’s shot just 36.4 percent from three and 38.3 percent from the field so far. Durant and Green have helped brush that under the rug. The good news is that he’s been getting his looks. It’s not like he’s fallen out of the offense altogether. On the flip side, it’s a harder for him to get into a rhythm because there’s a new guy. But, if he catches fire in this series… it could get ugly.
The bench has been very average this season for Golden State. Guarding their reserves totally contrasts the starters since their bench shoots poorly from three (26.0 percent), but they more than compensate for it on defense by creating turnovers and blocking shots.
Cleveland Cavaliers - The League’s Biggest Underdog
Having the NBA’s best player doesn’t automatically make you the favorite. In fact, a LeBron James-led team has only been the clear favorite twice, in 2011 and 2012. James is looking to further cement his legacy and is playing as well as we’ve ever seen him. His cohorts, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, have also elevated their game, but the team does have some questions looming overhead.
X-Factor: Tristan Thompson
If the Cavaliers are able to slay Goliath, Thompson will become the first athlete ever to beat the Kardashian curse. The numbers don’t do him justice, and watching him is the only way to appreciate his playstyle. With 9.3 boards a night during these playoffs, Thompson is second to Love in that category. However, he’s a huge threat on the offensive glass and 4.2 of his total rebounds come on that end. Even when he doesn’t successfully grab anything, his activity is maddening. It takes two, sometimes three, guys to box him out, and that wears heavily on the defense. Moreover, it occupies the bigs.
Although he’s far from a threat on offense, the Cavaliers aren’t reluctant to look his way every now and again. He’s mobile and athletic, which benefits Cleveland considerably. When they get on the break, Thompson isn’t afraid to run the floor. And he runs hard. With great passers like LeBron and Kyrie, the defense has to respect him because it’ll be an easy dunk if they don’t, and that’s something that happened time and time again last Finals. In the halfcourt, he poses the same threat out of the pick-and-roll. Cleveland will have to exploit this because the floor is going to be wide open. They surrounded LeBron with shooters, and now it’s picking your poison.
Rounding out Thompson’s offense is his improved free throw shooting. Hack-a-Tristan is no longer a thing since he’s gone 36-of-54 during the postseason.
LeBron & Kyrie
This is the Cavaliers counter to Golden State. When they all play at their best LeBron, Durant, Irving and Curry all cancel each other out. However, for this team to prosper, James and Kyrie are going to have to go above and beyond with their production; not only do they need to cancel out Durant and Curry, but they also need to surpass them. Heading into Game 1, James has undoubtedly been the playoffs best player, boasting a line of 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists while shooting 56.6 percent from the field with 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks. He’s been sensational. To beat the Warriors, he’ll have to continue that — and then some.
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It’s going to be incredibly taxing for James since he’ll be guarding Durant for most of the series, but he’s done herculean things before. The most dangerous part about this new LeBron that we’re seeing is that he’s more cerebral than ever before. He’s picked apart the Eastern Conference with ease. The Warriors won’t go down without fighting (maybe even physically), but, when James is firing on all cylinders, he’s arguably the most unstoppable player ever.
Having a such a high IQ will mean knowing when to defer to Kyrie — e.g. the fourth quarter. Uncle Drew reached a new level this season, and his dominance in the 2016 Finals sparked it. He, Curry and James Harden are the three most lethal guards in isolation, but Irving can get to the rim at will and finish with spectacular ease. On top of that, he’s a deadeye shooter. Oddly enough, Irving’s three-ball hasn’t been up to par, and Steph appears to have all of the momentum going into this matchup — whether he’s a clear favorite or not depends on you. I will, however, have both guys even as the series starts. Last year, Irving performed, and Curry didn’t. Will it change? I’m not sure, but if we get any fewer than seven games of these two going head-to-head, I’ll be seriously upset.
Kevin Love & The Bench
Remember in Game 7 of last year’s Finals? Remember when Love danced with Curry for almost an entire possession at the end of the fourth quarter? That was the pinnacle of his defense. Since then, Cleveland’s best quarterback has looked improved, but I wouldn’t trust his happy feet for an extended period of time. However, his play on defense is critical to the Cavs’ success. Love won’t be blocking shots. Instead, he’ll grab boards and try not to foul. Once Love brings down a defensive board, the outlet pass threat is at an all-time high, and those touchdown passes typically lead to easy buckets that the Warriors cannot afford. I know they’re elite, but even the best have breakdowns.
I touched on this earlier, but the Cavaliers bench can 100 percent win a shootout with Golden State’s. Their chances of this are heightened with every minute James plays. And I anticipate he’ll be playing a lot. If he’s out there garnering all the attention, he’ll be able to draw defenders and find shooters routinely. My only issue with this bench is their defense, and, if they start missing shots, I don’t have faith in them getting multiple stops.
Takeaways From Prior Matchups
Dec. 25, 2016
- Kyrie Irving won this game with his jumper over Klay Thompson, but other factors played into this stunning victory. First, Cleveland forced the Warriors into plenty of turnovers — 20, to be exact. And that resulted in 21 points for the Cavaliers. Remember: you can’t give championship caliber teams free points. Also remember, that goes both ways. Cleveland needs to take care of the basketball as well.
- The Warriors got pummeled on the offensive glass. As a team, they had five offensive rebounds. LeBron James (five) and Tristan Thompson (six) combined for 11. Golden State has one glaring issue, and it’s their inability to keep teams off the offensive boards. Once Tristan Thompson smells blood, he’s not going to relent, and those extra possessions are something the Dubs can’t afford if they’re having issues offensively.
- Take those offensive issues with a grain of salt. What I really mean is that their threes weren’t falling. Whether it was a fluke or by design, the Cavaliers held Golden State to 30.0 percent from downtown. They still launched 30 attempts, but the contests were stellar.
Jan. 15, 2017
- This was a terrible showing by Cleveland. On the flip side, it was a truly dominating performance by the Warriors who were without Kevin Durant. The funniest part about this is that the Cavs got blown back to the Midwest because none of the three things I pointed out above carried over to this meeting.
- They forced Golden State into 17 turnovers but had 15 of their own. Furthermore, the Warriors got 20 points off takeaways while Cleveland had just 10. It was truly brutal watching the Cavs struggle so mightily on offense, and it’s entirely possible we see a similar outcome if they play like that again.
- Golden State flipped the script on the rebounding battle, and it looked like they went back to the ’90s, cloned Dennis Rodman three times and then entered their time machine again. The final margin was 58-35 for the Warriors, and they also won the offensive glass, 11-7. Having a differential that vast is egregious. Frankly, it looked like the Cavaliers just didn’t want to compete.
- The last ingredient to this waxing was the fluidity at which the offenses operated. It’s binary: Warriors were great, Cavaliers were terrible. Golden State had 37 assists on 46 makes, Cleveland had 11 on 31. That’s all I have to say for this.
Series Prediction and Explanation
I’ve been so eager to write this: Cavaliers In 7.
No, I’m not picking them to be in the minority. I earnestly believe the Cleveland Cavaliers will beat the Golden State Warriors in seven games.
It’ll take near-perfect basketball. It’ll take a relentless effort by LeBron James, who will need to elevate his teammates higher than ever before — but he’s one of the few who can do it. I think the Cavaliers coming out and punching the Warriors in the mouth will frazzle them a bit because they’ve had such a cakewalk to the Finals. Cleveland has also had a smooth path, but when the Celtics beat them, they answered with a haymaker and quickly ended that series.
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It’s also going to take a bit of luck. When two teams are this close to being equal (statistically), luck is really the only differentiating factor. Last year, when Draymond Green got suspended, that was luck. Cleveland got lucky with that decision. The momentum of the series shifted, but the Warriors three chances to close the series. It just didn’t happen.
Also, even against a juggernaut like this, I don’t think it’s wise to count out LeBron James. He was on the flip-side of this in 2011, when everyone thought the Miami Heat would frolic to a title. It didn’t happen. Whether it was chemistry, jitters or whatever, guys didn’t perform when they needed to.
I don’t care who wins. I have no bias toward either team. Ideally, I’d want to see seven wire-to-wire games with the NBA’s best players playing at the highest level. If it’s anything else, we’ll be cheated as fans.
All stats are courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com
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