Well, we’re finally here. Congratulations on wasting the last eight months of your life listening to ridiculous storylines like, “Can Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry figure out how to play with one another” or “Is Cleveland’s putrid defense a problem” or analysts arguing about how much they liked Toronto landing Serge Ibaka and how it made the East “interesting.” We’ve all wasted our time from October until now watching meaningless games, arguably the worst Playoffs ever (at least the worst I can remember), and here we are: Super team versus Super Team in the rubber match for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in the first NBA Finals trilogy. It was never really in question. The gulf between the second best teams in each conference is ridiculous. We were a single inexplicable pathetic performance from LeBron James from both teams entering the Finals undefeated. When Kevin Durant joined the Warriors, I wrote the following:
Last year in my NBA season preview, I openly wondered if we were being silly to consider anyone else except Golden State and Cleveland in the Finals. It just seemed too obvious. The disparity in the talents of those two franchises in their respective conferences and the second best team’s was just too great. They were clearly the class of the NBA and a rematch seemed all too obvious. It’s even more obvious now. Why even watch this season?
But we watched and here we are at the end and it should be an interesting Finals. The Warriors, who are becoming one of the greatest teams of all-time with a three year stretch that only the 1996-1998 Chicago Bulls could get near, and the one man dynasty, LeBron James, the defining player of his generation and indisputably a top five player of all-time (and for the record, I have him third between Jordan and Kareem) are squaring off for the third time. Last year, LeBron did the impossible by coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a 73 win team and unleashed one of the greatest three game stretches ever. He cemented his legacy with those three games and that championship and moved into the Mount Rushmore of NBA players and even earned a place in the conversation as the greatest of all-time (he’s not). Who will take home the Larry O’Brien trophy? Can the Warriors get their vengeance for last year’s historic collapse? Will LeBron further cement his case as one of the greatest of all-time? Here’s what each team has to do to win and some X-factors:
How the Cavaliers can win…
First, as great as LeBron was in games 5-7, he was shaky in games 1,2, & 4, with he and Kyrie going off in game 3. In games 1-4, LeBron averaged 24.8 points, 11 rebounds, 8.3 assists, shot 48.2% from the field, only 31.3% from three, and 70.6% from the line and averaged 5.8 turnovers. Yikes. In the final three games, he averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, shot 50.6% from the field, a 42.1% from three, 73.1% from the line, and averaged only 2.7 turnovers (all stats per basketball-reference.com). What led to LeBron turning it around? Remember, in game 5, Draymond Green was suspended. Then, Andrew Bogut got injured in the third quarter of game 5. Now, the Warriors were without rim protection and LeBron just turned up the heat. He was able to convert on his scoring opportunities. I don’t know if Draymond got into his head or what, but when he got suspended, LeBron turned it around and never really looked back. It got him going. Will we see last three games of the Finals LeBron or first four games LeBron? The Cavaliers won’t last four games if they get that LeBron.
Second, can the Cavaliers commit to playing defense for 48 minutes a night? Their defense has been bad this year…really bad. They were 21st in Defensive Rating this season. There have only been two other champions in NBA history with a Defensive Rating outside of the top 10: the 1994-1995 Houston Rockets (12th) and the 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers (21st). That’s it. The good news for the Cavs is that both of those teams were also defending champions. Maybe the Cavaliers just coasted through the regular season and turned it up for the Playoffs. They’re third in Defensive Rating for the postseason thus far. But can they matchup with the Warriors? The Cavaliers start Kyrie Irving, JR Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson while the Warriors start Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Zaza Pachulia. Kyrie has never been a defensive presence, so he will likely struggle with Steph and Matthew Dellavedova isn’t walking through that door. Deron Williams is and he will struggle against Steph as well. The same is true about JR Smith, who has this highlight showcasing his defensive prowess. LeBron is going to have his hands full with Kevin Durant for 48 minutes. Kevin Love is atrocious on defense, but can the Cavs hide him on Zaza? Sure. Tristan Thompson may have enough lateral quickness to stay with Draymond Green and maybe even limit some of his playmaking. Overall, I hate this matchup for the Cavaliers. I just don’t think they have enough defenders to slow the Warriors down.
Last, the Cavaliers need Kevin Love to be great. Last year, LeBron was great, Kyrie was great, Richard Jefferson provided a spark, Tristan Thompson averaged a double-double, but Kevin Love was putrid with the exception of a few moments here and there. He averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and shot 36.2% from the field and 26.3% from three. The Cavs cannot have that. They need Kevin Love to bring it all series long and for his offense to create a problem for the Warriors. He’s averaging 17.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, and shooting 45.7% from the field and a scorching 47.5% from three. He has to continue to bring it or the Cavaliers become much more predictable and the Warriors can tighten the screws on LeBron and Kyrie. Kevin Love is the X-factor for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
How the Warriors can win…
First, they need Stephen Curry to continue rolling. In the 2015 Finals, Curry averaged 26 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.8 steals, shot 44.3% from the field and 38.5% from three. In the 2016 Finals, he averaged 22.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.9 steals, shot 40.4% from the field and 40% from three. He definitely didn’t seem healthy in the Playoffs last year and was dealing with injuries the entire postseason, but it’s clear that the Warriors need great Stephen Curry and not injured, sloppy Curry. Curry in this postseason seems to be on a mission. He’s averaging 28.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals, and shooting 50.2% from the field and 43.1% from three. He’s playing at a high level and the Warriors are following his lead.
Second, the Warriors just need to play their way. They can’t allow LeBron and Kyrie to slow the game to a crawl. They have to play with pace, swing the ball around, and take/make open shots. In Game 7 last year, the Warriors reverted to lots of isolation and ballstopping. That’s not Golden State basketball. They have to continue to play the way they know, the way that has led them to a crazy record of 207-39 (.841 winning percentage) over the past three seasons. They can’t let the Cavaliers take them out of their game.
Third, Draymond Green has to keep his head. If he gets ejected or suspended or does something crazy, it could flip the series like it did last year. He’s too valuable to what the Warriors do to act foolishly and not be available. This is the Finals. It’s time to keep your head, play your game, and win the championship. He does a pretty good job on LeBron too. Per NBA.com/stats, with Draymond on the court in last year’s Finals, LeBron James averaged 4.7 turnovers and was a -1.3. With Draymond off the court, LeBron averaged 0.5 turnovers and was a +5.7. Draymond Green has to be available and he has to bring it against LeBron and take him out of his game. The Cavaliers cannot win if LeBron is sloppy like he was early in the Finals last season. Draymond Green is the X-factor for the Golden State Warriors.
I know we’ve seen six games in 2015 and seven games in 2016 from these two teams, but I really feel this year it will be somewhat anticlimactic. The Warriors are on a mission. Since February 1st, the Warriors are 38-8 including the Playoffs. You know they’re motivated and you know they’ve been wanting this matchup for a year. My prediction: Golden State with the sweep to finish the Playoffs 16-0. I really don’t feel like these two games in Golden State will be close, Game 3 will be close, and then the Cavaliers will just fold in Game 4 as Golden State runs them out of their own gym. I hope I’m wrong, but I just think we’re in for an emphatic statement by the Warriors.
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of B2 Hoops and the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter here.