By Evan Sally and Jim Bearor
This NBA Finals match up is a weird one. This series is highly anticipated. More people that aren’t big NBA fans are into this series than any Finals series in recent memory. Conventional wisdom says the series that would excite fans the most is the one that features the competitive match up. People hate blowouts. And yet, when you look at the details of this series, the Warriors seem to have a pretty big advantage over the Cavaliers.
The Warriors are the 14th team to reach the Finals with 65 wins or more. The previous 13 teams have all won the title. The Cavaliers are the sixth team since 1978 to reach the NBA Finals with a below-average defense. Four out of the other five all lost in the finals. And that fifth team was the 2001 Lakers that featured Kobe, Shaq and the league’s best offense. Even putting the stats aside for a moment, the Warriors have clearly had the tougher test getting to this point. In beating Houston and Memphis, the Warriors have already beat two teams with better records than Cleveland. In comparison, the Cavaliers have had a relatively easy road to the Finals beating a sub .500 Celtics team, an inconsistent and disappointing Bulls team, and a Hawks team that was battered by injuries. On top of all that, their third best player, Kevin Love, is out for the Finals, and their second best player, Kyrie Irving, is dealing with several injuries. The stage seems to be set for the Warriors to roll to a championship.
So what are we talking about then? If this should be a blowout as all the stats and the eye tests show, then why the hype? Why the excitement? Well, in the NBA, star power reigns over everything else, and the chance to watch the world’s greatest player face off against the league’s MVP with everything on the line is about as tantalizing as it gets. As it’s safe to say the fate of the Cavs and the Warriors rest on the backs of LeBron James and Steph Curry respectively, the most important question for each team is: how the hell do we stop these guys? One of Hardfoulsports.com’s great writers Jim Bearor joins me to discuss this question and many more about the NBA Finals.
How can Cleveland stop Steph Curry?
Evan: They can’t. Next question.
How can Cleveland slow down Steph Curry?
Evan: This is slightly more plausible, but not by much. Curry is shooting 46 percent from 3 in the playoffs through 15 games. That’s really good. He’s also managed to shoot that percentage having taken 167 3s, or roughly 11 per game. That’s absurd. To put that in perspective, the player in 2nd place for amount of 3s taken is Kyle Korver, who took 57 less 3s than Curry during Atlanta’s 16-game playoff run. Curry has always been a special offensive player and a deadly accurate shooter, but now that he’s increased his volume of shots during this playoff run and maintained his accuracy, he’s become an offensive tidal wave, leaving defenses broken in his wake.
As with most shooters, Curry is at his best when he’s allowed to shoot uncontested spot up jump shots. And if you watch him play, he hunts for these opportunities. When Steph is off the ball, he’ll allow himself to get lost within the motion of the Golden State offense to open up space for himself in his favorite areas to shoot. For example, he’s shooting an insane 91 percent from the left corner in the postseason. 91 percent. If he’s shooting from there, it’s a wrap. Houston gave up way too many of these looks to him and paid the price. Curry is also really good shooting off the dribble; he has some of the best handles in the league, so he’ll make you pay if you close out too hard on him at the 3 point line by getting to the rim and creating for others.
So, how do the Cavaliers deal with this? I believe the duty of first line of defense will fall to Iman Shumpert. He has a nice combination of size and quickness to be able to stay with Curry when he tries to dance his way free and also will be able to fight through screens and stay with him. As much as Curry moves on the offensive end, however, he’s able to tire out even the best defenders. And when you’re tired, you make mistakes, mistakes Curry will prey on. So I’d expect JR Smith to take his turn to try to corral Curry as well. I’d also look for LeBron to switch onto Curry during key possessions down the stretch. His combination of size and speed could bother Curry, especially if he’s used to being guarded by the smaller Shumpert and Smith early in the game.
Slowing Curry isn’t just on the poor sap that gets stuck with the task for Cleveland. To frustrate a player of his ability takes an all around team effort. While you’re never going to completely stop him from getting his 25 points a game, a defense can make him have to take more shots to do it. You can do this by employing a multilevel defensive strategy against him. The primary defender has to run Curry off the 3 point line. This may mean you’re closing out too hard and allowing him to get into the interior of the defense, but it’s a sacrifice you have to make to take the 3 away. This is where Cleveland has to trust each other on defense. If Curry begins to penetrate, it’s on the Cleveland big men to step up and force him to shoot a less efficient shot, like a floater, rather than let him get to the rim. Curry is going to burn Cleveland no matter what, but if they can make him play slightly less efficiently, that could give Cleveland the small opening they need to pull this series out.
How will the Warriors try to contain LeBron?
Jim: First off, I don’t think anybody can truly win the match up against LeBron James, but some players and teams have found ways to limit him and make him work a little bit more. As far as I know, this can only be achieved by having your biggest, baddest athlete bust his ass up and down the court with the single-minded approach of harassing him. Think Kawhi Leonard. Think Lance Stephenson blowing in his ear.
The Warriors have a few guys they could throw at James. Harrison Barnes is the ideal man for the job, and it would mean a lot if he could carry the bulk of the defensive load, as it would free up Draymond Green to play in the paint against Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. Andre Iguodala, who is 6’6”, and Klay Thompson, 6’7”, are also suitable candidates to try and run LeBron ragged.
Because the Warriors are so deep, they have options with their match ups. Even though Harrison Barnes will likely be Golden State’s first choice to match up against James, I think it will more of a team effort than a one-on-one, à la Kawhi. I expect Coach Kerr to rotate Iguodala, Barnes, Green, and maybe even Thompson in small doses, so he can have a fresh defender on him at all times to get in his face and annoy him.
LeBron James is going to be able to win the battle against any defender Golden State throws in his way, but the Warriors have at least four respectable defenders, and LeBron is one man. James will be playing close to 40 minutes per game as it is, and if a barrage of in-your-face defense could make him have to go that extra mile to accomplish the same amount of work, they could wear him down. Since Kyrie Irving’s health is up in the air and the roster of the Cavaliers doesn’t quite have the depth of the Warriors, LeBron is expected to do everything. Golden State can and will pressure him all game, every game.
Which bench has the advantage?
Jim: Especially when you take into account the injuries that Cleveland has sustained over the season, Golden State’s roster is just fuller than that of the Cavs. On the other hand, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova used to be bench players, but they’ve both started games over the course of these playoffs. If Kyrie Irving is healthy and can start, that still only leaves Dellavedova, Shump, James Jones, and what’s left of Shawn Marion as viable bench players. But who knows, maybe Mike Miller loses a shoe again and knocks down some threes that help the Cavs steal a game (Doubt it).
The Warriors have Leandro Barbosa, David Lee, Andre Iguodala (What is this, 2010?), Festus Ezeli, Shaun Livingston, and Justin Holiday – all of whom can either contribute, or at least compete, while starters are off the floor. David Lee was an All-Star two years ago, and Andre Iguodala was the center of the 76ers franchise for like eight years.
Shumpert and Dellavedova almost make this an argument, but it’s not one.
X Factors – Battle of the Bigs
Evan: While most of the focus of the series is on the stars and the perimeter, the big men may play the biggest role in deciding who wins this series. Each team’s primary big men have been excellent so far in the playoffs. Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov is second in the playoffs in percentage of shots other teams make on him at the rim, and Tristan Thompson has been a monster on the offensive boards. Golden State’s Andrew Bogut is the only player that’s giving up a lower percentage at the rim than Mozgov, and Draymond Green has lived up to his Defensive Player of the Year runner up status being extremely disruptive all over the court.
Bogut will be the first legitimate rim protector that the Cavs have played in the postseason; how Kyrie and LeBron attack him will an important take away in Game 1. Will they go right at him and try to get him into foul trouble? Or will Bogut’s presence force the Cavaliers to have a more perimeter oriented approach? If the Cavs are forced to take more outside shots, the biggest match up will be between Draymond Green and Tristan Thompson. It can not be expressed enough how important it is for Green to keep Thompson off of the offensive glass. Golden State is a far more efficient offensive team than Cleveland, but being able to get extra shot opportunities via Thompson’s rebounding can level that imbalance.
Bogut and Mozgov both have the ability to finish around the rim and score if either team’s jumpers aren’t falling. If Bogut in particular is able to get going offensively, it will open up the most underrated part of his game: his passing. When teams are forced to double Bogut, he’s able to find them for an open shot and break a defense wide open. While none of these guys are the marquee names in the Finals, if either duo of big men badly outplays the other, it could swing the series.
Who can be more effective in a diminished role: Kyrie or Klay?
Jim: I’d say Klay.
Let’s imagine Kyrie Irving was 100% healthy. His job wouldn’t be what it was last series, where his duty was to essentially stop Jeff Teague or Dennis Schröder from driving; he didn’t have to press them at the 3-point arc. The Splash Brothers are obviously a different story. Curry will embarrass you if you give him space, and concussion or not, I still don’t like the idea of giving Klay Thompson an open look. In this completely hypothetical situation, Irving would have to play high effort defense as well as being a primary ball handler, which would be exhausting and strenuous.
Back to the real world: Kyrie Irving is playing through a knee injury that was severe enough to put him on the bench for most of the Atlanta series, and we don’t know how it will hold up if Irving is playing at least 25 minutes every night.
Kyrie’s knee scares me more than Klay bleeding from the ears (Coach says it’s alright to bleed from the ears). Steph Curry and Iguodala can help take some of the ball handling responsibilities if it proves to be too much for Thompson, but he’s already been cleared to play, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing him out there staring into the middle distance or anything. Worst case scenario: he is going to command coverage from Cleveland wherever he is standing.
Worst case scenario for Irving is that he tweaks his knee and is forced to watch the Splash Brothers have their way with JR Smith and Dellavedova from the bench. I’m not concerned with Thompson’s concussion, but a knee injury on an explosive player like Irving will always put some doubt in my mind.
Evan: For what it’s worth, I think the Cavs will struggle to keep up with the Warriors. The games may be close, but the series may not be. (To get Evan and Jim’s predictions for the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final, as well as the rest of the Hard Foul Sports team, check them out here.) However, I do have a feeling the Cavs will win Game 1, which is strange considering the Warriors’ 46-3 record at home this year. But because of the one week layoff prior to the start of the series, I fully expect Game 1 to be a sloppy affair due to each team needing to knock a bit of the rust off. A sloppy game favors the Cavs because of their reliance on isolation, compared to the Warriors’ offense based on ball movement. Something to watch out for.
Enjoy the Finals everyone.
By Evan Sally and Jim Bearor