Can LeBron James will the Cleveland Cavaliers to victory, or are the Golden State Warriors just too much to handle?
That’s how I ultimately see this year’s NBA Finals breaking down.
The matchup actually reminds me a little of last year’s series between San Antonio and Miami. On one side you have a more team-oriented offense in Golden State — with a lot of guys playing key roles in their success — and the duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the head of the Warriors’ monster. On the other side, you have the best player in the game, LeBron James, in his fifth straight trip to the Finals. Honestly, I think this time he has better role players alongside him. The Cavs have a bunch of guys that really thrive in their roles, and want to do some of the dirty work.
The most interesting part of this matchup to me is that, when you look down the line, Golden State has the advantage over Cleveland in almost every matchup. They’ve had the best group of starters in the NBA for the entire year; Steph, Klay, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut. If you look at statistics, they were one of the top five-man groups according to plus-minus in the league, hands down. So they definitely have the advantage five-on five.
Even if you go through the matchups individually, the Warriors have the better guy almost every time. With Kyrie Irving not near 100 percent, you have to give the point guard matchup to the MVP Stephen Curry. Whether it’s Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith matching up with Klay at the two, you’ve got to give either matchup to Klay. As impressed as I’ve been with Tristan Thompson and the way he’s been playing in the playoffs, the matchup with Draymond is at best a push for him, and the frontcourt duo of Green and Bogut is well ahead of Thompson and Mozgov. I’d also give Golden State the bench advantage. So they’re set up pretty well.
Of course, there is one important exception…
The question all series will be whether LeBron can be great enough to make up for all of Cleveland’s other deficits. That’s what is going to determine who wins the championship: LeBron’s ability to dominate a game, and whether or not the Warriors can keep him from doing that.
He’s that vital and that much of a difference-maker. I think sometimes it’s taken for granted. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s underrated. He definitely gets plenty of credit. You watch SportsCenter, and it’s nothing but LeBron this, and LeBron that.
But I think it’s deserved.
We could honestly hand LeBron the MVP trophy every single year, and it wouldn’t be wrong. It’s just like when Shaq played. He is that dominant. So in that regard, despite the fact that he’s under a microscope so much, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It’s taken for granted that he’s averaging 28, 8 and 10 in the playoffs. That’s just insane, and he does that while being in “chill mode,” as he calls it, half the time.
It would honestly be scary if he has another level, because the level he’s been at is just ridiculous. He does everything for Cleveland, scoring 35, getting 10 assists, putting up triple-doubles and near-triple-doubles. When he’s efficient, that’s when he’s at his scariest. He’s shooting 42 percent from the field and 17 percent from three, so maybe if he can be a little more efficient, there is another level. It’s going to be difficult for him to do better with so much of the defense focusing its attention on him. The shooting numbers are kind of a product of that.
How the Warriors defend him will be interesting to watch. If they deploy their defense the way I think they will, they could gain an advantage there too. There’s nobody who can really slow down LeBron, but what you can do is throw a lot of different looks at him, and Golden State is well positioned to do that. They have four guys that can spend time guarding LeBron in Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Green and Klay.
Having that many options is really huge. If you just have one guy guard him the whole time, LeBron is pretty good at figuring out, “Where is my advantage?” And he will have an advantage in some way over a defender. Most of the time, he’s too strong for the guy who’s covering him. Even when he’s not — like in the Atlanta series, when they put Paul Milsap on him — then he’s too fast for him.
So if you just let LeBron see one look the entire game, or for a long length of time, he’s able to adjust to it, make the right read, and make the right plays. But when you’re able to throw different defenders at him, it just makes it more difficult. Everybody defends a different way. Everybody has different strengths as a defender. Having multiple guys guard him, each with their own skillset and their own way of defending him, is going to be vital for Golden State.
Whoever is guarding LeBron, they’ll be looking to do the most important thing when it comes to defending him: Don’t let him get to the bucket. When he gets into the paint and starts shooting little jump hooks, taking easy layups and getting to the line, you have problems.
One way to keep that from happening is to pack the paint on him. Golden State can do that well. So you’ll see them switch a lot, pack the paint and make him shoot contested jump shots or pass the ball, and make other players score. You don’t want to give other players wide open shots, but you pick your poison.
When they switch, Draymond is probably the best bet to spend the most time on LeBron. As long as he can keep LeBron in front of him, Dray can do a good job making him shoot long, contested two-pointers and step-back threes. If those are the shots LeBron ends up taking — as long as you can box out Tristan Thompson — that possession is a win, and you move on to the next one. You know you’re not going to stop LeBron. He’s going to make shots, and he’s going to shoot enough to put up big point totals. What you want to do is make sure he has an inefficient night.
The only way I can see Cleveland winning games in this series is if he dominates the game, and even that isn’t a sure bet. If the Cavs can’t capitalize when he has one of those signature games, and they still lose, that’s going to set them up for failure, too.
CURRY AND KLAY
There are a bunch of other intriguing matchups in this series, too.
For the Cavaliers on defense, what do you do to try to contain Steph?
What makes Steph great is his ability to shoot the basketball off the dribble. The quickness with which he is able to get a shot off is unbelievable. That’s why he’s able to get into the paint and make plays for his team. You have to respect his outside shot. As a defender, you’ve got to realize he’s going to shoot a lot, so he’s bound to make some shots. You definitely can’t hang your head when he hits shots, because you’re not going to shut him down altogether. A good night defending him is when his percentage wasn’t very good, and you made him work for every shot.
He’s as hard to guard as anybody in the league because he uses a lot of ball screens, and runs around the court. When they run a pick-and-roll with him, he’s able to come off and decide if he wants to shoot, pass to the roll man, or pass to the skip guy in the corner. That usually makes him pretty hard to stop, because he uses all of those options effectively.
People are used to him making ridiculous plays, knocking down these huge shots, but not all of his plays are spectacular plays. That’s part of his game that gets overlooked. He’s pretty great at making the right fundamental basketball play. He makes extra passes and easy passes, up to Draymond Green for a layup, or over the top, or to the corner man who is wide open to get him an easy look. Because of all those spectacular plays, he’s underrated as an all around point guard.
The best way to defend him is to take the ball out of his hands. It sounds so simple, but it’s easier said than done, particularly with the way they play. But you have to contain or trap him, and try to make somebody else make the play. If you’re successful in making him get rid of it, you can’t let him get it back.
For Cleveland, this would be a lot easier to do if Kyrie Irving was completely healthy. But if he’s even a little hobbled and not 100 percent, as it appears he is, it’s going to be hard for him to chase Curry around and get around screens. And if Kyrie isn’t guarding Steph, who is he on?
That’s where they could really run into problems on defense.
Klay Thompson offers similar challenges in terms of running around and navigating screens. And the thing that separates Klay from guys at his position who are known strictly as shooters is that Klay can make more plays than most of those other guys can. He’s bigger and he can drive it to the rim. He can finish well, and he can also come off pick and rolls. Being more of an all-around player than just a shooter is what makes Klay special.
Despite that, you definitely have to run him off the three-point line. You don’t want to let him just sit there and fire away from three. He can do that all day. You have to make him put the ball on the floor. You’ll have help behind you. If he shoots a step-back shot and hits it, then he makes it and you tip your cap to him, as long as you keep him off the line.
The hardest thing to handle with Klay is when they run empty side, pick-and-roll stuff with him, Curry and one of their big men. You’ve got Steph coming off of the pick, Andrew Bogut rolling down the middle of the lane, and Klay circling behind. It puts that one defender in a bind. Either you have to help on the roll and give up three, or you stay on Klay and you give up the roll. That’s one of the hardest things to guard in basketball, and when you put Klay and Steph in it, it becomes even more difficult.
I think the best way to defend him is you refuse to leave him, and try not to let him touch the ball. I guarded him this year and I had some success because I committed to defending him, and didn’t help off him. You kind of just let Steph and whoever is the pick-and-roll guy play the two-man game. At the end of the day, giving up two is better than giving up three, and there are other variables that work in your favor if you stick to your man. Steph might not see the roll man, or he might not be open. Somebody might get a deflection. So you trust your teammates and stick with Klay. You can’t let him get too many open looks. He can’t score as many points if he doesn’t get as many shots.
But it won’t be easy for the Cavs. Klay is also big enough to post up smaller defenders. If they try to put Kyrie on him, Klay is just going to post him up. It will be interesting to see what task they let Kyrie take on defense, and how it all unfolds from there. With Curry, I don’t think they can just play him with Kyrie or even try to contain him with just one person. They might let Dellavedova try to be physical with him, and size him up.
You want to be physical with the Warriors regardless. They’re a finesse team. They’re not a team that’s going to bully you. They like to play at a certain pace and with a distinct rhythm. They like to get their shots off cleanly. So you definitely want to be physical with them throughout the series and try to make them put the ball on the floor. They like when you sag off. They can shoot all day. That’s their bread and butter.
So the Cavs are going to be physical bell to bell. Dellavedova, Shumpert and Smith, will all get right in their faces. But the end goal on Curry is going to be to contain him and make him give up the ball. For Klay, they’ll probably have a guy chasing him around and let him go to work there, but make him earn it. Maybe they’ll come with a double and make him get rid of it. But that’s where having a couple guys who can put up, 30 or 40 points is really special. You really can’t just focus on one or the other.
ROLE PLAYERS: GOLDEN STATE
So how exactly do you slow down the Warriors offense? It’s a question every single team has been asking themselves this season.
Personally, I’d try to make Draymond Green be the guy that beats you. I have a healthy respect for Dray’s game and I’m not trying to single him out. But he gets a lot of easy, open looks, and he’s good at attacking and making plays for others. So you take that inside lane away from him. When he drives, don’t leave your man—stay home and let the guy defending him force him to shoot a contested running floater, or take a mid-range jump shot. If he scores 30 points on you, then you live with that. But I feel like Draymond is a player who wants to pass more than he wants to score, so try to force him to make scoring plays.
Of course, the problem with that strategy is that they have so many outlets for him to use, in addition to Steph and Klay, and you’d be hard-pressed to take away all of them.
One guy who doesn’t get enough credit for the job he does there is Andrew Bogut. He was huge for them in that Houston series, especially on defense. But he scored some, too, and he’s going to be another guy who can use in this series. He’s going to have Timofey Mozgov guarding him, and Mozgov doesn’t have the same skillset. That mismatch gives them an outlet for pressure. Bogut will be able to take the ball at the top of the key, and let Steph and Klay run around while he’s looking over the defense. Then he’ll wait until somebody is open and pass to them. They get a lot of open looks because of what he does. Aside from Marc Gasol, Bogut might be the best playmaking center in the league.
I also really liked what Harrison Barnes brought to the table offensively in the series against Houston. I’m not sure what’s he’s going to bring to this series on offense, or what they’ll even ask him to bring. He’s a very important defender, and they’re going to ask him to guard LeBron a bunch, so he’s going to have his hands full on that end. He also leads out on transition and gets some easy buckets that way, so he’s definitely going to be a key piece for Golden State.
The thing I respect most about the Warriors is their depth and the unselfishness of the guys coming off their bench. That’s going to be their X-factor. Some of their bench players are better than Cleveland starters, and that makes the Warriors a special team. They hardly play David Lee at all anymore. He’s a guy who averaged 18 and nine last season with them and was an All Star in 2013. It’s probably killing him that he’s not playing, but when he comes in, he plays hard and fulfills his role. Leandro Barbosa is another guy sitting on their bench who could probably play heavy minutes on other teams. Steve Kerr can go to the bench and bring in Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Lee and Barbosa to lift up Golden State when they’re down.
People really don’t realize the sacrifices the guys on that team have made. But they all provide a veteran presence in the locker room and out on the court, and they’re focused on what the goal is, so they’re willing to sit back and just help the team do whatever they can to win. That’s what makes them scary. It shows how badly they want to win and that’s all they want.
ROLE PLAYERS: CLEVELAND
While Golden State has been essentially the same team all year — to a certain degree they’ve gotten lucky in that way through avoiding injuries — the Cavs went through more change from the beginning to the end of the season than pretty much any other team in the league.
We played them in November and January, but they’re not the same team now. Without Love and with Kyrie injured, they’re a different squad. There’s been talk since they swept Atlanta about how maybe they don’t miss Kevin Love that much and they might be better off. But there’s no doubt in my mind: There are things about his game that they miss. Love is a phenomenal player, one of the best forwards in the league. His ability to stretch the floor and his rebounding are things they could definitely use. I also think that if there’s a time in this series when they’re searching for scoring, which is a definite possibility, that’s when you’ll hear, “They miss Kevin Love.” Because he definitely provides scoring that they don’t have.
But naturally they’re playing a different style now without him. They are going small a lot more. If they had him, they would play another way and it might work, or it might not. It’s hard to say. But realistically, sometimes having a guy and playing a certain way may not be best for your team. The way they’re playing right now, they’re comfortable. Their role players are getting more of an opportunity to play and excel in the roles they were brought to the team to fill.
Their success says a lot about those guys who have come in and played bigger minutes for them. It says a lot about a guy like Tristan Thompson, who just stayed ready and stepped into that role. He’s really embraced it while not trying to do too much, just what has been asked of him. Thompson’s play on the offensive glass is going to be a huge difference-maker in this series. He made a living against Atlanta by just being around the rim. It allowed him to go after rebounds, get second chances and give the offense more opportunities.
If Golden State can keep Thompson from getting Cleveland extra opportunities, I don’t think the Cavaliers are going to have the firepower to stay with them offensively. The Warriors have too much scoring punch. They’re going to have games where they don’t shoot that well from outside, but they’re going to find other ways to score. As an opponent, you need to make sure that you can score with them, and getting extra opportunities and shots is huge, especially when you’re taking threes or contested jump shots. It can swing the momentum of the game in seconds.
The thing that’s going to make it difficult on Cleveland, and Tristan specifically as a rebounder, is how much switching Golden State does. In this way they will try to create mismatches throughout the series.
They’ll likely switch two through four. They could even switch two through five, and let Bogut guard LeBron depending on how LeBron is going. That would make him shoot from outside. If they go just two through four, Draymond might end up guarding LeBron, so you’re going to have somebody like Barnes or Klay blocking out Thompson.
Cleveland does have two guys — J.R. Smith and LeBron — that are probably among the top five in the NBA at getting shots off and hitting contested jumpers. To me, that’s one of the most intriguing parts of the series. Can Golden State switch the way they want to, continue to play tough and be the No. 1 defensive team in the league? Or is Cleveland going to be able to make contested jump shots and make them pay for switching?
I don’t really know.
The health of Kyrie Irving is also going to play a huge role in the outcome of this series. When he’s on, Kyrie’s one-on-one ability and ball handling are pretty special. There is always a chance that you could make SportsCenter for falling down while you’re trying to guard him.
You just try to stay solid on him more than anything. His ability to finish at the rim is also better than most players in the game. He’s the best guard I’ve ever seen at finishing through contact from big men. Our game plan against him has been to make him shoot running floaters and midrange jump shots. You try not to let him get isolated with big men. You want him to make a read, and get the ball out of his hands. But that’s the strategy when he’s at the top of his game.
It’s hard to say whether he’ll be there for this series given all the struggles he’s had with this injury. If he can’t play up to expectations, I could see them taking the ball out of his hands and letting LeBron continue to run the show, making Kyrie kind of a role player in this series. Then what he has to be able to do to complement LeBron, at minimum, is be a knockdown jump shooter. LeBron needs shooters around him that can be trusted with good looks.
Dellavedova is another guy I could see filling a similar role. He’s had at least one big game for them in each of the last two series. That says a lot about him as a guy who knows his role, and can come off the bench to play extremely well. Dellavedova is a guy you can lean on in a way, because you know he’s solid in every sense of that word. He’s not going to dazzle you with anything. but he does his job and plays hard on both ends of the court. He’s going to be asked to guard Steph a bunch, and try to slow him down. If you tell him, “Go over on every screen on Curry,” he’s going to go over on every screen. He’s a pretty smart player, and he’s not going to have mental lapses. It hasn’t surprised me that he’s stepped up and played well.
When it comes down to it, for Cleveland to win this series, LeBron needs to be spectacular. He needs to be Hall of Fame, legendary LeBron. And they’ve got to find scoring from somebody else. Whether that’s 15 a game from Tristan, 18 a game from J.R. Smith or Kyrie Irving if he’s healthy, it needs to come from somewhere else. I go as far as to say they need at least two of those guys to play well and complement LeBron.
For Golden State to win the title, they just need to play the same way they’ve been playing. They’ve been lucky to not have been bitten by the injury bug, and so they haven’t had to adjust that much from day one. That’s one reason they picked up in the playoffs right where they left off at the end of the regular season. They’re pretty much the same team. Their rotation goes nine or 10 men deep, and everybody contributes. If they continue to play really well defensively and get their 15 points in transition each game, Cleveland won’t be able to keep up.
I’m picking Golden State to win this series in either five or six games. They just have too many weapons offensively, and I don’t think Cleveland will be able to keep up even with LeBron playing at his absolute best.