As the Warriors and Cavaliers have made their dominant runs to what’s sure to be one of the most publicized NBA Finals in the history of the league, they have in some ways established a 3 year-long, best of 21 series. Whether it was LeBron’s “Ultimate Warrior” shirt, the Kevin Durant transaction, LeBron’s Halloween Party, or various combustible comments, the plot lines are rich. Thankfully, the injury bug hasn’t infected either team, and it would be a pleasant surprise if the story of this year’s series isn’t dominated by a lack of health. In the midst of the Warriors lopsided victories, they managed a couple of thrilling comebacks: one took place without Kevin Durant as Golden State erased 16 points in Portland, then later in the first game of the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors destroyed a Spurs team with a 25 point lead after Kawhi Leonard rolled his already bum ankle two more times. Cleveland managed a 25 point comeback of their own when they stunned a gleeful Indiana crowd, ripping apart the Pacers in the first round. So now that we’re here, what will it take from each team’s rotation to earn some ski goggles and douse a locker room?
In the more vast context of the last two years, it was interesting how a reigning 2-time MVP failed to win a Finals MVP either year. He was clearly ineligible in last year’s losing effort as he struggled with health, and 2015 had to do with his gravity as a shooter not being the most digestible or creditable skill, especially in context of the history of the award. While he stepped out of an MVP caliber season to join a more dynamic and talented crowd, Curry is somewhat quietly, only because of blowouts by halftime, having an excellent playoffs: 50, 40, 90 shooting splits (50, 43, 91 to be exact) for nearly 30 (28.6) points per game. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he is quite at the level of his pre-knee injury, 31.5 PER with even better shooting splits and PPG, unanimous 2016 MVP season, but he’s damn close.
Three major things stand out to me in thinking about Curry’s potential impact on this series. The first point revolves around his mentality corresponding with an understanding of his role. As dominant as the Warriors were straight out of the gates this year, the thing I noticed early on was the lack of a true alpha dog. They looked like a terrorful Frankenstein creature on the verge of putting it all together, but still stumbled through overpassing, disjointed desires to go 1-on-1, and probably not enough simple pick-and-pops between Curry and Durant. Unlike the Rockets or Thunder, or even the Cavaliers, the Warriors thrive on a somewhat unpredictable, egalitarian style of team play that requires the utmost positive team chemistry. While Golden State has achieved a much more sophisticated understanding of one another as the season has progressed, the lack of an alpha dog remains. They beg the question if having one is even necessary, but I worry about Steph and KD in high-pressure moments. For Curry, I see this meaning that he needs to have some sort of sixth sense to know when to pick his spots. He has the extremely difficult role of remaining hot while gauging KD’s temperature, then hitting the big shots when his team needs them in a pinch.
The next point hinges on the word “switch”. Last year the Cavs altered the switching defensive schemes to be in their favor after the first two Warriors victories. Cleveland put LeBron on Draymond, who provided a much better switching defender, than Kevin Love, when Golden State ran 1-4 pick-and-rolls/pops. On the other end, the Cavs started hunting out Curry switches by screening for LeBron with his man. LeBron predictably manhandled Steph, or made the Warriors pay when they tried to help Steph. It was in a lot of ways the ultimate clincher of the series, and unless Golden State attempts a different ballscreen defense, it still feels unresolved for the Warriors thanks to the floor-spacing of the Cavs. As far as Curry is concerned, there is little he can actually do but try to be a pesky defender and avoid fouls.
Lastly, and another factor mostly outside of Curry’s control, is how physical the officials allow the series to be. A very important detail of the adjustments Cleveland made to exploit Steph’s defense, and better guard his offense, was beating him up. Whether it was off-ball shoves, cheap shots, football screens, or hard fouls, the likes of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and LeBron made Curry’s life, on and off the basketball court, physically painful. This dynamic reached its boiling point when Curry was ejected in Game 6 for chucking his infamous mouthpiece into the crowd after a call he disagreed with. It was a weak call, but the ensuing tantrum underscored the deeper frustration Steph was experiencing.
The 2016 Finals were the most important playoff series to LeBron James’ legacy, and he was extraordinary. He couldn’t have done it without Kyrie. Irving’s absurd isolation scoring emerged as a pivotal ingredient to the Cavs’ ability to find offensive production against the Warriors’ terrific defense. After only putting up 36 combined points on 33% shooting in the first two games in Oakland, Kyrie put up 30+ in each of the next three games on 56% shooting. After the Cavs avoided a sweep, but dropped a third game in the Cleveland setting, Irving shredded one of the best perimeter defenders in Klay Thompson, for 41 points in Game 5 at Oracle.
The final two games were slightly less impressive, but he continued providing scoring to propel the Cavs in clutch moments, and of course hit the insane series-winning going-right step back over Curry in Game 7. The shot will go down as one of the best ever, and was a perfect moment for the breakout series Kyrie put together in 2016. He had some lower points this year, but that breakout series is the type that changes the floor of a player. Irving unforgettably succeeded on the biggest stage, against the most unfavorable odds. He is coming off one of the more efficient scoring punctuations to a series in the last decade, and the most direct comparison was a guy that couldn’t shoot outside the paint.
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) May 26, 2017
Remaining efficient on drives, especially against switches, will be very important to prevent Golden State from dictating major runs with their flammable transition offense; when Irving does miss from the interior, any amount of time he wastes not getting back on defense will be compromising his team’s frantic effort to match up. With both him and Curry cursed with knee injuries in the past two Finals, it would be spectacular to watch the former FIBA teammates square off fully healthy. Similar to the Cavs’ treatment of Curry, I expect Golden State to try exhausting Kyrie with physical play, and make the demands of his defensive assignment limit his scoring contributions. For the Cavs to win, I imagine Kyrie will need to average something like 28 points per game (with a couple 35+ games in there somewhere) on 50% shooting.
Shaun Livingston has been one of most marginalized players of this year’s version of the Warriors. Health, and less of a purpose in an offense that basically always has a combination of 2 All NBA players on the floor, have contributed to his worst stats in several seasons. For the first time since his 2012-2013 campaign with Washington, Livingston’s PER has dropped below 12 (10.1), AST% below 20 (13.5%), and for the first time since joining the Dubs, a Win Share under 3.3 (2.6). His stellar mid-range jumper made a noteworthy appearance in Game 1 of last year’s Finals when he scored 20 points off the bench.
He’s a proven, but declining player. As his mobility diminishes, teams will be more able to give him the same Tony Allen treatment that Golden State gave Memphis in 2015 by sagging a big off of him. However, I expect to see him put his stamp on at least part of a game, if not a couple. He is a very smart player that can stabilize a halfcourt offense and galvanize a fast break at times. It’s on Mike Brown and Steve Kerr to find a proper use of his minutes against a matchup he can handle on defense.
The acquisition of D-Will solved a major weakness of the Cavs lacking a second distributor. That weakness was apparent in the past two Finals as Cleveland gave hopeful opportunities to Smith, Irving, Dellavedova and Shumpert either when LeBron was out of the game, or when he was in the game, but they wanted to buy him a rest from initiating the offense all the time. Dellavedova probably did the best in this role, and when he left in Free Agency, the hole was further exposed. Williams numbers have varied a lot throughout this postseason, and his AST% isn’t much better than his TOV%, but when he is on the floor (versus off the floor) the Cavaliers AST% is 4% better and their TOV% is only 2% worse; Cleveland’s eFG% is also 4% better and their Offensive Rating isn’t even a full point worse, when he is playing. Williams is shooting 50% on his 3pt looks. Beyond the stats, Deron Williams has clearly adopted the role of a veteran engaged in gamesmanship. Not only did he, not so discreetly, select 31 as a constant reminder for the Warriors of their collapse after joining the Cavs, his minutes have been well-spent in challenging officials and opponents to avoid being distracted by his ploys and tricks. It’s not a stretch to expect one of the better ringless players of his generation to adopt the “win at all costs” mentality and become a valuable addition to a championship roster.
Klay Thompson in August: “I’m not sacrificing [expletive], because my game isn’t changing.” https://t.co/jI2CaUWAfq
Monday: 60 points. pic.twitter.com/W6FqM8GPMr
— The Vertical (@TheVertical) December 6, 2016
Plenty of people made fun of Klay saying his offensive role wouldn’t change with the addition of Durant, but oddly enough, Klay was right. His stats this year are nearly identical to last year across the board. However, limiting the stat query to only the postseason of the last two years paints a different picture. Most importantly, he is shooting almost half as many 3 pointers and Free Throws, and his percentages from both areas are down by over 4%. This has resulted in 10 fewer points per game, and a 2016 Playoffs Game Score of 15 dropping to 8. Simply put, Klay has been a magnet for his defensive assignment and turned offensive ventures into a 4-on-4. I’m barely worried about the supposed slump of a guy with a 37 point quarter and a 60-points-in-29-minutes game stashed in accomplishments, but getting limited access to touching and shooting the ball can certainly be problematic to the rhythm of a shooter. Making him a featured part of the offense, while also not letting it break the natural flow of the offense, is a necessary tension of Golden State’s possessions.
Thompson has one of the least desirable defensive responsibilities on the other end: Kyrie Irving. Klay’s amazing shooting still eclipses his oftentimes underrated perimeter defense. One of the the truly amazing aspects of Kyrie’s brilliance last year was that it came against spectacular defense from Klay. Like any player, you could find some defensive breakdowns by Thompson, but the overwhelming majority of his possessions against Irving were top-notch defense. There were reports that Klay took it on himself to improve his 1-on-1 defense after facing off with James Harden in the 2015 Playoffs, and he had the opportunity to train with the elite offensive talent on the Gold Medal Olympic team last summer, which featured none other than Kyrie Irving. I don’t see how there is that much more that Thompson can do on the defensive end, and even if it isn’t tangible, I can’t wait to watch his chance at redemption.
J.R. “Shirtless” Smith has three more-clear responsibilities in this year’s Finals. To start off, Smith is clearly on this team to make 3s. In the final 20 games of the regular season, after Smith returned from his broken thumb injury, he shot just 34% from deep. In the postseason, that number has climbed to 45%. He hasn’t been a volume shooter, averaging just 3.8 attempts, but remains a threat that is bound to make a defense regret testing him (something Jae Crowder knows all too well).
J.R.’s next duty, that largely will tie into how he gets 3pt looks, will be setting good screens. It can be forgotten or overlooked, that setting effective screens is a skill, and oftentimes a penalty. Last year, Smith embraced the task of plowing LeBron’s or Kyrie’s man with hard screens to give the Cavaliers better matchups to work with. The reason J.R. is so important in this regard, and we’re not talking about one of Cleveland’s big men instead, is because Curry will almost undoubtedly be matched up with Smith. This means the Cavaliers attacking Golden State switches using inverted ballscreens for LeBron’s unusual “Point Forward” mastery, and small-small ballscreens that allow Kyrie to go to work against Curry instead of Klay.
Finally, J.R. Smith’s defense against Klay Thompson might be more simplified than last year, but still important. Smith wasn’t up to the task of guarding Klay running through off-ball screens in the first couple of games. It took fewer mental errors and better footwork, but also the willingness to be more physical off-ball to knock the Warriors out of their twirl-and-scatter routine that left Cleveland a step behind.
Clark started to see additional time this season, and is playing 5 more minutes in the postseason this year than he was last year. Unless the Warriors’ blowout-fest continues, I expect Clark’s minutes to shrink. That’s not to say he’s been undeserving of his extra minutes, as his eFG%, FT% and PPG have all increased with more playing time. He has been a nice floor-spacing option to knock down open shots when a defense loads up on the Golden State stars.
Iman Shumpert has been considerably better than previous seasons in the 2017 Playoffs. Playing 17 minutes per game like he did last year, Shumpert’s PER (+4), 3pt% (47%), TRB% (+3%), AST% (+1%), and TOV% (-8.7%) have all improved. Though the high 3P% comes from a limited sample size (he’s not even averaging 2 attempts per game), it is highly valuable while it lasts, and strikingly better than his ‘16 Playoffs average of 38%, and ‘16 Finals average of 27%. His minutes varied throughout last year’s series, and he finished playing fewer than 20 minutes per game. It was largely a frustrating season for Shump, starting with a wrist surgery, requiring him to miss a quarter of the regular season, and ending with him hitting only 30% of his 3s. Shumpert has long had the “3&D” distinction, and his execution of those tasks will determine his playing time. When Cleveland needs to go small, his defensive versatility should come in handy, and he will have all the more reason to extend his time on the floor if he can be an effective floor-spacer. Like Smith, he can make a further impact on this series if can be physical as a screen-setter and off-ball defender, while not draw fouls doing so.
Kyle Korver is another one of few players who hasn’t played in one of the prior Finals between the two teams. In an interesting trade, that sent Mo Williams and Mike Dunleavy packing, the Cavaliers added another scalding deep-range shooter to their roster. Korver has averaged a little under 20 minutes per game for the Cavs and is making 41.5% of his 3s. His shooting can be utilized during set plays, both as a decoy or the beneficiary, or simply as floor-spacing around LeBron. His minutes haven’t exactly panned out for Cleveland however, as both their Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating are worse with him on the floor. With an individual Defensive Rating of 111, his effort on the defensive end hasn’t prevented teams from scoring on him, but he has also spent more time playing with the rest of Cavs weaker defensive players like Frye and Deron Williams.
Durant gracefully made his way back into the rotation as Golden State continued winning games that he sat out in the first round. Since the Portland series concluded, his minutes have climbed to 35 per game, and he has been as dominant as anyone in favor of the Warriors could hope for. If he can increase his FT% by 3%, he could finish the second 50-40-90 shooting splits member on the team. Beyond that, he’s slapping up a 26, 8 & 4 line with nearly a steal and block per game as well. Not surprisingly, KD’s well-rounded game slid right into place for Dubs, and he’s played at an elite level all season long. When he has been on the floor during these playoffs, Golden State’s eFG% is a scorching 62%, propelling an Offensive Rating of 125, and both categories drop by double-digits when he sits (though that is typically when Curry sits as well).
For fans like myself, the rematch of a James-Durant Finals is long overdue. They put on a show in 2012, and actually guarded one another. The 1-on-1 matchup should be fireworks, but they are both in different systems now. The rumor of Durant joining the Warriors felt like a joke to begin with, and was hard to fathom long after it actually happened. As great as Curry has been, and will need to continue being, I look at Durant as the linchpin of Warriors’ championship odds. In many ways, the two moves Golden State couldn’t counter last year were the Cavs putting LeBron on Draymond to better guard ballscreens, and battering up the circulation of Warriors offense. Both strategies made the ball stick more, and required being able to put Tristan Thompson on a shaky shooter. KD is obviously a great shooter, but his combination of strengths in attacking closeouts, and being one of the best, if not the best, isolation scorer in the world will dramatically alter the dynamics of Cleveland’s title-winning game plan.
King James rightfully took back his throne with possibly the greatest individual playoff series of all time in 2016. In the long list of the unbelievable traits of LeBron, he has been adding to the prolonged greatness category long past when many (myself included) started to believe he was substantially declining. He’s been nothing short of spellbinding in this year’s playoffs, and is arriving in the Finals coming off another spectacular individual playoff series. Although his 3P% regressed towards his mean (34.5%), James made nearly 60% of his shots for 29.6 PPG against Boston; and that includes a 4/13, 11 point game. His deep-range shooting has always been a weakness that opponents prey on, but in last year’s Finals he majorly overcame his 3 point shooting struggles in clutch fashion, hitting 50% of them in Games 5 & 6. That has carried over into one of his better 3pt shooting seasons this year, and he was making 47% in these playoffs leading into the Boston series. It’s fascinating to think of him becoming a knockdown, or even just an above average 3 point shooter later in his career (his career average of 34% is arguably slightly below average for a volume scorer in his era), but given his highly varying numbers (2014-15: 31%) and his inconsistent and less than stellar mechanics, I’m fairly doubtful he’ll ever be a surefire shooter from deep. Much like Shaq saying he made his Free Throws when they counted, LeBron’s good streaks will need to take place at fortuitous times like they did in 2016.
There is little suspense in looking up LeBron’s on/off court numbers, but they further validate his brilliance. For instance in this postseason, Cleveland’s Offensive Rating is 12 points better, and opponents’ Offensive Rating is 17 points worse when he is on the floor. But a stat probably even more illuminating, or at least more controversial, is that James has appeared in all but 17% of the Cavaliers total postseason minutes. There was a year-long debate if LeBron was playing too many minutes for the sake of his health (he finished with his highest MPG since his final season in Miami). Even in losing only 1 of 13 games, Cleveland’s playoffs have been fairly contested, and haven’t given James an opportunity for a smaller load. The rest in between rounds certainly provides time to heal, and they’ve had plenty of that. But thinking of what it took to win last year’s dogfight, like covering 60 feet in 2.67 seconds to block Iguodala at the end of 7 brutal games, LeBron’s endurance, no matter how immortal he appears, has got to be of concern. Furthermore, taking into account the likely task of guarding Durant often, LeBron will need to be even more spectacular this year for the Cavs to win.
Andre Iguodala’s status for the Finals could remain a murky detail of the matchup for the better part of the series. Knee soreness has bothered Iguodala going back at least as far as the Jazz series, and it has definitely limited his effectiveness. He ended up sitting out Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, even after an MRI detailed that there wasn’t any structural damage to his knee. He is rebounding at a slightly better rate than last year, but for the first time in his postseason career, he has a PER below 10. His 3pt shooting has been awful (11%), but on/off splits indicate even more of a problem: in these playoffs, lineups including Iguodala have scored 10.7 fewer points per 100 possessions, and even worse, opponents have scored better (+8.6 points/100 poss.) against those lineups.
Iguodala is obviously a key ingredient to the Warriors smallball lineups, and was awarded Finals MVP, largely for his defense against LeBron, in 2015. Benching Bogut in those 2015 Finals spawned the “Death Lineup” that essentially swung the series for Golden State. It remains a vital strategy for the Warriors because it allows them to remove the traditional bigs that Kyrie and LeBron can dissect in pick-and-rolls with Tristan Thompson, while still rebounding and protecting the basket. If Iguodala can’t play at an elite level, Cleveland’s chances of winning increase dramatically.
As Kevin Love’s defense was exposed and he battled a concussion in early games of the 2016 Finals, Richard Jefferson surfaced for a splendid performance. He was a silver lining in the 33 point Game 2 loss at Oracle, posting 12 points and 5 rebounds off the bench, and Ty Lue decided to put him in the starting lineup for Games 3 & 4. He continued to be a positive use of the rotation grabbing 6 rebounds per game and shooting 50% from the field on limited looks. It was thought to be his swan song and he announced his retirement in the locker room following Game 7. That plan didn’t last long, and he came back to stuff the chimney on Christmas.
He hasn’t been the same force for the 2017 incarnation of the Cavaliers. His minutes in the playoffs have nearly been cut in half, and his Defensive Rebound Percentage has dropped from 17.7% in ‘16 to 9.4% this year. With Shumpert bouncing back, and Kevin Love playing better, I don’t expect Jefferson to make the same contributions. Though if Shumpert is used more as a guard than a wing, and the Cavs need to go small, Jefferson may creep back into the rotation.
Patrick McCaw’s rookie season has been a Warriors sensation in the wake of Iguodala’s struggles. Most notably, when Iguodala sat out Game 2 against the Spurs, McCaw put up 18 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds. He has remained ready for the moment, and shined in spite of his inconsistent time on the floor. His slender frame doesn’t provide the same resistance as Iguodala’s defensive expertise, and that is the reason he probably won’t play all that much. Like Ian Clark, McCaw has been an efficient release valve, hitting the open 3 pointers that come his way when defensive confusion has left him wide open. If Mike Brown needs more shooting or transition offense, McCaw should be a reliable option off the bench. If Iguodala does struggle with his health, McCaw may have a major opportunity on his hands.
The only way I see Barnes being relevant in this series if is the Warriors throw his defense out there as a last resort.
One way I’ve described Draymond Green in the past is 9-parts Dennis Rodman to 1-part LeBron. He’s defied his draft selection, his size, his position, his coaches, his teammates, the rules, and his competition. Of all the chilled demeanors on the Warriors, Green juices the squad by being the one that you don’t want to cross. His energy necessarily crosses the line, and the Warriors reap what he sows. Dray is arguably playing his best postseason to date. All playoff career-highs: PER (21.3), TS% (64.8%), 3 Point Attempt Rate (50%), Free Throw Attempt Rate (.49), Assist Percentage (27%), Steal Percentage (2.6%), Block Percentage (4.8%), Box Plus/Minus (11.0). His efficiency has been bolstered by his best 3 point shooting postseason, that has him hitting 47.2% of his attempts from deep.
Like many, I consider Draymond the best all-around defender on the planet, capable of doing more on that end than any other player. Kyrie had to figure out that he couldn’t score at a decent rate on Draymond in isolations last year. He is even better as a help defender in space and at the rim. His offense first became noteworthy in the 2015 Finals, when he succeeded as a short-roll target for a trapped Steph Curry. He picked apart the 3 remaining Cavs defenders with a 1 man advantage to swing the series. He didn’t get the same opportunity last year when the Cavs started putting LeBron on him and switching the screens, instead of trapping. Depending on what happens with Cleveland’s defensive plans, Draymond lurks as secondary passer and tertiary scorer if left open.
Putting LeBron on Draymond paid off in an indirect way when Draymond grew agitated enough by James to strike him between the legs, and eventually be suspended. This was my least favorite part of last year’s Finals, and is still contentious among fans today. Did the officials let their physicality get out of line on that particular play? After getting tangled up, did LeBron trip Draymond? Did Draymond flop to the ground when LeBron started to trip him? When Draymond was getting up off of the floor, did LeBron go out of his way to step over him? Was it a cheap shot? Was it dirty? Did he deserve a suspension? Did LeBron use his reputation to troll Draymond in the same way, minus the reputation part, that Draymond trolls everyone else? Did Draymond target LeBron because he is sensitive about his reputation? Did LeBron go into full whiney-Paul Pierce mode when the series started slipping away? Did Draymond want to solve their differences like men, even if that somehow meant flopping, and hitting a man where it hurts? Is LeBron a father of 3, and a man? Without exhausting the Y, E and S buttons on my keyboard, yes, all the above. Will I be surprised if those two get into it again, or act like they get into it again? Not at all.
Much like how I said that Kevin Durant will be the pivotal player for the Warriors this time around, I look at the other Kevin to be just as important. This is clearly Love’s best season since being traded for Andrew Wiggins to join the Cavs. His PER was actually higher in the 2015 postseason, but other than that, his True Shooting Percentage, 3 Point Attempt Rate, Total Rebound Percentage, and Box Plus/Minus are at career-high levels. When I saw this information from ESPN, I couldn’t help but think he has finally transformed into the exact player that he was put on this team to be. And saying all of that doesn’t make any mention of how much better defense he’s played in this year’s playoffs.
Cleveland has unleashed a new ballscreen defense this year that asks Love to hard hedge and sometimes trap the pick-and-roll. Love pressures the ball and tries to both prevent the ballhander from gaining traction going downhill, or hitting the screener in a short roll. LeBron helps off of his man and picks up the roller, daring the ballhander to throw a pass into his reach. Love then recovers back to LeBron’s man. It has worked pretty well against their earlier competition, but the question remains of if they can pull it off against Golden State. It was important for Cleveland to explore a new defense in preparation for the Warriors, because they will no longer be able to take advantage of a struggling Harrison Barnes. Love knows how hard it will be to extend himself with this level of effort every game, but he’s looked like a different player in these playoffs. If this plan fails, I expect his minutes to plummet as Cleveland goes small like last year.
It can’t be forgotten that David West is a new addition to the matchup. Going back on his word, West doubled-down on his ring-chasing journey by abandoning the Spurs for the Warriors last summer. In a very limited role, with only 14 minutes per game, West’s productively fills up the stat sheet and can serve the team defense with his developed understanding for the game. West can still muscle in some baskets, but the most valuable assets he brings to the table are his post-passing and defensive rebounding. I struggle to predict a matchup that will draw him onto the floor in this series, but if the Warriors need some rebounding, or a veteran presence, he is available.
When the Warriors needed to clear cap space for the Durant signing, Zaza Pachulia was named the replacement to the championship-winning Andrew Bogut. Bogut has continued to be the comparison Pachulia has tried to live up to during his first year in Oakland. It’s really not all that close that Bogut was recognizably better last year (than Pachulia was this year), because Bogut finished with a higher PER, TS%, TRB%, AST%, BLK%, and VORP. The biggest issue Bogut ran into last year, other than getting hurt, was not being able to do anything against Kyrie and LeBron when the Cavaliers ran pick-and-rolls with Tristan Thompson. This could likely be the reason Pachulia is played off the floor as well, because he can’t move his feet in space any better than Bogut could. The Cavaliers will probably trap ball screens that Zaza sets so he has to catch the ball and convert a drive to the basket. He was sidelined in the fourth game of the Western Conference Finals with a heel contusion, but is expected to be healthy for the Finals.
As an undersized, mobile center in a power forward’s body, Tristan Thompson has remained relevant during the early years of this smallball era. Thompson doesn’t have shooting range, and struggles to pass the ball, but is a hell of a roll man and offensive rebounder. Failed efforts to box Thompson out made the Celtics looked like children trying to keep Ray Lewis from getting to the rim for boards at times in the Eastern Conference Finals; Thompson finished the series averaging 3.2 offensive rebounds per game. How he reaches an average like that paints a better picture for what it means to prepare for him. Sure, he only managed to get 1 offensive rebound in 3 of those 5 games against Boston, but combining Games 1 and 3, he totaled 13 in 76 minutes played. The fact of the matter is he’s relentless, and the Warriors know that all too well. In the past two Finals, he’s counted games of 7, 6, 6, 7, 6, and 5 boards on that end of the court. There might be something the Warriors like about a particular defensive strategy, but it always has to include boxing Tristan Thompson out, or he will simply pile up momentus baskets that sometimes follow good defensive sequences.
While Kevin Love may or may not see major minutes, Thompson is certain that he will average close to 40 minutes per contest. He’s one of the more versatile defending bigs in the league, and could see his responsibilities fluctuate. When Golden State plays Draymond at the 5 and runs pick-and-rolls, I’m anxious to see if Thompson will be told to switch onto Curry, or hedge and recover like Love has been doing this postseason. He’s usually the underappreciated Cavalier, but I expect him to continue his exceptional Finals runs, and be a lower-maintenance piece of the Cavaliers success.
Javale McGee has been one of more compelling stories of the Warriors season. He never put together the tremendous upside of his youth that was marred by boneheaded plays. He was one of those two-steps-forward, four-steps-back kind of young journeymen that has since found an opportunity on a stacked, overly-expensive roster. I was surprised he made the training camp cuts, and this season he is a different player…. well let’s say different-ish player. Closer to making two-steps-forward and then only taking two-steps-back, McGee has played anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 in these playoffs. His postseason Game Scores have sunk as low as 1.7 in 10 minutes, and inflated as high as 16.6 in 13 minutes. The most concise way I can state my expectations for McGee, is that he is the X Factor for both teams.
Little has changed for Channing Frye since last year’s Finals. He was acquired, much like Korver, to make both guarding LeBron James, and the shooters around him, increasingly difficult. Most of his advantage lies in pulling traditional bigs away from the basket to discombobulate their team’s rebounding and rim protection. Frye has been a useful tool at different times of Cleveland’s postseason runs, but Steve Kerr respected him as a shooter by putting Draymond and Harrison Barnes on him. As a result, Frye’s mostly single-dimension game no longer served a purpose and he didn’t play in the last 3 games of the series. He needs a special matchup to thrive and not be a liability on defense, and that likely isn’t this series. I could see some Frye experimentation when his backup counterpart, Javale McGee, is on floor. Otherwise, I predict his scorching 52% 3 point shooting hand to be located on the bench, clapping for his teammates.
I’m deeply interested in what tricks each team has up their sleeves, and what will be the next unexpected factor of the series. Given what I have been able to think about, I will closely be watching the following things: 1) Kevin Love’s pick-and-roll defense, 2) , Iguodala’s health 3) How physical the Cavaliers can be against the Warriors off-ball screen setting, 4) If Kevin Durant and LeBron guard one another, 5) Kevin Durant isolation possessions – if he can score and distribute at the same time, 6) LeBron 3pt shooting, 7) Kyrie Irving isolation possessions, 8) Cleveland going small, 9) Steph and Kyrie’s endurance, 10) LeBron’s endurance, 11) Effort and execution in transition. In the most macro-sense of these two team’s elongated dominance, I look at the arrival of the Death Lineup and Cleveland’s also small, but feisty countermove as the determining factors of the first two years. The addition of Kevin Durant feels like the next logical conclusion, but only the next couple weeks will determine if that is true, because ball, unquestionably don’t lie.
Prediction: Warriors in 6