NBA Finals Preview

Posted: 06/04/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

You know what really surprises me? The fact that so many people are giving the Cavaliers a shot in this series. Maybe it’s to avoid embarrassment, but, while most people are picking the Warriors, many of those people are prefacing their picks by saying, “the Cavaliers have a real shot…” or “you can make a case either way.” And some people are picking the Cavs, saying things in the family of “there’s something special going on in Cleveland.” Since nobody else seems ready to say it, I will: I don’t see a scenario in which the Cavaliers win this, unless both Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are playing which concussions (which they won’t be). Yes, it’s risky to pick against LeBron James, and I’m not saying it’s going to be a sweep, but I’m not “leaning” towards picking the Warriors; I’m barreling towards the Bay Area full steam.

With Kyrie Irving hobbled and Kevin Love out, there are just a few things that can really hurt the Warriors. The first and most prominent is, of course, LeBron James. How are the Warriors going to defend James? Are they going to double him, which could limit his scoring opportunities but leave guys like Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Irving, and Matthew Dellavedova open, or are they going to take their chances one on one? I’d bet on the latter, because they have a number of guys who can guard James. I’d expect Harrison Barnes, a pretty strong small forward, to start out on James. While Barnes isn’t the best defender on the team, James isn’t going to back him down easily, and Draymond Green will be able to body up Tristan Thompson and limit offensive rebounds. When the Cavaliers go small, though, Green can play on James, and he’s done a good job against LeBron in previous opportunities. And Golden State can also dip into their bench and plug Andre Iguodala, a long-armed, experienced player who can devote all of his attention onto the defensive end, on James. James will get some open shots from deep, but he’s shooting just 17.6% from beyond the arc in the postseason. That number needs to at least double for the Cavaliers to have any chance.

Another advantage the Cavaliers have is on the boards when they play their starting lineup. Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov have both been beasts on the boards, and Thompson will have the size advantage on Green. I expect the two of them to generate a lot of extra offensive opportunities when they’re both on the court, just like they did against Atlanta. The problem is that the Cavaliers will have to go small at times, both to generate offense and to stop the Warriors, and when they do, that advantage disappears. The Warriors also won’t be as easy to dominate on the boards as the Hawks were; Andrew Bogut is a beast on the boards, Green is averaging 11 rebounds a game this playoffs, and the Splash Brothers do a pretty nice job on the glass, too. So while the offensive rebounds will definitely be a weapon, they won’t be able to generate a good offensive attack against the Warriors, who have given up more than 100 points just three times this postseason.

On the other side of the ball, the Cavs are probably more well-equipped to attempt to neutralize Golden State’s offense than the Rockets were. Thompson is a really important part of the defense, because he has the lateral quickness to neutralize Steph Curry’s frequent drives to the basket. Meanwhile, the Warriors can put Shumpert, a good on-ball defender, on one of the Splash Bros and, in crunch time, LeBron on the other. That looks like a pretty solid defensive plan, but there are a few big problems. The first is that, if James has to follow Curry or Thompson around all game, he’s going to get tired really quickly, and Cleveland’s only offense will vanish. The second is that the Cavaliers are going to have to hide whichever of Kyrie/Delly is playing on someone, and Golden State’s starting lineup has no offensive holes. If Irving plays on one of the guards, he’s going to get roasted. If he guards Barnes, the bigger player is going to back him down and score easy points from the paint. That’s why it’s so hard to play against the Warriors.

The biggest question (besides, perhaps, what to do with LeBron) for the Warriors has nothing to do with the Cavaliers; it’s about the health of Thompson, who was diagnosed with a concussion the day after his injury in game five of the Rockets series. Thompson has been cleared to play, so he and the previously dinged up Curry should both be good to go, but if either shows major lasting effects, all bets are off. I don’t expect that to be the case, though, and I think Thompson and/or Curry will be a threat to go off every game.

There’s definitely going to be a game in this series in which the Warriors are cold from beyond the arc, LeBron is at his best, and J.R. Smith gets on one of his rolls. There also might be a game in which all of Cleveland’s secondary scorers are hitting big threes, Green and Bogut get in foul trouble, and Golden State gets killed on the boards. But we know there’s going to be one or two games in which either Curry or Thompson can’t miss. We know LeBron isn’t going to be superhuman every game, and we know that the Warriors have a much better bench (featuring Shaun Livingston, Iguodala, an improved Festus Ezeli, a healthy Mo Speights, spark-plug Leandro Barbosa, and, in a pinch, even elite scoring former all-star big David Lee) than the Cavaliers have. They’re just better across the board, just as they were against the Pelicans (sweep), Grizzlies (six games), Rockets (five games), and just as they have been throughout the season. So yeah, I feel pretty comfortable about taking the 79-18 team, one which, by the way, also has “something special” going on. It might be six games, but it’s going to feel closer to five than seven.Warriors in six

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