NBA Finals: Familiar Teams, Familiar Result?

Posted: 06/02/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

A year ago Saturday, the Golden State Warriors took a 1-0 series lead over LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in a 108-100 overtime win. Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry combined for 47 points (on “just” five combined threes) and LeBron’s 44/8/6 line was not enough to lead the Cavs to a victory. 364 days later (don’t forget about the leap day), the Warriors will again open a series against the Cavaliers at home tonight. As you might expect from a champion, the Warriors are very unchanged from last season. In fact, besides David Lee, who played eight minutes per contest last postseason, and Justin Holiday, who played 11 minutes total, the entire roster is back and the rotation is very similar. So why don’t I just copy and paste my preview of last season’s Finals and be done with it? Because, while the Warriors are basically the same team, the Cavaliers certainly are not. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were injured last year and are back now. Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert started in last year’s playoffs, while LeBron averaged 30/11/9 in the playoffs (this year, he’s putting up 25/9/7). I’m going to link to last year’s post, because I think some of the things that went on last year will still go on this season (including the Splash Bros going off and Andre Iguodala guarding LeBron), but this will by and large be a totally different series than the one Golden State won pretty comfortably last season.

I’m going to start with this: while it’ll be a totally different series, I’m unconvinced that the result will be any different. Love and Irving are back for the Cavaliers and J.R. Smith is starting and shooting well, which does indeed help an offense that never scored more than 100 points in a game in last year’s series. The Cavs have hit triple digits in all but two of their 14 playoff games this year for a reason. When you can surround LeBron with a great isolation guard (Irving), two good scorers (Love and Smith), and an offensive rebounding machine (Tristan Thompson), you’re going to score a lot of points. And, as long as the Cavs can keep those five guys in the lineup in key situations, I don’t think they’ll have that much trouble scoring against the Warriors. No, it won’t be as easy as it’s been for them so far. LeBron probably won’t continue to shoot 55% from the field with Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes on him. The team won’t hit almost 15 threes per game on 43% shooting against a Golden State team that totally shut down the three point arc against the Thunder. And I’m fairly skeptical that Smith will be able to continue to be so efficient, not because of GS’s defense (Stephen Curry, a good defender who probably lacks the height to truly hinder Smith, will guard the shooting guard) but because it’s J.R. Smith we’re talking about. Smith has the tendency to shoot his team out of games, clanking shot after shot after shot before the coach can remove him. But with all of that said, I think Cleveland’s offense will be fine if they can keep their five starters on the court in crunch time.

Cleveland’s starters might be able to play fine defense against Golden State’s starters. If they hide Love on Barnes and shut down Draymond Green with LeBron, they can at least stay in games. But then there are three rather big problems. The first is that hiding Love on Barnes (or Andrew Bogut) probably won’t work, because Barnes can score on him and because the Warriors will just put him in the middle of a pick-and-roll and expose his poor defense. The second is the Splash Bros. I’m assuming that Smith will guard Thompson and Irving will watch Curry. Yeah, that definitely won’t end horrifically for Cleveland (it will definitely end horrifically for Cleveland). The third is the Death Lineup. Last year, Cleveland caused Golden State a lot of problems in the first three games by dominating the offensive glass. Then, Andre Iguodala replaced Andrew Bogut in the lineup and the Death Lineup (Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green) was born, thus summarily ending the series. This year, Cleveland agains bring some great offensive rebounders to the table, but I still have no idea how they’ll guard that lineup. Love and Thompson have no chance on Iguodala and Barnes, and I haven’t even gotten to Curry and Thompson. Just imagine, for a moment, being the Warriors right now. How happy must they be? They just escaped a long, grueling series against a Thunder team that was long, fast, and eager to defend, and now they get a matchup against a Cleveland squad that has trouble stopping a simple drive to the hoop. The Thunder caused the Warriors so much trouble because they were able to play super big and fast guys at all three forward positions and were thus willing to switch at will onto guards in the pick-and-roll without getting burned. The Cavs can play one super big and fast guy, but they don’t have a Serge Ibaka or Steven Adams on their team right now. So yeah, their defense will probably be a disaster if they stick with their starting five.

You can see where all of this is heading. If Cleveland can score pretty efficiently but can’t stop the Warriors at all, they’re going to be in a big hole pretty quickly, which means they’re going to have to shake things up. We could see Matthew Dellavedova in for Kyrie Irving, who has no shot at guarding either of Golden State’s guards. We could see Iman Shumpert in for an ineffective J.R. Smith. We could see hot shooting Channing Frye enter the game for Love. And you know what that looks like? Last year’s Finals. Frye wasn’t on the team last year, but last year Cleveland rolled out a lineup of Delly, Shumpert, LeBron, Thompson, and Mozgov. If they have to go to anything close to that this season, they’re toast, because we’ve already seen that, as amazing as LeBron is (and he’s really, really, really good), he can’t beat this Warriors team by himself.

Both of these teams are better this year than they were last season. The Cavaliers are at full strength and will be well rested, while the Warriors are getting significantly better play from Thompson (18.6 points on 39% three point shooting in last year’s playoffs, 26.2 points on 45% long range shooting with a bajillion huge shots this year) and Green. Draymond had a horrific series against the Thunder, but OKC was the absolute worst matchup for him because they were able to plug Kevin Durant on him. Before that series, he had been great, and I expect him to be very good again in this series, even if it doesn’t show up in the box score. If Green is guarded by LeBron, he’ll have made things a lot easier for everyone else. If he isn’t, he’ll have plenty of his own success. The Warriors had the formula to beat LeBron last year, and they still have it. Instead of heaping a lot of help onto James’s drives, they’re going to guard him straight up with Barnes and then Iguodala and try to make him beat them alone. That’ll be harder this year than it was last season because Irving and Love give the offense a multi-faceted feel that was missing last time around, but it’s still without a doubt the best way to guard James and the Cavaliers.

The Warriors can certainly be beaten. In fact, the Thunder nearly did beat them and probably should have. But if you want to beat them, you’re going to have to take advantage of their cold streaks. OKC did a good job of that through four games but then got cold when it mattered most, blowing layup after layup when the Warriors were swooning. The Cavaliers should be better there, but they too worry me because of their propensity to turn it on only when it really matters. That strategy worked great in the first three rounds, but they’re going to have to be on for 48 consecutive minutes against the Warriors, and that is much easier said than done. I know LeBron can go hard on both sides of the court for an entire series, but I’ve never seen Love or Irving or Smith come anywhere close to doing that. They’re going to need to have the series’ of their lives, especially on the defensive end.

As I’ve alluded to, the biggest question of the series is how the Cavaliers respond to Golden State’s Death Lineup. If they can keep their starting five (or even Frye in for Love as the only swap) in with decent defensive results, they can absolutely win the series. But if they have to start resorting to 2015 Finals lineups just in order to try to stop the Warriors, well, then I’m going to repeat something I said this time last year, as people waffled between picking Cleveland and Golden State:

“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.”

Warriors in 6, but hopefully a closer and more interesting 6 than last year.

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