The Finals has always been celebrated more as a title fight, when basketball is truly, deeply a team sport. Even in this they fall on familiar tropes, the aging lion and upstart challenger.
The 30-year-old James for his part believes he’s playing the best basketball of his life, tacitly acknowledging his understanding and will have now exceeded his talent as a driver of his basketball gifts. We won’t wager one way or another, but think it worth deferring to this generation’s finest player – he probably knows better than us.
This is the beauty of a game where the glitz of scoring outshines the daily grind of playing defense and knowing your role. For a guy who’s typically excelled by making others better, the pundits seem to think he’s reached the apotheosis of his craft. Some have even resurrected 2007, a moldy corpse that bears no resemblance to the current squad.
Midwesterners probably recognize it as the mental culture gap. Those on the coasts think the sandwich is about the bun not the meat. A similar prejudice governs West Coast basketball. This free-flowing fastbreaking style has forever stood in contrast to the East Coast’s bruising older brother.
To our mind, this series recalls the Pistons-Lakers matchups of the late 80s when Magic and Isiah Thomas squared off. Detroit’s goal was to muck up the well-oiled machinery of Showtime. Meanwhile, Los Angeles was going for the first repeat since the Celtics in the 60s.
They were heavily favored over the Pistons, despite the fact they were generally regarded as at least the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Celtics. The Lakers had defeated the Celtics the year before and put up the league’s best record. Pistons went into Los Angeles and beat them the first game.
Everyone was shocked. The Lakers did ultimately come back and win. But what if they didn’t have that reserve of Finals knowledge to allow them to come back from a 3-2 deficit? This is in a nutshell our argument for picking the Cavaliers to win – perhaps in 5 or 6 games.
Before the Hawks series, Coach David Blatt noted his feeling that the home team in the first game of a series has all the pressure on them. Certainly he’d felt it when the Bulls came out and stole home court advantage from the Cavaliers almost from the jump of Game 1.
The Cavaliers went and returned the favor, then squeezed the life out of the Hawks in Game 2 like the big Indian did Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
. The key is to come out with more energy and intensity than your opponent. But how does something like that happen?
Well, perhaps puffed up on the fumes of West Coast media types lauding a 67-win season and baffled at the way a team could win without a bunch of athletic shooters. They’ve heard of the Memphis Grizzlies but are still pretty sure that post-ups are something office drones use.
The Warriors have succeeded within the West Coast offensive culture led by truly a rookie coach – as in has never coached at any level before in his life – but it remains to be seen how much that translates to NBA Finals basketball.
This is the place where the kind of easy, free-flowing transition pull-up threes, leak-out fastbreaks, backdoor layups that take advantage of inattentive defense that the Warriors thrived on can dry up and disappear (see, Yasmine Bleeth). Here, Mike Miller gets picked and Kyrie Irving just stands there, failing to switch as Miller’s guy beelines for the basket.
Pillaging the titty bar lap dance couch for loose change becomes increasingly less effective during playoff time as the talent steps up one-pole pub to Gentlemen’s Club. You just won’t get that stuff very frequently against a well-prepared team that’s studied your plays for a week.
These easy baskets are great rhythm-makers for the entire offense and help get guys going in the early parts of the game. Minus the grease of these easy baskets, will Warriors’ halfcourt engine still hum?
We’re not even convinced the Warriors would’ve advanced if the Grizzlies hadn’t suffered debilitating injuries to Tony Allen and Mike Conley. The Warriors were down 2-1 with defensive stopper Allen on Curry.
That’s been the biggest dose of adversity Golden State’s faced and they were bailed out of it cleaner than a middle-class kid in a Panama City jail for indecent exposure and public intoxication during Spring Break. What happens when real adversity hits? Who do they turn to?
Typically NBA teams have to endure a kind of apprenticeship before winning the championship, enduring a loss in the Conference Finals or on the biggest stage before coming back with the proper mindset. LeBron James had to get past the Celtics, or the Mavericks had to lose before returning five years later. Kobe lost to the Big Three Celtics before taking them the next year.
We’re just not sure that the Warriors have the intestinal fortitude often earned through experience to bend without breaking when the pressure bears down on them. Maybe it won’t be an issue; it certainly hasn’t been up until now.
However, we expect something of a culture-shock for the Warriors as they attempt to deal with the Cavaliers' more bruising style and the terrific defensive play of Iman Shumpert.
While Curry faced Kyrie some in the most recent game on February 26, it was mostly Shumpert on him in the second half when they were held to 43 points (after scoring 33 in the first quarter alone). Indeed, outside that first quarter, Curry and Thompson were 7-23 with 5 turnovers and 6 assists. Curry was 0-4 on threes.
In the fourth quarter Blatt even used a small lineup with James at the 4 and Kevin Love at the 5. In this alignment, Shumpert and Smith covered the Splash Brothers, James was on Iguodala, and the Cavs hid Kyrie on Harrison Barnes. That’s even more likely now with Irving hobbling, though they may start Irving off on Curry so there’s a parade of different looks for him.
The Warriors may be something of a system team like the Atlanta Hawks. They play a precision kind of offense that takes advantage of the fact that all their little plays – let’s call them grifts – are designed to work on naifish stooges. Indeed, they’re so good at them, like a good counterfeiter, they’ll even catch some experts napping.
We’re talking plays like this 3 that Curry walks into simply by crossing over as he approaches the arc leaving Kyrie on the wrong side of a Draymond Green screen as they advance up the court in transition. (Pardon the resolution, didn’t have space to save the old games in HD.)
Of course, the Warriors don’t just have short grifts, they work longer games too, relying on flowing, multiple pick sets not unlike what Coach Blatt installed in Cleveland and still use here and there. These are the real worry for the Cavs who need to play great defense to stay on their man.
In the below clip, Thompson receives a pick from Draymond Green, whose own man has been screened making it harder for anyone to help J.R. Smith after Green picks him.
It’s not even necessary for them to run complicated actions like that, when you can just run Steph Curry off an obstacle course of screens, the last of which features Timofey Mozgov as the defender, making it doubly hard for him to step out and challenge.
This is another reason why Shumpert will probably need to cover Curry. A gimpy Irving simply won’t be able to negotiate this kind of chase, and the same goes for putting Kyrie on Thompson who runs off similar screens. Barnes is a much better match, a player with maybe 5” or 6” on Kyrie, but not post-up game and an iffy mid-range jumper.
Look for the Cavs to hedge side picks hard and the attempt to trap the ballhandler to force the ball out of Curry and Thompson’s hands into more unreliable players. This is something they did in February during the second matchup. They particularly tried to jump the pass to the roll man with the help D, which produced at least three fastbreak buckets.
Immediately after the above play, the Warriors called a kind of bread & butter play that resulted in a Curry 3. This involves a high post play for Andrew Bogut, a good passer and a couple of picks out by the arc on the side, between Thompson and Curry.
The goal isn’t so much to create a mismatch, as it is in some pick-and-rill (PnR), but to put guys out of position, and it’s necessarily pretty hard to stop without some defensive help. As you’ll see below both Kyrie and Mozgov are out of position, allowing Curry an open 3. He hit three in the first quarter of that game and none the rest of the way.
It will be very hard to stop everything the Warriors do, but we suspect they won’t get the same number of shots at the rim they did against their other opponents. Losing those easy buckets could impact the shots and pressure felt in the halfcourt offense. On defense the Warriors play small an awful lot and will be prone to getting beaten on the offensive boards.
The Cavaliers' ability to punish the smaller Warriors on the boards not only makes up for the fact that Cleveland is more of a positional defense than turnover driven defense (think bend-but-don’t-break D in football always forcing field goals) by giving them more possessions, but puts the pressure on the Warriors' transition offense.
Golden State wants to get out and run but can’t if they can’t get the rebound. The Cavaliers are the playoffs’ best rebounding team. To the extent that they don’t get suckered into settling for long jumpers (which produce long rebounds), they almost always produce multiple taps and fevered rebound battles (see Thompson, Mozgov) that allow time for their teammates to balance the floor and get back.
That’s important because even in the best of circumstances the team’s transition defense has shown an eerie lack of recognition. On the above play everyone is back, yet somehow Mozgov is left challenging Curry? This has been better in the playoffs but the Cavs are hardly immune.
We believe the Cavaliers will get a split in the first two games in California, winning the homecourt advantage. We don’t see the Warriors winning one of the first two in Cleveland which puts them in a tough position.
Can the Warriors win three straight, even with only two of them at home? We don’t think so. Indeed, James' killer instinct could mean Cavs close them out in 5, imposing their will on a team that perhaps isn’t mentally tough enough yet to overcome that obstacle.
If the Cavs can’t get a split to start, we expect a seven-game series whose edge we give to James because of the knowledge and leadership he provides. Everyone on the Cavs knows and turns to this guy who has been absolutely unflappable all playoffs long.
“The biggest thing about the playoffs is keeping an even keel,” he said at practice the other day.
We think he’s right, and suspect he’s about to overturn the Warriors boat, overflowing with bandwagon jumpers, and see if they can make it all the way back to shore.
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Now, we know how everyone loves listicles, so we created our rundown of the dozen keys to the coming NBA Finals series. Some of them we’ve already covered, others not at all. Sit back enjoy, then clip and compare against the results and let me hear about it on twitter @CRS_1ne.
1) The Pressure is on Steph Curry. He’s a very good player and the league’s Most Valuable Player. Unfortunately for him that sort of puts a target on his back in LeBron’s mind. A win would serve to vindicate LeBron’s feeling that he deserved the MVP despite a lackluster, perhaps more injury-inhibited early season than we realized at the time.
Curry is not a physical player and not an emotional leader per se. He’s a lithe, slithery guy who mostly avoids contact and relies on his shooting touch and open teammates. He’s not a climb-on-my-back type like LeBron or even Kevin Durant. We’ll see if he belongs on the same company. Indeed, we wonder that he’s been tested at all up until now. Tony Allen had him tied up in knots, and we think Shumpert will do the same thing.
What will happen if the Warriors are down 2-1 facing Game 4 in Cleveland. Will he be able to take it to the next level and pull his team with him?
2) How can the Warriors contain LeBron James? Everyone in the national media is like, LeBron vs. Steph, but the Cavaliers have a guy built to cover Curry — can the Warriors say the same? Iguodala has done some time on him but lacks the athleticism he once had. Barnes played him a lot in the regular season and that wasn’t a pleasant sight.
If you don’t recall, the King was 13-20 for 38 points through three quarters. The Splash Brothers were 10-25 for 31 points. But really words don’t do it justice. We pulled the 3-pointers and concentrated on the Warriors ability to stop James going to the rim. Note that the Cavs played James both out top and in the post extensively throughout the game.
So you’re telling me that the Warriors have a guy to stop this? Not buying it.
3) Can Cavs' offense get enough good looks to survive? Let’s be honest, the Cavaliers hit a lot of very tough shots. According to data available on nba.com via SportsVU cameras along with consultation with Dumbledore, they’ve determined that the difficulty of J.R. Smith’s shots was 61.5%. He’d probably be happy to hear that. Steph Curry averaged 58.1 and Klay Thompson 57.1, LeBron only 53.6. So maybe it’s a flawed metric.
In any case, the question remains: Can the Cavs get enough easy shots? They don’t get a lot of fastbreaks and they don’t even get many shots at the rim (26.2 lowest in playoffs next to Nets). Indeed, the Cavaliers have hit an absurd 37.5% from 20’-24’ in the final for seconds of the clock – averaging 1.2 baskets every game. That’s 50% more than the next highest team and three times as many as the Warriors get.
They’re also hitting 40% of their midrange late-in-clock jumpers (15’-19’) and getting .8 baskets a game that way. It’s pretty low yield typically, so you have to wonder if this is a sustainable Cavs trait or some ridiculous luck. If we hadn’t Witness®’d it we would’ve gone the latter, but at this point we’re wondering if they’re touched. (The Cavs are also better
with 4-7 seconds left on the clock.)
4) Pace. The Warriors have been able to get nearly as many fastbreak opportunities (10.8 v. 11.4) during the playoffs as they did during the season and are converting them at a 1.30 rate (1.32 in-season). It is key for the Cavaliers to limit such opportunities.
The Cavs’ 13.2 turnover rate isn’t the lowest of the playoffs but it’s 2.5 lower than the Warriors’. The Warriors are also forcing 14.6/game so their net -1.1 while the Cavs are forcing just 11.8 turnovers or net -1.4.
This is a reflection of the different paces the teams play. As we stated above the Cavs ability on the boards (best offensive rebound rate in the playoffs at 28.5/100 possessions; Warriors are third at 27.5), puts the Warriors ability to fastbreak in jeopardy and the Cavaliers are stingier about their own boards (yielding 22.2 versus GSW’s 23.7).
The Warriors actually have played a lower pace than many other West Coast teams, while the Cavaliers have played the slowest of all. The Warriors have average 96.6 possessions/game to the Cavaliers' 93.
5) Big or Small? The Cavaliers have generally matched teams that have gone small by playing Tristan at the five and James at the four. They start Mozgov and Thompson and there is some sentiment that they could punish teams that go small by sticking with TMo. He’s something of a liability in the PnR so that’s an issue and he’s nowhere near as effective challenging shooters on the perimeter – which is a big issue against the Warriors.
However, he brutalized the Warriors inside during the January game, getting repeated rebounds and towering over the smaller Draymond Green (6’7”). In four games against the Warriors last year while on the Nuggets TMo shot 64%, scored 14.3 points grabbed 11.8 rebounds (4 offensive/gm), and blocked 1.8 shots. Just the eye test tells us that he knows how to play Bogut.
Only in the last game did Blatt really let Mozgov go off against the smaller lineup and it was effective. We’ll see what he does.
6) Coaching Experience. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but Steve Kerr doesn’t have a lot of experience with this, and you have to feel that Blatt, having coached in European championships and the Olympics, might have a little edge on Kerr in facing pressure. Plus Blatt’s playing with a free hand. Nobody expects shit from him. They think it’s LeBron’s team and decisions. That puts a lot more pressure on Kerr, because he’s the rookie that fucked up the sure thing.
It’s hard to pinpoint things like this unless a guy tries to call a timeout when he has none. Otherwise you have to look at how teams respond coming out of the halves or at the end of games. Seeing as how the Cavaliers have won their last seven in a row and the two losses feature asterisks (*No J.R. and the mercy bank shot from heaven), there’s reason to think that Blatt’s got a handle on things, and as we said, little pressure on him, the national media already think he’s a stooge and have been clear about this. What’s he got to lose?
There are a half dozen smaller threads that will play out, that I want to give brief mention.
7) Klay Thompson. He’s been reliable. He’s shot the same percentage whether they win or lose — in the regular season as during the playoffs. Steady. But with the concussion it could upset his equilibrium and throw off his shot. This could be devastating to the Warriors.
8) Physicality. The Cavs just came off two very physical matchups in the Celtics and the Bulls. (Sorry Hawks!) The Warriors are going to have to deal with this for the first time since Memphis and probably an even more physical game than that. How will they handle it being a more finesse-oriented, less experienced team?
9) Draymond Green vs. Tristan Thompson. Green is only shooting 26% from three during the playoffs but is grabbing the bulk of their rebounds with 10.8/game, 2.5 of them offensive. If Thompson can neutralize Green on the boards that could put the Warriors in trouble, especially if Mozgov also does a good job on Bogut.
10) Harrison Barnes, Fraud or Hero? This guy is an enigma who has the pedigree and the skills but hasn’t put much consistency together. He has no post-up game to speak of so he won’t exploit Kyrie Irving who could see time on him. He does have a face up game and will probably try to take Irving to the rack, but he’s not a great finisher and is only shooting 32% on 3s during the playoffs.
11) Bench Production. The Cavaliers have gotten great efforts from their bench and continued to have role players step up in big moments shooting-wise. Their strength is necessarily defense, but there always seems to be a key James Jones or Delly 3 during a comeback run. Now that Shumpert and Smith have exchanged roles, Smith is being looked to be a scoring bridge and on nights when he’s on we’d take him over Klay Thompson.
12) LeBron’s Shooting. He’s not had a good shooting playoffs, we think because of the defense he faced in DeMarre Carroll, Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler, big, physical swingmen with the ability to muscle up on James while youthful and springy enough to stay with him and challenge him in the lane. Warriors don’t have that guy. Also the time off may help James’ body.
Finally, James actually noted that his shooting is off and that he wanted to use the off-time to correct that. The last time he corrected something it was his turnovers and he went from 6/game to 2/game. It’s mostly stuck. So we’re wondering if he can apply the same will to the shooting problem.
We think he can and that’s why we think the Cavaliers will surprise everyone by beating the Warriors and beating them in fewer than seven games. However, if they don’t get the split in California then it may take seven games to do it. But we don’t see James yielding an inch in his quest and we don’t see anyone big enough or tough enough to stop him from taking what he wants.
We’ll be flying out to Oakland late Wednesday shortly after our cover story on LeBron James’ Midas Touch hits the newsstands. We’ll be tweeting from Oracle Arena on Thursday and Sunday during the games. In a professional coup we’re still excited about, we’ll be offering overnight coverage of the game to The Guardian
in London. But never fear, you’ll still get some next day deeper analysis here on the Scene