LeBron James is in the Finals for the fifth straight season, but finds himself in a position similar to where he was in his first trip there back in 2007: as an underdog. Few people are writing off the Cavs completely at this juncture, but there is a deep feeling that the Golden State Warriors are simply the better team.
It makes sense; the Warriors won 67 regular season games. They outscored opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions over the course of the season. The team closest to matching that, the Los Angeles Clippers, outscored opponents by just 6.9 points per 100 possessions. Even if you adjust the totals to reflect only what happened after January 15th, the Warriors were still on a different level than the Cavs. Cleveland outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions, while the Warriors were still positive 10.4.
So they're good. They have Steph Curry, MVP of the league. They have Draymond Green, who nearly won Defensive Player of the Year. They boast greater depth than the Cavs can match. But hope remains. The Cavs may not have Kevin Love, but they have been playing very well. They boast the best net efficiency rating of any team in the playoffs, and have lost just two games, one on a buzzer beating bank shot. It's the East, and their opponents have been banged up, but so have the Cavs.
Cleveland is oozing with confidence and has LeBron James. That's not a bad place to start. Here's a few things that will probably need to break the Cavs way if they're going to win.
Kyrie Irving needs to be healthy, and good
Maybe the Cavs will need Irving to go crazy in a game or two. And maybe the Cavs need him to step up his defensive game, lest Steph Curry ignite over and over and over again. But that's that takes a backseat to just easing the burden on LeBron James and unlocking a Cleveland Cavaliers offense starved of a secondary creating force. You can't expect Irving to score 40+, and you can't expect anyone to slow down Steph Curry. All the same, it's impossible to play down Irving's importance in this series.
When Irving and James shared the court in the regular season, the Cavs were nearly unguardable. With those two on the court, the Cavs scored 113.4 points per 100 possessions, which would have easily been the best offense in the NBA. With Irving on the court, James' true shooting rate was an excellent 59.9 and he used a manageable 29.4% of the Cavs' possessions. When James has been on the court without Irving, though, his usage rate skyrockets to 40.4% and his true shooting plummets to 53.3, which is around league average. With Irving (and Kevin Love) banged up in the playoffs, LeBron's true shooting is all the way down at 49.2.
You can't chalk all this up to Irving, of course, but the Cavs can't ask James to do everything offensively against the Warriors. They won't score enough, and James won't be able to exert enough of himself on defense. It also seems more likely that James will get his shooting rhythm back if he is taking fewer shots off the dribble and more off spot-up opportunities. Irving can get him those. We will see if he's healthy enough.
The New York boys must continue to come through
J.R. Smith has a playoff Player Efficiency Ration of 17. He boasts a true shooting rate of 60.7 and he's using just 18.5% of his team's possessions when on the court, per basketball-reference.com. Those are the numbers of a truly elite role player, and he's doing it while playing pretty good defense. It's honestly incredible. There was no way to know he was going to play like this, and David Griffin, David Blatt, LeBron James, and J.R. himself deserve a ridiculous amount of credit. Griffin had the nerve to make the move to bring him to Cleveland, Blatt and James have set the tone, and Smith was ready to work from day one.
Can the Cavs get one more series like this out of him? So much of shooting can vary over the relatively small sample size of a possible seven games. Against a team as good as the Warriors, with capable wing defenders with length and strength like Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, the margin for error is tiny. Smith has said that he likes to shoot with guys on him. That will be tested in the Finals.
Iman Shumpert's work is tougher to quantify, but it's little things. He's a tremendous rebounder for a guard, and he's helped pick up the slack in that area for a team that lost Kevin Love. He's played through a groin injury, not complaining once. A career 34.2% three point shooter, he's at 36.8% for the playoffs. That's a small bump, but for a Cavs team starved for points, each made three has felt important. The Cavs most-used three man lineup in the playoffs has been Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, and James. In 308 minutes they're outscoring opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions and playing suffocating defense. Shumpert is averaging over 34 minutes per game in the playoffs, well above his regular season average. Like Thompson, his emergence has come at the perfect time.
Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson must be effective - together
It's a weird duo. Neither can shoot particularly well. They allow defenses to load up in the paint for LeBron James drives and not pay for leaving a Cavs big that floats to the perimeter. They also get a ton of offensive rebounds, and, so far in the playoffs, have anchored suffocating Cavs defensive units. In 196 minutes in which both have been on the floor in the playoffs, opponents are scoring just 92.1 points per 100 possessions. That's an incredible number, and would shatter regular season records. Can it continue? It's a small sample.
The Cavs have been able to score 103.5 points per 100 possessions with those lineups, which isn't great in a vacuum but is made more impressive by the fact that Matthew Dellavedova and Shumpert have been a part of those lineups. That's four guys surrounding LeBron James that struggle to create any type of offense. Given this, it's easier to understand why James' true shooting rate would be low, and it also indicates just how good he really is. If David Blatt can surround these two bigs with James and great shooters in Smith and Irving, it might make for a great lineup even against a tough Warriors team. But if Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green outplay them, or if the Warriors' shooting makes the Cavs strong inside defense somewhat irrelevant, it could be a long series.
Draymond Green has been known to talk quite a bit during games. Thompson might need to pull one of these off early on to quiet him, and the Oracle Arena crowd:
If these things are able to come to fruition there's a good chance the Cleveland title drought can finally end. It's no guarantee, of course. We will see come Thursday night.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats unless otherwise noted