It's the matchup that most fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers likely would have preferred to avoid. The Cavs have an NBA Finals rematch against the 73 win Golden State Warriors, who are looking to make a case for the best team in the history of the NBA. While either outcome really won't tell us much about what could have happened last season given that these are very different teams from last year, it still is an incredible opportunity for the Cavs to end the title drought for Cleveland if they play at a high enough level.
The Cavs will be anywhere between an underdog to a long-shot depending on who you talk to, and for good reason. The Warriors are one of the only teams that can force the Cavaliers out of what they like to do by playing with four wing players and one Draymond Green in their "death lineup". In addition to having an incredible offense, they also had the fourth best defense in the regular season and are particularly good defensively in the half court. But like every team, there are weaknesses and things that can be exploited. Here are some of the keys for the Cavaliers to pull off the upset at win their first ever championship:
Win the battle on the boards
The Oklahoma City Thunder were 3-1 in the playoffs against the Warriors when they won the rebound battle, 0-3 when they lost it. The Thunder were the best rebounding team in both the regular season and the playoffs, while the Cavs were not too far behind. The Cavs do have some advantages when it comes to matching up on the boards, as Tristan Thompson possesses the mobility to stay with Green, while also having a considerable height advantage over him. While most centers can't hang with Green, Thompson has the mobility and length to allow the Cavs to play small without being small at times. I would expect cross matching defensively where Thompson covers Green and Kevin Love guards either Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli when they are on the court. When they aren't, that's another story.
Find a way to hide Kevin Love
Putting Love on traditional centers when they are on the floor is likely a viable option. Love has played better defense in the playoffs and his struggles are typically not due to a lack of effort. He is a good post defender that struggles defending in space and in the pick and roll. The Warriors have so many quality offensive options, but it seems unlikely that they would try to make Bogut the focal point of their attack in the pick and roll and if they were to do so, it's likely the Cavs would live with it. When it comes to combating their "death lineup", that's where things get tricky. As I mentioned before, I would have Thompson shadow Green unless that completely falls apart. Then the Cavs could try LeBron James on him. But assuming Thompson on Green is working, I would try to put Love on Harrison Barnes initially. While it's possible that the Warriors exploit that matchup, I think it's a risk worth taking given the offensive upside as well as the advantage on the boards. If Love is forced to only play when there's a traditional center on the court, I think that's a sacrifice he'll need to accept in order to give the team the best shot at winning.
Attack the rim, especially when they go small
When the Warriors go with Green at center, I believe it's important for LeBron and Kyrie to not settle for jumpers and get to the rim. While Green is a good rim protector, he isn't as good at that discipline as Bogut or Ezeli, according to Nylon Calculus rim protection stats. If the Cavs can get Green into foul trouble it will limit the amount of time that the Warriors can go with him at the center position, which opens up more minutes for Love, which puts the Cavs in their best position offensively. A frustrated Green is also in the best interest of the Cavs, as a flagrant foul or technical foul will result in a one game suspension, and a flagrant-2 would carry a two game suspension. While he likely will continue to receive an incredible amount of leeway from the refs and the league to keep the best product possible on the court, it's still something that's a possibility.
Get more offensive possessions than the Warriors
Whether it be on the offensive glass or by winning the turnover battle, getting extra shots up will help put the Cavs in a better position to win. The Warriors are a very turnover prone team, but over the course of a game they make up for those lost possessions with their incredible offensive skill. By limiting the pace, which the Cavs are likely to do to some extent, those turnovers become more costly. The Cavs have the best offense in the playoffs so far, it's fair to assume that number comes down to some extent against the Warriors defense. Extra possessions will help make up for any drop off or make the Cavs offense even more effective in the unlikely event that they continue to play at this historic level uninterrupted.
Kyrie Irving, X-factor
We know what LeBron James is going to bring to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last playoffs he gave everything he had, almost on his own and through injuries to will the Cavs to the Finals and within two wins of a title. He's healthy and has help this time around. While this series might not be the one for Love, Irving must play the series of his life to get the Cavs in position to win the title.
There is no stopping Steph Curry. You can disrupt him off ball, force him to go through screens and try to deny as much as possible. But the instant that you give him room, he can make a shot. If he gets the ball in his hands, his handle gives him the ability to create a shot from anywhere. Sometimes you wonder if it's worth it to waste a good defender on him, given the fact he is likely going to get his either way. We saw in game one of last year's Finals that Irving has another gear defensively and on balance, he has played pretty good defense in the playoffs. While Steph still shot 50 percent in game one of last year's Finals, Irving competed, forced him to help and battled through screens. The Cavs will need that type of effort out of Irving in order to allow the Cavs to defend the rest of the team without being compromised by scrambling to help.
Curry is the MVP for a reason. Even if he does get his, the most important thing is for Irving to try and match his production. Up to this point, Irving has been pretty special:
As you can see, Kyrie has been playing like a star himself. While the Cavs need him to be productive, that doesn't mean he should force the action. Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors is a great example of how he needs to play. In the first half his shot wasn't falling, but he was taking good shots for the most part and contributed seven assists and three steals. In the second half he got it going in a big way, but that's the level of maturity and decision making the Cavs need from him against the Warriors. If Irving can efficiently come near the production of Curry, then it lightens the load on the rest of the Cavs roster. If the Cavs are going to win, Irving must make a legitimate Finals MVP case for himself with his play, even if it ultimately ends up being given to LeBron.
Keep the ball moving
The Cavs have found another gear in the playoffs by trusting in each other and moving the ball. The Warriors half court defense will test everything that they have done to this point and it will be easy to fall into the trap of iso-ball, in the same way that the Thunder did. While isolation scoring attempts are fine in the right circumstance, it's important that the Cavs force the defense to move and try to get good looks. Isolation attempts should come after the ball has been rotated on the perimeter, not immediately after bringing the ball up the court. Even if James and/or Irving are hitting 60 percent of their shots, if the Cavs have stretches of 5-10 minutes where only they touch the ball or where there's only one pass before a shot, it's going to be hard to keep the rest of the team as engaged as possible on defense, or in the flow of the offense. Which in turn makes it harder to count on them when it matters. The Thunder fell into that trap and their expected field goal percentage would get worse and worse as their shot quality dwindled due to isolation ball. There will be times where the Cavs move the ball, can't find a good shot and either Irving, James or Love will need to create a shot for themselves. But they can't fall into the trap of going to that early in the shot clock.
- Getting good J.R. Smith is going to be huge for Cleveland. Good J.R. hits his shots, plays great defense and doesn't over handle the ball. Bad J.R. is an adventure. He's played some of the best defense out of anybody on this team. If he continues to do that in this series and make shots he's a beast.
- Does LeBron find his shot? He's shooting just over 32 percent from three in the playoffs, and while he should primarily be attacking the rim with the spacing around him, a timely hot streak with his jump shot would go a long way.
- Shump's day: Iman Shumpert played the best defense of his life last year in the Finals and made a huge difference. He's been less consistent this year, but if he can make a similar impact on the defensive end of the floor he will likely wind up seeing more minutes in this series:
- Kevin Love will need to remain engaged even if his minutes are reduced. Love has been a beast for most of the playoffs, but his confidence can fade at times and when that happens he stops contributing on the boards and hitting shots. It will be both on him and his teammates to make sure that he is engaged and contributing in whatever way is needed.
- I mentioned the importance of Thompson earlier, but he likely will be the third most important player for the Cavaliers in this series. He played exceptionally well against Green in last years Finals, but like everyone else on the team, he wore down as the series went on. This is a better Thompson than he was last season. Curry might be a borderline unstoppable force, but Green is the straw that stirs the drink and the rest of the team goes as he goes. Thompson limiting him and/or getting into his head would go a very long way in trying to limit what the Warriors do offensively.
- This will be a big test for Tyronn Lue. The Cavs previous games this season did not go well for a lot of reasons. Irving was still on a minute restriction/ far from the player he is now. The Cavs were not playing anywhere near as well as they are now and David Blatt was still the coach. How Lue adjusts in series, what the learning curve is and whether or not he can come up with something that throws off the Warriors and Steve Kerr will be very interesting.
- Ultimately, the Cavs will need to outscore the Warriors. I don't think it's possible to completely shutdown the Warriors, they simply have too many options. If the Warriors defense slows down the Cavs enough, this series is over. If the Cavs are going to win, it's going to be in an offensive showcase. They need to make sure that the pace isn't going too fast and the Warriors are kept out of transition, but the Cavs need to score. A lot. The Warriors make a ton of ridiculous shots and will make their runs. The Cavs may lose a game in blowout fashion. But their offense needs to be better than the Warriors offense four out of seven times. We've seen in this years playoffs that great offense beats great defense. We'll need to see historic offense from the Cavs to ensure a victory in this series.