There’s a certain amount of deja vu as I begin to look at what the Cleveland Cavaliers must do to repeat as champions. Last year I broke down what needed to be done to upset the greatest regular season team in NBA history. Looking back at it, a lot remains the same as we prepare for Cavs vs. Warriors III. But these aren’t the same teams that squared off last year. This isn’t a rematch, it’s a clash of two remodeled teams that have had each-other in mind with every single decision they’ve made. It’s now time to add a third chapter in what is blossoming into a historic rivalry.
The Cavaliers once again enter the NBA Finals as underdogs. The Warriors have assembled one of the most talented rosters in NBA history. The foursome of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green all possess elite skills that compliment and elevate the play of one-another. However they will now take on a battle-tested Cavs team that is deeper and more potent than ever.
For the Cavs, like last year, everything begins with LeBron James. LeBron is playing at what is possibly the highest level of his career. In last year’s playoffs, he averaged 26.3 points per game on 52.5 percent shooting from the floor and 34 percent from three. This year he looks fresher than ever, averaging an absurd 32.5 points per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the floor and 42.1 percent from three. He is a nearly unstoppable force that makes everything possible with this team.
His play ties in to one of the most important keys to upsetting the Warriors:
When the Warriors stagger their stars, the Cavs must win those minutes
In the playoffs, Curry is averaging 34.3 minutes per game while Durant averages 33.4. One of the most remarkable things about LeBron is his ability to log heavy minutes with little to no drop-off. Of course not all minutes are created equally, however as long as LeBron is on the court, he is capable of controlling what transpires on the court.
If the Warriors were to match LeBron’s minutes with Durant, as the Indiana Pacers did with Paul George, they would risk putting significant fatigue on their newly acquired star. During his time with the Thunder, Durant averaged 41.9 minutes per game in the playoffs. As a result of this, his playoff three point shooting dropped to 32.9 percent. With a significantly lighter load in Golden State, Durant has shot 41.7 percent from three in the playoffs. If Curry were to log similar minutes, the toll of these extreme minutes and being routinely targeted on defense would undoubtedly impact his offensive performance.
To prevent this from occurring, the more likely plan would be to stagger their stars to maximize the minutes that they play. If the Cavs want to win, they have to win these minutes.
By having Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, or Patrick McCaw in for Curry or Durant it opens things up for the Cavs. Not only does this give them an opportunity to play someone like Kyle Korver, but it gives them someone they can funnel the offense towards with their trapping defense. Put multiple bench players in, and that gives LeBron someone to hide on and play as a free safety defensively.
While the Cavs bench players can be described as one-dimensional, it’s LeBron’s ability to maximize their strengths that has allowed these lineups to be incredibly potent offensively. If the Cavs can avoid losing too much ground starters vs. starters, it’s these minutes that could decide the outcome of the series. If the Warriors don’t stagger, it becomes an opportunity to win a war of attrition.
Win the possession battle
This point is a repeat from last year, but it is still essential. Whether it be turnovers or offensive rebounds, the Cavs need to have more possessions than the Warriors. While LeBron will inevitably have turnovers as a result of his heavy minutes and playmaking duty, it’s on the rest of the team to do a good job of taking care of the ball.
Kyrie Irving in particular will need to continue taking care of the ball. For the playoffs, both he and Curry have averaged 5.6 assists per game. Curry has averaged 3.3 turnovers per game in the postseason, while Irving has kept that number down to 2.5. While Irving will be tasked with trying to match Curry’s offensive output, it’s equally important that he take better care of the ball than his counterpart.
On the boards, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love will need to make their presence felt. While Love’s role will probably fluctuate from game to game, he is far more comfortable with his place within the team. While on the court, he needs to remain assertive and attack, even if he isn’t getting offensive touches. With his improved confidence, defensive ability, and physical shape, he should have more impact than in previous matchups.
If the tandem can successfully win the battle on the boards, it may force the Warriors to play more conventional lineups. With Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee on the court, the Warriors will likely be less potent than in their small ball lineups. Especially if the stars are staggering minutes.
Aggressively pursue matchup advantages
One of the enduring images of the 2016 Finals was LeBron screaming to attack Curry on every possession during the Cavs comeback. The Warriors switching defense meant that when you made Curry’s man screen for LeBron, it would force the point guard to defend one of the most physically imposing players in league history.
This situation isn’t an indictment of Curry’s ability as a defender, but the scheme put him in a disadvantaged position and forced the Warriors to bring help defense. Prior to attacking the team in this way, the Warriors were able to defend the Cavs straight up. This limited the Cavs ability to generate shots for their role players and forced them to play isolation basketball.
Finding an edge in the matchups will once again be key. The Cavs will undoubtedly target Curry again, as they have for almost every point guard in the playoffs. But other points of attack exist, as well as opportunities to manipulate the Warriors defense.
Green is not the most popular player among Cavs fans, but his abilities on the defensive end cannot be overstated. A remarkably versatile defender, he can lockdown elite offensive players that have nearly a half foot height advantage on him. An elite rim protector that can guard in the paint, as well as in space, Green is one of the most unique and versatile defenders the league has ever seen.
What has changed significantly since last season is the amount of supplemental help Green has with rim protection. One of the reasons Green will likely be named defensive player of the year has been his ability to make up for the drop-off from Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli to Pachulia and McGee.
When you look at field goal percentage allowed at the rim from last season, Bogut allowed 45.2 percent, while Ezeli allowed 43.6 percent. This year Pachulia allows 56.3 percent, while McGee allows 50.4 percent. That’s a combined 17.9 percent higher than they allowed last season.
The safety net the Warriors had last season at the rim allowed Green to torment Love defensively in their traditional lineups, and dominate defensively in their “death lineup”.
What the Warriors will do this year, remains to be seen. With the ability of Irving and James to get to the rim, it would likely be most beneficial to have Green roam and assist with defending them at the rim. Something that isn’t conducive to sticking with Love on the perimeter. This could mean Durant will spend time on Love, which gives the Cavs an opportunity to post Love up and hope to draw fouls. While doubles will inevitably come, this will at the very least open up opportunities for other players.
The Warriors clearly made the right decision adding Durant and parting ways with both of their centers, especially when you consider the health issues both had. But the drop-off from what they were last season, to their replacements has created an opportunity for the Cavs.
Kyrie Irving needs to outplay Steph Curry
There aren’t many possible routes to defeating the Warriors that don’t include Irving at the very least matching Curry’s production. Irving has improved since last year’s Finals and while he doesn’t consistently play as a top tier point guard, he is capable of outplaying anyone over a seven game series.
Irving busted out of his shooting slump in a big way against the Celtics. He became the first player since Dwight Howard in 2009 to have four straight playoff games of over 20 points while shooting 60 percent from the field. Nobody on the Warriors is better suited to defend him individually than Avery Bradley, however he must show maturity and not be baited into turnovers by help defense.
Neither point guard will likely spend much time as the primary defender on the other. But in situations where Irving is on Curry, he will need to be attentive and stay glued to him off ball. We’ve seen spurts of good individual defense from Irving, but any lapses on this stage would likely prove to be costly.
Other keys to the series:
- Test the Warriors in the pick and roll. Last season Bogut was in the 71st percentile when it came to defending the roll man in the pick and roll. This year Pachulia is in the 18th. While both Green and Durant are elite pick and roll defenders, involving Curry and Pachulia in the pick and roll is another way the Cavs can force the Warriors to bring help defense and open things up.
- J.R. Smith will need to be a difference maker. It’s been a quiet playoffs for Smith, averaging just 6.6 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and 44.9 percent from three. The Cavs have been getting offense from other players, but the threat of Smith has opened things up. While he may be counted on for more offense in the Finals, it’ll be his defensive impact that’s most crucial. Smith did a fantastic job on Paul George, as well as DeMar DeRozan. While the Celtics didn’t have a potent perimeter threat, Smith will likely see a lot of time guarding Curry, and possibly Durant. The fact he has provided strong defense despite not getting a ton of shots is a testament to the growth he has shown during his time with the team. He will need to be ready to make an impact in whatever way the team needs in order to win this series.
- Thompson will need to dominate. Thompson has made a huge impact in each of the last two Finals, and will once again need to be the glue that holds the team together. If the Cavs slump, he will need to get extra possessions. If he’s asked to defend Durant, he will need to play responsible defense and make him work without fouling. The team has plenty of firepower, they need Thompson to bring the sandpaper.
- Bait Durant into isolation basketball. The Warriors are a brilliant passing team, something that can test the weak links in the Cavs defense. In their Christmas Day win, the Cavs lived with Durant getting his in the interest of slowing down the rest of the team. I expect them to do much of the same, especially if LeBron spends a lot of time on Green to help limit his playmaking. This is possibly the toughest poison pill to swallow, as Durant is more than capable of winning a game on his own. But if they can make him work while bogging down the offense, it just might give them a chance to win.
- Love needs to make an impact. I’ve already highlighted some of the changes that may help open him up in this series. But whether it be with his scoring, spacing, rebounding, or passing, Love will need to find a way (sorry) to impact this series. He’s a tremendously talented player and was an absolute monster against the Celtics. If he is assertive, he will likely be a positive for whatever minutes he receives in this series.
- Who will play center when the Cavs go small? In the past, the Thompson/James pairing as big men has seen a lot of time against the Warriors. When they go to their core four plus Igoudala, that likely will remain the case. But throughout the playoffs, we are seeing Tyronn Lue use Love more and more as a center with LeBron and the second unit. In 71 playoff minutes Love has played without Thompson, the Cavs have a 147.8 offensive rating, with a +36.7 net rating. While this lineup likely won’t see tons of time against the Warriors small ball lineup, it can be an effective way to help win the minutes where their stars are staggered. It can also serve as a way to maximize Love’s offensive ability, without taking away from what has worked in the past against the Warriors.
- Finally, the Cavs need to be the better offensive team. This whole season has been foreplay for a showdown between two of the most talented offensive rosters ever assembled. The Warriors will be, by far, the best defense the Cavs have faced in the playoffs. Even with that in mind, the Cavs have added a ton of offensive talent this season and have experienced significant internal growth from it’s core. The team won’t require James and Irving to do everything once again, even though the required contribution from them will still be substantial. The Cavs best defense may be forcing the Warriors to defend, in hopes of wearing them out. It’ll be a chess match, but at the end of the day the Cavs made a gamble that their offense will be enough to overcome their defensive flaws. In order to win the Cavs will need to show discipline and sacrifice. This is the best roster the in history of the franchise, and possibly the best LeBron James we have ever seen. If there were a team to upset this historically talented Warriors roster, this would be the one.
All stats via nba.com/stats