After what feels like an eternity, the NBA Finals are just around the corner. The Cleveland Cavaliers are looking to improve their all-time Finals record to 2-2 and once again upset the Golden State Warriors. To preview what may happen, we got together and tried to breakdown the upcoming series.
Last year the Cavs put themselves into a hole to start the Finals. If they want to repeat, they likely will need to have a much better start. What’s the biggest key to a good start for the Cavs?
Aaron Perine (@SumitLakeHornet): In the same manner as many other series, it will be key to steal a game on the road early. Keeping the possessions relatively low and turning this into a close game down the stretch will only help Cleveland. I think that getting a great start from Kevin Love would go a long way in helping steady the Cavs.
Zack Geoghegan (@ZackGeoghegan): Keeping Kevin Love as involved as he has been so far throughout the playoffs. He’s had issues in the past regarding stepping up in high pressure situations, but making sure he is a constant piece of the offense will be vital if he wants to keep his stellar playoff rhythm going for another series. LeBron can make up for a majority of this team’s deficiencies, but Love can not average eight points per game like he did in last years Finals, he has to be involved for this series to be winnable.
Scott Recker (@scottmrecker): Defense and secondary scoring. I mean, we know it’s imperative for LeBron and Kyrie to play highly efficient games littered with plays that frustrate the Warriors on defense, but I think a lot of the series is going to come down to the Cavs limiting the runs of that offensive death machine, while finding ways to get points out of players like Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and JR Smith. On the defensive end, what worked last year has to click again — Kyrie’s success running Steph off the three point line, Tristan maximizing his ability to contain switches. But, also, now that the Warriors went out and added one of the most talented all-around scores in the history of the game, JR and LeBron will have to run around the perimeter like Velociraptors. And it would be helpful if Kevin Love could stay in front of the ball. On offense, tacking on as many non-LeBron points whenever — and however — possible would be beneficial. Open shots have to fall.
Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11): The two keys to a guard start are minimizing defensive mistakes and maximizing Kevin Love. To the former, the Cavs are better suited to guard Golden State’s starters than nearly any other lineup iteration the Warriors will play. While Zaza Pachulia is in the game, the Cavs have to attack him relentlessly on the offensive end. But on defense, it also allows the Cavs to focus their attention on Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson. While we are still unsure of the exact defensive alignment to start, the Cavs need to minimize mistakes early. On the other end, Kevin Love has been a staple of first quarters--he’s averaging 6.9 points per first quarter in the playoffs. After posting 22.6/12.4 on 48.6/53.5/87 against Boston, he’s arguably playing his best basketball in a Cavaliers uniform. This success needs to continue early.
Dylan Haines (@DHaines1): The Cavs need to set the tone from the get-go in Golden State. First off, Kevin Love has to be better in these Finals. Draymond Green is a matchup nightmare for him (as well as most players he matches up with), but Love will need to find a way to be productive as a scorer, rebounder, and defender for the Cavs to have a chance. Also, Kyrie and LeBron have to outplay Steph and KD to have any chance of winning this series. It will be a grind, but the opportunity is there for the the Cavs to pull off a second consecutive Finals upset.
Justin Rowan (@Cavsanada): I think the Cavs need to come out very sharp to start Game 1. The Warriors will have been off for longer than the Cavs, and when you combine that with not really being tested there is a possibility that they can be caught off-guard. We saw that in Game 1 against the Spurs, and I think there’s a real possibility for Cleveland to get out to a similar lead. The biggest key to this will be both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving taking care of the ball and controlling the pace of the game. There inevitably will be nerves on both sides, but the Cavs need to punch the Warriors in the mouth first. If they can do that, anything can happen.
Which of the Cavs bench players will be most important for this series?
AP: Going to go ahead and say Deron Williams because I remember the carnage that Barbosa and Livingston dished out in Game 1 of last year’s series. That was insane and it would help to have someone to help negate that kind of huge game from GSW’s reserves.
ZG: There were times during last year’s playoffs - and especially the Finals - where Iman Shumpert was such a liability on both sides of the court that he became unplayable. So far in these playoffs, Shumpert has played with much more energy on defense while shooting 47.1 percent from three. If Klay Thompson finds his shot in this series, Shump is going to have to shut him down.
SR: This is tough, because there are probably three — maybe four — players off the bench who are basically equally important to swing the series, but I’ll go with Korver. There’s so many ways he makes LeBron’s life easier on offense — at worse, he’s a floor-spacing honesty policy, at best he’s setting picks and popping out to the wing, threatening to knock down pick-your-poison threes. He’s also a smart defender who uses his length and brain cells well. We’ve seen plenty of knock-down role players impact the Finals in the last two decades.
MZ: I had every intention of saying Richard Jefferson--who played 24 minutes per game in last year’s Finals--because I believe he will be used to defend Kevin Durant. But after thinking about it more, I kept coming back to how KD has struggled with Danny Green his entire career. For that reason, I am going with Iman Shumpert--who sports a longer wingspan than Green. I think Shump will be called upon to defend both Durant and Curry in the Finals and the versatility he will have to bring bumps him above RJ.
DH: I'm gonna roll with Iman Shumpert. While Deron Williams could be a critical component off the bench as he showed he could be in the Boston series, Shump is the man on the pine that needs to step up the most for the Cavs to win this series. Ever since he got put back in the rotation in Game 3 against the Pacers in the first round, Shump has been a valuable contributor off the bench, doing all the little things to help the team thrive and survive. They'll need him to continue hitting jump shots and playing aggressive defense to help force turnovers that will be paramount towards helping the second unit take advantage of the Golden State bench lineups.
JR: I’m going to go with Kyle Korver. While there’s a case to be made for Iman Shumpert, Korver has shown he can still play intelligent off ball defense and is one of the most dangerous shooters in the league. They key to beating the Warriors is winning the minutes that their stars are staggered. If Korver gets rolling, those LeBron plus second unit lineups are near impossible to defend.
What’s the biggest x-factor for this series?
AP: Open Shots. Some corners of the internet have made a huge deal about the number of open looks Cleveland has surrendered throughout the postseason, but it was mostly by design. Those moments will loom large in this series because of how critical it will be to get anything from the non-superstars on both sides.
ZG: I’m gonna stick with the obvious choice, Tristan Thompson. TT is much too valuable on the glass for the Cavs to not play him. He creates several extra possessions every game simply by being on the court. If necessary, he can step out and defend the perimeter against smaller and quicker players. When Tristan plays well, the Cavs play well.
SR: Limiting scoring runs and taking away the three-point line. The Warriors bury teams so quickly, it’s basically a cartoon, so, you know, not letting that happen, and keeping everything close, because when the Cavs stay within a puncher’s chance, they still have Tyson.
MZ: I think there are about 15 different ways you can go with this question, but I will stick to 3: missed shots, possessions, and coaching. The Cavs are going to be willing to surrender open 3s to Draymond Green (who is 22-55 on open 3s in the playoffs) and Andre Iguodala (who is 3-24 on open 3s in the playoffs). If both of those guys are hitting jumpers, you tip your cap and move on. Secondly, the Cavs need to control the number of possessions. Between limiting turnovers and creating offensive rebounds, the Cavs have to increase the variance as much as possible. Finally, we all still have nightmares about Mike Brown in the 2009 Playoffs. Ty Lue has shown his ability to adjust on the fly as well as nearly every coach in the NBA. If Lue can significantly out-coach Brown, it will go a long way towards the Cavs repeating as champions.
DH: I'm going to go with tempo. The Warriors are too explosive and talented on both ends to hope the Cavs can play their tempo and have a chance in this series. They need to turn this series into a grind-it-out, half-court type of series that can ultimately be won through physicality, rebounding, and running sets to generate open shots and allow LeBron and Kyrie to run switches on PnR to exploit Golden State’s proclivity to constantly switch on the PnR as they did in last year's Finals.
JR: It has to be Tristan Thompson. If he is able to defend Kevin Durant, it opens up a world of opportunities for the Cavs defense. If he can’t he’s going to need to play some of the best defense of his career against Draymond Green. The Cavs simply don’t have anybody else that can bring what Tristan brings, so he’s going to need to play like a star to give them a chance.
What’s your biggest fear when it comes to this matchup?
AP: Health, as always. It is the specter waiting around the corner whenever these things end up being decided. I know that a lot of fans on the other side of the country would point to Draymond’s suspension as the turning point last year. But, Bogut’s absence fascinates me as well…
ZG: My biggest fear is wondering how the Cavs will be able to defend two MVP’s while also playing excellent offensive basketball. If the Cavs trap Curry and force the ball out of his hands like they’ve been doing to other point guards in the playoffs, the Warriors can pick you apart with the league’s second best player, Kevin Durant, and vice-versa.
SR: An noncompetitive series. Not that I think it will necessarily happen, but if it would, the ripple effect would most likely last beyond a couple of weeks.
MZ: The Cavs defense being untested and the Warriors being a different kind of beast. I am pretty convinced that the Cavs can get buckets with Golden State, but not convinced that they can consistently get stops. As I said above, this is a pick your poison offense and if the Warriors are hitting shots, there is nowhere to hide. So my biggest fear is that if the Warriors create and knock down open shots, the Cavs may not have an answer.
DH: This may surprise you, but replacing Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant is pretty worrisome to me. KD might be the most versatile offensive force in NBA history, and he's playing alongside the greatest shooting backcourt ever in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and one of the the most versatile defensive players I've ever seen in Draymond Green. The Cavs’ best chance will be to get Golden State out of their usual flow on offense by baiting KD into reverting to the iso ball he was always forced to play in Oklahoma City, but if Golden State can use him like a Harrison Barnes on steroids, the Cavs may be in some trouble.
JR: The slow, crushing inevitability of death. But on a serious note, I have to agree with Scott. A noncompetitive series would be crushing when you consider how well the Cavs are playing. The team has developed chemistry and camaraderie over the last year and it’s been a joy rooting for this team. If the Cavs lose a close series, I can see tweaks and internal growth being used to close the gap. But if this isn’t competitive, it could mean the end for this team as currently constructed.
What gives you the most confidence that the Cavs can repeat?
AP: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. This team is also at their peak when scrambling trying to save the season. All of that makes me believe that they not only have a chance, but that they can win when all expert analysis points to a bloodbath. Those predictions were woefully wrong leading up to this point, so why not believe for another round. Best player on earth and great supporting cast? Why Not?
ZG: LeBron James…. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
SR: The confidence they’ve built over the last few weeks. Being a more well-rounded team than last year. LeBron’s stubbornness.
MZ: Watching last year’s Finals (as every person should) this weekend, I came to realize a few things. First, the Cavs played Mo Williams and Dahntay freakin’ Jones. Deron Williams and Kyle Korver are significant upgrades to the Cavs bench unit. Second, Kevin Love averaged 9/7 last year. He essentially missed Games 4-6. So far in these playoffs, he has shot 35-69 (50.7%) on wide open 3s, scored 0.98 ppp in the post, and given up just 0.69 ppp defending the pick and roll. Love is a totally different player who is better suited for this matchup. Finally--and this feels weird to say--but LeBron James is better. A lot better. He’s more comfortable shooting the jumper and his handle looks tighter. He’s scoring 1.2 ppp in ISO, 1.09 in PnR, and 1.09 in the post. He’s a terror on the offensive end.
DH: LeBron James…..but aside from that, the play of the supporting cast around LeBron gives reason for optimism. Every Cavs rotation player outside of Tristan and Kyrie is shooting over 40 percent from three in the postseason. Kyrie was struggling with hitting open shots in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but he's rounded back into form in the Boston series. Kevin Love has been playing the best basketball of his career. Tristan Thompson has been hitting his free throws and is still a matchup nightmare for Golden State. The bench has been effective, and Ty Lue has done a masterful job of preparing this team for this moment.
JR: I believe that over a seven game series the Cavs core four can outplay the Warriors stars. I think the Cavs have the better supporting cast and LeBron’s ability to shoulder a ridiculously large amount of minutes helps close the gap. The Cavs thrive when faced with adversity, plus they have the weapons to pull this off.
Who wins Finals MVP?
AP: LeBron James claims his fourth Finals MVP award and the city basically erupts.
ZG: If the Cavs win, it will be because of LeBron. Even if the Cavs lose, LeBron will still most likely be the most deserving player of the award.
SR: Every Cavs fan that goes the entire series with throwing one inanimate object at another inanimate object deserves to share it. By Ohio standards, that should leave about three people, give or take.
MZ: If the Cavs win, the greatest basketball player of all-time is the only answer to this question.
DH: If the Cavs win, it will be LeBron. If the Warriors win, it could be Steph, KD, or Draymond. The Warriors have much more room for error than the Cavs do in this series, but if everything goes right for them, the Cavs can repeat as champions.
JR: It’s hard to pick anybody other than LeBron. However, the Cavs need his scoring less than they did last season. He is going to need to control the tempo of the game, fill in the gaps defensively, and get everybody into their sets. While to me, this screams valuable, I’m going to say Kyrie Irving goes absolutely berserk and leads the team in scoring. Irving has the worst poker face on the planet and can’t seem to hide how excited he is for this matchup. If the Cavs win, Irving is going to need to win the point guard matchup. So I’ll go with him.