The wait is just about over, folks. One of the most hyped series in NBA history is about to begin and it should be a goody. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will go at it for the third consecutive year in the NBA Finals but this time with the added twist of a seven-foot scoring machine. The two teams split the regular season matchups as the Cavaliers won a Christmas Day classic thanks to some familiar late-game heroics from Kyrie Irving by a score of 109-108. The Warriors would top the Cavs less than a month later by a score of 126-91, but I like to pretend that game never happened because it didn’t.. So let’s take a look at the likely matchups.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant Pt. II
The matchup people are most excited for is actually a rematch from 2012, when Kevin Durant led the Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron James led the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals (hopefully that series outcome repeats itself in favor of LeBron once again). A lot has changed since then, although it feels as if the roles have reversed. Both players find themselves at peak performance levels and in completely different situations. The narrative of LeBron skipping out on Cleveland to win a title elsewhere has now shifted to Durant, making him out as the “villain” of the league and subsequently taking that title away from LeBron. Both players had MVP-worthy 2017 campaigns and if Durant didn’t get injured and LeBron actually went all out during the regular season, the MVP race could be a lot closer than most suspect. Alas, neither player will win this year’s MVP, but a Finals MVP sounds just as impressive on a career resume.
Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry
What I love the most about this matchup is that while Steph is the overall better player, Kyrie always seems to get the best of him when the two go head-to-head in the playoffs. Both players struggle to guard each other and the box score lights up because of it. Kyrie has become one of the most clutch players of his generations along with turning into the deadliest isolation player in the league. Whether he was injured or not, Steph got outplayed by Kyrie in last year’s Finals. Steph is still the Steph that can drop 30 at any moment and he has been all season, but another “meh” performance by his standards in the Finals against Kyrie and it might be time to label Kyrie as his supposed “kryptonite”. Unfortunately, I don’t expect Steph to struggle. With the Durant factor now in play, Steph will be be able to get his, that is if the Cavaliers decide against trapping him. Unless Steph decides to pull a Harrison Barnes (or a Klay Thompson, apparently), Kyrie vs. Steph should be the most electric and exciting matchup of the series.
J.R. Smith and Klay Thompson
This is the matchup that fascinates me the most. Two of the biggest and most efficient heat-check shooters in the league have been everything but hot during the playoffs. Klay Thompson is shooting 8.5 percentage points worse from the field in the playoffs than the regular season, 5.5 percentage points worse from 3, and averaging 7.9 less points per game. J.R. Smith is actually shooting an incredibly efficient 44.9 percent from deep, however he’s only averaging 6.6 points per game in the playoffs, breaking double-digits in only two of the 13 games. He hasn’t been invaluable as his defense has been admirable but his lack of involvement in the offense is troubling for someone who can drain five straight contested threes without batting an eye. These two aren’t the main attractions for the series, but they’re too important to their teams for their play to be so lackluster.
Kevin Love and Draymond Green
If there was a time for Kevin Love to have a productive series against the Warriors, now would be the perfect situation. In his 12 games against the Warriors as a member of the Cavaliers, Love has shot over 50 percent only once and he’s cracked the double-digit scoring mark in only half of the games. The reason? Draymond Green. Green is one the league’s best overall defenders and rightfully so. He can defend all five positions, block shots, intercept passing lanes, kick people in the no-no square, things all great defenders do. So it’s easy to see why he’s a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (and my personal pick to win the award). The upside is we’ve never seen this Kevin Love while wearing the wine and gold. Love has been putting up Minnesota-esque numbers all season and that has continued into the regular season. Love is averaging 17/10 during the playoffs while shooting lights out. 45.7 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from three has Love firing shots more efficiently than he ever has in his three seasons in Cleveland. Love HAS to stayed involved in this series and he has to do so against one of the NBA’s best defenders. Draymond Green is a trash talker, and the best way to shut up a trash talker is to let your play shut him up for you. It’s hard for me to call a player with as much talent as Love the “X-Factor” (and even harder to choose him over Tristan Thompson) but if he reverts to the Kevin Love who normally struggles against Golden State, the series won’t go on for long.
Tristan Thompson and Zaza Pachulia
This one is weird. Zaza Pachulia is only averaging 14.5 minutes per game during the playoffs even though he’s a starter. Andre Iguodala controls the majority of the minutes as the Warriors “fifth man” but the game will begin with a big-on-big matchup. Tristan Thompson has once again proven that he’s worth every single penny the Cavaliers are paying him and he’s elevated his game even more during the playoffs, particularly from the free throw line. He’s shooting 66.7 percent from the charity stripe during the playoffs compared to an abysmal 49.8 percent during the regular season. Zaza won’t be in for long to battle TT on the glass, which is where Thompson thrived in last year’s Finals, becoming unstoppable when it came to hustling for offensive rebounds. He takes advantage of small-ball lineups better than any rebounder in the league and provides endless second - and sometimes third - opportunities for the Cavs. The Cavaliers are 18-3 this season when TT records a double-double and with his elite rebounding skills against smaller lineups, we could possibly see a repeat performance from last year’s Finals.
The best way to describe the Cavaliers bench is somewhere between the flame emoji and hell. All five of the Cavaliers rotation bench players are shooting at an incredibly efficient rate, not only during the playoffs, but all season long. From Channing Frye to Kyle Korver the Cavs bench can scorch the opponent from deep literally anytime they want. Throw in LeBron with Frye, Korver, Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson and you’ll witness what is known as one of the best problem to have; too many shot options for only one shot attempt. The Cavaliers are the best three-point shooting team in the playoffs and they don’t skip a beat when their best players have to take a seat. They may even be a better all-around outside shooting team when the bench is on the court. The Warriors have veteran bench players to match with Shaun Livingston, David “The Forgotten Ring Chaser” West, and JaVale McGee. Add in
Iguodala Pachulia along with the younger backcourt duo of Ian Clark and Patrick McCaw and the Warriors can cover most aspects of both offense and defense (except the ever-so-important three-point shot).
How the Cavaliers can repeat as NBA Champions
If the Cavaliers want to pull off the upset and repeat as NBA Champions, they have to make sure they accomplish a few things. First and most importantly, Kevin Love has to produce. There can’t be any more excuse for Love when he goes up against the Warriors. He’s playing excellent basketball as of late and his involvement in the offense completely changes the dynamic of the game and how the Warriors have to defend him in both the post and beyond the arc. If he allows Draymond to take him out of the game and Klay returns back to form, the Warriors upper hand will be too much.
Second, the Cavaliers should continue to trap on Steph Curry like they did against Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Lowry. The Cavs need to force Iguodala and Green to beat them from deep much like they did with Barnes last season. If Klay is off his game (have you noticed that a lot of this series hinges on whether or not Klay turns into a flamethrower or if he remains the match that just won’t light?), then Durant is the only other option that can really make the Cavs pay — but that’s a pretty damn good second option. The Cavs can’t allow both Steph and Durant to beat them, it has to be one or the other. The Cavaliers are experienced with trapping premier point guards and forcing someone else to prove that they can beat them but honestly, I just want to see as much KD v. Bron action as possible.
My third and final key isn’t about LeBron or Kyrie - as they’re expected to get more than their fair share — but it has to do with Klay Thompson. Kidding.
The real key is limiting the Warriors fastbreak opportunities and with that comes making sure the Cavs cut out unnecessary turnovers (I’m looking at you, J.R.). The Warriors lead all playoff teams with 20.7 fastbreak points per game, 3.2 more than the second highest team (Washington Wizards) and 9.5 more than the Cavaliers. The Warriors are also third among playoff teams when it comes to points scored off turnovers at 18.3 points per game. The Cavaliers are in the middle of the pack among playoff team’s turnover averages, turning the ball over only 12.9 times per game compared to 13.8 for the Warriors. Fastbreaks lead to easy buckets and the fans at Oracle Arena feed off the energy that results from pull-up Steph Curry threes or Kevin Durant one-handed slams. Momentum will be a huge factor for two of the hottest shooting teams in the league and the Cavs have to make sure they stifle the home-court advantage.
Cavs in six.