The road to this point was topsy-turvy. The Cleveland Cavaliers nearly fell victim to the feisty Indiana Pacers in an unexpected First Round dogfight. The Golden State Warriors faced elimination for the first time since the 2016 NBA Finals before righting the ship on the back of their trusty third quarter dominance.
But now we have arrived. Cavs-Warriors IV.
The intrigue has lost a bit of luster, to be sure, due largely to Kevin Durant’s insertion and Kyrie Irving playing for the Boston Celtics. Cleveland is a 12-point underdog in Game 1- — tied for the largest point spread in a Finals game since at least 1991. The Warriors are 1/10 favorites to take home their second consecutive NBA Championship.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers have the best player in the world, immersed in one of the defining individual playoff runs in NBA history.
LeBron James is averaging 34 points per game, 9.2 rebounds per game and 8.8 assists per game on 54 percent shooting (61.9 percent True Shooting). Those numbers are of course unmatched but only four players in NBA history have posted at least 34 points per game on 54 percent shooting or better in NBA history.
All of those players are Centers. None of them did it past 1984 (Bernard King). And James is shooting better from two-point range (60.1 percent) than all of them but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1977.
It’s hard to contextualize what James has done so far in these playoffs — especially given his astronomical 36.2 percent usage rate. But what we can say for sure is that he has put the Cavaliers in a position to play Championship for the fourth consecutive season.
Starters, Matchups and Injuries
At least some of the palace intrigue emanating from this series is who Tyronn Lue and Steve Kerr start in Game One.
With Andre Iguodala already ruled out for Game One, the Warriors will likely turn to one of their many Centers. Kevon Looney answered the bell in every game Iguodala missed against Houston but Jordan Bell started both games against Cleveland in the regular season.
Either way, the Warriors will likely start a traditional Center until Iguodala returns.
The Cavaliers are faced with two options in response (after Tyronn Lue confirmed that — if healthy — Kevin Love would start).
They can either continue starting the frontcourt of Love and Tristan Thompson or insert Jeff Green for Thompson as a counter for Kevin Durant.
While circumstances have changed, the Love/Thompson duo was -45 in last year’s Finals while Love alone and Thompson alone were both positives. The Cavs may want to rely on Thompson’s physicality and rebounding prowess to punish the inexperience of Looney and Bell.
But — perhaps more importantly — starting both players puts Cleveland in a precarious position defensively. This would leave James as the primary defender on Durant — a tall task given James’ historic offensive burden.
Enter Jeff Green. While he certainly presents his own set of offensive challenges, Green possesses unparalleled length and athleticism outside of James on Cleveland’s limited roster. And — while the sample size is limited — Green held his former Sonics teammate to nine points on 10 shots in the regular season.
Neither option is great. The Cavs likely know this. But asking James to both shoulder the Irving-less burden offensively while simultaneously guarding Durant seems a lot to ask, even for someone of his super-human capabilities.
Cavaliers on Defense
The largest question facing the Cavaliers is whether they can muster resistance to the Warriors’ explosive offensive attack. Scoring was not the issue in last year’s Finals. Instead, it was Cleveland’s 117.5 defensive rating that prevented them from making much headway in the series.
The Cavs’ much maligned defense (stop me if you’ve heard they were 29th in the regular season before) showed some resistance against the Celtics, posting a 102.1 defensive rating.
And while the task is not impossible — Houston held the Warriors to under one point per possession in Games 4 and 5 of the Western Conference Finals — the margin for error is razor thin.
Golden State punishes even the smallest of mistakes — a defender not finding a man in transition, overplaying a rotation or failing to execute a switch.
And even when you play what would be considered perfect defense against 99.9 percent of humans on the planet, they have the shot makers to do this anyway.
The Cavaliers-Warriors dance feels scripted at this point. But can Cleveland learn anything from Houston — similar to how they copied Oklahoma City’s scheme in 2016?
By employing a switch-everything scheme they spent the entire season perfecting, the Rockets baited the Warriors into running 23.1 Isolations per game. That number was nearly triple Golden State’s regular season number (8.1 per game) and well over even Houston’s league-leading 19.1 Isolations per game.
As a result, the Warriors only assisted on 53.2 percent of their made baskets in the series — a mark that would have ranked 2nd last in the league this year. The mark also fell way behind their league-leading 68.5 assist percentage in the regular season and slightly-higher 69.6 assist percentage in the first two rounds.
The main culprit was Kevin Durant, who led Golden State with 41 front court touches per game (14 more than Steph Curry). Despite his team-leading 31.8 percent usage rate, Durant posted his first two zero assist games of the season in the series.
The lsolation style led Durant — never known for his passing — to take 25 percent of his shots with seven seconds or less on the shot clock, often to the detriment of open teammates like Draymond Green.
While Cleveland does not have the same personnel as Houston, they can try to emulate this style. Sure, it will leave weak defenders like Kevin Love and Kyle Korver on Durant or Curry but it may also take the Warriors out of their rhythm. It may lead them to play with slower pace, something that will almost certainly benefit the Cavaliers.
The other option is a dance that feels as old as time itself, at least in NBA circles. Cleveland will blitz Curry ball screens (usually with Love on the floor) and force roll men to make plays.
Ty Lue has never been shy about flagrantly ignoring the opposition’s poor shooters. With either Bell or Looney starting, this leaves two players Cleveland can dare to beat them.
Green is one of those guys. He shot just 2-17 from three in the Conference Finals and is now shooting 29.6 percent from downtown on the year. Surrounded by three other All-Stars, the Cavs have no problem asking Green to make shots and living with the consequences.
Stash James on Green and allow him to play the free safety role. Starting Love at Center is much more tenable when he can guard non-threats in Looney or Bell. The Cavs will ask them to make plays in the short roll if Golden State wants to involve Love in the screening action.
Ask Green and Smith to stay at home on Durant and Thompson and see what happens. Curry will get to the rim. He shot 30-39 there against Houston and is now shooting a dazzling 79 percent in the restricted area in the playoffs. But layups — however fancy they may be — do not elicit the same feeling of doom as rainbow arcing threes raining down from 30 feet.
Remove Looney and Bell and the options are thin. Nick Young is the only other plus three-point shooter on the team but his defense presents problems of its own. Insert Livingston and Cleveland will ignore him too.
Ultimately, the gameplan presents itself clearly but the options are limited. Even with a hyper-engaged James, George Hill is not equipped to stay in front of Curry every possession. Smith will get lost trying to chase Thompson. Green is long and athletic but nobody stops Kevin Durant. Green will make the right passes. Cleveland will blow switches more than it would like.
The Warriors finish more of their possessions on cuts (11.2 percent) and off screens (11.5 percent) than any team Cleveland has faced. These are points of weakness that will likely be exploited.
The Cavs do not have the defensive personnel necessary to keep up. But the plan is there.
Cleveland on Offense
Guarding LeBron James
This section can likely write itself — perhaps more so now that Irving is donning Celtics green and his replacements are a mismatched bunch of role players.
James will hunt Curry, using a carefully orchestrated ball screen dance that has played out time and time again over the past four seasons.
In the regular season, that meant putting Curry’s man at the end of a chain of two or even three Cavaliers to ensure he could not hide off ball.
Expect Thompson to guard George Hill and Curry to guard JR Smith, setting up a screen and re-screen ballet that Smith and James can likely execute in their sleep.
Zoom into screens with pace and the odds that Curry has to defend James increase substantially.
Curry will fight the switch. The Warriors may play this action conventionally, forcing those around James to beat them. He will leap out perpendicular to James’ motion, hoping to impede LeBron’s progress long enough for the initial defender to recover.
Tactically, there is nothing new, nothing James or the Warriors have never seen before. But Curry’s effort can go a long way toward forcing Cleveland to operate late in the shot clock.
The Cavaliers have taken a playoff-high 28 percent of their shots with 7 seconds or less on the shot clock. They are shooting just 38.6 percent on these shots (and only 26.7 percent from three).
Perhaps the Iguodala injury will matter. The Cavaliers had a 130 offensive rating with Durant guarding James last Finals. James scored 42 points per 100 possessions and had a 64.7 effective field goal percentage with Durant as his primary defender.
But the Warriors will live with James scoring 50. How the other players perform will be a bellwether for the series.
The Role Players
Cleveland’s offense devolved into James matchup hunting and other players just standing around too often against Boston (and Indiana).
You cannot get away with this level of stagnation against the Warriors. Let Draymond Green roam off a motionless non-shooter in Green or Thompson and pay in the form of floor imbalance. And Draymond will certaninly ignore Jeff Green — perhaps to Tony Allen-levels.
Even with four shooters “spaced” around an Isolation attack, their lack of motion allows for Golden State to guard two players with one defender — and bring a player into the strong side zone as a result.
One way to mitigate this is playing more Kyle Korver and using his jitterbugging offensive randomness to occupy defenders off-ball. But the Warriors have held Korver in check since he joined the Cavaliers. The sharpshooter is just 7-21 (33.3 percent) from downtown in seven games against Golden State and the attempts per game (3) are perhaps more concerning than the shooting percentage.
Another way to mitigate that is by setting flare screens off the ball, especially with Green’s man when he roams. Houston played around with this in Game 6 but looked more like the Cleveland Browns than an NBA team.
But the passes are there and if you expect anyone to execute them, it’s the guy wearing 23 for the Cavs.
Another way Cleveland found success in the regular season was running empty corner pick and roll with Isaiah Thomas as the handler and James as the screener.
Thomas led the Cavaliers with 21 drives in the game — a critical number. While Harden averaged 20.6 drives per game in the Conference Finals, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon combined to average 20.2 per game. Gaining that secondary attacker is key to poking holes in Golden State’s defense.
As a contrast, George Hill was second on the Cavaliers in drives per game in the Eastern Conference Finals at just 4.9. Unsurprisingly, Hill’s best game of the series coincided with his largest number of drives — 10 in Game 6 that produced 10 points (4-4 shooting).
Hill does not need to play like Kyrie Irving (nor can he). But he cannot play like the George Hill that has had nearly as many games scoring under 10 points (7) as over 10 points (8) in these playoffs.
Hill has shown himself to be a more-than-capable steward in pick and roll and the Cavaliers are scoring 1.11 points per play when he is the handler, good for 2nd in the Playoffs. But he cannot have games of six percent usage like he did in the opening two losses to the Celtics.
Kevin Love will have to play like KEVIN LOVE for the Cavaliers to have anything remotely resembling a chance. Golden State starting Jordan Bell would be one way to potentially jump start that performance.
In the regular season, Love scored 31 points (+21.5 per 100 possessions better than his season average) on 10-18 shooting when guarded by Bell. The Cavaliers had a 116.6 oRTG on these possessions.
If the Warriors play Durant on James, the James-Love pick and roll action can create post up opportunities for Love to use his strength against Durant. Cleveland had success with this in last year’s Finals and went back to it in the regular season.
But the Cavs cannot rely on Love post ups — producing just 0.79 points per play in the playoffs — especially against the barrel-chested, brick house that is Draymond Green.
Finally, Cleveland will have to get hot from downtown. I’m not sure this means NBA-record 24 threes made hot that it took to win Game 4 last season, but I’m not sure it doesn’t mean that either.
In the playoffs, the Cavs are 10-0 when they shoot 34 percent or better from downtown and 2-6 when the shoot worse than 34 percent. James’ jumper — seemingly back on track (40.8 percent against Boston) after he shot 28.8 percent from three in the first two rounds — has always been imperative to matching Golden State.
But throw the wacky Toronto sweep out the window and the (non-Kyle Korver) picture looks bleak. Smith has struggled to find consistency. Hill’s jumper hasn’t looked the same since he injured his back. Jeff Green is ... well Jeff Green.
If the Cavaliers cannot get their shots from downtown to fall, the series will not last long enough to drown out rampant speculation about a wild trade and free agency season to come.
Want a fun stat? The Cavaliers are playing these playoffs at a pace (93.9 possessions per game) slower than the memorable grind-it-out, coffee and cramps pace of the 2015 Finals (94.8 possessions per game).
Games 6 and 7 of the Celtics series were played at a pace of 90 possessions per game, a rock fighting tip of the cap to a bygone era.
Despite Houston’s best efforts to dribble the pace to a grinding halt, the Western Conference Finals were played at a pace of 97.1 possessions per game.
And that brings us to Golden State’s transition attack. It is not the most frequent (17 percent of possessions) but it is deadly (1.21 points per play). Miss at the rim or commit a live ball turnover and the Warriors can turn it into three points the other way faster than you can blink.
Compound those mistakes over the course of a game and the inevitable avalanche is too great for even the most worthy opponents to overcome.
The Cavaliers likely need to channel the energy of those 2015 Finals to have a shot. Grind the game to a screeching halt, prevent Golden State from getting out in transition and hope one of David’s stones falls the mighty Goliath.
In the fourth iteration of this matchup, many of the players have changed but the tactics remain in place like the Eagles Reunion Tour.
Ultimately, the Cavaliers have lost talent as the years have worn on while the Warriors added Kevin Durant. While Cleveland can employ all the tactics it wants, they lack good options to deal with the four All-Stars sitting on the opposing bench.
LeBron James will take the floor in Cleveland’s black uniforms at least four times and that is enough for most sensible predictors to avoid picking a sweep. Add in the Warriors general malaise and tendency for careless turnovers and the series likely goes five games.
But the switch remains — and it comes in the form of Golden State being +501 this season in 3rd quarters. The post-halftime blitz awaits everyone but especially a Cavaliers team that is just +5 in the quarter on the year (-1 in the playoffs).
So take the time to appreciate the historic playoff run LeBron James is on as he once again tries to slay the dragon. But do not get your hopes up as even the best player on planet earth cannot compete with the best team ever assembled.
Prediction: Warriors in 5.