The NBA Finals are set, providing the rematch that many have been anticipating since the beginning of the season. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will square off starting Thursday at Oracle Arena, but this series will be much different than when these two teams faced each other during the past regular season and last year’s Finals.
The Cavaliers strolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs, surrendering just two games during their entire stretch, both against the Toronto Raptors on the road. Cleveland had one of the most competitive sweeps you’ll ever see against the Detroit Pistons in the first round and cruised past the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semis.
The path for the Warriors was much different. Golden State won its first two series against the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers in five games, with Curry suffering a pair of injuries against the Rockets. This forced him to miss time, but the Warriors kept rolling until they came upon the Oklahoma City Thunder. The length of the Thunder, and the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, provided strong opposition, but it wasn’t enough in Game 7.
With those two different playoff experiences in mind, here are some things to watch for during the NBA Finals, and what could be the rise and/or downfall for either team.
The Kevin Love effect
Kevin Love is going to be a big factor in this series, both offensively and defensively. Offensively, Love has had his ups and downs over the course of the postseason. We’ve seen the Cavaliers abandon Love at times, while he has also settled for fadeaway mid-range jumpers when unable to get a wide-open three, and is set on trying to score. If he’s able to find consistency and be a big contributor on offense, the Cavaliers are a much better team.
“Kevin is one of the top 10 players in this league,” Tyronn Lue said after Cavaliers practice Wednesday. “He’s scored on a lot of different people before. It’s not going to be any different. We’re going to post the basketball, we want Kevin to be aggressive, looking to attack, looking to score.”
When Love isn’t doing great on offense (and in general), he becomes a greater concern on the defensive end. The Warriors make it especially tough for the Cavaliers to have him on the floor, matchup-wise. Cleveland will likely need to have Love on Andrew Bogut as opposed to Draymond Green, to avoid pick and roll switches on Stephen Curry. Love wasn’t necessarily an abomination defensively against the Raptors, but he doesn’t exactly bring any intensity or intimidation that would be productive over a long stretch.
Tristan Thompson, and the offensive glass
One of the Golden State Warriors’ biggest obstacles against Oklahoma City was the Thunder’s ability to create second chances on offense with great offensive rebounding, thanks to amazing length and athleticism. The Cavaliers have their own specialist for that with Tristan Thompson. Thompson has torched the Cavs’ Eastern Conference opponents all postseason with his rebounding prowess and it could also give the Warriors similar issues, especially when they go small. Here, a strong Draymond Green will be vital for the Warriors.
In their two regular season contests, Thompson was held to a combined four offensive rebounds, but the makeup of the Cavaliers was different then. Green more than held his own and if he’s able to put up a similar effort, that’s a great advantage for the Warriors. Without Thompson grabbing offensive rebounds for the Cavaliers, he becomes virtually useless on that end of the floor, and further limits the Cavaliers in lineup variation.
Whose bench will step up the most
As it goes with just about any team, good production off the bench brings winning results. That’s a given. But for both of these teams, they’re especially deadly when their role players provide starting caliber play, which has led to large-margin wins many times. We saw Channing Frye torch the nets multiple times for the Cavaliers over the course of the playoffs (particularly against the Atlanta Hawks), along with Iman Shumpert providing great defense. For the Warriors, their bench has looked as good as some NBA starting lineups over the course of the season. But when Marreese Speights and Shaun Livingston get going for the Warriors, it’s like the opposition can’t get a break. We won’t see some of the players that the Warriors used in the regular season off the bench, as all teams limit their depth during this time of year, but reserves will still make their mark on the game.
The acquisition of Frye has been the most overlooked move that GM David Griffin has made this season. For Golden State, a Mo Buckets parade of threes can be just as fun and deadly, and his mid-range game is lethal as well. He’s a 6-foot-10 shooting guard. At 6-foot-8 and playing the point, Shaun Livingston also often presents matchup challenges for opposing defenses, and will quickly hit you with a smooth floater in the paint or ferociously find his way to the rim. The Cavaliers need their bench more than the Warriors do, and if they’re able to get great production out of Frye and Shumpert, that could be a big difference in the series. But if the Warriors are able to counter that bench play, it could be a much quicker NBA Finals.
The pace of play
As mentioned above, the dynamic for the two teams — particularly the Cleveland Cavaliers — is much different coming into this series. Last season and during the regular season this year, the Cavaliers were still playing Timofey Mozgov in their rotation, but he is now nonexistent. The Cavaliers have gone smaller and are now playing with a much greater pace, similar to the Warriors. It was one of the first things Tyronn Lue mentioned that they need to do when he took the reigns as head coach in the middle of the season. They like to shoot the 3-ball and space the floor. Steve Kerr acknowledged as much after Warriors practice on Wednesday.
“Just like teams that play us with our shooting and spacing, it’s hard to cover all that court,” Kerr said. “But that’s what this series seems to be about. Both teams are shooting a lot of threes and trying to run.”
While the Cavaliers have found that to be their style of play, it’s tough to mirror what the Warriors do against the Warriors themselves, who do it leaps and bounds better than anybody. Mozgov played an important role in last season’s Finals, and if Tristan Thompson isn’t able to provide offensive rebounds and becomes ineffective due to the Warriors offense, don’t be surprised to see Mozgov placed in a similar role for rim protection like we saw the Thunder do in the Western Conference Finals.
The Cavaliers don’t have the collective athleticism or length that the Thunder do, but unleashing Mozgov wouldn’t be such a farfetched idea if Tyronn Lue feels that change is necessary at some point. We saw Steve Kerr make unexpected changes in the Finals last year, so don’t rule the possibility out for Lue.
Harrison Barnes and the Death Lineup
You’ve heard about it all season: the famed Death Lineup. For those that might not be familiar, it consists of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green. This is when the Warriors go small and have ended games in a matter of minutes when using it. They push the pace, are able to defend any lineup, and are absolutely demoralizing. In the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder made the Death Lineup look silly at times. Part of this had to do with Barnes not playing well. His struggle has not been limited to the conference finals either. He’s struggled for most of the postseason.
If Barnes can find his game for the NBA Finals, the Warriors are in great shape. The Death Lineup gave the Cavaliers fits in their two regular season matchups, and could be deadly against any lineup that Cleveland decides to put on the floor. But Barnes has to be better, and it would be fair to say that the entire team needs to be sharper. Against the Thunder, the Warriors committed too many turnovers, making one too many extra passes at times, and just downright played sloppy. Along with Curry being off of his game, the Thunder series was a tough one for Green, who is a huge component of the Death Lineup.
When they’re working, we often see things like this:
If the Death Lineup has solved its woes, which appeared to be the case as the Western Conference Finals progressed, we might see some of the blowouts we were accustomed to watching during the regular season.
— GoldenStateWarriors (@warriors) May 29, 2016
** I would not expect to see the same LeBron James that was a beast in the last NBA Finals, and that’s not a knock on the four-time MVP at all. LeBron and the Cavaliers are fully staffed this time around, and he won’t have to play the roles of multiple players and carry the team on his back.
With the smaller lineup, James has more room to operate and pick his spots. That will help keep him fresh, unlike last year, when he appeared to wear down towards the end of the series trying to do everything himself. He’s going to love having Kyrie Irving around this series, and will surely try to get the most he can out of him trying to wear down Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Offensive help from Kevin Love and J.R. Smith will also go a long way, if they’re able to provide it.
** As far as Steph Curry goes, whether you want to believe he is hurt or not is up to you. At the minimum, Curry missed six out of seven games during the first half of the Warriors playoff stretch. Healthy or not, Curry’s timing was going to be off because of his extended absence, and you could tell it was. He looked better as the Western Conference Finals progressed, and the NBA Finals could be a better measure of what is really up (if anything) with the unanimous MVP. If his last three games are any indication, during which he averaged 32.7 points, 7.7 assists, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.3 steals, he should be just fine.
** Enjoy watching Klay Thompson. For the casual NBA fan, these playoffs have been somewhat of an introduction to how good he really is. A lazy assumption is that he isn’t great defensively because of how deadly he is as a shooter, but he’s one of the better defensive players in the league.
** Above all else, enjoy what you’re watching in this series. Whether you feel the Cavaliers or the Warriors are the better team, both sides have special basketball to offer, basketball that will be talked about for decades to come. This should be a fun and entertaining series that will leave you anxiously waiting for the next game.
With that said, I’m taking the Warriors in 6.