NBA Finals: Preview and Predictions

20160531_finalspreview_760We’re finally here. The NBA Finals. Two number one seeds. The NBA got its wish – a rematch of the 2015 Finals. LeBron and his fully healthy Cavs against the 73-9 juggernaut, the Warriors. If the Cavs win, they ruin the Warriors bid for the greatest team of all time while also making the argument that, if healthy, they would have won last year. If the Warriors win, they can quiet all the naysayers who doubted their 2015 run as a product of fortunate health circumstances, not their play. Let’s jump in and see how both teams made it this far.

How the Cavs got here

For all the talk about the “Leastern” conference, the cumulative record of the Cavs opponents was better than that of the Warriors. With an offense reaching levels of efficiency even higher than the Warriors outstanding regular season, they started the playoffs with a blistering 10-0 run. Built upon backbreaking 3-point shooting (they shot over 60% from behind the arc against the Hawks), the Cavs are playing a beautiful game of inside-out with the ball pinging across court and around the perimeter to find open shooters. Toronto punished them on the glass with Biyambo and the iso-ball of the Lowry/DeRozan duo and gutted out two victories in Toronto but there was a feeling of inevitability throughout the playoffs – the Cavs are just better than everyone in the East, and it’s not close.

It all started with LeBron. Despite playing the fewest playoff minutes of his career, he is putting up outrageous numbers. He’s scoring, distributing, grabbing key rebounds, and basically reminding the world that until he says otherwise, he’s the best player in the world. One thing that can’t be overlooked is how much his athleticism is looking much more peak LeBron than during last year’s finals. When he’s out in transition and making backdoor cuts, he’s been unstoppable.

The reasons LeBron has been able to play so dominant while not overworking are Kyrie and Love have finally hit their stride with this team. Kyrie is picking the right moments to call his number and Love is finally figuring out how to be aggressive without needing to see the ball every possession. Additionally, they’ve committed to providing 100% effort on defense. And while the two of them will never be lockdown defenders, the majority of playing good defense comes from effort and decision making. So far, they’ve committed to Lue’s defensive schemes and have done a good job of staying disciplined. When they’re not getting shamed on defense, their offensive capabilities mean so much more to this Cavs team and it’s important they sustain this energy heading into the Finals.

Finally, the supporting cast. JR Smith is playing smart and shooting lights-out. Let’s call him Klay Thompson, East. Midseason acquisition Channing Frye has been Steph Curry accurate from the arc. Tristan Thompson hits the boards, Delly plays annoying… they’ve all slid into their roles and stuck to the script. Lue has done a great job getting buy-in from this team and with the type of talent they have in their big three, that’s really all they needed to improve from last year. They’re hitting their stride at the right time and are heading into the Finals with complete confidence.

How the Warriors got here

While the Cavs have built their confidence through the domination of their Eastern Conference foes, the Warriors enter the Finals feeling strong due to their resiliency through a remarkably painful slog through the West. After losing Curry in Game 1 of the playoffs, the Warriors showed their grit by closing out Houston in 5, and then holding home court through the first two games against Portland without their MVP. Although they closed out Portland in 5, it took a remarkable comeback performance from an out-of-rhythm Curry to seal the deal and they’re lucky the series did not go longer. They immediately lost Game 1 of the WCF to OKC despite holding a 13-point lead in the second half. That game looked to be one that would haunt their dreams as the Thunder took a commanding 3-1 lead after two discouraging blowouts in OKC. However, they gutted out a Game 5 win and had two all-time performances from Klay and Steph respectively to win Games 6 and 7.

During these playoffs, with Steph out, Klay has finally stepped up and taken his play to another level. In a complete reversal from last year, the Warriors have faced a who’s-who of dominant lead guards through these playoffs. Defensively, it’s been on Klay’s shoulders to make life difficult for these players and he’s done an outstanding job surviving the gauntlet. Whether it was Harden, Lillard, or Westbrook, Klay provided consistent defense with tough contests on shots, staying on scorers’ hips over screens, and physicality off the ball. It might not have reflected in the box score, but it allowed the rest of the defense to stay committed to their assignments and outside of the two blowouts in OKC, the Warriors have shown that last year’s #1 defense in the league was no fluke. And while most players would be happy with guarding the other teams lead guard effectively, Klay took it a step further and has risen to a new level with his offensive game while Steph has been out. This all culminated in a 41-point, 11 three monster performance in Game 6 of the WCF. Klay has been money.

Beyond Klay, the Warriors continue to get outstanding play from their sixth man, Andre Iguodola. In addition to his defense on Kevin Durant, his playmaking skills with the starters opens up the game for the Warriors that you don’t have when Harrison Barnes is in the starting lineup. And while Draymond looked like the shell of an all-star against OKC, he was absolutely critical with his tough D and playmaking in the first two rounds. KD and Serge Ibaka aside, most teams do not have an answer for his combination of size, strength, and playmaking and he’s a big reason why the Warriors are in the Finals.

Finally, Kerr has done a great job instilling confidence in all his role players. Despite the often hair-pulling moments some of his line-up decisions provide Dubs fans, his trust in bench players allows Livingston, Speights, Barbosa, Ezeli; and for the love of God; even Andy Varejao moments to swing games. When the bench comes in and goes on a 7-2 run, or a 5-0 run, or even holds court, it takes pressure of the starters and this doesn’t happen without Kerr’s steady influence. With Steph finally finding his rhythm, this team’s confidence is at an all-time high because they’ve faced such tremendous adversity and still came out on top.

How the Cavs win

Throw out what you think you know about this match up. Although the Warriors dominated during the regular season, the Cavs had a different coach and were playing an ugly brand of iso-heavy ball that played right into the hands of the Warriors defense. The Warriors just came off of a series where the Thunder focused on brutal defense to slow the Warriors down. Now, as crazy as it sounds, they’re going to face a team that’s going to challenge them with offensive firepower. Trying to gut out a defensive victory against the Warriors won’t work for this team – the personnel is not built for that. It would be a repeat of last year. So how do they outscore the best offense in the regular season?

  • Put LeBron on Draymond Green. The Cavs cannot survive the Warriors attack playing 4-3 downhill against their defense. The Curry-Green pick and roll is Warriors’ bread and butter and the one thing the Cavs can learn from the Thunder is that length and athleticism kill Draymond on offense. If KD could do it for seven games, it’s time for LeBron to do the same. In fact, LeBron needs to complete his evolution and fully embrace “LeBron the Big” because LeBron in the post is also the toughest match-up for the Dubs on defense.
  • The Cavs need to punish the Warriors switching defense. If the Warriors continue to use Iggy on LeBron and Klay on Kyrie, Kyrie and LeBron need to be running a pick-and-roll to get that switch every time. Klay is a great defender on point guards but when he gives up size, he has always struggled. This gives LeBron clear looks at the basket in the post and forces the Warriors to send doubles leaving them vulnerable to the Cavs lights-out 3-point attack. If the Warriors try Draymond on LeBron, then Kyrie has to attack Draymond off the bounce when the switch happens. If Kyrie steps up his game to equal LeBron’s on offense, the Warriors may be SOL. Also, putting Love in pick and rolls will allow him to post up smaller players. His underrated inside game could open that lovely perimeter passing that has made the Cavs look so unbeatable.
  • Create live-ball turnovers and get out in transition. If the Warriors have a significant weakness, it’s their propensity to try and make the highlight play. This leads to turnovers and although the Cavs are generally a slow-paced team, their efficiency in transition is excellent. With LeBron and Kyrie pushing the break and Frye and Love as trailers – it’s a recipe for disaster for the Warriors if they get sloppy. LeBron might be the best help defender in the league and if he can create open court offense for the team, it will go a long way to neutering both the Warriors offensive and defensive attacks.
  • Outrebound the Warriors. This seems like a given but with the Cavs playing smaller lineups and having Love/Frye on the perimeter, they are taking away part of what made them so tough to play in the Finals last year – offensive rebounding. Additionally, the Cavs have shown that their small lineups are susceptible to giving up offensive boards and despite not grabbing a lot of them, the Warriors are best in the league at turning second chances into backbreaking 3s. The Cavs have to stay disciplined and hit the glass if they’re not going to play their bigger lineups.
  • Take advantage of Kerr’s tendency to trust his bench. Because of how well Kyrie and Love have been playing, Lue has been able to bring out a “second unit” lineup that features LeBron as lead ballhandler. This group has absolutely KILLED the competition in the playoffs and if Kerr starts getting cute with his rotations, it can spell disaster for the Warriors. The times when the Cavs have shown legitimate struggles is when Lue overplays LeBron early and gives up that time in the 2nd and 4th quarters where LeBron is picking apart back-up defenses with the Cavs bench.
  • Take advantage of the rest. Yes, when Iguodola switched over to LeBron in Game 4 of the Finals last year that was a game changer. LeBron continued to score but his efficiency plummeted. But that was three games of 35+ minutes after spending most of the playoffs playing his standard 30 or less. He’s coming off of a series guarding arguably the best scorer in the league for 35+ minutes a game. Now he has to play the league’s best playmaker who also happens to have at least 25 lbs on him. And we already talked about Klay’s defensive assignments. Now he has to guard Kyrie Irving who may be the best contested shotmaker after Steph Curry? Combine that with how gassed Draymond Green has looked and the Cavs NEED to come out in games one and two looking to attack before the schedule gives the Warriors a two-day rest.

How the Warriors win

  • Stick to the formula. Kerr and the coaching staff are creative geniuses. But somewhere in the WCF, the Dubs got too cute with their defensive rotations and forgot what made them the best defensive team in the league in 2014-2015. Switch as much as possible, particularly off the ball. The Cavs are the best offense the Warriors have had to face and much of this is due to the space created by LeBron and Kyrie attacks. If the Warriors can stay at home away from the action, it will force Cleveland’s best two playmakers to shoot over the length of Bogut, Ezeli, and Draymond. And that’s okay.
  • Don’t wait to play advantages – start Iggy over Bogut/Barnes. Kerr likes to keep to his rotations and I get it. But this is the Finals. He knows the Cavs have had trouble defending and scoring against lineups with Iguodola and if there was a time to play that card out the gate, it’s now. The Warriors margin for error continues to shrink and they can’t let the Cavs find a rhythm because they’re committing to regular season tactics.
  • Shorten the leash on Bogut, extend the leash for Ezeli. Bogut was huge in the OKC series. But against the Cavs, a team that attacks very differently from the Thunder, Bogut may be played off the floor. Westbrook killed Bogut every time there was a switch with easy 15-foot looks. And if he missed, Bogut was too slow to box out the roll man. Now imagine if that happens with Irving? Ezeli is a better rebounder and finisher right now and can punish the Cavs if they don’t hit the glass on defense. It’s time to trust him a little more.
  • Take advantage of the extra space. The Thunder cannot get enough credit for the D they played against the Warriors. The Warriors have to be breathing a sigh of relief knowing that what the Thunder did was not easily replicable. You have to have freak athletes with outrageous wingspans who can play for over forty minutes a game. Those extra inches the Warriors are going to find in the Cavs defense are going to make them feel like Kurt Warner playing in the NFL – there’s just so much more space. It’s time for them to remove that 25-pound weight vest that was the OKC defense.
  • Let Steph be Steph. Whether it was due to coming back from injury or a legitimate tactical change, Steph spent a lot of time off the ball against the Thunder. When they put the ball back in his hands at the end of the series, he did Steph-like things. Kerr loves his ball movement but sometimes the Warriors need to trust Steph (and now Klay) to hit the backbreaking shots that kill a defense’s morale.
  • Be the Warriors. The Warriors have both a great defense and a great offense. They have lost 14 games all season if you include the playoffs. There’s a reason they are the favorites. If they play with poise and make the simple passes, they’ll win this series.
  • Bonus Note – Do NOT get that extra flagrant point Draymond. If he has to sit out a game due to suspension that will most likely cost the Warriors the series.

The Verdict

The Cavs have been dominant through these playoffs. But much of this is due to match-ups. In particular, the Hawks were a good defensive team but they also were worst in the league at stopping the three point shot. That was the perfect series for the Cavs’ newfound gunslinger offense. LeBron has shown that when he wants to, he can still be the best player in the world. And his supporting cast is better. Kevin Love is two-years removed from being a top five player and Kyrie Irving is one of the league’s most creative offensive players. With JR Smith and Channing Frye available to hit the threes, this is the strongest offensive machine LeBron has had the keys to in his career. The “but” here is this: they have not faced an offense or a defense as strong as the Warriors.

The Warriors have made a living of playing subpar defenders off the floor. Kanter, a vital part of OKC’s plan against the Spurs, could not get more than ten minutes against this team. Even Stephen Adams was played off the floor by the end of the series. Now they have Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to attack. It’s true that the Cavs may be able to score on the Warriors, I just don’t know that they’ll be able to stop them. The Cavs have lineups that can either play solid defense or amazing offense. But solid defense does not stop the Warriors – amazing defense does. If you look at the games the Warriors have lost this season, it’s generally been against teams with long, athletic perimeter defenders. I count two, LeBron and Shumpert, on the Cavs.

Many will point to how far the Cavs pushed the Warriors last year. I’ll make another argument – the Warriors looked scared of the moment for the first few games. Steph was missing his looks, Draymond looked hesitant, and Klay was nowhere to be found. LeBron had his team prepared for the moment, the Dubs were a deer in headlights. That’s not happening this year. Not after the Steph injury. Not after the 3-1 comeback. And not when their offense has taken a huge step forward in terms of efficiency. Combining last year’s defense with this year’s offense leaves such a slim margin for error when playing the Warriors. If they get one run per half, they can usually win the game. With history on the line, the Warriors have shown that they are not willing to lose their spot in the record books. LeBron may be just as hungry, but I don’t know that the rest of his team can match. And he may be the only player on his team with the prerequisite discipline to play an entire game against the Dubs without succumbing to mental fatigue.

Knowing that an NBA truth is that LeBron wins on the road regardless of the team around him and how tired the Warriors might be, my head says Warriors in 6. If the Dubs weren’t so tired, I’d say they might sweep but I think they’ll be gassed during the games that only have one day of rest between. Here’s how I expect the series to play out:

Game 1 – Riding the emotions of the comeback and an amped up crowd, the Warriors capitalize off of a slow start from Cleveland and take an early lead. Cleveland adjusts to the intensity of the Warriors and mount a comeback but are just too deep in the hole to win game 1.

Game 2 – The Warriors, having used mostly emotion and an off-guard Cleveland team to wing game 1, come out looking a step slow in game 2. Cleveland exacerbates the issue by having their Big 3 firing on all cylinders after the game 1 loss and the difference in energy shows. Cleveland quiets Oracle and ties the series.

Game 3 – The Warriors have had one losing streak all season. They’re not ready for a second. Death Lineup deployed and Steph gets hot and it busts open Cleveland’s defense. In typical Warriors fashion, they build a lead but allow Cleveland to make it a game towards the end. Warriors win by around 8 but it’s not as close as it seemed.

Game 4 – The first legitimate shootout of the series. However, fueled by the Q, the Cavs outshoot the Warriors from beyond the arc. We get a couple back-and-forth Steph v Kyrie moments and its the Cavs’ role players that overwhelm the Dubs. Channing Frye and JR Smith hit a combined 10+ 3s.

Game 5 – Warriors run Cleveland off the floor and the return to Oracle ignites Klay Thompson.

Game 6 – After five games, the Warriors have finally figured out how to maximize Kyrie and Love’s defensive deficiencies. To shake it up, Lue employs more defense-minded lineups to save the series. The Warriors use the Death Line-up to put the Dubs up big but LeBron takes over by posting up Iggy over and over. Unfortunately for the King, this Warriors team is more prepared for this grind-it-out game after last year’s Finals and the offensive of the Thunder and the Warriors gut out a valiant effort from LeBron and repeat to make history.

Warriors in 6. Klay Thompson is your Finals MVP with excellent defense on Kyrie and consistent scoring.