The NBA is funny. The Finals matchup that most fans and columnists predicted ended up coming true: a rematch. With that being said, both teams made it to the finals in very unpredictable ways. Cleveland was supposed to manhandle the eastern conference, going 10-0, only to lose two straight games to Toronto, cutting it closer than they would have liked.
On the western side of basketball, the defending champs, who have the greatest record in NBA history (73-9), were down 3-1 against a hungry Oklahoma City Thunder team that was peaking at the perfect time with their size and athleticism. The Warriors still ended up winning a very entertaining series. Will Cleveland vs. Golden State prove to be as competitive as the conference finals?
Let’s go over a few narratives that might favor Cleveland or Golden State.
As we learned in the OKC vs. Golden State series, when you have a dominant big man who can control the glass, you can hurt Golden State’s defense tremendously. Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter consistently abused Golden State on the boards. Golden State out-rebounded OKC one out of seven games.
We already saw this last finals, when Cleveland was up 2-1, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov were giving Golden State all they could handle on the boards last finals, should we expect more of the same?
Golden State’s small-ball death lineup.
The obvious counter to Cleveland's size, which ended up helping the Warriors to win the title last year was their death lineup, consisting of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green. This lineup forced David Blatt to take Timofey Mozgov out of the game due to his inability to handle a Curry-Draymond pick and roll.
Although Mozgov’s ability to protect the rim was considered a luxury, his lack of speed made him a huge liability defensively. The Warriors death lineup’s point differential for the season was +.43, which was the best ranking this season for lineups playing over 200 possessions. Although the death lineup puts Golden State’s rebounding battle in jeopardy, Steve Kerr might decide that the ends will justify the means.
Klay Thompson’s (real) coming out party.
Many fans decided that Klay Thompson was a top player in this league last season when he scored 37 points in a quarter, shattering George Gervin and Carmelo Anthony’s record at 33. That game went down as Thompson’s greatest game in his short career. That is, until he hit 11 threes in an OKC closeout game in the Western Conference Finals, breaking Ray Allen, Jason Terry, Vince Carter and Rex Chapman’s record for most threes in a playoff game.
Analytically, his 37 points in a quarter game was better. Klay scored more points in total at a more efficient rate. However, there are two reasons why his 11 three pointers were more impressive.
- He had to guard Russell freaking Westbrook. There is literally no explanation how a human being can both guard Westbrook, the most physical guard in the NBA, and still have the energy and focus to shoot with any amount of accuracy, let alone the best three point game in playoffs history.
- He had literally no room to get most of his shots off. OKC has a great defensive starting lineup as far as on-ball defense is concerned. Durant and Roberson both have similar wingspans to an octopus, and Westbrook is so relentless on defense, there’s no way he would let up anything easy. Watch both games and decide which shots were more open, and also remember who Klay had to pick up at the other end.
Cleveland has a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love this time around.
As we already know, Lebron James saves himself for the playoffs. He coasts throughout the regular season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs every year because he knows there’s a zero percent chance that any team can beat him in one game let alone four out of seven.
The Cavs took the Warriors to 6 games without Irving and Love, simply because Lebron is that good. With Lebron’s trusty shooters and playmakers by his side, they have a much better chance at winning, right?
How much better are the Cavs with Irving and Love?
I’m not trying to make a Bill Simmons “Ewing theory” right now, because obviously when you pair Lebron with two all-stars and 3-point champions, the Cavs are a better team. But it is important to note that when Love and Irving were out, better defenders like Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson played a lot more minutes, and bothered guys like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green a lot more than Irving and Love will.
Who is going to win the NBA Championship?
You’re entitled to debate that Cleveland can win due to the fact that Lebron almost pulled it off by himself last year. You cannot debate, however, that Golden State is not the favorite to win. Beyond the fact that they won last year, they won the season series this year (2-0) and they went 73-9.
Golden State also has a better defense and bench that will force Tyronn Lue to play Lebron an insane amount. I would not be surprised if we see a 48-minute game for Lebron in the box score, he is that important. The bad news for Lebron is that he is going to face Andre Iguodala, one of the best perimeter defenders and Lebron-stoppers in this league.
Curry and Thompson are arguably the greatest backcourt of all-time, and J.R. Smith might have to guard Thompson. I love Kyrie Irving, but the idea of him guarding Curry for a seven game series does not look great. God bless the idea of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love guarding a Curry-Draymond pick and roll. Tyronn Lue has a lot of matchups to assess.
Warriors in 5.