After what seemed like a formality of a NBA season and postseason, the series NBA fans have been expecting for what seems like forever is finally about to begin this Thursday. It is the much-awaited third part of the Cavaliers and Warriors Finals.
Despite three straight years of the same two teams, there has been a very different vibe to each of them. The first one, despite Love being out, never felt like any one team is favored over the other. Of course, things quickly changed when Kyrie got hurt in Game 1. In the second series, despite the Cavs being healthy, I felt the Warriors were quite heavily favored. However, there were probably good amount of people out there who thought otherwise and the result of the series justified their view. In the latest installment of this series, Warriors again seem heavily favored (more so than before) with the addition of Kevin Durant. However, like last year’s finals indicated, it is always closer than you think because of that one guy on the Cavs’ side, LeBron James.
A significant part of the Cavaliers putting together a historic comeback from 3-1 down to win the finals last year is because of Harrison Barnes who went a shocking 9 for 29 from behind the arc. Essentially, the Warriors have returned this year by upgrading from Barnes to Durant, who probably won’t go 9 for 29 from 3. If Barnes hits 2 more threes, the Warriors probably take that series. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect Durant to hit those. Of course, it would be oversimplifying to say that all the Warriors did was upgrade from Barnes to Durant. They also lost Bogut whose injury during last year’s finals is also brought up as a turning point of the series. Bogut was vastly better than any big man that the Warriors currently have as a rim protector. However, it is needless to say that the loss of Bogut and few of their other bench guys is more than overcome by signing Durant. Therefore, is it unreasonable to suggest that the Cavs have the smallest of chances a Lebron team can have as they are facing a team (which took them until the last minute to beat) that just added another top 5 player?
Well, here are some things that are working in the Cavs favor. LeBron James is playing arguably his best basketball this postseason. Kevin Love is playing better than he ever has on the Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving struggled earlier in the postseason, but he arrived when it mattered most in game 5 of the ECF and has proven time and again that he does arrive when the pressure is on. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has spent the entire season playing around with his lineups and now he needs to put that creativity to good use. Lue is going to have to think especially out of the box this series to cover up some of the Cavs’ weaknesses and attack some of the few weaknesses Warriors have as well.
The biggest question that first arises is who is going to guard Durant. The first answer that comes to mind is LeBron James. The problem with that is that LeBron would now have to exert almost as much energy on the defensive side as he does on the offensive side. As difficult as the last two finals have been for LeBron, he has had the luxury of sort of playing free safety on the defensive side and not exert himself too much. I think the Cavs don’t have a choice other than to have LeBron on Durant at least while the starting lineup is out there. However, when the Cavaliers go to their bench + LeBron lineup, Lue might try his hand at putting Shumpert or more preferably, Richard Jefferson on Durant. I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see one minute stretches at the end of quarters where we see a Derrick Williams sighting, but that probably means the Cavs are just getting really desperate.
During both regular season games, we saw lineups where Richard Jefferson was on Durant while LeBron took on Klay. That sounds worse for the Cavs as the Warriors have Klay moving off the ball a lot more than they do Durant. However, it is the only way the Cavs can hide Kyrie on someone like Iguodala, so we may see it in spurts or final 2-minute situations. In the first regular season matchup this season, Lue answered the Warriors lineup of Steph-Klay-Iggy-Durant-Dray with Kyrie-Shumpert-Jefferson-LeBron-Love. Shumpert took on Curry and Kyrie was on Iguodala while RJ was on Durant and Love on Green. It worked quite well during that Christmas game and we already know the Kyrie part of the reason, but the other reason is because it allows lot more seamless switching between LeBron-RJ-Shump.
Part of me wants to see (for the fun of it) if Lue goes even more out of the box and plays a big like Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love on Durant. The idea would be to bait the Warriors into having Durant play more isolation ball, but it isn’t really a bait if Durant is scoring at will against someone like Love.
Speaking of Love, he has been playing fantastic basketball this postseason. He has vastly improved on defense and showed very active hands in that Boston series. However, contrary to what Lue likes to think, Warriors are a very different animal than the Celtics. I expect Lue is going to go with Love on Pachulia to open the game like they have done in their previous meetings this season. However, Pachulia is quite stronger than Love and has shown he can somewhat easily establish position down low against Love.
That might not be too bad because I am sure the Cavs would rather the ball be in Zaza’s hands than anyone else’s. Another option would be to have Love on Draymond to start. Draymond has strayed away from the post up game and even if he were to go to that, Love is more of an equal there. Of course, there is the fear of Love being put in the pick and roll. This is a fear regardless of whether he is guarding Green or Pachulia. The pick and roll with Green initially may seem by far the deadlier choice because of his 3 point shooting and his incredible passing. However, a pick and roll with Zaza may be not far behind because of how open the paint is with Zaza rolling inside.
If the help man does get to Zaza in time, then you are forcing Zaza to make a play which is the best option available, but with how many threats the Warriors have behind the arc, help may be tough to give.
The positive is that it allows Tristan to be closer to the rim and provide better help, which he is certainly superior at than Love. Both options have their positives and negatives, but it depends on Love to see whether he can increase the positives and decrease the negatives of either possibility. When the Warriors go to their small ball lineup, Love will most likely be on Iguodala. With how Iguodala has been shooting, Love should be able to do just fine with that matchup. The main problem is when the Warriors will get Love switched onto Steph, Klay, or Durant.
It is hard to say that the Warriors have been playing with any flaws as they have gone 12-0 so far in the postseason, but the play of Klay Thompson has certainly been off. Klay has been averaging 14.4 ppg on an abysmal 38% shooting. Thankfully for him, JR Smith hasn’t been the same player on defense as he was last season. He still puts a lot of effort, but he has found himself shaken by cuts and fakes a lot in the Boston series.
That is a significant problem when guarding someone like Klay. As bad as Klay has been, he can go off any time and his new teammate Durant knows all about that. Cavs still have to feel some relief because Klay’s slump has made him more hesitant in attacking defenders off the dribble. This suddenly gives the Cavaliers latest weapon, Korver, some great leeway. Korver is a hardworking defender, but he simply doesn’t have the athleticism or youth to keep up with players driving on him. Lue might decide to go with Korver on Klay and Korver will run around endlessly following Klay through screens. If Klay realizes that it is Korver on him and decides to attack him off the dribble, then there might be a problem. Until then, it opens up one more possibility for the Cavs.
Another very unique aspect of this matchup this time around is the two backup bigs that the Warriors now have, David West and Javale McGee. McGee has been great off the bench for the Warriors with his incredible athleticism leading to easy lobs. Putting McGee in will likely make it easier for the Warriors to attack the paint as McGee’s man will be hesitant to completely leave him. However, McGee has his limitations and many times can be one-dimensional. This could open up a chance for Channing Frye to get some minutes who saw very little action in the last finals. Lue did just that in the last time these teams faced in the regular season and Frye held his own. Both Frye and McGee are not the best rebounders with Frye being worse, so Cavaliers need to make sure that Love or Thompson is out there as well. Offensively, Frye opens up the floor for Lebron so much more. Therefore, even if it is few minutes he gets out there, it can be crucial. Frye will probably give up some easy lobs, but the 3 point threat that he is will probably bring a net positive overall. The other Warriors big off the bench is David West who provides solid veteran presence and great passing. However, he is nowhere near the player he once was and he is a step slow. Lue will probably put in Tristan Thompson as soon as he sees West check in and that is a nightmare for the Warriors. Thompson will most likely destroy West on the boards and I don’t really see much playing time for him as the series goes on.
As talent loaded as this series is, a lot of this series will depend on coaching. Tyronn Lue, despite his flaws, has shown he can be smart with adjustments and rotations. Mike Brown, on the other hand, hasn’t been the head coach for long with this team and we don’t really know if he will see and react in time to something that isn’t working. It is really easy to look good with a team like the Warriors, but they really haven’t faced much adversity yet in his short stint so far as head coach. Now, in the finals, talent alone won’t be enough to walk through. Mike Brown has been kind of weird with his rotations this postseason. For example, in the Spurs series, he put out a lineup with Klay-Barnes-Iguodala-Green-West. Maybe Brown is just trying to play around and see what he has. However, if he is not playing around and he puts out a lineup like that during these finals, the Cavaliers will be ecstatic to face something like that.
LeBron and Kyrie will probably keep doing what they do, but we have to see what Love does to adjust himself to a matchup that is not at all friendly to him. On the other side, it will be interesting to see if Curry plays more like himself after being subpar in the last two finals. Having another MVP drawing attention away from him should make it easier. The Cavaliers are the most equipped to beat this Warriors team out of anyone, but they will need to show incredible discipline to do it. They won’t have the leeway they got last year and having that discipline is easier said than done. That is why I am going to have to go with Warriors in 6.