Why LeBron James' NBA Finals experience will matter in Game 1
1:32 | NBA
Why LeBron James' NBA Finals experience will matter in Game 1
Monday June 1st, 2015

The 2014-15 season will end with either the Cavaliers or Warriors taking home the Larry O’Brien trophy. It’s been 40 years since Golden State won it all, while Cleveland has never won a title in its 45-year history.

These teams didn’t need extra motivation, but each fan base will no doubt provide that added push with the historical significance acting as an undertone for the entire series. Either MVP Stephen Curry or two-time champion LeBron James will guide his team to the mountaintop, so which squad has the edge?

Cleveland Cavaliers

For the Cavs, everything starts with King James.

Kevin Love suffers a season-ending shoulder injury via a Kelly Olynyk armbar? They survive. Kyrie Irving builds on his reputation as an injury-prone youngster and even misses two games? No problem.

James has carried the load and then some during the 2015 postseason. And while Cleveland has had little difficulty winning in the playoffs—they’re 12-2 with two series sweeps thus far—LeBron hasn’t even been the efficient scoring force we’ve come to expect of him throughout a Hall of Fame career.

James has converted just 32.9% of his mid-range jumpers at the elbows (well below the league average of 38.2%). He’s also been downright ghastly from beyond the arc, making 15% of his triples above the break and 16.7% of his tries from the left corner. All told, James is shooting 17.6% from downtown (12-of-68). Despite his struggles from distance, James has been firing away 4.9 three-pointers per contest, the most since his 2009 playoff run with the Cavaliers.

Granted, it’s rather silly and short-sighted to call out James for lackluster shooting marks, because he’s been absolutely incredible. He averaged 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game in the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta. For the playoffs overall, he’s posted 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists. The only other player in league history to notch at least a 27-10-8 in a postseason was “The Big O,” Oscar Robertson.

So that begs the question: What if James reverts back to shooting near 50% from the floor and starts making his threes at a respectable clip? That’s a scary outlook even for the most confident of Warriors fans, but the Cavs supporting cast is even more important than LeBron’s efficiency.

Key Additions Fueling Cleveland | PointAfter

Both New York sendoffs, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, have provided a huge spark for Cleveland’s offense (particularly from beyond the arc). Shumpert (36.8%) and Smith (39.6%) have each drained four or more three-pointers in a combined seven playoff games so far. Each guy has also picked up the slack on the glass while playing solid defense.

Add in the offensive rebounding prowess of Tristan Thompson (illustrated below), grit of Matthew Dellavedova and a (presumably) healthy Kyrie Irving following a handful of days off and Cleveland’s supporting cast undoubtedly has enough firepower to compete with Golden State.

Golden State Warriors

Throughout the regular season, the Dubs were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in defensive and offensive rating.

That outstanding two-way play truly separated Golden State from the pack. Teams that had comparable scoring outputs (Clippers, Cavs and Raptors) didn’t have nearly the same defensive chops, while squads in the ballpark for defense (Spurs, Grizzlies and Bucks) didn’t score with the same gusto—though San Antonio is the closest comparison.

Dating back to 1990, only seven of the 25 teams that went on to win the championship did so without ranking top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating throughout the regular campaign. The Warriors were at or very near the top in those categories, while the Cavaliers finished No. 3 in offensive rating and No. 18 in defensive rating.

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Of course, the Cavs and Warriors have essentially been virtually even in offensive and defensive rating throughout the postseason, so looking back at regular season numbers may not give Cleveland a fair outlook. Still, if Golden State’s Splash Bros. keep raining down shots from all over the court, the Cavs likely won’t have an answer for their offense.

Both Curry and Klay Thompson have been stellar this postseason. Although each guy suffered scary injuries in the Western Conference Finals (head contusion for Curry, concussion for Thompson), they’ll both benefit from the added time off as well.

Head-to-Head Matchup

In two meetings between these two juggernauts during the regular season, the Warriors and Cavs split the series one game apiece. By Curry’s lofty standards, he was actually rather pedestrian in those two meetings.

In the first meeting, a 112–94 Warriors win, Curry scored 23 points and dished out 10 assists (a solid outing, to be sure). But in the second head-to-head, a 110–99 Cavs win, Curry shot just 5-of-17 from the floor.

It’s a small sample size, but Curry shot 40.6% from the floor and 35.3% from downtown against Cleveland this season.

On the other end of the spectrum, James only suited up for one of the two meetings against Golden State. He was tremendous when he did.

In Cleveland’s Feb. 26 win over the Warriors, LeBron torched the Western Conference foe for 42 points, 11 rebounds and five assists while converted 60% of his field goals. Again, we’re working with a miniscule sample size, but that’s still a heck of an outing.

The bottom line here is that fans should be gearing up for clash of titans in the 2015 NBA Finals. Both teams have been dominating on both sides of the court, have star power to carry load and a rock-solid supporting cast to help the cause.

Even without Love suiting up, Cleveland could prove to be Golden State’s toughest test yet in their quest for the title.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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