With days still remaining until the opening tip of the NBA Finals, we have the precious opportunity to comb the elements—some broad, some fine—that could decide this season's champion. Here's a breakdown of the most critical matchups in the much-anticipated clash between the Warriors and Cavaliers.
Every series involving the Cavaliers begins with the same basic question: Which opponent will check the progress of LeBron James? That framing may as well be hypothetical. A defender needs incredible strength, quickness, reach, and basketball intelligence to take away what James does best. That intersection of frame and ability is sparsely populated, to say the least, and LeBron wastes no time in exercising whatever advantage separates him from his opponent.
LeBron cannot be stopped. He can, however, be stalled; poke and prod at his handle to bait him to isolate, try to take away the drives to his left, apply pressure at the rim, encourage the step-back jumper, and hope for the best. The Warriors have three qualified candidates to challenge James along those lines. All will surely see time on him in this series in varying capacities as lineups allow.
Harrison Barnes will likely draw the assignment to start games. Long and sinewy, Barnes famously spent the better part of the second round battling Zach Randolph in the post. Reckoning with James on the block is a very different enterprise, though in a general sense it draws on the same kind of strength and footwork that Barnes has aptly demonstrated in series past. Balance that low-post experience with good, fundamental defense on the perimeter and Barnes has the basic tools necessary to at least get in LeBron's way.
Andre Iguodala will relieve him when needed. Iguodala drew much of the responsibility in guarding James during their lone regular season meeting. James scored 42 points on 25 shots, many of which came directly in spite of good defensive positioning and quality shot contests. Even a physical, athletic defender like Iguodala doing all the right things against James could only take him so far within this matchup. The idea, though, of either Iguodala or Barnes working James on the ball as Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut lurk in the background is about as good as it gets when it comes to compound defensive coverage.
That said, Green will undoubtedly get his turn against James—whether by Cleveland running smaller lineups or Golden State adjusting for LeBron's work in the post. Green works hard to combat any opponent attempting to power through him down low. He'll frustrate James at times if their matchup boils down to that, as it may during the final minutes of a close game or some pivotal mid-game stretch. James will get his against Green, Barnes, and Iguodala. Yet if they can operate as a collective to at least make James' work difficult without a committed double team, the rest of the Warriors should be able to take away the three-pointers and shots around the rim that balance Cleveland's offense.
Golden State’s backcourt
The Warriors give no quarter to questionable defenders. That looks to be a problem for a Cavaliers team set to give big minutes to J.R. Smith and a still limited Kyrie Irving (whose defense, while improved this season, is done no favors by a knee injury) as its starting backcourt—players who, in theory, will be forced to guard Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Neither is a good match. While Irving has done a much better job of defending through full possessions this season, guarding Curry requires maximum effort and full mobility over extended minutes. The slightest letdown translates to an open Curry three-pointer which translates, functionally, to a layup. Sticking with Curry asks a lot of Irving, yet he's ultimately better suited for the job than Smith and makes more sense—if only to protect against wearing down the Cavs' most important shot creator—than James.
Surely we'll see Iman Shumpert take on Curry at times. Where that leaves Irving remains to be seen; "hiding" him against Barnes might be the kind of matchup Cleveland can get away with in stretches, though the 6'8'' forward has been effective on spot post-ups and drives this postseason. The size Irving would surrender in that matchup may even draw the Cavs into help and rotation in a way the Warriors could attack with ball movement.
All of which glosses over the fact that Smith, whom Cleveland's staff didn't much trust to chase around Kyle Korver in the conference finals, will likely need to lock and trail Thompson. Smith isn't a consistently terrible defender. When engaged, he's shown he can play a part in a winning defense capably. If only it could last. Smith's level of defensive engagement tends to flicker, and in his spacier moments come breakdowns leading to open looks for his man or another opponent as a result of his teammates' attempts to compensate. This is not the kind of defender a contending team would prefer to stick with the active and accurate Thompson, but what other choice does Cleveland have?
Ultimately, Shumpert will only play so many minutes and can only guard one opponent at a time. Stationing him against Curry leaves Thompson to work over either Smith or Irving and still risks Curry exploding on contested jumpers. Pitting Shumpert against Thompson would force Irving to guard Curry and work through dozens of screening situations in every game alongside Cavaliers bigs who now must come up to defend the pick-and-roll much higher than they're comfortable. That alone could strip down Cleveland's help defense in a way that leaves the Cavs consistently vulnerable.
The LeBron alternative looms. Cleveland's best defensive player is also the chief source of its offense. To assign James significant minutes of defense on either Curry or Thompson is the kind of wild-card element that could alter either matchup. It might also push James that much closer to exhaustion, an outcome the Cavalier offense simply could not weather.
First-year NBA coaches
Steve Kerr and David Blatt have both made it to the final stage of the playoffs in their first NBA seasons. That in itself is historic; no pair of first-year coaches have met in the Finals since the NBA's inaugural season. Trivia aside, Kerr and Blatt have made it this far with an impressive run of micro decision-making over the course of their respective postseason runs.
Each had their missteps. Kerr acknowledged, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, that he didn't feel he had adequately prepared his team for the start of their second-round series against the Grizzlies. Blatt nearly stepped into NBA infamy with his attempt to call a timeout when his team had none remaining in the final moments of a crucial game against the Bulls. These blips are notable, though, in part because of how they were bookended by smart, productive adjustments.
Some of those have been obvious, as was the case with Golden State's defensive treatment (read: neglect) of Tony Allen. Other decisions have been subtler, like Cleveland's tempting of Atlanta's borderline three-point shooters and elective to go under ball screens for Jeff Teague. On balance they've been sharp and bold—the moves you'd expect of teams bound for the Finals and backed by clear belief. Only one of them will have the decisive answer in this championship series. Along the way, though, comes a give-and-take between coaching staffs who have been quick to recognize and respond as the moment demands.
Battle of the boards
Nowhere will the clash in styles between these teams be more evident than when a Cavaliers shot goes up in the air. Cleveland's bigs invest in the work of offensive rebounding. Tristan Thompson, who can be completely impossible to box out, has a nose for the ball and a love for scrapping his way to collect. Timofey Mozgov is a huge man with a great read on the rim. Behind their contributions, the Cavs have collected 28.5 % of their own misses in the playoffs, per NBA.com—the highest mark of any team.
Golden State, as their run-and-gun reputation suggests, would love nothing more than to snatch a rebound away from Mozgov or Thompson and transition immediately into their offense. The only member of the Warriors' playing rotation incapable of pushing the ball upcourt is Festus Ezeli. Otherwise, even Golden State's bigs can segue into offense as the situational allows. Green does this to particularly damaging effect. That a power forward can catch, handle under control, drive all the way to the rim, and pick out his teammates with well-timed passes gives the Warriors' transition game a terrifying seamlessness.
That Green happens to be the on-paper matchup for Thompson gives the strategic battle its focal point. If Thompson isn't careful, his well-intentioned hustle could be used against him. Fighting for a rebound deep toward the baseline would put Thompson behind any Warriors push in transition, a sequence that the slower Mozgov would already struggle to keep pace with. When Cleveland plays smaller lineups, that would leave the Cavaliers without any rim protection (beyond a surprise LeBron appearance) on the primary and secondary breaks.
Yet if Green gets ahead of himself, he could release into transition before a defensive rebound is secure and give Thompson a free put-back opportunity. Defensive rebounding against Cleveland requires a diligence that cannot be overlooked. The battle for positioning begins before a shot is even attempted, as Green and Andrew Bogut need be mindful of their marks relative to a likely rebounding angle. In those cases when Golden State plays Green at center, that responsibility might also fall to Barnes or Iguodala—athletes who would have a hell of a time trying to keep a body on Thompson. Enough second-chance scoring could give the Cavaliers a lifeline against the best defense in the league, just as enough fast-breaking could juice the Warriors into game-breaking runs.