We're just hours away from the 2015 NBA Finals, and within it the elaborate, multifaceted matchup of stars and strategies that will decide the NBA title. Here are 10 subplots to watch for in what's sure to be a fascinating series between the Warriors and Cavs:
1. The costs of doubling LeBron
LeBron James is such an effective scorer that he all but demands double teams and such an effective passer that he’s almost certain to exploit them. Somewhere within that dilemma, Golden State must establish its defensive game plan. Assigning pressure to throw at James is the chief concern in defending Cleveland. No one defender can guard him. The question, then, becomes how many should be strictly dedicated to the task of doing so and under what situational triggers.
If the Warriors decide to double LeBron in the post, should they do so on the catch? On his first dribble? Only as opportunity allows? Should Golden State pre-rotate as to set up an established line of defense against James’ drives? All of these are decisions worth kicking around, though in implementing them the Warriors would need to accept certain risks. Atlanta now knows all too well that bringing too many bodies to LeBron can doom a defense despite its best intentions. Having seen the tape, it should be fascinating to see how Golden State—a team with more options against James on the ball and better rim protection—tackles the same fundamental problem.
2. Timofey Mozgov, inching higher in pick-and-roll
By default, the Cavaliers prefer for Mozgov to guard the high pick-and-roll as Bogut does for the Warriors: By playing back to the free throw line in preventative position. That won’t do against Stephen Curry. Golden State is able to initiate its pick-and-rolls even higher on the floor than most teams because of the threat Curry poses immediately after clearing daylight. A pull-up three-pointer is a quality shot for him in that instance, as he made 42.3% of such attempts in the regular season.
Mozgov, then, could be tasked with stepping up higher than usual in his defense of the pick-and-roll. That could take away a certain set of Curry jumpers. Yet in doing so, it also pulls a 71 center into space against one of the toughest covers in the league. Curry has such variety in his scoring game that he could step-back into an efficient shot or drive to create one by getting Mozgov on his back and turning to his underhand scoop. There are no satisfying options for Cleveland in handling Curry. Some adjustment will have to be made and its ripple effects could determine Mozgov’s effectiveness and role in this series.
3. The transition cross-matching scramble
Both teams could wind up mixing and matching their defenders as necessary to address their opponents’ most imposing scorers. Such is standard-issue NBA strategy; part of the reason teams court positional flexibility in their player acquisitions is not only for a greater freedom in constructing lineups, but also in assigning responsibility within them. That Klay Thompson can slide over to blanket an opposing point guard is a luxury in defensive strategy.
As any coach will tell you, though, those decisions to cross positional lines in defensive assignment can create chaos in transition in ways both good and bad. Consider that Thompson may end up spending quality time in this series assigned to guard Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving. Whenever Golden State gets a stop, Irving is put in a weird spot. He could try to stay with Thompson, as the situation might demand, or he could attempt to sprint back to his preferred defensive assignment (Curry? Harrison Barnes? Andre Iguodala? Shaun Livingston?) against the whir of the Warriors’ fast break passing. The same might be true in those instances where James is called upon to guard Curry; doing so is tiring for James, but it also might force Curry into the path of LeBron’s steamrolling drives.
There are plenty of interesting decisions to be made in this series as far as who guards whom. Built into them is the tricky work of predicting what might happen when the game gets messy.
Golden State is impossible when running smaller lineups, in part because those groups are the most exaggerated representations of the spacing, ball movement, and defensive flexibility that make the Warriors great. Those configurations, though, are best employed in shorter bursts and offset by stretches of Bogut’s defensive protection. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has made clear that he feels most comfortable with Bogut on the floor. His presence alone eases the burden on Draymond Green to do it all defensively and puts a bigger body at the basket to contest layups and dunks in a way that Green sometimes can’t.
That said, Bogut’s playing time has been in a steady decline since the outset of the playoffs: He averaged 27.8 minutes per game against the Pelicans, 24.7 minutes against the Grizzlies, and just 21.4 minutes against the Rockets. Clearly the Warriors are prepared to go small against even bigger centers, as was the case against both Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol in their previous two rounds. To what extent they might do so against Cleveland (which doesn’t have any interior threat of that caliber at the position) in the final stage of the postseason is one of the series’ bigger stylistic questions.
5. Cleveland’s communication on defense
After ranking a concerning 20th in points allowed per possession in the regular season, Cleveland tightened its execution to out-defend every team in the playoffs by the numbers save Chicago and Washington. Thompson is coming into his own as a defender in real time, showcasing the kind of versatility in coverage that a modern championship contender needs. Mozgov has been even better in protecting the rim when backed by playoff preparation. James is back to full two-way dominance after taking a breather in the regular season. Iman Shumpert’s work both on and off the ball has been essential, and his counterparts on the perimeter have held up within their respective assignments.
Together they’ve been spectacular. But the Cavs haven’t faced any challenge even remotely on-par with what the Warriors will present on every possession of an extended series. This is an opponent that demands complete precision in defensive exchange. Every player involved in defending a screen or dribble hand-off needs not only a clear roadmap of what the coverage calls for, but an open line of communication with their teammates as to adjust on the fly. This series is where the connective tissue of Cleveland’s improved defense will be tested for its integrity. Whether it holds could decide the series.
6. Andre Iguodala's play off the ball
Wired into the quandary of defending LeBron is the particular case of Andre Iguodala. Age has sapped Iguodala of a bit of his defensive prowess. He’s still a better stopper than most teams have, though the fact that he’s running into more trouble in getting around screens and is slightly less explosive than he used to be makes him merely a very good on-ball defender rather than a transcendent one.
It’s for that reason, among others, that Iguodala is one of several options in defending top perimeter opponents rather than the conclusive choice. As such, it’s possible that he spends less time guarding James in this series than Barnes and Green. Instead he might be lined up against the likes of Shumpert or J.R. Smith, both of whom contribute to the Cavs’ offense in important ways but might seem below Iguodala’s qualifications. The tradeoff in taking on such an assignment is that Iguodala may be free to edge into more passing lanes than he would have been otherwise, and he will certainly be less encumbered when moving into rotation to help cover around the basket. He’ll have to walk a fine line to avoid getting burned by quick catch-and-shoot three-pointers. Yet Iguodala’s terrific instincts could make him a defensive weapon for the way he denies, shades, and pounces on every opportunity.
7. J.R. Smith does the Finals
After 11 years, J.R. Smith—he of historically checkered shot selection, mind-numbing decision making, and social media mastery—is an NBA Finalist. The world might not be ready for the thought. J.R., though, has generally been on his best behavior since joining the Cavs. He took a cheap swipe at Boston’s Jae Crowder in the opening round to meet his quota for dumb postseason suspension—two games served at the start of a dangerous second-round series against the Bulls.
Since, he’s done rather well to contribute without causing trouble and fill his role without overstretching. This version of J.R. Smith has come to be exactly what the Cavaliers needed. To see that validated on the NBA’s ultimate stage is the kind of quirk only a league this consistently surprising can provide.
8. Klay Thompson, post-concussion
Officially speaking, Thompson has been cleared to play in Game 1 of the Finals and thus stands as likely to play in every game that follows. This is, on the surface, good news; the matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers is much more interesting with Thompson a sizable part in it.
It’s still difficult to project with certainty just how Thompson might play. Head injuries are fickle in the way they disrupt the body’s natural balance. Thompson would not be cleared were he unable to meet the requirements of the league and the Warriors’ medical staff to do so. Still, to be medically able to participate in a game and to be completely, 100% able relative to Thompson’s usual standards are entirely different thresholds. We still need to see where Thompson is in his first game back from a serious, scary injury to understand what role it might play in his performance going forward.
9. Tristan Thompson’s introduction
The casual basketball fan may not have known much about Tristan Thompson at the start of this postseason. Perhaps his name rang a bell for his selection with the No. 4 overall pick in 2011 or his well-covered experimentation with changing his shooting hand mid-career. Now he stands as one of the most important players for the best team in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland would not have survived Kevin Love’s season-ending injury without him.
The cost of that revelation has been Thompson’s acclaim in the prelude to his restricted free agency. Win or lose, Cleveland will be forced to bid against Thompson’s burgeoning reputation when free agency opens next month. Everything he does to help his team in the interim should only enhance the possibility that Thompson pulls a contract near the maximum allowed a player of his experience level. His skill set is particular; Thompson still isn’t a shooter and isn’t so strong defensively as to anchor a team on his own. His postseason run in Love’s absence, though, has been so promising as to suggest he may be worth it to the right team. Cleveland looks to be it.
10. The Cavs without LeBron
LeBron’s MVP case this season was strengthened by the Cavs’ implosion in his absence. When on the floor and surrounded by even decent supporting parts, James had Cleveland posting scoring margins that rivaled the best in the league. Without him, the Cavs were outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions. That divide could be bridged only by a player of LeBron’s considerable abilities.
Yet in the playoffs, the Cavs’ struggles without James have vanished entirely. Cleveland has outscored opponents without James by an astounding margin (12.5 points per 100 possessions) in defiance of all logic. That Love has been absent for the vast majority of those minutes mitigates the most plausible explanation. Irving has done his share. The work of Smith, Shumpert, Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, and James Jones, though, has obliterated any and all reasonable expectation for their collective performance.
We may only see the Cavaliers play 3-5 minutes a game in the Finals without James in the mix. Even those short stretches, though, could be telling of the series’ outcome. Any regression will be costly.