Editor's note: Read Ben Golliver's full NBA Finals preview here.
As always with the Cavaliers, all roads to success run through LeBron James, who enters the Finals in great health, in good spirits, with more help, with a reduced burden, and with David Blatt safely returned to the other side of the Atlantic. A rested, vengeful James surrounded by a host of threats—Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, and newcomer Channing Frye among them—has the potential to produce serious, serious fireworks, even against Golden State.
While the Warriors have had to deal with a laundry list of scoring threats in the postseason, from James Harden to Damian Lillard to C.J. McCollum to Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook, they’ve yet to face anybody with James’s vision, playmaking ability, physicality and experience. That goes without saying: There’s still no one like James, and he’s posting 24.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG and 7 APG in these playoffs, even though he’s playing the fewest minutes per game during his postseason career and nearing a postseason career-low in usage rate. Less has definitely been more for James and the Cavaliers in this playoffs, as it’s allowed Irving, Love and Smith the chance to make their marks.
Although Oklahoma City failed to finish off Golden State, it gave Cleveland a clear blueprint for the upset: Steal Game 1, protect home-court and try to exploit Green’s volatility while making the most of any contest in which Curry isn’t lights out. This seems achievable for the Cavaliers despite some of their individual matchup issues because James has so many weapons at his disposal. Whereas Oklahoma City really needed offensive contributions from the streaky Dion Waiters and the jumper-less Andre Roberson, Cleveland can count on James creating a steady diet of quality looks for Irving, Love, Smith, Frye, Shumpert and Jefferson, all of whom are shooting better than 44% from deep during the postseason.
Lue might not have great individual matchups for Golden State’s stars, but he does have options. He can dust off center Timofey Mozgov and try to pound the glass, as Oklahoma City did with solid results. He can go with the Love/Thompson/James frontline that mixes shooting and second-chance points. He can go to super interchangeable small lineups—perhaps with James at center—thanks to a perimeter corps that includes Irving, Matthew Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith and Jefferson. And he can go to all-defense lineups that dump Irving and Love, perhaps something like Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith, James and Thompson. Late in the West finals, Thunder coach Billy Donovan seemed to run out of useful bodies off the bench; Lue shouldn’t have that problem, as his bench-heavy units have put up strong numbers so far during the postseason.
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In sum, the Cavaliers’ upset chances will require a few things to go right. First, they’ll need their three extra days of pre-Finals rest to pay off with a split at Oracle. Second, they’ll need their perfect 7-0 home record in the postseason to hold up. Third, they’ll need to rely on their torrid three-point shooting to keep up in shootouts. Fourth, they’ll need to hope that their defense can remain cohesive and determined enough to take advantage of the Warriors’ choppier moments. Lastly, they’ll need James to be the focal point of the action in this series, much like he was for most of the 2015 Finals.
If all of those things come together, and James rises above, Cleveland has a shot at popping some champagne.