SI.com's Ben Golliver breaks down the NBA Finals matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
Matchup: (West 1) Golden State Warriors vs. (East 2) Cleveland Cavaliers
Season Series: 1-1
Efficiency Rankings: Golden State (Off. Rating: 2, Def. Rating: 1, Net Rating: 1); Cleveland (Off. Rating: 4, Def. Rating: 20, Net Rating: 7)
Playoff Performance: Golden State beat (8) New Orleans 4-0, (5) Memphis 4-2, and (2) Houston 4-1; Cleveland beat (7) Boston 4-0, (3) Chicago 4-2, and (1) Atlanta 4-0
After a season filled with injuries to superstars and a postseason that has been forgettable at times, the NBA gets a chance to salvage its 2014-15 campaign with a mouth-watering matchup in the Finals featuring the Warriors and Cavaliers.
The showdown is headlined by LeBron James (a four-time MVP and the league’s most dominant player) and Stephen Curry (the reigning MVP and the league’s most electrifying player). Joining perhaps the two most popular players in basketball—James and Curry finished Nos. 1 and 2 in jersey sales this year—is an embarrassment of riches: 2015 All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, 2015 All-Defensive selections Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, 2014 All-Defensive selection Andre Iguodala and 2013 Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith. There’s so much talent here that it spills over to the sidelines, where 2014 All-Star Kevin Love is out injured and 2013 All-Star David Lee rarely cracks the rotation.
Of course, there’s history on the line for both of these loaded rosters. Golden State is seeking its first title since 1975 and its second title since relocating to California in 1962. The 67-win Warriors are also pursuing a spot next to the greatest teams in league history: Golden State became just the eighth team to post a +10 point differential for a season, and six of the seven previous teams to accomplish that feat went on to win the title. A championship would also exorcise past demons for coach Steve Kerr and assistant Alvin Gentry, who couldn’t quite get over the hump with the Steve Nash-led Suns, who were the Warriors’ fast-and-loose predecessors.
Cleveland, meanwhile, is seeking the first title of its 45-year franchise history, as James looks to complete the circle by bringing a championship trophy to his home state of Ohio after claiming two in Miami. While James has officially matched Michael Jordan’s six career Finals appearances—and surpassed Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan by making five straight—he needs a victory to avoid a 2-4 career mark. A title, therefore, would bring James halfway to Jordan’s six rings and give him the trump card whenever anyone, in Ohio or otherwise, suggested that he needed to leave Cleveland to win.
There’s intrigue to be found in the coaching matchup, too, which pits Kerr, the ultimate NBA insider, against David Blatt, the ultimate outsider. Kerr’s history with the game runs so deep that he owns five rings, one of which he earned by taking a pass from Jordan himself and knocking down the title-clinching jumper. Upon his retirement, Kerr found success as a front-office executive and as a commentator, before sliding effortlessly into the coach’s seat. Blatt, on the other hand, enters the Finals with no previous NBA playing or coaching experience, having spent most of the last 30 years playing and coaching in Israel and Russia. Nevertheless, he guided Cleveland to 53 wins in his debut season, doing well to incorporate midseason additions (Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and Smith) and handle injuries (Anderson Varejao in December, Love in the first round, Irving in the second round) on the fly.
Storylines aside, the most important thing here is that these two teams clearly represent the best of their respective conferences. Since Jan. 23, the date that the Cavaliers fully formed, Golden State had the league’s best record (33-9), with Cleveland a close second (30-9). After that date, the Cavaliers closed the season with the league’s most efficient offense (109.6), with Golden State a close second (109.1). In the playoffs, Cleveland (12-2 in the East) and Golden State (12-3) both breezed through their conference brackets, while ranking No. 1 and 2, respectively, in offensive rating.
This series should produce good, pure, fun basketball, with plenty of strategic wrinkles. Both teams are guided by MVP-quality players that have enjoyed big late-game performances in this playoffs, both teams boast complementary stars and well-fitting role players, both teams love to shoot from deep, both teams have found success playing big and small, both teams have the capability of breaking their opponents’ back by stacking points in a hurry, both teams are unafraid to experiment with unconventional lineups, both teams have mostly avoided intentionally fouling the opposition, and both teams enjoy strong home-court advantages. In other words, this series can’t start soon enough.
The Case For The Warriors
The Warriors enter the series as strong favorites, and preparation stands as the most convincing reason to believe they will see their dream season all the way through to a championship parade.
To reach the Finals, the Warriors laid waste to the stronger Western Conference in the regular season before overcoming wunderkind Anthony Davis, outlasting the grit-and-grind Grizzlies, and out-shooting the fast-and-furious Rockets. Along the way, Golden State has proven that it can handle just about anything thrown at it, whether that’s Memphis’s slow-down style, Houston’s up-tempo approach, or the various individual problems created by the likes of Davis, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, James Harden and Dwight Howard.
Although the Warriors’ key players are lacking in Finals experience, they aced a series of tough tests and are as prepared as any team can be for James and the Cavaliers. By comparison, Cleveland advanced through a below-.500 Celtics team, a Bulls team that faced injury issues and off-court issues, and a Hawks team that was depleted and playing well below the standard expected of a 60-win team.
Golden State will trust that its offense will find success against Cleveland, just like it did against Memphis’s elite defense. The Warriors will also trust that their own elite defense is capable of providing a much stiffer test to the Cavaliers than the Celtics, Bulls or Hawks, who were all good but not great on defense during the regular season.
The major matchups would seem to break in the Warriors’ favor. Much like the Western Conference finals, where Curry went nuts and a platoon approach succeeded in limiting Harden’s effectiveness, Golden State has more capable players to throw at James than the Cavaliers have to use on Curry (who is averaging 29.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds while shooting 43.7% on threes during the postseason).
Cleveland will be forced to choose from a series of unappetizing options: 1) use a hobbled Irving on Curry, which could be a disaster, 2) use Shumpert on Curry, thereby leaving Irving to chase Thompson or deal with Harrison Barnes’ size, or 3) use James as a Curry-stopper, thereby daring Thompson or Barnes to beat Cleveland, 4) sic Dellavedova on Curry by going ultra-small and hoping for the best, or 5) pressure and/or trap the ball out of Curry's hands and live with the consequences. None of those choices are guaranteed to limit Curry’s effectiveness, and all of them present secondary complications for Cleveland’s defense.
On the other end, the Warriors can try Green, Barnes, Iguodala and Thompson on James at various times, and they can trust Bogut to protect the rim while their disciplined team defense to mark the Cavaliers’ spot-up shooters better than the Hawks did.
There’s no great answer for James, who hit for a season-high 42 points in his only regular-season appearance against Golden State this season, but the Warriors have good reason to believe that their continuity and depth advantages should guide them past the Cavaliers as long as they can prevent James from achieving his absolute best. The Warriors’ Game 1 starting lineup (Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green, Bogut) logged 813 minutes together during the regular season and 204 more in the playoffs, while the Cavaliers’ projected starting five (Irving, Shumpert, James, Thompson and Mozgov) played just 13 minutes together in the regular season and 87 more in the playoffs.
Cleveland’s lineup scrambling due to injuries has a carry-over effect into its second unit, as both Shumpert and Thompson have been promoted, leaving Blatt to slap together a reserve corps that now includes Smith, Dellavedova and 34-year-old James Jones. On paper, that group looks to be at a serious disadvantage against an experienced, athletic and well-oiled Warriors second unit that includes Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston and Festus Ezeli. (Note: Golden State’s full continuity advantage relies on Thompson, who suffered a concussion late in Game 4 against the Rockets but is expected to be ready to go for the Finals.)
Lastly, Golden State will count on Oracle Arena to continue to provide a huge edge: the Warriors are 7-1 at home during the postseason, with a +8.0 point differential. Because the NBA switched last season to a 2-2-1-1-1 format, instead of a 2-3-2 format, the Warriors will get to open the series in friendly confines and play host for Game 5, a potential swing game, and what would be a decisive Game 7.
The Case For The Cavaliers
Cleveland’s biggest advantage in this series is James, who combines elite scoring, brilliant playmaking, positional versatility, steady leadership and years of experience. That combination has been on display during the postseason, as James has averaged 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game while defending one through five and taking on added responsibilities when Love and Irving missed time.
James has personally delivered big wins (at the Game 4 buzzer against the Bulls and in overtime of Game 3 against the Hawks) and his unique gifts have helped pull the best out of Cleveland’s secondary and tertiary players. James’ assists have created 21 points per game during the playoffs, per NBA.com/stats, as Smith, Shumpert, Dellavedova and Jones have all cashed in on open spot-up looks. His ability to command extra attention has also helped open things up for Thompson and Mozgov to crash the boards.
This Cavaliers team certainly isn’t the superstar-laden Heatles, and it’s not even the “Big 3” that everyone expected as recently as April, but it has successfully recast itself as a scrappy, competitive group that welcomes conflict and takes full advantage of the opportunities it creates. Credit both Thompson, who relentlessly hits the glass, and Dellavedova, who has sparked controversy with his fiery play, for furthering that identity. “Since January, I don't know that there's a harder playing team than us,” Blatt proudly said after sweeping the Hawks. “That takes you a long way.” The Warriors have a way of making the game look easy, but they are surely bracing for a tough series against an unrelenting opponent.
If the underdog is going to prevail here, everything will need to fall into place. James will need to be exquisite, regularly, and he will need to be more efficient in his own scoring. Irving will need to be back near 100%, capable of taking his defensive turn on Curry and handling his share of the playmaking load on offense. Smith will need to avoid any major brain farts, especially those of the suspension-drawing variety, and deliver a red hot shooting night or two. Mozgov, Thompson, Shumpert and Dellavedova will need to defend aggressively and intelligently without courting foul trouble, while also picking their spots as release valves on offense. Jones will need to give minutes here and there, buying valuable rest time for the other rotation members. The Cavaliers, as a group, will need to steal a win in Oakland and then ride their own strong home crowd at Quicken Loans Arena, where they are 6-1 this postseason with a +9.6 point differential.
Yes, that’s a long list of things that must go right, but the Cavaliers are in the Finals precisely because James’ skills have set up his teammates for success. Cleveland winning the East this season, in James’ first year back, was an impressive feat given all the obstacles. So what happens if the Cavaliers take the next step and pull the upset on the Warriors? It will go down as the most impressive victory of James’ illustrious career, and also, surely, the sweetest.
The X-Factor: Kyrie Irving
Irving’s selection here should be self-evident. The three-time All-Star has been sensational when healthy—he netted 57 points against the Spurs and 55 against the Blazers, marking the NBA’s top two scoring outbursts of 2014-15—and a shell of himself in recent weeks. Irving opened the first postseason of his career with a bang against the Celtics, but foot and knee problems have caught up to him as the playoffs have continued. Irving saw his load lightened in Game 6 against the Bulls, as he scored just six points in 12 minutes, and he sat out Games 2 and 3 against the Hawks while battling tendonitis.
After scoring 16 points in 21 minutes in Game 4 win over Atlanta, Irving surely welcomed the eight days of rest and recovery following the quick closeout. Cleveland.com reported, per Blatt, that Irving participated in practice on Sunday but that he isn’t yet 100% healthy.
Although the Cavaliers found ways to hide Irving against the Bulls and Hawks, there will be no hiding against the Warriors’ pass-heavy, movement-heavy offense and their excellent perimeter group. When the game opens, Irving will either need to stay with Curry, chase Thompson, or deal with Barnes, whose size makes him a post-up threat. As play progresses, Barbosa’s quickness and Livingston’s size could also test Irving’s health and fitness.
Irving doesn’t need to play Curry to a draw, as that would be asking too much. Still, he can’t be a drag on Cleveland’s defense, and he must emerge as a reliable second scorer alongside James.
Telling Stat: 26.8%
As noted last week, the burden of carrying the Cavaliers without Love and with Irving limited or out has taken a toll on James’ efficiency numbers. His 24.8 PER is his lowest mark in the playoffs since 2011, his 49.2 True Shooting Percentage is the lowest mark of his playoff career, and his 36.2 Usage Rate is way up from the regular season and represents a postseason career-high. Statistically, as this chart comparing usage rate and true shooting percentage shows, James has been a totally different player in the 2015 playoffs than at any other point in his career. Much greater burden. Significantly less efficient.
The wear of playing 40+ minutes a night, too many isolation looks, injuries to his teammates, and ever-present defensive attention has combined to submarine James’ shooting numbers this postseason. All told, he’s hitting just 26.8% of his shots outside the paint and a decrepit 17.6% of his three-point attempts in the postseason. By comparison, Rockets forward Josh Smith, everyone’s favorite shooting percentage punching bag, managed to shoot 36.3% outside the paint and 38% on threes this postseason.
Here’s a look at how James’s postseason shot chart (left) compares to Curry’s (right).
It’s worth nothing that James was lights out against the Warriors when he scored 42 points in the regular season, shooting 15-25 overall, 7-for-15 outside the paint and 4-for-9 from deep. The Cavaliers will absolutely need that James—the one who was clearly in a good rhythm all night, stroking tough jumpers over anyone guarding him—and not the James whose postseason brick-laying has caused him to repeatedly joke that he needs to exercise greater discretion with his shot selection.
The Pick: Warriors in 6
The Warriors enter the Finals with positive indicators in every direction: Curry is playing extremely well, Thompson should be good to go, their rotation is healthier and deeper than the Cavaliers’, their lead-up to the Finals has included impressive victories over contenders like the Grizzlies and Rockets, their offense and defense both continue to function at elite levels and Oracle Arena looms as a very tough place for Cleveland to steal a road win.
If any one player is capable of leading an upset of these Warriors it is James, and he should carry a plucky, but stretched supporting cast to a competitive showing. The bet here is that the deeper, more cohesive and more talented team will prevail in the end, much like last year when James’ Heat fell to the Spurs.