It's the dream matchup we've been waiting for: Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James. Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers. The much-anticipated rematch of the 2015 NBA Finals begins Thursday.
Matchup: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers
Season Series: 2-0 Golden State
Golden State’s Efficiency Rankings: (Off. 1, Def. 4, Net 2)
Cleveland’s Efficiency Rankings: (Off. 4, Def. 10, Net. 4)
Golden State’s Playoff Efficiency Rankings: (Off. 2, Def. 5, Net. 2)
Cleveland Playoff Efficiency Rankings: (Off. 1, Def. 8, Net. 1)
Path: GSW beat HOU (5), POR (5), OKC (7); CLE beat DET (4), ATL (4), TOR (6)
OAKLAND, Calif. — With sincere apologies to the Thunder and Spurs, the 2016 NBA Finals will feature the most anticipated, riveting and consequential matchup with a showdown between the Warriors with the Cavaliers.
There are so many layers to this series that it’s hard to keep track. First, it’s a rematch from the 2015 Finals, when Golden State defeated a depleted Cleveland squad in six games. Second, it’s a matchup between the West and East’s top seeds, the first such No. 1 vs. No. 1 affair since Celtics/Lakers in 2008. The Finals will also feature the most potent regular season offense (Golden State with a 112.5 offensive rating) against the most postseason offense (Cleveland at 116.2).
Zooming out, the Finals will either see the Warriors cap their record-setting 73-win season with a title or it will see the Cavaliers end the notorious Cleveland championship curse that dates back to 1964. Golden State, forever chasing Michael Jordan’s records it seems, will try to become the first team to beat the same opponent in back-to-back Finals since Chicago defeated Utah in both 1997 and 1998.
The headlining superstars add even more intrigue. Stephen Curry and LeBron James ranked one and two, respectively, in jersey sales and they are the faces of dueling sneaker companies (Under Armour and Nike). Together, they have captured six of the past eight MVP awards and three of the last four championships. Curry, 28, and James, 31, both enter this series as proven champions in their prime years, turning this series into the most fascinating referendum on the “Who is the best player in the world?” question in many years. James is making his sixth straight Finals appearance, looking to seal his reputation as a top-five player of all time with his first championship in Cleveland, while Curry looks to add back-to-back titles to his back-to-back MVP awards.
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There’s so much more to digest that it’s probably best to take a rapid-fire, bullet-point approach:
• Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will get their patience rewarded after missing out on all and most of the 2015 Finals, respectively.
• That infusion of talent allows Cleveland to start a lineup that includes five first-round picks, four top-five picks, two No. 1 overall picks and three All-Stars.
• Golden State will counter with a starting lineup that includes four lottery picks, a No. 1 overall pick, and three 2016 All-Stars and All-NBA selections.
• Assuming that Andre Iguodala steps in for Bogut late, it’s possible that there will be seven current or former All-Stars on the court simultaneously during crunch time. Needless to say, these rosters are loaded.
• Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue will attempt to win a title in his rookie year, but he’ll need to outmaneuver Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who won a title in his rookie year.
• Lifelong Cavalier Anderson Varejao will need to beat the Cavaliers to win the first title of his career.
• The Cavaliers blew through the East playoffs with a center-less lineup that looks like their best answer yet to the Warriors’ center-less lineup that eviscerated them in last year’s Finals.
• With the NBA now fully in the Three-Point Golden Era, this Finals matchup is ripe with three-point records: Curry set new individual marks for regular-season makes and attempts, Klay Thompson set a new individual record for makes in a playoff game, Golden State set a new team record for regular-season makes, and Cleveland set a new record for most makes by a team in a playoff game.
This should be great basketball and great fun.
The Case For: The Warriors
Golden State enters the Finals with the confidence that comes with dismantling Cleveland in the latter stages of the 2015 Finals, with major momentum from their West finals comeback against the Thunder, and with a bunch of relevant experience matching up with players who are at least somewhat similar to the Cavaliers’ stars.
What better way to prepare for defending Irving’s quick, attack-minded game than dealing with Russell Westbrook for seven games? What better way to prepare for Love’s combination of floor-spacing and board-crashing than battling with Serge Ibaka? And what better way to prepare for James’s all-around brilliance, and the many problems he creates, than by surviving Kevin Durant?
On the flip side, Cleveland’s postseason run hasn’t yielded similar preparatory steps. Kyle Lowry, Jeff Teague and Reggie Jackson can't hold a candle to the Curry who showed up in Games 6 and 7. DeMar DeRozan, Kent Bazemore and Kentavious-Caldwell-Pope are all a far cry from Thompson, who has been consistently sensational this postseason. And while Paul Millsap might be the closest thing the NBA has to Draymond Green, he’s not quite as dynamic and influential as the man himself.
The Warriors should also be fairly well-equipped to take away James’s primary source of offense. During the postseason, James has attempted nearly half of his shots from within three feet, making nearly 75% of those attempts. It will be virtually impossible for James to duplicate that success with Iguodala shadowing him and with the Bogut/Green combination providing sturdy back-line help. The fewer opportunities James gets near the rim, the more he will need to turn to his shaky outside shot (he’s hitting just 32.2% from deep in the playoffs) and the harder it will be for him to generate clean looks for his teammates.
Green, who struggled with Durant’s length for much of the West finals, should be in for a big series, whether directly or indirectly, as he’s a nightmare matchup for Cleveland. Love and Thompson will struggle to keep up with Green when the Warriors get out in transition, and Love is especially ripe for exploitation in pick-and-roll scenarios in the half-court. That could force Lue to put James on Green, a matchup that could help wear down James on the defensive end given Green’s major role in Golden State’s attack.
Indeed, much of the attention early in this series should be on Cleveland’s defense. In general, Golden State should enjoy an easier time than it did against Oklahoma City, given that it no longer needs to contend with the absurd length and athleticism could bring, even in its smaller lineups. The Cavaliers will likely find it difficult to defend both the rim (on Curry’s drives, on pick-and-roll lobs, and on the Warriors’ many cuts) and the three-point line (as the Warriors’ best lineups include four and sometimes five perimeter threats), and that could spell serious trouble.
The Warriors prevailed in the 2015 Finals by winning a clash of styles against a slow, bruising, simplistic Cavaliers team that was beset by injuries. If the 2016 Finals winds up being a fire versus fire, smallball versus smallball shootout, as many expect, Golden State would seemingly be fully comfortable in its own element. Can the 73-win defending champions really be beaten at their own game?
The Case For: The Cavaliers
As always with the Cavaliers, all roads to success run through 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—Irving, 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.
The X-Factor: Kevin Love, Cavaliers
There’s no need to overthink this one. Love is the obvious X-factor in this series for three main reasons: He’s been central to Cleveland’s success in the postseason, he’s potentially the weakest link in the Cavaliers’ defense, and he’s getting his first taste of the pressure and scrutiny that come with the Finals.
Entering the Finals, Love is posting strong numbers in the playoffs: 17.3 PPG and 9.6 RPG, while hitting 44.6% of his threes. What’s more, he’s been included in Lue’s most-used lineup (by far), a starting group that also features James, Thompson, Irving and Smith. That quintet has posted a sparkling +21.4 net rating in the playoffs thanks to its ability to space the court around James, pound the offensive glass and beat defenses with multiple playmakers.
As it turns out, this lineup logged just three minutes together in two games versus the Warriors during the regular season. The big question is whether Love, who isn’t the quickest, longest or most imposing defensive player, can avoid being exploited when the Warriors go small. This is somewhat difficult to predict, given that Cleveland’s lineup logged just three minutes together in two games versus Golden State during the regular season, but it’s reasonable to assume that the Warriors will attack Love much like they attacked the Thunder’s Enes Kanter in the West finals. If Love can hold his own, Cleveland has a potent lineup that can keep up in a shootout. If not, Lue will need to go with a Plan B that doesn’t involve one of his All-Star caliber players.
There’s also the question of Love’s mental state. Before arriving in Cleveland last year, he had never played in the playoffs. Before this season, he had never played in the second round. Throughout the past two years, rumors have circulated regarding his fit in the Cavaliers’ locker room, with James fueling those rumors at times. The good news: Love now seems to be a happy and engaged member of a productive environment since Lue took over for Blatt. The bad news: He’s being thrown into the fire against the Warriors in a series that will be over-analyzed to death, and his shortcomings and off nights are sure to bring the loudest and sharpest criticisms of his career. Is he ready?
The Pick: Warriors in 6.
Golden State got the test that it desperately needed from Oklahoma City, playing through carelessness, complacency, overconfidence and a 3-1 deficit to deliver a memorable comeback that sharpened their focus and saw the return of Stephen Curry to full form. The Cavaliers also enter the Finals with momentum, to be sure, but they didn’t face an opponent like the Warriors in the East. On paper, the Warriors look equipped to slow down the Cavaliers’ outside shooting. They can rely on Andre Iguodala to make LeBron James work, and they have not one, not two, but three nightmare matchups for the Cavaliers in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. A strong home-court advantage won’t hurt, either.