Skip to main content

Matchups that will define the NBA Finals

SI covers NBA Finals matchups that could swing the series, with topics including Kevin Love's weaknesses, LeBron James's versatility and Stephen Curry's brilliance. 

No matchup is an island, entire of itself. Assigning any one basketball player to guard another has rippling implications for everything that happens on the floor. Game plans are formulated based on how the defense lines up and where it might be exploited. Actions are warped based on which players are involved on both sides of the ball. The work of a defensive stopper comes built-in with the opportunity cost of every alternative; assuming any specific responsibility foregoes another, making even the smallest lineup decisions an act of compromise. Basketball might not be a terribly complicated game, but it is complex in the way that all constantly evolving systems tend to be.

Keep this in mind when wading into this year’s NBA Finals, a bout between two flexible teams with all kinds of options available to them. Both the Warriors and the Cavs will have the burden of stopping a near-unstoppable offense. How they’ll go about doing so begins with a basic lineup structure which informs offensive feedback and then triggers defensive adjustment. Let’s start with the basics:

• MORE NBA: Finals predictions, X-factors, more | Finals preview

Golden State’s lineup balance

By the end of the 2015 Finals, Golden State had bounced Andrew Bogut from the rotation entirely and come to entrust Draymond Green as their default center. It was small ball that unlocked the series; Cleveland’s frontcourt, undercut by Kevin Love’s season-ending shoulder injury, didn't have the means to run with the Warriors or defend them in space. Kyrie Irving’s absence further compromised the rotation to the point that it couldn’t really adjust once Golden State broke loose.

Eye On The Prize: How Kyrie Irving got LeBron's Cavaliers back to the Finals

The dynamic refreshes with Love and Irving’s return, the addition of Channing Frye, and Cleveland’s newfound love of three-point bombing. Attacking and defending the Cavs now demands a different formula; starting Green at center simply doesn’t offer the same jolt that it did when Timofey Mozgov was his positional counterpart, left to plod his way through awkward cross-matches. Starting Bogut makes sense now in a way it didn’t then. Tristan Thompson is the closest thing Cleveland has to a traditional center in its rotation, which gives Bogut his best chance to play a role in this series by offering an anchor to the paint. Deny him that opportunity and he’ll be pulled out of his game to guard the likes of Frye or Love at the three-point line.

Getting even limited minutes from a traditional center could do wonders in preserving Green for each game’s most critical stretches. Keep in mind: Even in last year’s small-ball dominated Finals, the Warriors played with one of their three centers (Bogut, Festus Ezeli, or Marreese Speights) on the floor for more than half the series. Bogut deserves a chance to see what he can offer as a starter and the Warriors, who just outlasted the Thunder in a series by spreading out their minutes and being the fresher team at the end of games, could use his rim protection opposite LeBron James. Of course, in doing so, Golden State would help to accommodate…

kevin_love_embed_.jpg

Kevin Love, in search of shelter

The last thing Cleveland should want is Love pulled out, 25 feet from the basket, to either hedge or switch on to Stephen Curry in the pick-and-roll. Love’s solid defense this postseason hasn’t gone unnoticed. That particular job, however, is beyond him—demanding better communication, quicker feet, and more productive instincts than he could reasonably claim. Golden State will go out of its way to put Love to the test at every opportunity. There’s nowhere to hide completely, though certain matchups offer Love more cover than others.

Bogut is among the most preferable. At this stage in his career, Bogut is both rangeless and fairly slow—qualities that render him significantly less dangerous in pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off situations than, say, Green. Any Bogut screen would allow Love to focus on guard attainment for a few beats with relatively little risk; a smart, well-coordinated defense can generally handle Bogut’s rumbles down the lane without compromising too much elsewhere on the floor.

Even if he doesn't take on Bogut, Love is best off avoiding a direct matchup with Green at all costs. It’s not just the shooting; the pick-and-roll chemistry between Curry and Green allows them to toggle angles and re-screen to string out defenders, all with a healthy flexibility in terms of space and angle. The wider breadth of options available to a pick-and-roll duo, the greater the potential for bigs like Love to get lost in the shuffle. Even Harrison Barnes would be a better starting matchup for Love, if not…

1952-53-Minneapolis-Lakers-George-Mikan-John-Kundla-New-York-Knicks-Nat-Clifton.jpg
1957-Boston-Celtics-Bill-Russell-St-Louis-Hawks-Bob-Pettit.jpg
1960-Boston-Celtics-Tom-Heinsohn-Bill-Russell-St-Louis-Hawks.jpg
1962-63-Boston-Celtics-Bill-Russell-Los-Angeles-Lakers.jpg
1965-66-Boston-Celtics-Sam-Jones-Red-Auerbach-Los-Angeles-Lakers-Jerry-West.jpg
1968-69-Boston-Celtics-John-Havlicek-Bill-Russell-Los-Angeles-Lakers-Jerry-West.jpg
1972-73-Los-Angeles-Lakers-Wilt-Chamberlain-Jerry-West-New-York-Knicks-Walt-Clyde-Frazier.jpg
1978-79-Washington-Bullets-Wes-Unseld-Seattle-SuperSonics-Gus-Williams.jpg
1982-83-Los-Angeles-Lakers-Magic-Johnson-Philadelphia-76ers-Moses-Malone.jpg
1984-85-Boston-Celtics-Larry-Bird-Los-Angeles-Lakers-Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar.jpg
1988-89-Los-Angeles-Lakers-James-Worthy-Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar-Detroit-Pistons-Bill-Laimbeer-Joe-Dumars.jpg
1997-98-Chicago-Bulls-Michael-Jordan-Scottie-Pippen.jpg
2013-14-Miami-Heat-LeBron-James-San-Antonio-Spurs-Kawhi-Leonard.jpg
2015-Golden-State-Warriors-Stephen-Curry-Cleveland-Cavaliers-LeBron-James-X159673_TK1_5027.jpg

Andre Iguodala, potential starter

The Warriors didn’t throw many deliberate double-teams at James in the 2015 Finals, but they applied pressure in their own way. Iguodala, one of the best denial defenders in the league, made LeBron work for every catch and then held his ground after claiming sound defensive position. The rest of Golden State’s defenders took a step inward and extended their arms—showing James a wall to the weak side that simultaneously shrank the court and deterred long passes. One of the most dominant players in the league was reduced, in part by his team’s injuries, to iso-post inefficiency. 

Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James: How do Warriors and Cavs stars stack up?

SI Recommends

James won’t be used in quite the same way now that Irving and Love are healthy again, though Iguodala remains Golden State’s top choice for contesting his post-ups and drives. Considering that Iguodala’s minutes will largely be tethered to LeBron’s, it would make sense for the Warriors to kick around the possibility of starting him at small forward—just as they did against Kevin Durant in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. Barnes, who doesn’t move quite well enough to keep up with James, would be out of his depth in the opening minutes. Even Green didn’t fare well in the one-on-one matchup last time around, proof positive that LeBron can work over many of the best, most versatile defenders in the league.

Iguodala remains a rare exception. It’s possible that Kerr might bring him off the bench to start the series as a way to artificially depress his minutes. Otherwise it can be difficult to get Iguodala out of the game at all, particularly when his primary assignment is a high-usage creator who can turn a game in a matter of minutes. That danger is real, though it exists in equal measure at the beginning of every game and in any instance when Iguodala isn’t on the floor to fend off LeBron’s drives. Starting Iguodala might be the easiest way to maximize the alignment of their rotations, while also moving Barnes to the bench to help handle…

The Kevin Love-Channing Frye space odyssey

Never is Cleveland’s offense more fluid than when both of its bigs can stretch the floor. LeBron has buckled defenses throughout his career by making crisp passes from inside a swarm of opponents. Irving is so valuable because he can slice through consecutive layers of defense to finish at the basket. Remove those degrees of difficulty and the Cavs max out their scoring potential. Open space is rarely more than a pass away—facilitated by Frye’s knockdown shooting and Love’s pick-and-pop game. 

• MORE NBA: Steph vs. LeBron: How the NBA Finals stars stack up

Golden State will need to be mindful of these lineups in the same way that opponents must batten down the hatches when Green slides over to center. In limited minutes throughout these playoffs, Cleveland has scored 121.7 points per 100 possessions with Love and Frye on the floor together, per NBA.com—a significant improvement on what was already the best offense of the postseason on balance. Their pairing leaves Bogut with no one to guard, Speights in way over his head, and Anderson Varejao out of his comfort zone. Ezeli might at least be able to scurry between contesting Frye and maintaining his other defensive responsibilities, though the best antidote is the most obvious one: Green and Barnes as the Warriors’ functional, flexible bigs.

Their footspeed alone would be a big help in the scramble of containing drives while minding shooters at every other position. Both Green and Barnes are quite switchable, too, which can negate the value of floor-spacing bigs if an offense takes too long to initiate or doesn’t execute its counters. Most important: Playing Barnes and Green opposite Love and Frye forces Cleveland’s bigs into the same fundamental binds. Whether they survive them will depend in part on…

2016-0619-LeBron-James-SI139_TK1_08272.w.jpg
2015-0604-LeBron-James-Andre-Iguodala.jpg
2015-0616-Stephen-Curry-X159719_TK1_1150.jpg
01-2014-duncan-anderson-spurs-heat.jpg
01-2013-ray-allen-op5x-88044.jpg
2013-0620-LeBron-James-Tony-Parker-op7o-4886.jpg
04-2012-lebron-james-op3b-53729.jpg
06-2012-X-lebron-james-cramps-2.jpg
07-2011-dirk-nowitzki-op1s-13308.jpg
2010-0615-Kobe-Bryant-opsq-70334_0.jpg
08-2010-kobe-bryant-kevin-garnett-opoc-86691.jpg
09-2010-pau-gasol-opsq-73091.jpg
2009-0614-Kobe-Bryant-Pau-Gasol-oph9-97496-rawfinal_0.jpg
11-2008-paul-pierce-opet-19840.jpg
2007-0607-Tony-Parker-Drew-Gooden-075184003.jpg
2007-0610-LeBron-James-Tim-Duncan-075204568_0.jpg
2006-0613-Dwyane-Wade-Josh-Howard-015652745.jpg
2005-0619-Ben-Wallace-Manu-Ginobili-017009888.jpg
17-robert-horry-2005.jpg
2005-0623-Tim-Duncan-Rasheed-Wallace-Ben-Wallace-017002501_0.jpg
18-2004-E02E1546.jpg
19-2004-E02E1683.jpg
20-2003-62AT1464.jpg
21-2003-X-tim-duncan.jpg
22-2002-X-shaquille-oneal.jpg
23-2001-X-shaquille-oneal.jpg
24-2001-01233948R.jpg
2001-0606-Allen-Iverson-Tyronn-Lue.jpg
29-2000-001133490.jpg
2000-0616-Reggie-Miller-Shaquille-O-Neal-01065269.jpg
2000-0619-Kobe-Bryant-Dale-Davis-001324001_0.jpg
2000-0619-Kobe-Bryant-Shaquille-O'Neal-01065305_0.jpg
140529160114-1999-nba01-s2-single-image-cut.jpg
140529160119-1999-x-avery-johnson-single-image-cut.jpg
1998-0614-Michael-Jordan.jpg
1997-0601-Karl-Malone-005873830.jpg
1997-0611-Michael-Jordan-Scottie-Pippen.jpg
37-1997-X-Steve-Kerr.jpg
1996-0605-Dennis-Rodman-05323437.jpg
39-1996-05878956.jpg
1995-0607-Hakeem-Olajuwon-Shaquille-O-Neal-079007561.jpg
1995-0611-Clyde-Drexler-05194575.jpg
42-1994-05146782Final.jpg
140529155953-1994-x-hakeem-olajuwon-001077784-single-image-cut.jpg
140529160004-1994-x-olajuwon-starks-single-image-cut.jpg
1993-0613-Michael-Jordan-Kevin-Johnson-Charles-Barkley-005102070.jpg
140529155924-1993-charles-barkley-1-single-image-cut.jpg
1993-0616-Scottie-Pippen-005104930.jpg
140529155905-1992-05058856-single-image-cut.jpg
52-1991-X-michael-jordan-layup.jpg
53-1991-michael-jordan-2.jpg
140529155849-1990-joe-dumars-single-image-cut.jpg
140529155842-1989-wire000027131-single-image-cut.jpg
1988-Game-6-Isiah-Thomas.jpg
140529155837-1988-x-james-worthy-single-image-cut.jpg
1987-NBA-Finals-Magic-Johnson-Larry-Bird.jpg
59-1987-X-magic-johnson.jpg
1986-0529-Larry-Bird-Hakeem-Olajuwon-001306505.jpg
61-1985-001285586HR.jpg
62-1984-X-kevin-mchale.jpg
140529155747-1984-001299235-single-image-cut.jpg
1983-Julius-Erving-005788215.jpg
66-1983-01167599.jpg
1982-Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar-001233713.jpg
68-1982-magic-johnson.jpg
69-1981-001167274.jpg
1981-Moses-Malone-Robert-Parish-Larry-Bird-079005630.jpg
71-1981-001306120.jpg
72-1980-X-julius-erving.jpg
1980-0510-Darryl-Dawkins-Mark-Landsberger-Jim-Chones-01167607.jpg
1980-Julius-Erving-Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar-06056554.jpg
1980-Game-6-Magic-Johnson-079116364.jpg
75-1979-shelton01.jpg
76-1979-001303208.jpg
1978-Elvin-Hayes-017062044.jpg
1977-Julius-Erving-001283801.jpg
78-1977-X-Bill-walton.jpg
1976-0604-Gar-Heard-005587928.jpg
140528170036-1975-x-rick-barry-leifer-single-image-cut.jpg