The moment we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are set to take on Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals this Thursday at 9 p.m. on ABC. This colossal matchup between the NBA’s super powers will be an intense battle, there’s no doubt about it.
However, despite being the defending NBA champs, the Cavs (51-31, 12-1 this postseason) enter the NBA Finals as underdogs, thanks to the outstanding season the Warriors (67-15) are having. Giant slaying is nothing new to the city of Cleveland, especially when it comes to playing this Warriors team and LeBron is ready for the challenge.
In this series, nothing is going to come easy. Here’s what you need to know ahead of game one.
Roster Additions and Breakdowns
Both teams entered this season with the expectation of making this rematch happen, and both lived up to the hype shaping this mammoth matchup that’s set to open at Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA.
The Cavs roster, which is highlighted by the big three of LBJ, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, is much improved from last season’s squad that lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time. The midseason additions of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams has provided the Cavs much needed backcourt depth, which figures to play a pivotal role this series trying to contain the NBA’s best backcourt. Cleveland is also playing its best basketball when it counts the most, going 12-1 this postseason.
The Warriors ultra-potent offensive attack only got better as they added former NBA MVP Kevin Durant this offseason. The move has paid dividends for the Dubs (12-0 this postseason), as the Blue and Gold have only lost one time (27-1) since March 14th. In addition to the adding the “Slim Reaper,” the Warriors have also added veteran centers, JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia, who both plan to factor into solving the Warriors biggest problem: keeping LeBron out of the paint.
The Warriors have a clear advantage at the shooting guard position with Thompson over J.R. Smith, but his disappearing act in last year’s Finals paired with his drop in offensive production this season leads one to believe he may not have as big of an impact again this year.
Cavs and Warriors more similar than you may know
Last year’s Finals was perhaps the greatest in NBA history. And when you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why you can expect to see another classic seven game series this year.
Both teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the league, that much is obvious to see. But both teams, contrary to popular belief, are more alike than you’d think.
For instance, both teams are assassins from long range. During the regular season, the Cavs and Warriors were second and third in three-point percentage, shooting 38.4 and 38.3 percent as a team, respectively.
Those numbers have swayed to favor the Cavs during the playoffs, as Cleveland is shooting 43.5 percent to the Dubs 38.9 percent. But in overall field goal percentage, the Cavs only have a 50.7 to 50.2 percent advantage. It’s like splitting hairs when you look at how evenly matched these teams are on paper.
While Cleveland is the better offensive team this postseason (statistically speaking), the Warriors have been the better rebounding and foul shooting team. The Warriors snag 45.8 rebounds per game, which is over four more rebounds than the Cavs 41.6 per game average.
Cleveland’s path of destruction through the Eastern Conference has been led by the astounding play of James, who’s averaging 32.5 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 2.2 steals per game. The world best basketball player is playing out of his mind, and for his standards that’s scary.
Golden State’s offense is driven by Curry. The two-time league MVP is pouring in 28.6 points while dishing out 5.6 dimes per game. Stopping these stars will be the top priorities for both teams; which of course is a lot easier said than done.
What We Learned from the Regular Season
As cute as it is to reference what happened in the regular season, last year’s Finals showed it doesn’t matter nearly as much as one might think. However, it is still notable to take a gander at what happened this year since the team’s rosters have changed somewhat.
The two teams played each other twice with both games on National holidays.
The first meeting was claimed by the Cavs 109-108 on Christmas day thanks to a game-winning shot by “Uncle Drew,” with 3.4 seconds remaining. Durant led all scorers with 36 points on 11/23 shooting, but the Cavs picked up their fourth-straight win against the Warriors, dating back to last year’s finals.
In the second game this year, Golden State got off the schneid on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, routing the Cavs 126-91 in Oakland. Klay Thompson led all scorers with 26 points on 8/17 shooting including five threes. Six turnovers a piece from James and Irving undoubtedly attributed to this loss for Cleveland.
Despite the teams splitting the regular season series, not too much really should be taken from these games. The Christmas day game was closer to the level of competition we should expect see in the Finals; but even then, the new additions to the Golden State roster were still gelling together. The Cavs blowout loss on MLK Day was during a period of the season where Cleveland appeared to be taking it easy to stay healthy and rested for their run through the East.
An Unlikely Coaching Match Up
During second half of the regular season, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr was ruled out indefinitely due to symptoms (nausea, migraines) related to a back surgery he had two years prior, according to ESPN reports.
Kerr’s unavailability is nothing new to the Warriors, as last season assistant coach Luke Walton had to step in for Kerr again due to health issues involving his back. But this season it means much more, because ex-Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown will be coaching against some of his former players.
Brown has been downplaying the situation, but recently opened up some about the importance of facing the Cavs with everything on the line.
“I just look at it as an opportunity. I have a lot of history in Cleveland, personally,” Brown said in an article on the Undefeated. “To me, it’s bigger than that. Obviously, it’s special to me because it is the Finals.”
Brown has done well in his stint as acting head coach since Kerr’s injury, but realistically, Kerr still has a heavy input on the Warriors game planning, scouting and team direction, meaning that Brown is not in full control of the decision-making process.
When a coach has stick to a script, essentially, it’s unnatural to his coaching style and may play an impact on how the Warriors fare in the Finals. Having that uncertainty is a true test to the Warriors resiliency. Golden State should be able to handle that adversity, but given the situation one would have to give the coaching advantage to Tyronn Lue and the Cavs.
X-Factors, Likely Scenarios, and a Prediction
When two teams are as evenly matched as these two are, it usually comes down to which team takes care of the little things. Fundamental basketball, such as foul shooting, possession and disciplined defense are all going to play a crucial role in this series. Just as we all witnessed last year, one blocked shot can sway the outcome of a game.
The fundamental aspects of the game favor the Warriors, but one thing that doesn’t is the drive and determination of The King. Not only does LeBron play his best basketball against Golden State, but he’s playing the best basketball of his career right now. Not to mention, so is Kevin Love.
This postseason James is shooting an astounding 56.6 percent from the floor. He also holds an NBA-best efficiency rating of 35.5 this postseason, and the highest plus/minus of his playoff career (+15.5). These things spell out one thing: the Warriors are not going to let LeBron beat them.
Of course, stopping James is the most difficult thing to do in the NBA. Golden State has been burned by LeBron so many times in the past that there’s no way they won’t have a better game plan for containing him this year. Whether that is a combination of double teams or a concerted effort to force James to shoot long jumpers, the Warriors cannot allow LeBron to continue his stellar postseason run if they wish to avenge last year’s loss.
The Cavs have a distinct advantage when Steph Curry is matched up on Kyrie Irving as well. As good as Curry is offensively, against the Cavs he’s been a defensive liability against Irving. Additionally, you might as well hand the trophy to the Cavs if Curry gets stuck in pick and roll situations guarding LeBron.
On the other side of the ball, the Cavs will have to account for a much more consistent and improved offensive attack thanks to Durant. The Warriors are darn near unbeatable when their offense is firing on all cylinders. Plus, having home court advantage in a seven-game series is a distinct advantage if the Dubs can manage to avoid self-destruction.
All being said, I’m calling for the Cavs to win back-to-back titles for the first time in team history. Durant misses the game-winning three at the buzzer of game 7, in a contest dominated by the Cavs big three. The NBA Finals MVP award goes to LeBron James for the second consecutive year.