Cleveland Cavaliers (4 – East) vs. Golden State Warriors (2 – West)
My gut tells me this is going to be a sweep, however, I’ve not been great at picking sweeps this postseason. I picked Warriors over Spurs in 4 in the first round, 76ers over Celtics in 4 in the second round (I know I know, my bad guys), and Cavs over Celtics in 4 in the conference finals. Meanwhile, I missed the only 2 actual sweeps of the playoffs thus far (Cavs over Raptors – I picked 5 games, and Pelicans over Blazers – I picked Blazers in 7). With that said, I’m currently 12/14 on series picks, including 6 in the correct amount of games, so maybe trusting my gut on this one isn’t so bad after all. Plus, if the Cavs do happen to pull out a win, I’ll get to see what kind of creative LeBron James/broom gifs people send to mock me and let me know I’m an idiot. So without further adieu…
Prediction: Golden State in 4
This is the Finals we expected, but we got here in an unexpected way. The Cavs were pushed to 7 games on their road to the Finals for the first time since re-acquiring LeBron. Not just once, but twice. The Warriors lost 5 games (including getting taken to a Game 7) whereas they went 16-1 en route to last season’s title. So even if this has the same ending as the tale of two juggernauts that were destined to collide, it sure didn’t feel like it. I’ve bet on Warriors winning the finals over the Cavs at the beginning of the playoffs every year for the past 3 seasons (including this one), but this was the first time I was scared of either not making the finals – and I was scared of both not making it! But alas here we are, and my bet looks to be safe.
If the Cavs don’t get Kevin Love back for game 1, they might field the worst roster to play in an NBA Finals game in the last <insert large amount of time> while the 2017-18 Warriors are one of the best teams ever. This series is not a fair fight. It will likely not go past 5 games. That doesn’t mean it won’t be fun or interesting or important – it will be. One of the main talking points about the 90s Bulls and the greatness of Michael Jordan was that he was so dominant everyone knew he was going to win. If you think the NBA is worse because the Warriors winning is predictable, then you better not tell me how much better 90s NBA was.
Reasons this series is fun:
1. We get the opportunity to see the greatest player in the history of the NBA put into a David vs Goliath scenario. Hell, this is Space Jam 2! In the NBA, stars tend to attract other stars. Teams who have a chance at a title tend to be more willing to go out and get that extra player, and players are drawn to teams that can win. We may never see another player with less help get to compete for a more unlikely title. There is no true equivalent of this, but the closest would be if Russell Westbrook took the 2016-17 Thunder to the Finals. For reference, Westbrook won MVP and yet his team (who actually had more talent around him than this Cavs roster) won 3 less games in the regular season and lost 1-4 in the first round. We are witnessing greatness every game LeBron steps on the court.
2. Speaking of greatness, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry will have excellent matchups in search of their 3rd title. We will undoubtedly get to see a crazy display of shooting from behind the arc. We saw a glimpse of what these players can do in previous rounds, though they haven’t really both had a full-on insanity game at the same time. The Cavs guards are awful defensively. Open looks for the Splash Bros will happen. And when they get hot, they get hot like nobody else. Hopefully, we’ll see some fireworks.
3. Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. Durant has been the 2nd best player in the league for about 7 seasons. He wants to be the best. This series is the way to prove it – or at least get to be a closer 2nd. Last season during the NBA Finals, Durant was incredible. I don’t think he outplayed LeBron, but it was close. There was even the defining series moment when he buried the clinching 3-pointer over LeBron to take a 3-0 lead. Still, Durant hasn’t yet taken the throne. If he significantly outplays LeBron in this Finals, he can start to take over the mantle as best player in the league. He knows this. So does LeBron. I can’t wait.
Keys to the Series:
First and foremost, will Andre Iguodala and Kevin Love be available? Love is currently questionable with concussion symptoms, but reports make it seem like he should be able to play. Iguodala’s prospects are less certain. It seems he could be back as soon as Game 1 or miss the entire Finals. Who knows? If I had to guess, we won’t know until tip-off as the coaches play the Brad Stevens game.
1. Defense. Iguodala usually starts with the task of guarding LeBron, so if he’s out that changes the way the Warriors can defend the Cavs. Draymond Green is the best option, but he’s more valuable off the ball helping, which is how they’ve normally used him, even in Iguodala’s absence. He’ll rotate onto LeBron for some minutes, but I doubt he starts there. They could put Durant straight-up against LeBron (Please do this Kerr! We want to see this!) or rotate Klay Thompson or Shaun Livingston up positions knowing Green and Durant can help. If LeBron starts shooting over them, a change might need to happen.
The Cavs have struggled to defend all season long. Luckily, they have a blueprint from the Rockets on how best to defend the Warriors. Unfortunately for them, they can’t switch everything like the Rockets can. If they do, Curry will just take his pick of Cav (most likely Kyle Korver and/or Kevin Love), have their man screen, and when they switch into the desired matchup, he’ll abuse them for it. If the Cavs trap screens, Curry will just have Klay screen for him and roll for a wide open three.
The Cavs will need to throw unique looks at the Warriors. The best bet is to change the way they defend often enough to keep the Warriors out of rhythm. When the Cavs fight through screens, the off-ball players need to rotate early away from Green and Looney. Green has looked scared to shoot 3-pointers and Looney doesn’t have any range. They are both good at moving off the ball to cut and set screens, so if you rotate too early, they just got a layup or freed a different player (usually Durant or Thompson) for an open look. Not great options. Nobody said it’d be easy.
2. Rotations. People give Steve Kerr a lot of credit (deservedly) and give Ty Lue a lot of criticism (also deservedly). This postseason, the gap isn’t as wide as you’d think. Ty Lue, while still late on changing his lineup, has done enough within each series to adjust. Bringing Tristan Thomson back into the rotation, using George Hill strategically, and not playing Kyle Korver for the first quarter after he’d been great the game before were all smart moves. Okay, maybe not that last one. But he has been better.
And Kerr has faltered a bit. Sure, he lost Andre Iguodala which makes things tougher, but there’s no excuse for playing some of his lineup combinations from the Conference Finals – especially game 7. I understand they were thin with Klay in foul trouble, but there were still 3 normal starters and Livingston available. It seems inexcusable to play Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, and Nick Young at the same time. And they got murdered in those minutes. Kerr shouldn’t go back to that rotation.
3. Pace. If the games are played at a fast pace, Golden State will just out-shoot Cleveland. Sure, the Cavs might get hot one game AND the Warriors have an off-night, but it won’t happen twice. The only way the Cavs have a chance in the series is by slowing the game down as much as possible. This was the way they won in 2016 and kept it close in 2015. The teams scored a combined average of 197.6ppg over those two Finals series, whereas they combined for 236.4ppg in the 2017 Finals. Durant is part of this, and he makes it tougher to slow down the game, but if you try to run with the Warriors, you’ll lose.
4. Offensive Rebounding. Tristan Thompson signed a 5 year/$82 million contract following the 2015 NBA Finals. He got this contract because
LeBron forced the Dan Gilbert to give him what he wanted he was a great offensive rebounder. The Warriors have looked lackadaisical on the defensive glass, but part of that is their style of play. They run in transition after every miss, which leaves only one or two defenders fighting for rebounds. If a team crashes the offensive glass à la Rockets first half Game 7, the Warriors can get hurt (Rockets had 7 offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone). The Cavs will need to get a lot of second chance buckets to keep it competitive.
5. First punch. Game 1 could determine the series. If the Cavs come out strong and get full effort from all their players and the Warriors assume they’ve already won, the Warriors could fall behind early. They’ve relied on 3rd quarter comebacks (successfully) throughout the playoffs, but LeBron James is a run killer. He can dribble out time and score at the end of the shot clock. That type of play is deadly for momentum and if the Warriors fall behind by double digits, I’m not sure LeBron will let them back into it. If they win game 1, the Cavs have home court advantage and miracles could happen. Okay, I’m reaching. Warriors in 3.