2017 NBA Finals Preview
How we got here:
Just over a year ago, Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder failed to capitalize on a 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors, setting up a Finals rematch for the Warriors with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Of course the Cavs went on to make their own historic comeback from down 3-1 spurred on by epic games from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, as well as a key suspension of Draymond Green and injuries that limited Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala. This led to yet another seismic off-season transaction in the NBA arms race that arguably started when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and then escalated with LeBron taking his talents to South Beach. Kevin Durant, fresh off being eliminated by the Warriors and two years removed from winning an MVP, decided to join a team that had won 140 games and a title the prior two seasons.
That brings us to this season, where the Warriors won 67 games despite Durant missing a quarter of the season and where they perhaps decided to dial things back a notch after two arduous playoff runs and going all out to break the 96’ Bulls wins record in last year’s campaign. On the other hand, the Cavs coasted to a disappointing record to earn the #2 seed in the East while resting key players at times and lacking motivation, especially on defense.
Once the playoffs started, the Cavs flipped the switch so hard that the light might be able to be seen from space; meanwhile, the Warriors have yet to lose while outscoring their opponents by a record margin to get to the Finals (the Cavs are right behind them). Some key injuries have contributed to those outlandish point margins, but both teams have undoubtedly played at extremely high levels to date. Now we have the much anticipated matchup that almost everyone has expected since KD went to the Bay.
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What’s at stake:
Has there ever been a Finals with more on the line than this one? For the first time ever, opponents will square off in the Finals three straight time. The Warriors have a chance to cement their legacy as one of the best teams ever after failing to do so last year, while the Cavs have a chance to be the 9th team to go back to back post Russell Celtics a year after ending Cleveland’s 52 year title drought.
Beyond the team level, there is a great deal at stake for several players in this culture of valuing rings above all else. Steph Curry is coming off a disappointing playoffs’ that gave some credence to the criticism levied by Oscar Robertson, plus he has yet to win a Finals’ MVP. However, capping off his great postseason by holding two trophies would silence the doubters and put him on a trajectory to potentially reach the top ten of all-time. Kevin Durant has been an elite player for the better part of a decade, but has not escaped the eclipse created by his rival LeBron James, whose team has bested Durant’s 18 of 23 times, including in the 2012 Finals. Right now Durant is in the conversation with Malone, Barkley, and Baylor, as all-time greats without a ring. If that changes this year, KD is so good that he could even end up in the top 5 ever conversation, especially considering the Warriors would be in an excellent position to rack up more titles. However, if the Warriors lose after he joined forces with an already historically great team, Kevin will face a level of harsh scrutiny that we haven’t seen since LeBron cost the Heat the title in 2011. For Draymond, he can achieve redemption after his infamous suspension that potentially swung last year’s championship as well as put himself on track for the Hall of Fame. Klay Thompson could find himself on that same track and also has something to prove as one of the best shooters ever that is somehow only 33-100 from beyond the arc in his Finals career. Even Andre Iguodala, with a Finals MVP already on his resume and as a prominent role on one of the best teams ever, could somehow make it to Springfield, and not just on a screen showing a running loop of The Block.
There is clearly a lot on the line for the stars of the Cavs as well. Irving and Love, like Draymond and Klay, can likely reserve their spots in the Hall with strong performances and a second ring, while Irving can continue carving out a legacy as a clutch god in the NBA. Of course LeBron has the most to gain amongst the Cavs. LeBron, who last year against the Warriors, was the first player ever to lead all players in a playoff series in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, will need to be amazing to lead the Cavs to an upset over this Warriors juggernaut. If they do, LeBron may actually catch that ghost.
One more thing regarding Durant and James: this is one of the best same position battles in NBA Finals history. Russell and Wilt is probably the marquee Finals matchup of all-time, but in more recent history it is hard to find a duel featuring two guys that will rank as highly when all is said and done as these two other than when LeBron bested Durant in 2012, but this version of KD is superior to that one.
There has not been a Finals matchup in my memory where both teams have gone into playing at such a high level, and the aforementioned point margins and combined 24-1 record supports that. Studying last year’s series certainly gives us some clues as to how this could go, but Kevin Durant replacing Harrison Barnes, who only made 5 of his 32 shots in games 5-7, will make a difference to say the least.
When the Warriors have the ball:
Last year, the Cavs were able to win three in a row to close out the series in part because they were able to get away with leaving Barnes and Iguodala open; they won’t be able to leave one of the best scorers and pure shooters in the league open though. The death lineup will be significantly more potent on offense than it was last year as it will feature five guys with at least solid ball handling, passing, and outside shooting skills, and that understates the shooting aspect since we are talking about literally 3 of the best outside shooters to ever play the game.
That is almost impossible for any team to guard, but especially a Cavs team that struggled defensively all year and still shows cracks despite being more engaged. Thompson, Shumpert, and LeBron are really the only above average defenders on the team that figure to see playing time while Love, Irving, Korver, and Frye all will have huge attack me signs on their jerseys. Those players will spend some time hiding on the Warriors centers, Iguodala, and Livingston, but it will often be hard to play more than two of them at a time, and even only playing Love and Irving will be hard pressed to work on that end versus the death lineup, or various other lineups available at the Warriors disposal. Those two will have to be as locked in as possible on defense for the Cavs to have some success slowing down such a powerful offense. The other keys will be how often the Warriors go away from their ball movement identity to seek out positive matchups, how much Shumpert’s offense allows him to stay on the court, and how much energy LeBron is able to exert on D and who he matches up with. On that last point, part of the Cavs turnaround last year was due to James guarding Green and thus handling the Green/Curry screen game, but this year the same strategy would result in players such as Thompson, Shumpert, and Jefferson on Durant, which won’t work out well. Another thing to look out for is how many minutes the Warriors deploy their traditional centers because if Green and Durant can handle extended minutes at the 5 and 4, their offensive production should soar even higher.
I have barely mentioned Curry so far, you know, the MVP the last two seasons. He comes into this Finals healthy and scoring 28.6 points a game so far these playoffs on 50% shooting, so he should be in line for a better series than he had last year, but look for the Cavs to continue to try to be physical with him, coax him into turnovers (that they can turn into offense), and make him work hard on defense. The other splash brother is only shooting 38% from the field this postseason so it is imperative that Klay finds his stroke; nonetheless, he will instill fear into Cleveland’s defense.
Finally, an X factor for the Warriors offense will be the outside shooting of Green and Iguodala. Andre has only shot 3 for 27 from behind the arc in the playoffs after shooting 36% during the regular season. On the other hand, Draymond only shot 31% during the season, but has lit it up to the tune of 25 for 53 in their 12 playoff games. Expect both of these guys to get a lot of open looks during the series and how much they make the Cavs pay could be a tipping point in the series since along with directly impacting the scoreboard, either or both of them shooting really well or poorly can lead to Cleveland changing their defensive strategy in a way that either opens up the offense even more or allows more attention to be paid to the Warriors three primary scorers.
When the Cavs have the ball:
On the other end of the court, we will witness two elite units go at it as the Cavs are clicking on all cylinders on offense while the Warriors bring an elite defense to the table. Last year the Cavs were able to take advantage of a defense that often lacked much rim protection and rebounding ability. Durant averaged 8.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks this year, which will allow the Warriors to go to their death lineup featuring Green at center without sacrificing nearly as much inside as they did last year.
Durant replacing Barnes will also make it harder for the Cavs to find weaknesses to exploit, but that will still be the primary strategy for Cleveland, one that they are exceptional at executing. This is part of why it will be difficult for the Warriors to play their centers many minutes, so hopefully for their sake, Mike Brown and Steve Kerr won’t be too stubborn with providing many minutes for Zaza, West, and McGee. When they do play, they will be targeted by LeBron and Kyrie as they seek switches to punish the Warriors with their brilliant ISO games.
This is also where Curry comes into play, which we saw last year with Kyrie and especially LeBron inflicting significant damage when they were able to get Curry matched on them. Curry is a decent defender, but Kyrie is an ISO wizard and LeBron is simply too big and athletic for Steph to handle. This approach by the Cavs kills two birds with one stone since it is simply very effective, but it also wears down Curry and thus affects him on the other end of the court. For their part, the Warriors will attempt to minimize this strategy as much as possible by having Steph matchup with the likes of Smith, Shumpert, Williams, and Korver, which will make it harder for the Cavs to get the desired pick and roll tandem of LeBron and Kyrie vs Steph and whoever is guarding LeBron. Therefore, a key will be how well Smith, Shumpert, and anyone else that Curry is guarding do at making the Warriors pay when they are freed up on those actions with LeBron.
Who guards LeBron and what approach do they take is another question heading into this series. The Warriors have good options in Iguodala (if his knee is sound) and Durant, with doses of Green, Thompson, and Livingston mixed in. This team is better suited to defend LeBron than almost any other team that doesn’t have Kawhi on their roster assuming Andre is relatively healthy. The expectation should be that the Warriors will attempt to live with LeBron shooting outside jumpers despite him hitting 42% from downtown this postseason and that they will try to avoid helping too much in order to prevent one of the best passers in NBA history from setting up the great outside shooting that surrounds him. Due to that, one of the biggest factors of this series as it has been in prior Finals series’ will be how well does LeBron shoot from outside. If he has that working for him, it makes it easier for him to get to the basket and it creates harder decisions for the defense which will open up passing lanes. Another key for LeBron will be his free throw shooting, which has been better this postseason after shooting a career worst 67% during the season.
Like with the Warriors, an X factor for the Cavs will be the outside shooting of their role players. Shumpert in particular needs to make shots and plays when he is ignored in order for him to stay on the floor for his defense. He is an inconsistent and somewhat limited offensive player, but he is a respectable outside shooter as evidenced by his 36% shooting from three during the season and 8-17 mark this postseason. Kevin Love is another key because if he can carry forward his excellent play from the prior two rounds, that will be a significant difference from the Finals last year where he averaged single digits in scoring while only shooting 36% from the field and 26% from three.
Before the postseason I predicted that the Cavs would be pushed to the limit in the East, well that turned out to be embarrassingly wrong. The Cavs playing at such a high level makes me rethink my prediction of Warriors in five. If LeBron and Kyrie can substantially outplay Durant and Curry (no small feat), and the tradeoff of going big in order to dominate the offensive glass outweighs the defensive issues of that decision, the Cavs will have a good chance. However, quite simply, the Warriors have the vastly better defense, they should have won the series last year, and they replaced Harrison Barnes with an all-time great player in the midst of his prime that also happens to be just about a perfect fit.
Warriors in six.