Well, that escalated quickly didn’t it? I think we should all take a minute to collect our breath after the Western Conference Finals. En route to becoming just the 10th team ever to come back from down 3-1 to advance, Golden State also set an NBA record for number of threes made in a series (90), Steph Curry set the record for number of threes made in a playoff series by a player (32, on an NBA record 77 attempts), Klay Thompson set the record for number of threes in a playoff game (11), and most importantly, Golden State may have been the last team to play Kevin Durant in a Thunder jersey. This has to be heartbreaking for the OKC team and Thunder fans, as just a week ago it seemed like there was no way the Warriors could come back after two 20+ point drubbings in Games 3 and 4. Yet here we are, with the Warriors relentless pursuit of history still alive.
Since we made it here, we might as well take a peek at what the NBA Finals have in store for us. At first glance, it appears to just be a rematch of last year’s near brawl between Golden State and Cleveland. Upon a closer look, though, the changes are clear. This is a different Cavaliers team, not only because they have a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but also a differently emphasized supporting cast and new coach as well. How Tyronn Lue handles the pressure of coaching in the Finals, particularly when it will likely require some smart adjustments halfway through, will be a big factor in this series.
From a roster standpoint, the Cavaliers beat the Toronto Raptors with a starting five of Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Love, and Tristan Thompson. Compare that to last year, when they spent most of the finals series with a starting five of Matthew-I-will-dive-at-your-knee-Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, James, Timofey Mozgov, and Thompson, you have some obvious differences, particularly from an offensive standpoint. Add in the fact that Dellavedova and Mozgov have been somewhat marginalized, while Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson are getting serious minutes and the finals will be very different.
This year, instead of the grind-it-out team, the Cavs are better built to run with and bomb threes like Golden State. They are not, however, going to play defense like Golden State. Between Love and Irving, Cleveland will have to find places to basically hide two players and I do not think the Warriors will offer them two good options. If Irving matches up with Curry and Love with Green, look for Golden State to run pick-and-rolls until the cows come home. Even with maximum effort, Irving and Love will get torched by the Green/Curry combo.
Cleveland might have better luck with Love guarding Harrison Barnes (if he is back into the starting lineup) or Andre Iguodala, letting LeBron guard Green, setting up a switch onto Curry. My hunch, though, is that Golden State will be smart enough to pick whoever Love guards and it may be that Lue is forced into his first major decision of whether or not to bench Love. Please, let there be that level of drama. Another wrinkle to watch will be if J.R. Smith can stay attentive enough to guard Curry and/or Klay Thompson for long stretches, especially when they start screening for each other. I can see Lue having to bring back Dellavedova for a larger role, given how pesky he can be on defense and maybe even starting Iman Shumpert for the same reason. How Cleveland defends the Warriors will mean everything in this series since, as we just saw, Golden State can seemingly shoot their way out of any deficit.
Golden State on the other hand is largely unchanged, with the biggest difference being the absence of David Lee, who played some crucial minutes in a few games last year. Instead, the Dubs will rely on Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao off the bench. (Varejao, incidentally, will likely get a championship ring no matter what after becoming the first player ever to have played for both teams in the finals during the regular season.) The biggest question for Golden State entering Thursday night is who starts, Harrison Barnes or Iguodala? After Barnes basically pulled a disappearing act for large stretches of the Thunder series, I wonder if Steve Kerr elects to keep Iggy out there to guard LeBron. On a related note, Barnes is playing his way out of a potential max contract this summer and as a #TarHeel, I could not be more sad for him.
From a broader perspective, there has been some talk that the way Cleveland destroyed the competition on their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs is proof they are the better team, but that was inferior competition. On the flip side, the way Golden State had to get through the murderous Western Conference may mean more fatigue heading into the Finals. Although I do think that may be a realistic issue, the adrenaline of going for history is probably enough incentive to leave it all on the floor. Additionally, the Finals offers a friendlier rest schedule between games to offset any fatigue.
At the end of the day, this is LeBron’s desire versus Golden State’s reach for history (as an aside, win or lose, this series should only serve to raise LeBron’s esteem, not lessen it–c’mon people, the man has made it to six straight finals). LeBron has had a whole year to prepare, mentally and physically, for this rematch. He has a new coach, a combination of new and healthy teammates, and a fragile chemistry against potentially the best team ever. I cannot wait for this to get started. My prediction: Golden State over Cleveland, 4-2.
Photo Credit: USATSI