The NBA Finals are once again upon us and this year we have quite the match-up between two of the leagues biggest juggernauts.Five of the last seven MVP’s have been earned by the two superstars in this series- Steph Curry earning his first this season, and, of course, LeBron James holds 4 of his own. The Warriors and Cavaliers are both coming hot out of the barrel from the Conference Finals as Golden State won in 5 games while Cleveland swept the Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer and his #1 seeded Atlanta Hawks.
The two teams met twice this season, however Lebron James was out for one of those games… throw your conversation out the window if you try to bring up that January game. February 26th the two squared off which resulted in a 110-99 Cavaliers victory.
In the latter game, James put up 42 points while shooting 5-9 from the perimeter, providing his case for MVP against future MVP Steph Curry. The Splash Brothers went 6-14 from the perimeter, each shooting three 3s. Draymond Green showcased his toughness and versatility with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals and 4 assists. Of course, Kevin Love was still playing at this point. With Tristan Thompson taking over for Love, it seems that this current Cavs team is playing a slower yet more efficient game.
With over a week until The Finals begin on June 4th, the speculations and predictions will now start to run wild. The Warriors have shot lights out all season long as Steph Curry shattered 3-point records of all sorts throughout the season. The Cavaliers on the other hand have had their ups and downs, but have certainly found themselves in a rhythm these last few series. A healthy Golden State team poses a true threat to a banged up Cavaliers team that has no Kevin Love, Anderson Varejoa, and of course a hobbled Kyrie Irving. The odds makers in Las Vegas have Golden State winning and don’t seem to think it will be too close.
Golden State has earned home court advantage throughout the series and I expect them to attempt to come in shooting early to get the fanatics in the Oracle Arena involved from the start. However, the Warriors have yet to face a team in the playoffs thus far with as many shooting weapons as the Cavaliers. James Harden is an excellent shooter along with Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry, but they lack the ball movement that Cleveland uses to open the floor.
J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones have been lethal from beyond the perimeter this post-season. The driving provided by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving has certainly been recognized as teams are quick to attempt to trap them once they reach the paint. However, the four listed above have been on the outside to either shoot a wide open three or kick it to the next man up to find the lone perimeter man to shoot the jumper.
The key matchup that I think will gain much attention is Draymond Green vs LeBron James. I’d imagine Steve Kerr, Head Coach of Golden State, will use the versatility of his big man against LeBron. Not many players match up with LeBron, but Green has the unique frame set to size up the unguardable King James. Listed at 6/7′ and 229 pounds, Green finished 2nd in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year race behind Spurs’ Kawhi Leanord despite having more 1st place votes. Bottom line is Green is not your typical defender. Whereas most defenders attempt to merely contain LeBron, Green can most likely slow down King James more than most in the league. Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to see how Kerr uses Green in his line up.
Mozgov and Tristan Thompson have became a force to be reckoned with on the frontline. They have been brutally beating teams on the boards. So you might see David Lee a little more at the 4 spot to try and prevent Tristan Thompson’s rebounding efforts. This means Green would play at the 3 to defend LeBron. Obviously, LeBron is faster than Green and should be using his variety of post moves when Green is on him. LeBron’s trademark baseline fade away killed Green on their February 26th matchup in Cleveland, which resulted in a Cavaliers 11 point victory. When Kerr goes bigger and plays Green at the 4, you will see a lot of Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala defending LeBron in this series, maybe even Klay Thompson.
Another interesting match up will be at the point guard position. Two of the youngest, most athletic upcoming superstars in our league will have the opportunity to go head-to-head. Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, both noted for their incredible handles and their play making ability, could solidify themselves as the future of the point guard spot in the NBA. Both nontraditional, shoot first, floor generals are proving that score first point can indeed lead to team success. And one of the two All-Stars will earn a title. Kyrie has been battling injuries all post-season long, but the nine day rest the Cavaliers get will hopefully help Irving rest up so he is fully healthy for June 4th.
Keys for the Cavaliers:
- They will need to rotate effectively and efficiently on the defensive end. Expect to see a combination of players defend Curry, however Klay Thompson is no scrub either. Iman Shumpert again will have to provide superb defense, and I also won’t be surprised to see a Smith/Shumpert backcourt giving the Cavs some bigger athleticism to help defend the horrifying Splash Brothers. Delly will need to keep up his physical defense as he can hopefully trip up the MVP and get his attention elsewhere from the game itself as he did a good job with against Atlanta.
- Tristan Thompson needs to continue his video game like rebounding. From the left, from the right, from the back, and from the front Double T has been grabbing rebounds and simply out-manning opponents. He is literally changing the pace of the game with his outbursts of offensive rebounding. He’s been like the gnat at the picnic that makes everyone so frustrated.
- Kyrie Irving must be healthy. Understanding the severity of his injury, it’s highly unlikely that he is 100%. As good of a shooter as he is, he must have the explosiveness in his cuts. This is perhaps the most critical part to the Cavaliers’ success, not just so Kyrie can score in the lane but also to defend Stephen Curry. Defenders must stay in front of Curry and not give him an inch of space because once he crosses half court, every spot on the court is in range.
- Lastly for the Cavaliers, LeBron needs to be King James. At this point it’s safe to say that Irving will not be 100%, so LeBron needs to run the Point-Forward spot in which he does so well. Kyrie should have more explosiveness this series than the previous series, but he can always be a spot up shooter as well. James has taken control of his team- he has truly rallied the troops and transformed scrubs into critical role players.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will without a doubt face their biggest challenge since the return of LeBron James. This Golden State team has incredible depth, is the best shooting team the Cavs have faced, and the most talented team overall. The Warriors do a lot more than just shoot and can win in a variety of ways. Head Coach David Blatt will have his most difficult preparation as a coach, having only faced the Warriors twice.
Ultimately, LeBron must be the best player on the planet. This kid from Northeast Ohio will stick to his word this time. “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” LeBron will work the hardest he has ever in his life and the Cleveland Cavaliers will be the NBA Champions after 6 hard fought games.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Matt Stevenson