NBA Finals Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors

Image credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

 

By Chris Molicki

There were quite a few twists and turns to get back here, but everyone is getting what they expected: Cavaliers vs. Warriors, the rematch. Kevin Durant and the Thunder were so close to crashing the party, but they came up just short.

The stakes here are massive. Golden State needs to cap off its 73-win season with a title, or everyone will (foolishly) keep saying “it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that ring.” LeBron James is once again campaigning to bring a major sports title back to Cleveland for the first time in 52 years. And we get to debate who the best player in the league is: LeBron or Stephen Curry?

There’s so much to cover in these finals, so I’m going to hit on the main storylines in this series and what you should be watching for.

Warriors vs. Giants

Against the Thunder, Golden State had an extremely difficult time with the OKC big men. Steven Adams was a terror, Serge Ibaka was rejuvenated, and the overall length of the team created a swarming defense by shutting down all passing lanes. This forced the Warriors into dozens of sloppy turnovers and ultimately proved that it is possible to beat Golden State if you go big.

Does this mean that Cleveland’s imposing frontcourt will do the same thing? No. The Cavs’ big men are much different from those of the Thunder. They don’t have a roller like Adams. Channing Frye and Kevin Love spend most of their time on the perimeter. Tristan Thompson, who did hurt Golden State in last year’s Finals, isn’t exactly a lengthy rim protector either.

One interesting option that Tyronn Lue may decide to do is plug in Tomfey Mozgov, who’s been out of the lineup for a while now. Mozgov doesn’t really fit into the Cavs’ new style of play, but he does give them a paint protector and rim roller that could give the Dubs fits. He’s no Adams, but he could have some success. Don’t be shocked if Mozgov returns.

However, it’s a bit lazy to assume that just because the OKC big men beat up the Warriors means the Cleveland bigs will.

Christian Petersen-Getty Images
Christian Petersen-Getty Images

The Harrison Barnes Factor

Barnes has always been a mercurial player for Golden State. When he’s on, the Warriors are nearly unstoppable. But there are times that Barnes disappears, and the Warriors lose some of their invincibility. Against OKC, Barnes scored a total of 20 points in Golden State’s final three wins and was taken off of Kevin Durant duty in favor of Andre Iguodala. It’s likely that Steve Kerr will go that route against James and the Cavs. Remember, Iast year Iggy won Finals MVP. But this is a different and better Cleveland team, and Golden State will need both of their swingmen to be playing well.

Shooting Battle

We all saw what Cleveland’s outside shooting has morphed into this postseason, with guys like Frye, Love, JR Smith, and Kyrie Irving bombing away. When the Cavs are hitting their shots like that, they become nearly unstoppable. But their opponent knows a thing or two about shooting as well. There were times against the Thunder when the Warriors weren’t hitting their shots and suddenly became vulnerable. But when they have games like Game 7, where Curry and Klay Thompson combine for 13 threes, they morph back into the supernova that won 73 games.

There are two things to look for in terms of the shooting of both teams. One is from a defensive standpoint. The Cavs have been pretty lackluster defensively, especially on the perimeter when they let Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan torch them. Golden State is a much better defensive team, so we should expect them to cool down the Cavs’ shooting (and not the other way around) more often than not.

However, we finally got a glimpse of what it’s like when the Warriors don’t hit their shots, and there were times it got ugly. To their credit, they played against an otherwordly Thunder defense. But the fact remains that it is possible to slow them down, and a lot of that will depend on Lue’s defensive scheme, the players’ execution, and simply whether or not Golden State’s shots fall.

Curry’s Worst Nightmare

In last year’s Finals, it was Matthew Dellavedova who finally got to Curry, stifling him for the early part of the series until the MVP turned it around. This time around, Dellavedova will be counted on to do the same thing, something he’s done well so far in the playoffs.

When Curry was “playing hurt” this postseason, the Dubs looked beatable. I add the quotation marks because we’re not 100% sure how 100% Curry is/was (although I think he’s fine). Dellavedova is going to have to make Curry’s life miserable, both physically and mentally. He’ll need to hound Curry into playing like he did when he first returned from injury. And I do think he can have some success with it. That will go a long way in determining the outcome of these Finals.

USATSI
USATSI

Draymond Green’s Emotions

The emotional leader for the Warriors, Green had a pretty underwhelming series against the Thunder. He was also rather ineffective in the first few games of last year’s Finals. But Golden State won both of those, so Green shouldn’t matter as much, right?

Wrong. Green is so crucial to this team in so many ways. His lineup versatility and extensive skill set allow him to do a lot of different things and help this machine run on both ends of the floor. He’ll have to battle Cleveland’s bigs both down low and on the perimeter.

There are two questions I have about Green’s fiery personality. First, will he mentally check out like he did against OKC? The team needs Green’s passion and leadership, and his lack thereof almost got the Dubs eliminated. Green needs to be locked in and focused. Second, will he get suspensed? Green needs either two more technicals or one more flagrant foul to get a one-game suspension. If he’s forced to miss a game, that could greatly change the complexion of this series.

Good JR or Bad JR?

With all the starpower in these Finals, it might be hard to believe that JR Smith may have the ability to swing the series drastically in one direction more than anyone else, but it might be true. When JR is at his best, he’s hitting insane, backbreaking shots that very few people in the league can make. Despite his volatility, he remains in the upper echelon of shot makers in the league. He’s also developed into a solid wing defender, something he’ll need to display when matching up with Thompson, or maybe even Curry. A hot-shooting Smith could propel Cleveland to a title.

But when Bad JR shows up, it could completely submarine their chances. Defensive lapses, dumb fouls, and ill-timed bad shots have plagued Smith throughout his career, often in big moments. For many people, it’s not a matter of if Smith will screw up, but when.

Due to his track record, we should expect to see Bad JR as opposed to Good JR. But the fact that JR Smith willing a team to a title is even a possibility is truly incredible. What a time to be alive.

Maddie Meyer-Getty Images
Maddie Meyer-Getty Images

Whole Lotta Love?

Ever since Lue took over, Love has found himself again, and that extended to the playoffs. Love steamrolled the Pistons and Hawks, and despite some struggles against Toronto, ultimately had an impressive series against them as well. He’s hitting his threes, grabbing boards, and making pinpoint passes.

One thing he’s not doing, however, is playing good defense. And that could wind up limiting his playing time in the Finals. In most scenarios, Love would probably be matched up with Green, and that’s a battle he simply will not win. Love isn’t quick enough or good enough defensively to deal with Green, and he could end up on the bench late in games in favor of Frye or Thompson.

A lot of people have criticized Love, but there’s no doubt he’s an extremely talented and versatile offensive player. The Cavs will need that player, but if he’s forced to sit, that removes a crucial element to their offense.

Second Bananas

Klay Thompson has been on fire as of late, and is firmly establishing himself as a superstar. Kyrie Irving played only one game in the Finals last year. The battle between the No. 2’s will be a fascinating one in this series, even if Irving doesn’t spend too much time guarding Thompson.

Thompson has come up big, especially in Game 6 at OKC when he dropped 41 points. If Klay can keep his red-hot shooting up, it’ll pose a major problem for Cleveland’s defense. I’m not sure they can handle both Curry and Thompson if they’re both on their game.

Irving is having a superb playoffs as well, and while he doesn’t have the defensive chops that Thompson does, he can put up points in a hurry. We all know Irving has one of the best handles in the league and a deadly jumper to go with it. Now we’ll see if he can display his game on the biggest stage.

Like JR, both of these players have the ability to swing this series. Unlike JR, they’ll both consistently be taking a lot of shots. Whoever plays better could wind up winning the series for their respective team.

The King

At the end of the day, it all comes back to LeBron. The most influential player in the league, James will be playing with the motivation to bring a title to his hometown, as well as proving he’s still the best player in the world. James will bring his classic array of passing, defense, and athleticism that will be hard for anyone on Golden State to stop, even Iguodala. If James can dominate Iguodala, Barnes, and whoever the Warriors throw at him, he may just completely take over this series.

There are two aspects of LeBron’s game that will be especially important to watch. The first is his jump shooting and how the Warriors defend it. In the beginning of the playoffs, LeBron’s jumper had gone cold, and the Pistons and Hawks played off of him, giving them a better chance if he decided to attack. But as the playoffs went on, James started hitting shots again. The Warriors could choose to just disregard that, pack that paint, and force James to beat them from the perimeter. That’s not a terrible strategy, and it should give them a better chance to defend Cleveland’s array of shooters. But beware, if the King gets hot, that could spell doom.

The other thing to watch for is LeBron’s mentality when the going gets tough. This isn’t to say that James isn’t a good leader. I think he is. But there have been times where LeBron has shown a negative attitude when his team is struggling, and that could happen quickly against Golden State. It’s up to LeBron to not waver in the face of adversity.

Prediction

This series is truly historic. James is already one of the best of all time. He’s going against the best regular season team of all time, which sports the best shooter of all time. This rematch could be the second of many, as there’s a chance we see this matchup multiple times over the course of the next few years, with a great rivalry being born. If you’re a LeBron fan, you have a horse in the race. If you’re rooting for history or Curry, there’s something for you as well. And if you just love basketball, get ready for a hell of a fight.

I have to go with the Warriors here. Golden State seems to have rediscovered its mojo, is healthy again, and won’t have to deal with the relentless OKC defense. Love may wind up marginalized in this series, which would really hurt Cleveland’s offensive potential. If you have LeBron James, anything is possible. And the Cavs could catch fire at any time. But if the Thunder couldn’t crack the code, I’m not sure even James and his crew can.

Warriors in 6

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