With the 2016 NBA Finals set to tip off between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, there is a whole heck of a lot we have to look at in this rematch of last year’s title bout.
Can the Warriors play like a 73-win team for long stretches in the Finals? That’s something we have yet to see thus far in the playoffs.
For the Cavaliers, it’s going to be all about ball movement, spacing and hitting the three on offense. In the midst of a record-setting stretch from the perimeter (more on that here), Cleveland can mitigate Golden State’s domination from the outside with a strong performance there.
These are among the eight biggest keys to the NBA Finals.
Warriors: Play like a 73-win team
The Warriors have played like a historically good team in spurts throughout the playoffs. Although, they have yet to put up one full game where they looked like the record-setting team we saw during the regular season.
That’s going to have to change if the defending champs want to avoid a full seven-game series and a potential loss to the Cavaliers.
Interestingly enough, one of the Warriors’ most-impressive performances during the regular year came against this very same Cleveland squad on the road back in January. Golden State won the game 132-98 after leading by 43 points when the starters exited early in the final stanza.
Few have talked about it, but then Cavaliers head coach David Blatt was fired just a few days later.
Golden State shot 54 percent from the field, hit on 19 three-point attempts, tallied 33 assists, committed just eight turnovers and were plus-15 in fast-break points.
While Cleveland did shoot a respectable 48 percent in the game, it turned the ball over 16 times, leading to 21 points for the Warriors.
There’s a lot we can look at from that game, at least when it comes to how dominant the defending champs can be when they are playing elite basketball.
First off, the big three of Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 16 assists compared to three turnovers. They also shot an accumulative 22-of-39 from the field, including 10-of-21 from beyond the arc.
In reality, it all started on the defensive side of the ball. Golden State ran the Cavaliers off the three-point line, as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith attempted a combined six from beyond the arc, hitting one of those shots.
Stats may tell us a different story, but the Warriors were among the best teams in the NBA when it came to perimeter defense. Considering the Cavaliers reliance on the three in the playoffs, that’s going to be a huge key here. When Golden State is defending that line, it really is hard to beat.
On the other end of the spectrum, Cleveland’s entire mentality on offense changed once Blatt was fired shortly after its most-recent loss to the Warriors. More than simply relying on the three-pointer at a larger clip, the Cavaliers have done a tremendous job spacing the court. That can help the team overcome elite-level perimeter defense from the opposition.
One of the primary reasons Cleveland has succeeded at such a high clip on offense in the playoffs is that is hasn’t gone isolation that much at all.
This must continue against a Warriors team that boasts some of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the entire NBA.
No one in Cleveland wants to see Kevin Love go isolation against Draymond Green. That’s definitely not going to be a recipe for success. And in reality, that’s one of the primary reasons Love has struggled against Green over the past two seasons.
The same can be said for J.R. Smith going up against Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving taking on Stephen Curry.
When Cleveland does go isolation, it will have to be LeBron James against a combination of Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. With spacing, that will help set up open shots from beyond the arc.
No matter how good Iggy has been against James over the past eight games, he’s going to need help when the former MVP drives to the line. That will create drive and dish opportunities for James.
We’ve seen this a ton in the playoffs.
In real time, it’s hard to understand just how good of an offensive set this was. Once James hits the free-throw line, he has two wide-open options out on the perimeter in both Love and Smith. That’s the issue for teams attempting to defend his drive.
We can’t say Golden State lives and dies by the three. That would be a surface-based point without any real substance to it.
What we can say is that the defending champs are nearly unbeatable when nailing from distance. The final two games of the Western Conference Finals was a prime example of this, as Golden State hit on a combined 38 three-pointers in closing out the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Overall, the Warriors boast a 20-2 record over the past two postseasons when they hit more than 10 threes. In those 20 wins, Golden State’s average margin of victory is 16.3 points. They are just 8-8 when they hit 10 threes or less during that very same span.
The issue here for Cleveland is that it has three pretty bad defenders in Smith, Irving and Love. While having the latter two in the series is going to be huge offensively, it will also be an issue on the defensive end of the court.
Simply put, the Cavaliers cannot have confidence in Smith guarding Thompson on the outside.
If Curry and Thompson are on, this series won’t go much further than five games. We saw how dominating the Warriors can be when the two Splash Brothers have it going from the outside together.
Even if one is off, the other has the capability to pick up the slack with the help of a group of second-tier options that can also drill them from the outside.
Remember, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes all shot at least 35 percent from distance during the regular season. Combined, they nailed 236 treys while shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.
That’s where it’s going to be extremely important for Cleveland to defend the perimeter in this series. It’s not just Klay and Steph that can beat you from distance. This is also where the likes of Smith, Irving and Love come into play.
First off, let’s throw out the narrative that a rookie head coach can’t win the title. We can just look at the Warriors from last season as a case study there.
In an indirect manner, this gives first-year Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue something to build on heading into the Finals.
Lue has done a masterful job in that he allows Cleveland’s offense to play to the strengths of the roster. By this, we mean that he’s not stifling the assets the Cavaliers possess simply to play within the confines of a system that doesn’t fit the team’s strengths.
This isn’t to say that the Cavaliers have anywhere near an advantage here. Steve Kerr won the NBA’s Coach of the Year for a reason. Luke Walton was among the finalists for a reason. Walton himself is the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers for a reason. None of this happened on accident. Golden State has the coaching advantage in the series.
What Lue and the Cavaliers have to do here is make sure that the difference between these two staffs isn’t readily apparent on the court. That is to say, get out of the players’ way and let them do what they do.
In reality, that’s pretty much what has defined Kerr’s tenure in Oakland. If Lue can use that blueprint, an obvious Warriors advantage may not be as huge as it seems right now.
Warriors: Playing like a MVP
When Stephen Curry is on, the Warriors don’t lose often. This is a proven fact — one that can be backed up by stat after stat after stat.
Averaging over 30 points per game during the regular season, Curry reached that plateau 40 times in 79 games. The Warriors put up a 38-2 record in those games, including a 24-1 mark against playoff teams.
When looking at the playoffs over the past two seasons, the Warriors are 13-0 when Curry puts up 30-plus points. That’s a total mark of 67-3 when he hits this mark over the past two years.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if Curry had only put up 30-plus in a handful of games. Based on his per-game averages, that’s not the case.
We aren’t talking about volume scoring here. Primarily due to the number of threes Curry nails, he’s among the best in the history of the game in terms of points per shot. That number is going to be just as telling as how many points he averages in the series.
Consider this: Michael Jordan’s best statistical season came in 1987-88 when he averaged 35 points while shooting 54 percent from the field. That very same season saw him average 1.44 points per shot. This past regular season, Curry averaged 1.49 points per shot.
It’s going to be about Curry’s shooting. We already know this. But if the Cavaliers can put pressure on him on the perimeter, it will make the under-sized guard uncomfortable. Teams have been able to do this from time to time.
Curry is also known for turning the ball over a ton at times. Making sure Curry is uncomfortable early in the offensive set will be huge here.
That could come with three-quarter court press or on-ball pressure before the Warriors begin said set. As it is, it’s safe to assume Cleveland has a plan of attack here. Whether it works is anyone’s guess.
Cavaliers: Get over the Warriors hump
Recency bias can sometimes play too large of a role in the analysis of sports.
After all, Golden State swept through Oklahoma City during the regular season before finding itself on the brink of elimination in three separate games to close out the Western Conference Finals.
But it’s also something we have to look at when finding a way to project what might happen moving forward.
Those five losses have come by an average of 16.2 points per game.
Sure Irving was absent from four of these games with Kevin Love missing the Finals last season. That’s not necessarily the point here.
Instead, it’s all about how Cleveland responds mentally. It is coming into the series as obvious underdogs. It is doing so boasting a player that had up until just recently been universally considered the best on the planet.
This is where James’ mental toughness and experience comes into play. There will be multiple times in the first two games where Oracle Arena in Oakland is intolerably loud for the road team. These times will likely be met with runs from the home squad.
That’s where James’ experience can play a major role here. Can he calm down his teammates? If that happens and if the Cavaliers show a mental toughness that their on-court leader has displayed over the years, the team will be just fine.
Warriors: Maximizing the rotation
Kerr was sharply criticized in the Bay Area for not shortening his rotation during the early-mid stages of the Western Conference Finals.
For Kerr, it was all about going with what had enabled him to post an .854 winning percentage in his first two seasons as the team’s head coach. Trust the bench, have faith in the reserves and don’t stray from this philosophy on a whim.
Golden State’s bench responded by by outscoring Oklahoma City’s bench 19-13 in Game 7. Considering the Warriors won by eight, it’s reasonable to conclude that its bench played a huge role in the series.
We already know Iguodala will be closing out games. We also know that the Warriors will have the reigning NBA Finals MVP on James the vast majority of the series.
It’s all about how Kerr uses his big’s that’s going to help dictate the outcome of the series.
Once Golden State went small in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Thunder, Bill Donovan had no other choice but to sit break-out star Steven Adams.
In reality, it was all about Kerr controlling how the Thunder were going to respond. One might say, controlling the game.
That’s where the Association’s top coach can act the part of a maestro. He has the bench to be able to do it. He has the personnel to dominate in this aspect of the game. It’s all about pulling the right cards at the right time.
Cavaliers: Kevin Love must play well
Cleveland will only win this series if Love plays well on both ends of the court. Going up against Draymond Green has proven to be a struggle for Love throughout his career.
He averaged just 6.5 points while shooting 29 percent from the field and 1-of-8 from three-point range against the Warriors in the regular season.
Meanwhile, Green averaged 19.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists while shooting at a near 50 percent clip against the Cavaliers (more on this matchup here).
If these numbers are in any way similar in the Finals, the Warriors will win going away.
It’s not just that Love needs to pack a punch on the offensive end of the court. After all, that’s something we should expect. He’s averaging nearly 18 points and shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc in the playoffs.
Instead, Love needs to play well on defense. He’s a weak link for the Cavaliers in that aspect of the game, and it’s surely something the Warriors will look to expose.
As one of the best passing big men in the game, Green can rip apart a defense simply by being the engine that makes his Warriors offense go, both on the perimeter and down in the low post. If Love is not up to the task there, it’s going to be a long series for Cleveland.