Last time out, we looked over the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference Title bout against the Boston Celtics. After an agonizing seven games, the Cavs were able to pull out the win against their long-time Eastern Conference rival.
The reason it was so agonizing was the difference between the Cavs at home and on the road. At home, they averaged 112.0 points, while on the road they averaged 86.75 points. The scoring disparity fell squarely on Cleveland’s backcourt tandem of George Hill (5.25 road points per game) and JR Smith (4.50 road points per game), who suffered the most from playing away from Quicken Loans Arena.
This was in part to Boston’s litany of lengthy, athletic forwards who frustrated both guards. After Smith and Hill, the inefficient road scoring trickled down to Kyle Korver (6.50 road points per game) and Jordan Clarkson (4.50 road points per game) as well. After taking a few positive steps forward on offense against the Toronto Raptors, the Cavs looked lost against the Celtics.
Despite the horrid scoring and falling into a 3-2 hole, the Cavs were able to eliminate the Celtics in Game 7 in Boston. This was entirely thanks to LeBron James, who averaged 33.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks. His best, and probably career-defining game, came in Game 6 where he defended his kingdom.
With their fourth consecutive Eastern Conference title, the Cavaliers are yet-again back in the NBA Finals. And like their last four trips to the NBA Finals, the Cavs will again be facing the Golden State Warriors.
In what has become the best rivalry in NBA history, the Warriors currently lead the Championship series 2-1. The one win in Cleveland’s corner is the first in franchise history, and probably one of the greatest in NBA history. The Cavs battled back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Warriors in seven games, winning the first championship in over five decades for the city of Cleveland. There are countless moments between both teams in this rivalry, but for the Cavs, winning the title is the highlight.
This season, things have easily gone the Warriors way. The first time both teams met was on Christmas Day in Oakland, with the Warriors winning 99-92. After putting coal in all of Cleveland’s stockings, the Warriors also decided to ruin fan’s New Year, as the Warriors also won 118-108 in mid-January.
But there is a silver lining to the Cavs’ inability to beat the Dubs this season. The Warriors only faced the Cavs this season when Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade were still on the roster. Soon after the January loss, Cavs general manager Koby Altman infamously blew up the roster. He then brought in Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Los Angeles Lakers, George Hill from the Sacramento Kings, and Rodney Hood from the Utah Jazz. With all these new faces, the Warriors do not know what to properly expect heading into the NBA Finals.
Both teams were the preseason favorites to reach the NBA Finals and are both primed and ready for yet-another NBA classic.
NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors (2) v. Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
As mentioned before, the Warriors have not faced the Cavs with their newest additions. After grinding through an ugly seven-game series, the Cavs will look for a fresh start on the NBA’s biggest stage against the defending champions.
Both sides are facing injuries, with Kevin Love (concussion protocol) and Andre Iguodala (knee) both questionable for Game 1. It will be a true test of the starting units, bench mobs, and head coaches in the fourth installment of this rivalry.
After being sidelined since Game 6 against the Celtics, there is a decent chance that Love will play from the start against the Warriors. Iguodala, meanwhile, is still up in the air as he is getting a second opinion on his knee that kept him out most of the Western Conference Finals.
With that factored in, here are the probable starting lineups heading into Thursday night:
- PG: George Hill v. Stephen Curry
- SG: JR Smith v. Klay Thompson
- SF: LeBron James v. Kevin Durant
- PF: Kevin Love v. Draymond Green
- C: Tristan Thompson v. Kevon Looney
The first battle that we will break down is between Cavs guard George Hill and Warriors superstar Stephen Curry. Obviously, Curry is the superior player in every facet of the game as the two-time MVP has turned in yet another dominant playoff run. As it stands, he has averages of 24.8 points on 47.2% shooting along, including 38.5% of his three-point attempts, and 4.9 assists. Hill, meanwhile, has averaged 9.7 points and 2.2 assists.
While Curry outclasses Hill on offense, Hill will be heavily involved on defense. Curry is the head of the Warriors’ basilisk and Hill may have the ability to slow him down a bit. In the series against the Celtics, Hill was key in slowing down Boston guard Terry Rozier. Rozier was on a tear heading into the Eastern Finals and Hill brought him to a screeching halt.
While Curry is light years ahead of Rozier, as long as Hill stays at home on him defensively, he should dampen the two-time MVP’s impact. Curry wins the point guard matchup fairly easily, but Hill does have a dog in the fight, too.
At the other guard, it is a battle between the stoniest players on both rosters in JR Smith and Klay Thompson. Both are three-point specialists who can defend the perimeter well, but Thompson is much more consistent. Smith is the prototypical feast or famine player, and if he is off he will be a detriment to Cleveland’s offense.
When Smith is on, however, he can torch a team and the Warriors know that all too well. In Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Smith became unconscious and provided a spark to help the Cavs overcome the deficit:
While Smith is likely to have one hot shooting game in the NBA Finals, Thompson is still the more consistent player. He is a three-point specialist that is also Golden State’s best perimeter defender. He will likely defend both Hill and Smith while still trying to hurt the Cavs from beyond-the-arc. Smith will provide solid defense as well, but will not have the same impact Thompson will. The Warriors win yet another battle at the two guard spot.
The next battle — and probably the most intense — will be between forwards LeBron James and Kevin Durant. James, the best player in the league, Durant, the second-best, are both the best players on their respective teams and will battle each other on both ends. For Durant, he killed the Cavs during the regular season with averages of 28.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. Durant is a killer from beyond the arc, and combined with Thompson and Curry, will create plenty of problems for the Cavs.
And then there is King James. James and Durant have had plenty of battles in the past and this one may be the most epic yet. As mentioned before, James carried the Cavs past the Celtics and also throughout the season. Expect him to do the same this season as Durant himself admired how unstoppable James is:
Game recognize game. pic.twitter.com/mceG5fxivI
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 29, 2018
Clearly, James is the winner in the small forward matchup between the Dubs and Cavs and finally puts Cleveland on the board. The Cavs will live and die by King James and will give Durant plenty to deal with.
The next, and probably second-most interesting battle is between forwards Kevin Love and Draymond Green. Green is the perfect example of a “glue guy” for the Warriors, as he does a little bit of everything to help the team win. He can score, shoot, pass, and rebound, but his bread and butter will be on defense. He will likely see a lot of time defending LeBron James but will be stalwart against Love as well.
Speaking of Love, as long as he is healthy for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he will be an X-Factor for the Cavs. Like Green, Love can also pass and score in a myriad of ways.
The problem is the Warriors can negate Love’s impact by throwing players like Green and Durant at him to give him fits. The perfect solution to this is to force switches on offense to force Warriors center, Kevon Looney, to be Love’s primary defender. If the Cavs accomplish this, Love will feast like he has on heavy-footed big men all season long.
Again, as it has been previously noted, Love’s health is as important to any of this as what strategies Cleveland implements to use him in the best ways possible.
Fans are skeptical of Love’s ability against the Warriors, but they must not have watched the Christmas Day matchup between both teams. Surprisingly enough, it was not LeBron James, but Love, who was the best player for the Cavs that day, as the team squandered his big night in the Bay:
It should be James’, and the Cavs’, biggest priority to get Love going early in each game. As long as he is in a proper rhythm, it gives the Cavs a fighting chance against the vaunted Warriors. While Green does provide a bit of everything for the Warriors, the implications that Love provides for the Cavs negates his impact. This matchup is a draw between Love and Green.
Finally, the last battle between both starting units is between Tristan Thompson and the aforementioned Looney. Looney has been a bit of a pleasant surprise for the Warriors this season, especially in the Western Conference Playoffs. He has showcased an ability to rebound, play stout defense, and easily finish on easy lob passes. He has entrenched himself as the Warriors center of the future and will have his mettle tested against the Cavs.
Thompson, on the other hand, does a lot of what Looney does, just better. Thompson has earned every penny he makes through hard-nosed defense and rebounding, especially on the offensive glass. The thing that puts Thompson a tier above Looney is the fact that he is also able to switch onto guards like Curry and Thompson and provide admirable defense. Thompson’s ability to switch on defenders, coupled with his other assets makes him the clear winner in the battle against Looney.
Before moving on to the bench battle, it would be remiss to leave Andre Iguodala out of the starting unit battles. When healthy, Iguodala is the final piece to a Warriors unit called the Hampton Five. The combination of Iguodala, Curry, Durant, Thompson, and Green can do a little bit of everything to near-perfect execution. If he does return to form against the Cavs, the Warriors will likely run them out of the building. But, with a nagging knee injury that leaves him in doubt, Iguodala for the moment is the biggest wild card of the series.
While the Warriors have a vaunted, high-octane starting unit, their bench is one of their biggest weaknesses. With Iguodala expected to be a starter when healthy, the reserves that will likely see time for the Dubs are Jordan Bell, Nick Young, and Shaun Livingston.
Bell has been a solid rookie for the Dubs this season, who is trying his best to be a Diet Draymond Green off the bench for the Warriors. He can score, rebound, pass, defend and can try and help Looney in dealing with both Thompson and Love on the glass. Other than that, the Cavs offensive units may likely keep Bell off the floor. He cannot defend the perimeter and if he is on the floor the Cavs should look to exploit the matchup.
Young, aka Swaggy P, has been the Warriors’ personal JR Smith this season. Like Smith, Young has so much confidence that it can either make or break your team. While Young is a streaky shooter, his swagger borders on the plus-sized sister of confidence. If he gets going he can really burn the Cavs from the perimeter and may have some hot shooting stretches for the Dubs.
Finally, the most important member of Golden State’s bench is reserve guard Shaun Livingston. The former Cavalier revived his career with the Wine and Golders after a horrific knee injury and is now the pulse of the Dubs’ bench. He can defend most players on the Cavs and his passing is always just right. He can struggle to score when forced to shoot, and as long as the Cavs swarm passing lanes they can negate Livingston’s impact.
Meanwhile, the Cavs have heavily leaned on their bench all season and will likely see reserve minutes from Larry Nance Jr., Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, and Jordan Clarkson.
Nance, like Bell, has been solid for the Cavaliers in the playoffs, especially against the Celtics. He finally appeared to figure out how to play playoff basketball in the Eastern Final series and it could not have come better for the Cavs down the line.
Unfortunately, just like Bell, the high flying dunk contest runner-up will likely see limited minutes against the Warriors. Nance has had foul problems during his time with the Cavs, and the shooters on Golden State will try to exploit his inability to defend the perimeter.
With Jeff Green, the Cavs have their first of two X-Factors off the bench. Green was sensational for the Cavs in Game 7 against the Celtics, and it if was not for him they would not be in the NBA Finals right now:
Green’s ability to score in a bunch of different ways, coupled with his knack for defense, make him a huge factor for the Cavs. His ability to defend Durant, Green, and Iguodala and then follow up with solid offense, make him leaps and bounds one of the most important bench pieces for the Cavs.
Next up for the Cavs is three-point assassin, Kyle Korver. Through the playoffs, Korver has been the Cavs’ third-best player, which is remarkable with him mostly coming off the bench. Like Green, Korver is the Cavs’ other bench X-Factor. The Cavs need to get Korver rolling as soon as he comes off of the bench and if they do, will make life a lot easier for the squad.
Finally, the wild card off the bench for the Cavs is combo guard Jordan Clarkson. Throughout this series, Clarkson has been touted as an option for the Cavs and will continue to do so against the Warriors. With seasonal averages of 9.7 points and 5.0 assists, if the Cavs get Clarkson rolling on the biggest stage then their bench becomes unstoppable. But with Clarkson, it can be a double-edged sword. If he is off, he can hurt the Cavs just as much as he can help them. He will have the shortest leash in the NBA Finals, but head coach Tyronn Lue should give him some burn.
While the Warriors do have a steady option in Livingston coming off the bench, the Cavs easily win the bench battle. In last year’s NBA Finals, the Cavs’ bench was their biggest pitfall while the Warriors’ was their benefit. This year, the turntables have turned on the Dubs and the Cavs carry the best reserves heading into the series.
The final battle for both squads is between both men holding the clipboards. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has fallen into the perfect situation in Oakland, and coupled with one of the best coaching staffs, has produced one of greatest dynasties in NBA History.
This season has tested Kerr’s coaching mettle as the Warriors have struggled with staying engaged throughout the season. It got so bad that Kerr elected to not coach one night and let his players do his job. Kerr gets tons of praise as one of the best coaches in the league, but the fact that the Warriors are so talented does put in question how hard his job exactly is.
On the other end of the court, a coach that gets nothing but criticism is Tyronn Lue. Most NBA fans tend to joke that the team is secretly run by LeBron James and Lue is just a towel boy in a suit.
Lue does not get enough credit. In this year’s playoffs, he swept the Toronto Raptors, led by Dwane Casey, and knocked out the Celtics, led by Brad Stevens. Interestingly enough, both Casey and Stevens are Coach of the Year candidates who lost to a supposedly lesser coach.
While Lue has his flaws, and there are plenty of things to gripe about, he also is an NBA Championship winning coach. Recently in an interview with The Undefeated, Lue shared some of his coaching merits:
“Lue pointed out that in three out of the four Finals victories, Cleveland held Golden State’s vaunted offense in check.
‘We hold them to 89 points on their home court in Game 7. LeBron’s not doing that,’ Lue said, simply making the point that his staff did an effective job of putting schemes together to stop the Warriors’ high-powered offense.
‘That says a lot. We have a great staff.'”
Lue has a point. He was the one who shut down the Warriors and forced Draymond Green to supposedly recruit Kevin Durant from the parking lot. If it was not for Lue, and his scheme, the game of basketball may not be so lopsided towards one team out West. Kudos to him for wrecking the Association.
But in terms of the battle between both squads, it really is a toss-up. Kerr lacks the ability to keep his team consistently motivated, and it may bite them hard when their talent may not be enough at times. With Lue, there are plenty of questionable decisions but his ability to lock in on an opponent defensively is some of the best in the league. Between overwhelming talent and unbreakable determination, the coaching battle is just too close to call.
With episode four of Cavs v. Warriors only days away, it looks like a cakewalk for the Dubs. But, after breaking down the starting units, bench squads, and head coaches, it actually turns into an evenly matched series.
Both teams have their strengths, weaknesses, and flaws, but in the end, it comes down to who wants it most. That is where it might be easier to hit pause on the Warriors and instead look at the Cavs. LeBron James has lived in the shadow of Michael Jordan his entire NBA career and his hunger for a championship is insatiable.
While James will be driven and motivated for this series, the jury is still out on the Cavs’ role players. They have proven to vanish on the road, and in Oakland and if that happens, the Cavs will be squashed.
It is hard to bet against the Warriors, but having King James in the Cavs’ corner will likely drag this series out to seven games. Simply put, this series is too tightly-contested to call.
Final, final prediction: Too close to call