NBA Finals Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, Take 3

Cleveland and Golden State meet for a record third consecutive year in the NBA Finals. Who has the best chance of winning the rubber match according to the numbers?

Everyone loves a good rubber match.

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are set to meet for the third straight year in the NBA Finals, marking the first time that’s ever happened in the Association’s history. Considering the fact that each team has won a title over the previous two matchups, this series feels like it’s not only a culmination of the 2016-17 NBA season, but of the last three postseasons as well.

Golden State won it all in 2015, but Cleveland has the excuse that they were without both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving for practically all of that matchup. The Cavs returned the favor in 2016, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to become champions, but the Warriors can say that Draymond Green's Game 5 suspension completely altered the trajectory of that series.

This time around, both teams are fully healthy and fully rested, each having played their last playoff game roughly three months ago. (At least that’s what it feels like.) The time for excuses is over, and now we get to find out who’s really better: the defending champions led by one of the best to ever play the game, or one of the winningest teams of all time that has added a former MVP in Kevin Durant since the last time these two met on the league’s biggest stage.

Let’s see what the numbers say.

The Keys to a Warriors Win

Key Question: Can the Warriors perform in the clutch?

The Warriors have been blowing opposing teams to smithereens this postseason, entering the Finals with an average margin of victory (MOV) of 16.3.

Since they've been spending most of the fourth quarters of their 12-0 run to the Finals in garbage time, they've only registered nine total minutes of clutch time (five minutes remaining in a game with a five-point differential between the two teams) this postseason. In fact, they’ve only played 17 total minutes of clutch time over their last 27 games (12 playoff games and the last 15 regular season games, over which they’ve had a combined record of 26-1).

By their standards, the Warriors were fairly pedestrian in the clutch during the regular season as well. In 100 clutch minutes this year, they registered a net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) of 6.0, which ranked 11th in the NBA. Combine that with the fact that they haven't really had the opportunity to fine tune their late-game execution over the last two-plus months, and you might have a problem.

The Cavaliers enter this series with a postseason MOV of 13.6 and a 12-1 record themselves and should -- in theory -- challenge the Warriors more than any other team has been able to do at any other point during these playoffs.

Will that lack of meaningful late-game reps haunt Golden State in what could be a closely-contested series against Cleveland (who have had a strong clutch net rating of 14.2 in the regular season and 24.1 in the playoffs)?

Can Kevin Durant find his place among the Warriors’ free-flowing offense predicated on ball movement, or will he fall back into his ISO-heavy habits from his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder when the game is on the line?

Will the fact that Mike Brown will be calling the shots from the sidelines instead of reigning Coach of the Year Steve Kerr matter, considering Brown has only coached nine clutch minutes with this team since taking over for Kerr in Game 3 of the first round?

We’re about to find out.

Key Stat: The Warriors have a defensive rating of 99.1 this postseason.

Both the Warriors and Cavaliers are top-tier offensive teams, ranked first and third, respectively, by our NBA Team Rankings, but the key difference is on the defensive end.

The Warriors had the second-best defensive rating in the NBA this season at 101.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, while the Cavaliers ranked all the way down at 22nd at 108.0.

A lot has been made of Cleveland’s ability to “flip the switch” come playoff time, and their 104.6 postseason defensive rating shows some evidence of that.

But they’re nowhere close to Golden State and their 99.1 postseason rating.

The Warriors are holding postseason opponents to 41.6% shooting from the field (first in the league) and 32.0% from long range (fourth), and are basically denying everyone from every zone.

Zone Def FG% Postseason Rank
Restricted area 56.6% 2nd
In the paint (non-RA) 40.9% 4th
Mid-range 32.7% 2nd
Left corner three 32.6% 4th
Right corner three 29.3% 4th
Above the break three 32.8% 5th

Draymond Green has a postseason-leading 94.4 on-court defensive rating and Andre Iguodala won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP award for his defensive work on LeBron. The tools are there to put a stop to Cleveland’s red-hot offense (more on that below), and Golden State’s ability to do that will likely be the difference in this series, as they should have no trouble scoring against Cleveland’s mediocre-at-best D.

Key Lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green.

Golden State’s infamous “death lineup” got even more deadly this offseason when the Dubs managed to swap in seven-time All-NBA honoree Kevin Durant in place of Harrison Barnes.

This season, the ridiculously dangerous five-man combo of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green had a net rating of 23.9 in 224 minutes together, the best of any lineup to play at least 200 minutes this season.

They’ve had to use that combination sparingly in the 2017 postseason (21.1 net rating in 32 minutes of action), but it remains a major threat to dismantle Cleveland’s shaky defense. And it could force the Cavaliers to limit Tristan Thompson's minutes, as he and Kevin Love would have a hard time hanging with Golden State’s small frontline of Durant and Green.

This postseason, Thompson has an on-court defensive rating of 98.9 (easily the best on the Cavs), whereas the Cavaliers have been exposed to the tune of allowing 117.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench.

Thompson will need to stay in the game for Cleveland for them to have a shot at slowing down Golden State, so how the Cavaliers manage to counter the Warriors’ revamped “death lineup” will almost certainly be a deciding factor in this series.

Key Player: Draymond Green

It’s hard to pick out a key player on a team with four bonafide All-Stars and a former Finals MVP, but it has to be Draymond Green.

The Warriors proved that they can win a title when Stephen Curry isn’t shooting the lights out in 2015 (44.3% from the field, 38.5% from deep), but the key to their loss in 2016 was the absence of Draymond Green in Game 5.

In last year’s Finals, the Warriors had a net rating of 5.8 when Green was on the floor, and they had a team-worst -15.8 rating when he was off it. In this year’s postseason run, they have a similar differential, as they outscore opponents by a whopping 20.0 points per 100 possessions when Draymond is on the floor as compared to when he’s off.

Most importantly, as mentioned above, the Warriors have a world-beating defensive rating of 94.4 in Draymond’s 416 minutes this postseason, and that number plummets to 111.9 when he’s on the bench.

The addition of Kevin Durant and his matchup with LeBron James will be in the spotlight -- and both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson could catch fire at any time -- but it will be Draymond Green’s defensive presence that will be key in this series against a Cavaliers team that typically gets all the points it wants.

The Keys to a Cavaliers Win

Key Question: Will LeBron's supporting cast be enough?

In 2015, LeBron James managed to take two games from the Warriors, despite being without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In 2016, with a full cast (minus one game missed by Love), the Cavaliers were able to win it all, improbably coming back from a 3-1 series deficit.

In 2017, as sure as it ever was, LeBron is going to continue to get his. What will make the difference in a win or a loss, as we’ve seen in the last two Finals, is if his supporting cast can show up early and often.

Kyrie Irving will need to channel the version of himself that dropped 41 in last year’s pivotal Game 5. Kevin Love will need to continue having the best postseason of his career (averaging 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game while shooting 47.5% from three).

The rest of the Cavaliers will have to continue shooting a blistering percentage from deep.

Player 3PA/G 3P%
Derrick Williams 0.6 66.7%
Channing Frye 3.5 52.6%
Deron Williams 1.7 50.0%
Kevin Love 6.2 47.5%
Iman Shumpert 1.4 47.1%
J.R. Smith 3.8 44.9%
LeBron James 5.8 42.1%
Kyle Korver 4.1 41.5%
Richard Jefferson 1.1 40.0%
Kyrie Irving 6.7 35.6%

Matthew Dellavedova (now with the Milwaukee Bucks) was a pest and a big Stephen Curry deterrent for the Cavaliers the past two years, but the additional shooting from newcomers Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, and Derrick Williams gives LeBron more firepower than perhaps he’s ever had in his career.

He’ll need his teammates firing on all cylinders if he hopes to pull off the improbable and take down this Golden State juggernaut yet again.

Key Stat: The Cavaliers have an offensive rating of 120.7 this postseason.

That offensive rating is on pace to be the highest recorded in NBA history, and it's about to go up against the league’s most efficient defense.

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

The Cavaliers lead all postseason teams in field goal percentage (50.7%), three-point percentage (43.5%), and therefore effective field goal percentage (59.8%), hitting at or above league average from literally everywhere on the floor:

The Warriors, meanwhile, are first in defensive effective field goal percentage, allowing teams to shoot only 46.7%.

It’s worth noting that the Cavs managed to post such an efficient offense going against the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics, who were our 15th-, 11th-, and 13th-ranked defenses, respectively.

One of the most interesting statistical subplots of this series will be if the Cavaliers can continue to produce one of the most efficient postseason offenses of all time when faced with such a powerful defense.

Key Lineup: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson.

The Cavs have trotted out the exact same starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson for all 13 games they’ve played this postseason, and it’s been gangbusters, posting a net rating of 17.3 over 250 minutes of action, including a 21.3 mark in 106 first-quarter minutes.

This will stand as an important counter to Golden State’s dominant starting five of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green, and Zaza Pachulia, a lineup that’s posted a 32.6 net rating in 93 minutes together these playoffs, including a ridiculous 51.4 mark in opening frames.

The Cavaliers will have to withstand a strong initial blow from the Warriors on a nightly basis, and then try to win each game in the margins as rotations shift.

Key Player: LeBron James

We could get cute and talk about Irving or Love in this space, or perhaps discuss how one of Cleveland’s role players are an important x-factor in this series, but let’s all be honest with ourselves: the Cavaliers’ only chance of winning these Finals begins and ends with one LeBron Raymone James.

We’ll get to the overall series prediction in a moment (go ahead and scroll down if you want to make a comparison), but our algorithm would only give the Cavaliers a 10.89% chance of winning these Finals if they didn’t have LeBron.

If they only have a puncher’s chance in this series as it is, James is undoubtedly their right fist.

He’s got 1,273 games and 50,187 minutes in combined regular season and playoff experience over his 14-year career, and he hasn't even remotely slowed down. In 13 games this postseason, he’s averaging an otherworldly 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks in 40.9 minutes per contest while shooting 56.6% from the field and 42.1% from deep (for a postseason career-high effective field goal percentage of 62.5%).

The Cavaliers have a 20.1 net rating in the King’s 532 minutes on the floor as compared to a -6.2 mark in his 92 minutes on the bench. That’s a 26.3 points per 100 possession swing in efficiency when he’s on the floor as compared to when he’s off.

The comparisons of LeBron James to Michael Jordan as potentially the greatest player of all time are gaining steam, and winning this series against possibly the greatest super team ever assembled would only solidify LeBron’s standing in Michael’s tier. Discussing any other Cavalier as a key player at this point would be a disservice to the man’s growing legacy.

Series Prediction

These Finals feature one of the best players of all time going up against one of the best teams of all time, and we’re running it back for an unprecedented third straight year. The playoffs may have been boring this year, and this matchup has seemed practically inevitable since last summer, but there’s no denying the overall historical implications of what should be an exciting and ultimately redeeming series (for someone).

The Golden State Warriors just completed what could be considered the best three-year regular season run in NBA history, and they’ve gotten better each campaign, at least according to our proprietary metric, nERD, a team ranking on a scale from 0-100, based on efficiency. The Warriors put up an 80.7 in 2014-15, 80.6 in their 73-win 2015-16, and then a 82.7 this year. That 2016-17 mark falls only 0.1 behind the 82.8 put up by the Boston Celtics in 2007-08 as the highest mark ever registered in our database, which dates back to 2000.

Anything less than a championship for the Warriors at this point (and winning only one over that insane three-year stretch) would be considered a failure.

On the other side, LeBron James has four MVPs, three titles, and three Finals MVPs under his belt in his age 32 season, while Michael Jordan had four of each at the same age. A win for LeBron against perhaps the greatest team ever assembled puts him on par with MJ, and a loss brings his Finals record to 3-5 over eight appearances.

Anything less than a championship for LeBron James at this point would be measured as a failure by his detractors, even when facing seemingly unassailable odds.

Speaking of odds, here’s what our algorithms have to say about this historically significant series:

Our algorithms pick: Warriors to win at 79.81%.
Odds-on scenario: Warriors win in 5 at 27.26%.

That 79.81% mark might seem like damn near insurmountable odds for LeBron and the Cavs to overcome, but don’t sleep on the fact that, last year, our algorithms had the Warriors to win at 72.08% and to do so in five games at 22.51%.

And we all know how that turned out.

LeBron James has the ability to overcome math. Let’s see if he can do it again.