NBA Finals Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, Part Deux
Here we go again.
Just one year removed from a hard-fought NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, we're in for a second helping. The games will take place in the same locations, and both rosters closely resemble last year's versions, but don't think for a second that this series will give you any sense of déjà vu.
A lot has changed.
For the defending champion Golden State Warriors, expectations are simply higher.
Last year, they were fresh off a 67-win season and an entry into the exclusive club of the eight teams (at the time) in NBA history with a margin of victory (MOV) north of 10 (10.10, to be exact). Those things suggested they should be held to a title-or-bust standard, but it was their first time beyond the second round as a group and the franchise's first Finals appearance in 40 years. If they had lost, inexperience would have likely been blamed and they still would have been commended for a clear season-long step in the right direction.
This year, however, everything's just bigger. They set an NBA record that may never be broken by going 73-9. They joined the plus-10-MOV club yet again, becoming only the third team ever to do it in back-to-back seasons (the 1970-72 Milwaukee Bucks and the 1995-97 Chicago Bulls being the others). They were on the ropes in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder but turned that around to become only the 10th team in NBA playoff history to rally back from a 3-1 series deficit. Not bookending this superlative season with a title would undeniably be considered a failure, one big-ass #WellActually on their "Best Team Ever" nomination.
As for the Cavaliers, this might be the best shot at a title that the franchise has ever had.
Last year, they went into the Finals down Kevin Love (dislocated shoulder) and lost Kyrie Irving (fractured kneecap) to injury after just one game. One could make an argument for putting an asterisk on last year's Warriors win because of Cleveland's injuries, but there will be no excuses like that this year. Everyone on both teams is coming in as healthy as anyone can be after a full 82-game season and 14 to 17 playoff games, so it's all going to come down to which team is better.
In the end, the Cavaliers' chances begin and end with LeBron James. This will mark LeBron's sixth straight appearance in the Finals and seventh overall. He's got two titles to show for all those trips to go with four losses on the NBA's biggest stage. As one of the best ever to play the game, his legacy shouldn't be defined in Finals losses, but they will undoubtedly stand as a glaring footnote on his decorated career if he adds yet another one to his résumé. If he manages to win a professional sports title for the city of Cleveland for the first time in 52 years while taking down one of the best teams of all time in the Warriors? That would be legacy-cementing accomplishment.
Neither team is simply "happy to be here," and both have a place in history they're looking to carve out. Only one can win, though, so let's look at the keys to victory for both teams and how our algorithms project this thing to play out.
The Keys to a Warriors Win
Key Question: Are the Warriors wearing down?
Golden State, fresh off a long title run, spent this entire season locked in while going for the 73-win record. They won their division by 20 games and had the San Antonio Spurs beat for the top spot in the Western Conference over a week before the end of the regular season. Most teams would have taken advantage of such a cushion and rested up for the playoffs, but the Warriors made a point of chasing history.
They achieved their goal in setting the NBA's record for wins in a single season, sure, but two consecutive Finals runs with an emotionally-packed 82-game season jammed in the middle might be catching up to Golden State. The Oklahoma City Thunder blew out the Warriors in two consecutive games in the conference finals by a combined 52 points, making Golden State look more mortal than they have at any other point over the last two years.
It took everything the Warriors had to come back and win that series against OKC, while the Cavaliers have spent most of these playoffs chilling after two sweeps and a conference finals that wasn't much of an adverse situation.
Will fatigue catch up to the Warriors? Can the Cavaliers capitalize on being a relatively well-rested Finals team by comparison? We'll see.
Key Stat: The Warriors have a Net Rating of 49.3 in 30 minutes of clutch time (last five minutes of a five-point game) this postseason.
That comes from an Offensive Rating of 130.7 and a Defensive Rating of 81.4. If these games are close, that absolutely favors the Warriors.
By comparison, the Cavaliers have had a Net Rating of 2.4 in 24 minutes of clutch time these playoffs, coming from a 103.3 Offensive Rating and 100.8 Defensive Rating in such situations.
Key Lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green.
The infamous "death lineup" hasn't been all that deadly these playoffs, with a Net Rating of -0.3 in 72 minutes played. Their Offensive Rating of 111.3 would make any team shake in their boots, but the 111.6 Defensive Rating shows that it can be beaten. The Thunder were able to counter it just fine in the last round, holding it to a -7.2 Net Rating in 59 minutes of action.
But this five-man unit was basically born in last year's Finals, when it posted a 21.8 Net Rating (109.7 Offensive Rating, 88.0 Defensive Rating) in 70 minutes. It was one of the big reasons why Golden State was able to win the title last year, so seeing how Cleveland has learned to counter it with a year to pick it apart will be a key to this series.
Key X-Factor: Andre Iguodala
Last year's Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala, is a bit of an obvious pick here for an X-factor, but there's just no underselling how important he is going to be in this series.
During last year's tilt between these two teams, while Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were struggling with their shooting, Iggy stepped up and scored 16.3 points per game on 52.1% shooting from the field and 40.0% from deep. And he did that while checking LeBron James as much as anyone can check LeBron James on the defensive end.
Expecting an exact repeat of last year's performance might be asking a bit much, but beyond each team's All-Star trios, a role player like Iguodala stepping up on both ends can be a real difference-maker.
The Keys to a Cavaliers Win
Key Question: Can Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Tyronn Lue handle the big stage?
Last year's Finals were all about LeBron dragging his team into a competitive series, but this year, he'll have his star teammates in tow. The question is whether they can be effective enough on the defensive end to make this a competitive series.
Irving and Love are both notoriously bad defenders, so they'll need to find ways to contribute on that end if they want to stay on the floor when their team needs them the most. Irving showed that he can flip the switch when he guarded Stephen Curry hard for the one game he played in the Finals last year, but he needs to show that he can sustain that intensity over four to seven games.
Love, on the other hand, has never really shown that he even has a switch to flip. This postseason, he's allowing opponents to shoot a whopping 65.2% on 6.6 shots at the rim per contest, easily the worst mark of anyone facing at least four attempts per game in that area. He's a huge liability when defending pick-and-rolls, and opposing teams love to attack him that way when he's on the floor. His inability to protect the rim or handle a pick-and-roll might render him unusable for big stretches in this series.
And that's where Tyronn Lue will have to be careful. This is not only a rookie head coach in the NBA Finals but also one who only got half a season of work in. The Cavaliers have performed well since he took over, but a seven-game series with the Warriors presents the biggest challenge he's faced to date, and his rotation adjustments and just how quick his hook is with Love or Irving when they can't hold down the fort on defense will be a big factor in this series.
Key Stat: The Cavaliers are hitting 14.4 threes per game at a clip of 43.4%.
Both of those numbers represent the top marks by any team this postseason. The Cavs are really the only team out there that might be able to out-Warrior the Warriors, who are hitting 12.5 at 40.3%.
Notably, the Cavaliers have hit 45.7% of their threes over their 12 wins but only shot 32.9% from long range in their two losses to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. In this series, Cleveland will likely only go as far as their three-point accuracy can take them.
Key Lineup: Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, LeBron James, Channing Frye.
This LeBron-plus-bench unit has been absolute murder during these playoffs. Through 70 minutes, the lineup has a Net Rating of 46.6, thanks to an Offensive Rating of 124.1 and a Defensive Rating of 86.6. They're also posting an Effective Field Goal Percentage (weighted twos and threes) of 72.0% and assisting on 72.7% of their made buckets.
This doesn't look like a particularly frightening lineup on paper, but in reality, it has been destroying opponents. All five players on the floor can defend and hit open threes, and with LeBron orchestrating it all and drawing defenders, there are plenty of those open shots to go around.
It also represents an interesting counter to Golden State's "death lineup" or any other small-ball iterations they can throw out there, and that's something that the Cavs didn't really have at their disposal last year. Be on the lookout for how Lue deploys this unassuming-but-deadly unit and how it impacts the series.
Key X-Factor: Channing Frye
Channing Frye was a midseason acquisition for the Cavaliers this year, and he's fit in beautifully.
This postseason, he's averaging 8.6 points per game, while shooting 62.1% from the field, 57.8% from long range, and 80.0% from the line (for a ridiculous True Shooting Percentage of 82.1%).
He can defend better than Love and stretch the floor better than Tristan Thompson, so he acts as a perfect hybrid of the two (minus the elite rebounding) when one or the other needs to leave the floor for defense or spacing issues. That will be a big asset against the Warriors with the way they often force teams to match their small-ball lineups or get run out the gym.
The Warriors are on a path to become considered one of the best teams of all-time, while LeBron and the Cavaliers are trying to end the longest current championship drought in professional sports for Cleveland. The stakes in this series are quite simply as high as we've ever seen in a Finals.
Who has the edge? Well, there are a lot of questions that need answering.
Who is the best player in the NBA today, LeBron or Steph? Which of these two teams has the best "Big Three?" Which role players will rise to the challenge? Which team will run hottest from long range? Which team can dominate the small-ball game? Can the Warriors establish themselves as a budding dynasty? Can LeBron finally get his Cleveland title and make his case as one of the best to ever play the game even more compelling?
There are so few tangible answers to these questions at this point, so how about we let our fancy algorithms make this prediction instead?
Our algorithms pick: Warriors to win at 72.08%.
Odds-on scenario: Warriors win in 5 at 22.51%.