NBA Finals Cavaliers vs. Warriors preview: Seven key questions that will decide series

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Seven games to decide the NBA title. If that many are needed (they probably won’t be). Still to be symmetrical, we’ve got seven questions that will be at the heart of this series. If you want a more NBA Finals previews, check out our Podcast where myself and Dan Feldman break it all down.

1) Can Cleveland have success running and gunning against Golden State? There’s a simplistic line of thinking that goes “the Cavaliers pushed the Finals to six games last year without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, this is a better Cavs team, they will win.” No doubt, they are a better Cavaliers team than a year ago, and they do have a chance. The challenge is that with the return of those two stars the Cavaliers have started to play small and fast — Channing Frye is the backup center and coach Tyronn Lue likes to pair him with Kevin Love and put out a running, shooting lineup. It’s worked well through the playoffs.

But do the Cavaliers want to get into an up-and-down, small ball running game with the Warriors? Do they want to try to out Warrior the Warriors? Oklahoma City just tried that — with far better athletes and defenders up and down the roster — and got torched in the final two games going small, and they lost the series. Cleveland coach Lue has pushed this team to play fast and said that is not changing now.

“We just have to play our game. We’re not going to slow the ball down and be at ease. We’re going to push the pace, try to get easy baskets early in transition but make sure we’re taking good shots,” Lue said.

The question isn’t can the Cavaliers score playing this way; the question is can they get enough stops against a Warriors offense that thrives in these faster, more chaotic games? The Warriors destroy teams because of cross-matches forced by pace. I think by Game 3 you may see the Cavaliers looking to slow the game a down some, feed LeBron James in the post more, and we will start to see the Cavs play more like they did last year in the Finals.

2) How does Kevin Love handle pick-and-roll defense? There is nowhere to hide Kevin Love’s defense this series — he’s not good at defending the pick-and-roll and he is going to be dragged into one nearly every time down the court. Golden State’s versatility means whoever Love guards (Andrew Bogut is likely first), that guy can come up and set the pick (and in small ball situations, if he’s on Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala because LeBron is on Draymond Green, both those guys can be on either side of the P&R). Love is going to have to show out on a shooter like Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, then recover to his man, and history shows us that doesn’t go well. Oklahoma City — with their length and athleticism — did this as well as any team we’ve seen having bigs switch onto Curry and Thompson, and they still got torched from three the final two games. Love likely will start out guarding Bogut, but they use the big man to set picks all the time and if Love hangs back the Warriors could start feeling it early.

To be fair, Love did defend the pick-and-roll better against Toronto, showing out well and at points frustrating Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But the Raptors are not the Warriors — Golden State’s guards are better and have more options around them than the Raptors guards (Draymond Green on the half-roll, creating that 4-on-3). The Warriors know Love and Irving are traditionally a terrible pick-and-roll defending tandem, and they will go right at them. Coach Nick at BBallBreakdown shows you the problems.



3) Does Steve Kerr start Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes?
By Game 4 of the NBA Finals last year, Steve Kerr was done with the Barnes on LeBron experiment and started Andre Iguodala instead to at least make LeBron work for his points. By the second half of Game 6 against Oklahoma City last round, Kerr again was starting Iguodala for defensive reasons — and he also got points from the eventual Finals MVP. Does he wait that long this time, or just start Iguodala from the opening tip? Iguodala is their best defender on LeBron, but he’s also played more and harder minutes through the playoffs this season than he did a year ago, is he going to need more breaks? Whether he starts Game 1 or not, expect a lot of Iguodala on LeBron in one of the key matchups of the Finals. Which leads to another question along those lines…

4) Can anyone on the Warriors slow LeBron James? LeBron is on a mission: He has staked some of his legacy on ending Cleveland’s seemingly eternal championship drought. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen this year, but the window is not going to stay open that much longer, and LeBron knows it. He has pushed, pulled, and prodded this team to play its best ball — and when he’s had to, he’s put the Cavaliers on his shoulders and carried them. He had a PER of 35.7 in the last round of the playoffs, which is insane. He’s attacking the basket like he’s 24 again. He’s going to have to do that at times this series — which means attacking and getting to the rim, it means some time in the post (you’re going to see a lot of LeBron as a power forward, and frankly some time at center), and it means his jumper has to fall. LeBron can do all those things. The Warriors will counter with a combination is

5) Can Kyrie Irving slow down Stephen Curry? When you start to look at matchups, you’re left with Kyrie Irving on Curry because the other matchup combos lead to worse problems down the line for the Cavaliers. This puts a lot of pressure on him on both ends, he has to make Curry uncomfortable and get him to give up the ball. Irving can be a good defender when focused (he was in the first half of Game 1 of the Finals last season) but he tends to be inconsistent and have lapses. Take a mental five-minute vacation against the Warriors and they go on a 17-2 run. As noted in No. 2 above, Irving and Love are a poor pick-and-roll defensive combo that is going to be tested a lot this series. Irving has to have a tremendous, focused defensive effort all series long for the Cavaliers to have a chance, they can’t let the Golden State guards get hot or they are toast.

6) Can Draymond Green play with emotion but avoid a suspension? Green is the kind of player fans love to root against — unless he’s on your team, then he’s a celebrated hero and the opponents are just soft. He’s polarizing that way. But one more flagrant foul in the Finals and Green is suspended a game — a flagrant 2 and he is suspended two games. Green’s aggressive, irritant, emotional style of play skirts that line all the time, for example he could have gotten a flagrant for his takedown of Steven Adams in Game 7, but the league chose not to go there. Green has to play with his emotions on his sleeve to be himself and be effective — and the Warriors need him to be at his best this series. But he can’t pick up another flagrant, and you can be sure Matthew Dellavedova and the Cavaliers will try to bait him into one.

7) Can Cleveland dominate the glass against the Warriors? The book on how to beat the Warriors is out there, and chapter one talks about owning the offensive glass, and grabbing rebounds in general. The Warriors will go small and, as Oklahoma City showed, they can be punished with second chance points. Tristan Thompson can have a big series, and if he’s getting second chance points inside it means more court time for Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli (and maybe some Anderson Varejao, just so Cavs fans can see him again). Force the Warriors to play their bigs more and you take them out of their preferred game.  Look for the Cavaliers to have a big rebounding advantage in the games they win.

Prediction: Warriors in six. I’m leaning five games but will make it six out of respect for how well LeBron is playing. As noted above the book on how to beat the Warriors exists, written by the Spurs and Thunder, but the Cavaliers lack the athletes and defensive focus to execute it. The Cavaliers will play faster and score points, but I don’t see them getting enough stops to win.