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.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.

Clint Capela still weeks away from making his debut with Atlanta

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Atlanta traded for Clint Capela at the deadline thinking about the long haul — he is the pick-and-roll big man they want to pair with Trae Young for seasons to come.

Just not much of this season. Capela missed the four games before the All-Star break with a heel bruise and plantar fasciitis, and the All-Star break was not near enough time to get that right. He’s going to be out into March, it appears.

Atlanta would love to start the process of Capela and Young getting used to each other on the court this season, but they are not in a playoff fight, so there is no reason to rush the recovery.

Capela averaged 13.8 points and 13.9 rebounds a game this season in Houston. He sets a good pick, rolls hard to the rim, has good hands if he gets a lob, plus he’s a quality shot-blocker in the paint on the other end. He should pair well with Young.

Eventually, once he gets healthy.