Finally, after a week off — and frankly a season of waiting for this matchup — we get the trilogy. The rubber match. The third Finals in a row between the two best teams in the NBA: The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. A battle of legacy. A series featuring maybe the three best players in the game right now. A real NBA rivalry on its biggest stage.
Game 1 tips off tonight (Thursday) and here are five things to look for as the series unfolds.
1) Is Cleveland’s defense ready for the task ahead? We heard this coming into the playoffs: Cleveland has the 22nd ranked defense in the NBA this season, teams don’t win titles unless they are in the top 10. So far it hasn’t mattered, the Cavaliers lost one game on the path to the Finals. Cleveland did not play good defense in the first round against Indiana, but they have looked much sharper the past couple of rounds — but against a Raptors team minus Kyle Lowry for much of the series, then against a Celtics team where Isaiah Thomas went down. The bottom line: Now comes the real test, and there are two key areas of focus.
First, can Cleveland stay disciplined dealing with Golden State’s off-ball movement and back-door cuts? This is the hardest thing for any defense against the Warriors, they don’t set a lot of ball screens (fewest in the NBA in the playoffs per game) and when they do it’s often just to buy time or create a little space to get the ball to a guy coming off a screen away from the play. We saw in Game 3 and the first half of Game 4 against Boston, this kind of motion can give the Cavaliers trouble — and if you can’t slow it when Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk are doing it, watch out when it’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. If Golden State gets 8-10 easy points off cuts or guys just losing their man each game, Cleveland will not make that ground up.
Second, who does LeBron James guard? Last Finals he was often on either Draymond Green, to screw up the Curry/Green pick-and-rolls and allow him to switch on to Curry, or he was on Harrison Barnes, who was ice cold shooting, and that allowed LeBron to help off him and play free safety. Cleveland’s defense is best with LeBron as the help defender (really only he and Tristan Thompson are reliable as help defenders). With Kevin Durant now instead of Barnes, the idea of helping off him is right out. Expect LeBron to be asked to handle KD, which means Thompson on Green and that could work but puts a lot of pressure on Thompson. Kevin Love likely starts on Zaza Pachulia, don’t be shocked if he sets a lot of ball screens for Curry to try to force a switch — regardless of the last minute of last year’s Finals, Golden State wants that matchup.
2) How do Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ defense handle it when he is dragged into pick-and-rolls? Over the last five games of last year’s NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers had Stephen Curry’s man come up and set the pick for the ball handler 13.2 times per game (stat via NBA.com) — and it seemed like more than that. Curry is not as bad a defender as some fans seem to think, but he’s the Warriors weakest isolation defender of its regular players — and isolation of Kyrie Irving and LeBron is the bread-and-butter of the Cavaliers’ offense. They get a pick set, force the switch, then attack the mismatch with shooters around them spacing the floor — LeBron is scoring a ridiculous 1.35 points per possession attacking off the pick these playoffs (stat via NBA.com). It’s not complex, but it works because James and Irving are so good in this setting.
Curry has to defend better than he did last playoffs, and the Warriors need to be sharp on their help rotations. Cleveland is going to score, their offense is elite, but the Warriors are also the best defensive team they have faced. This showdown when the Cavs have the ball will be fun to watch.
3) Is LeBron knocking down his jump shot? The book has long been — and in a lot of ways remains — on LeBron that teams should go under the pick and dare him to shoot a jump shot (better that than letting him drive and finish, or dish to an open guy at the arc). Last NBA Finals, LeBron shot 27 percent outside the paint in the Cavs losses (stat via NBA.com), and that’s not a coincidence. However, in these playoffs LeBron is shooting 42.1 percent from three and 44.8 percent from 16 feet out to the arc — go under the pick and he knocks down the shot. When LeBron is shooting like that the Cavaliers are almost indefensible. The Cavaliers need those shots to fall to keep pace with a Warriors team that will put up points this series.
4) Can Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and the Cavaliers own the offensive glass? One key way the Cavaliers can slow Golden State’s deadly small-ball lineups is to make them pay by grabbing offensive rebounds. It’s rather simple: Green can’t throw an outlet pass to Curry to start the break if he doesn’t have the ball. Cleveland’s second chance points and opportunities will bring the pace down and get them some easy buckets, both things the Cavs have to have. Also, success on the offensive glass could force the conservative Mike Brown to stick with lineups longer that feature Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West or other bigs that the Cavaliers can exploit. There will be a lot of threes launched in this series, but battle on the boards will matter just as much.
5) What happens when the Warriors face adversity? If there’s one thing we really don’t know about Golden State is how they will handle being actually challenged. To use the sports cliché, how will they respond when they are punched in the mouth? We don’t know because it hasn’t happened much — in these playoffs, only three of the Warriors 12 games have been within five points in the final five minutes. Golden State — particularly Curry — have looked good in those limited minutes, but they are limited. During the season, the Warriors were far from always smooth at the end of close games as they figured out how to use both Curry and Durant in those settings. Golden State is a team that when the shots don’t fall, when the game gets slowed down and mucked up a little, can start to come apart at the seams. To win, you have to take them out of their flow.
Think back to Christmas Day against Cleveland. Golden State was in control of that game much of the way, but when (for a variety of reasons) the tide started to turn and Cleveland made it’s run, the Warriors came apart. On both ends. Six months later have the Warriors learned their lessons and figured it out — because we know Cleveland knows how to close out a game. And a series. Cleveland is comfortable in tight games, we will find out if Golden state is.