Cavaliers vs. Warriors NBA Finals Preview: Five Things to Watch

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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.

NBA world reacts to Anthony Davis’ game-winner for Lakers

NBA reacts anthony davis
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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It might go down as the shot of the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets had battled back from 16 points down to take the lead behind a brilliant performance from Nikola Jokic, who had the team’s final 11 points. Throw in a Jamal Murray block and the Nuggets were up one with 2.1 seconds left.

Then Anthony Davis happened.

The Lakers won the game (going up 2-0 in the series) and the NBA world took to Twitter to react — including a lot of NBA players.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Dates, times, matchups for all games

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And there were four.

The NBA is down to the conference finals — and the bubble has provided us with upsets galore. There are some unexpected teams in the NBA’s Final Four, but of course LeBron James is still there. The Lakers are the heavy favorites at this point.

Here are a few notes on the NBA playoffs schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing to push the pace with games every other day — except in the East, when ESPN wants a break not to clash with the NFL, and to let the West catch up. The fast pace of games will return with the NBA Finals.
Families for the players, and with the final four now the coaches, are in the bubble.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams and their target is still a Sept. 30 Game 1. If either conference finals goes seven games that date will need to be pushed back.

Here is the NBA playoffs schedule 2020 (all times are Eastern):

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat

Game 1: Heat 117, Celtics 114, OT
Game 2: Heat 106, Celtics 101
Game 3: Celtics 117, Heat 106 (Miami leads series 2-1)
Game 4: Sept. 23, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 5: Sept. 25, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 6: Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 7: TBD (ESPN)*
*If necessary

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets

Game 1: Lakers 126, Nuggets 114
Game 2: Lakers 105, Nuggets 103 (Lakers lead series 2-0)
Game 3: Sept. 22, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Sept. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Sept. 26, 9 p.m. (TNT)*
Game 6: Sept. 28, TBD (TNT)*
Game 7: Sept. 30, TBD (TNT)*
*If necessary

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Second Round results

Eastern Conference

No. 3 Boston beat No. 2 Toronto 4-3

No. 5 Miami beat No. 1 Milwaukee 4-1

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat Houston 4-1

No. 3 Denver beat No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers 4-3

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First Round results

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat No. 8 Portland 4-1

No. 2 L.A. Clippers beat No. 7 Dallas 4-2

No. 3 Denver beat No. 6 Utah 4-3

No. 4 Houston beat No. 5 Oklahoma City 4-3

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee beat No. 8 Orlando 4-1

No. 2 Toronto beat No. 7 Brooklyn 4-0

No. 3 Boston beat No. 6 Philadelphia 4-0

No. 5 Miami beat No. 4 Indiana 4-0

Anthony Davis drains game-winner at buzzer to put Lakers up 2-0

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It looked like Nikola Jokic, the All-NBA Second Team center, was going to be the star of the game — he scored Denver’s last 11 points and had them up with 2.7 seconds to go.

Then Anthony Davis — the All-NBA First Team center — drained this game-winner, a three over Jokic at the buzzer to win the game.

This is why the Lakers got Anthony Davis (and gave up a lot to get him).

That shot gave the Lakers the 105-103 win to put them up 2-0 in the series. Game 3 is Tuesday night.

Davis carried the Lakers at the end of the game, hitting a couple of clutch threes, and finished with 31 points and nine rebounds. He has been the best Laker in this series, with 68 points and 19 rebounds through two games.

For the Lakers, it was a dramatic win in a game where they were sloppy with 23 turnovers, and where their defense came apart for stretches of the game. Good teams win ugly games, that’s how the Lakers have to view it.

Denver supporters may want to spin this as “look how much better we played” — and they did, slowing the pace down (97 possessions, via NBA.com) and getting inside more, taking advantage of switches — but the reality is the Lakers are only going to have bad outings once or twice a series and the Nuggets needed to take advantage. They didn’t, and this loss stings.

“This is the Western Conference Finals. No moral victories, no silver linings,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame.

Davis’ good look to win the game came on the kind of defensive breakdown Denver has at times that other teams have not exploited these playoffs. Mason Plumlee was inserted for his size and defense, and he was on Davis, who simply runs across the top of the arc. Plumlee doesn’t stick with him, instead running over by LeBron James, who is just hanging out at the elbow (but Denver fears), and acts like there should be a switch. Torrey Craig can’t switch, if he does that LeBron has a free lane to the rim and an easy two. If it was an X-out style switch then Plumlee needed to trail Davis all the way to Jokic, he didn’t, leaving Jokic a ridiculously long closeout. Jokic read the play and got there to contest, but Davis had gotten a clean look.

Jokic had 30 points and nine rebounds for Denver, taking over the game when it mattered most and looking like an elite playoff performer. Jamal Murray had 25 points on 8-of-19 shooting and (as The Athletic’s John Hollinger noted on Twitter) was +16 in 44:14 minutes, meaning Denver was -18 in the 3:46 he was on the bench getting some rest. Denver got 15 points from Michael Porter Jr. and good minutes out of P.J. Dozier (although his five missed free throws in six attempts came back to bite the team).

Los Angeles got 26 points and 11 boards from LeBron and 11 points each from Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Lakers came out flat in this game except for LeBron, who had the team’s first 12 points. It looked like a close game until the Lakers went on an 18-3 run in the second quarter, with 8-0 of that coming with LeBron on the bench. The highlight of that was an Alex Caruso dunk that had the Lakers bench up and yelling.

Los Angeles stretched the lead out to as many as 16, but the Nuggets never quit.

Anthony Davis had to shut the door on them.

Watch Alex Caruso monster dunk, LeBron and Laker bench reaction

Alex Caruso dunk
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Alex Caruso has sneaky hops. Fans relate to him because he doesn’t look like an NBA player — he doesn’t really give off the vibe of one when you see him hanging out in the Lakers’ locker room either — but watch him on the court and he is more athletic than people realize. Alex Caruso can sky and throw down a dunk.

Just ask the Denver Nuggets.

The best part of this? The reaction of LeBron James and the Lakers bench.

The Alex Caruso dunk was part of an 8-0 Laker run right as LeBron went to get some rest. Denver had done a good job early being right with the Lakers by controlling the pace and limiting the Lakers in transition. That fell apart in the second quarter, fueled by Denver’s seven second-quarter turnovers (13 for the half), which allowed the Lakers to get out and run.

And Caruso to dunk, firing up the team.