LeBron James won’t guarantee an NBA championship in Cleveland this year, but he did make one proclamation. “I guarantee that we will play our asses off,” he said about the Cavaliers’ showdown with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
James and his Cavaliers have been playing their butts off this postseason, especially on the defensive end. The Cavs own the top-ranked defense in the playoffs, holding teams to 92.6 points and 28.1 percent from the 3-point line. But now comes the true test. the Cavs are facing the most explosive and efficient scoring machine in the NBA Finals. The Warriors led the NBA in points per game (110), 3-point field-goal percentage (39.8) and assists (27.4). They have the best shooting backcourt in the world in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who combined to make 525 threes; far and away the most by any duo in the league.
Curry and Thompson present a whole different animal for the Cavaliers. You may be able to slow down one but not both. The Cavaliers need to hold the line and keep the Splash Brothers from going trey crazy.
This series could boil down to how well the Cavs play on the defensive end. They need to disrupt the Warriors’ ball movement and make the game stagnant because they won’t be able to win in a shootout. This will require paying attention to detail: running shooters off the the 3-point line, making them drive to the basket, and putting a body on Steph and Klay at all times. Cleveland must turn this into a scrum and make Golden State uncomfortable.
The Warriors love to run floppy sets for Steph and Klay. They start on the block and run off screens from Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green. The Cavaliers must stay attached to Steph and Klay, and force them to drive instead of stopping and popping for threes. They will make their share of threes, but try to limit their attempts by making them put the ball on the deck.
When Curry has the ball at the top and calls for a ball screen from Bogut or Green, Cleveland has the option of blitzing Curry or switching the screen. The better option would be to switch on the screen even though it will likely expose Cleveland’s big men. Switching the ball screen forces Curry to keep the ball in his hands and stops the ball from moving. If Curry gets cooking, the Cavs can always switch LeBron on him to try to cool him down.
Here are other key matchups to watch in the NBA Finals:
LeBron vs. Barnes, Iguodala, and Draymond
The Warriors are a basketball anomaly. They are bucking the conventional thinking that you can’t win a title shooting jump shots. But these Warriors are a different breed. Sure, they win games by shooting lights out from behind the 3-point line and running teams out of the gym. But what made them a 67-win juggernaut during the regular season was defense.
GSW arguably has three of the 10 best defensive players in the league. Klay Thompson is an elite perimeter defender, Andrew Bogut is a beast in front of the rim, and Draymond Green finished second to Kawhi Leonard as the defensive player of the year. Add Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala into the mix and you can see why teams struggle to score against Golden State.
In The Finals, the Warriors will face their greatest test. They’ll be going up against the most powerful force in basketball. The last time Golden State and Cleveland met, LeBron dropped 42 points in a 110-99 Cavaliers rout on Feb. 26.
LeBron poses matchup problems on the perimeter and in the paint. He’s capable of ruining any defensive game plan Warriors coach Steve Kerr will draw up. The book on Bron is to deny him driving lanes and force him into shooting jumpers. That’s what the San Antonio Spurs did the last two seasons, so expect Kerr, who played under coach Gregg Popovich, to copy that plan. Kerr will likely start Barnes on LeBron first then rotate different bodies on him. Iguodala is physically strong enough and athletic enough to stay with LeBron, so he could spend the most time on him. Green should also see No. 23, but he may have his hands full with Tristan Thompson. We’ll get to the Draymond-Tristan matchup later.
Steph vs. Kyrie
It is unfortunate Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving is running only at 75 percent because this would have a delicious point guard matchup.
Curry and Irving are not only the two most complete point guards in the NBA but they also possess some of the best handles in the biz. Kyrie better stretch his sore knees because Curry will surely test them.
Despite being hobbled in the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks, Irving still managed to make an impact in Game 4. In The Finals, he’ll go up against the MVP. No disrespect to Hawks point guard Jeff Teague but he’s not even close to being in Curry’s league. Few players are in Curry’s league.
Steph and Kyrie know each other well. They were both on the U.S. men’s national squad coached by Mike Krzyzewski that took home the gold medal at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Irving served as Team USA’s point guard, while Curry was the shooting guard. Even though they started in the backcourt, you know they went at each other in practice.
Irving doesn’t need to match Curry point for point, but if he can give the Cavs anything close to his regular-season numbers (21.7 points and 5.2 assists) then Cleveland has a great shot a winning the title.
Bogut and Draymond vs. Mozgov and Tristan
The Warriors have mainly stayed with a conventional center-power forward frontline for most of the playoffs, but if Kerr decides to go small he probably use a lineup of Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt and Iguodala, Barnes and Green in the frontcourt. If Golden State goes with that lineup, Cleveland coach David Blatt will likely counter with Irving and Iman Shumpert in the backcourt and LeBron, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt.
We already broke down the Curry-Irving matchup and the LeBron vs. the Warriors matchup. The Cavs will most likely stick Shumpert on Klay, and Iguodala or Barnes will take on Smith. That leaves us with the battle in the paint between two power forwards playing center, Draymond and Tristan.
The NBA championship may rest of the shoulders of two lunchpail guys who could command major dollars during the offseason when they become free agents.
Draymond is arguably the reason why the Warriors own the best record in the NBA, and the Cavs could argue that they wouldn’t be in The Finals without Tristan, who replaced the injured Kevin Love in the starting lineup. Golden State and Cleveland switch most pick-and-rolls because they both feel they have the players who can guard multiple positions. Another reason why both teams don’t like to switch on screens is because they are confident in the abilities of Draymond and Tristan to guard perimeter players. What could decide this matchup is the battle under the basket. Tristan has been a beast on the offensive boards, and he’ll have a height advantage over Draymond.
Kerr could throw a wrench into the mix by sticking with Bogut and Draymond in the frontcourt. That could force the Cavs to go with Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt. However, if you’ve been paying attention to the Cavs throughout the playoffs they’ve been consistently going with LeBron at power forward and Tristan at center, and those two have been punishing teams on the boards.
Whichever team wins the rebounding battle could be the one hoisting the gold trophy at the end.