The Oklahoma City Thunder had the Golden State Warriors on the ropes but couldn’t apply the knockout punch.
Facing elimination on the road in Game 6, the Warriors showed their championship mettle and stunned the Thunder with a performance for the ages. Klay Thompson lit up the Thunder for a playoff record 11 3-pointers, with nine of them not even touching the rim. Thompson scored 19 of his game-high 41 points in the fourth quarter that saw the Warriors rally from an eight-point deficit.
OKC led 99-96 with three minutes left in the game. That’s when it all fell apart. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ran out of gas and went scoreless during that crucial stretch when the Thunder needed them the most, turning the ball over six times. Golden State went on to win Game 6 and finished off the reeling Thunder in Game 7 at Oracle Arena in Oakland to become the 10th team in history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit.
I can hear Rudy Tomjanovich now. Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.
What stands in front of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals is a supremely confident 73-win team armed with the feeling of invincibility.
Golden State was pushed to the brink of elimination by the Thunder yet somehow found a way to pull itself out of a deep hole. It is extremely hard to defeat a team that is very comfortable walking through the ring of fire. They have two flamethrowers in Stephen Curry and Thompson who can get hot faster than a microwave oven. No lead is safe when the Splash Brothers are on the court. They coming out shooting as soon as they get off the team bus.
The Warriors have been the best team in the world the past two seasons, and now they are riding a wave of emotion. Those are insurmountable hurdles to overcome even for the great LeBron James.
LeBron’s Cavs don’t have the speed and length to bother the Warriors the way OKC was able to do. The Warriors have a significant advantage in the backcourt and their big men are more than capable of beating anything Cleveland will throw at them. Here are the keys to the series:
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE 3-BALL
The Cavaliers have enjoyed a lot of success shooting threes in the playoffs, but now they’re facing a team armed with the best 3-point shooters on the planet — and arguably the greatest in the history of the game.
Curry and Thompson are changing the game. TNT’s Charles Barkley has repeatedly said jump-shooting teams don’t win championships. Well, throw that conventional wisdom out the window. Look no further than the telling stat from Game 6 against OKC. The Thunder enjoyed a 54-28 advantage from the paint, yet they lost because the Warriors were 21-for-44 from 3-point range while the Thunder shot 3-for-23. We are now seeing a league that used to play inside-out evolve into a perimeter-oriented game.
Cleveland enjoyed great success from behind the arc, especially at home at Quicken Loans Arena, during it’s 12-2 postseason run. But that was against the woeful Eastern Conference. Now the Cavs face the best snipers in the Association. The Warriors averaged a league-best 114 points per game and were the only team to shoot over 40 percent from 3-point land. If it comes down to 3-point shooting contest, the Warriors will win this contest every time.
Curry and Thompson are on a different level when it comes to shooting. They made nearly 700 threes during the regular season, and the Cavs do not have anyone on their roster athletic enough and long enough to bother the Splash Brothers. Kyrie Irving is a wonderful offensive player, but he’s a liability on defense. J.R. Smith will likely get the assignment on Klay, which means Kyrie has to defend Steph early on until Matthew Dellavedova comes off the bench to try to slow down the two-time league MVP. Delley had some success against Steph in last year’s NBA Finals, but Curry figured him out as the series got old. Iman Shumpert may be the Cavs’ best defensive option against Steph and Klay, but that would mean the Cavs will have to go against the best small-ball team in the league.
KEEPING UP WITH LEBRON
The first page of every scouting report on LeBron is to force him into shooting jumpers. James was one of the worst 3-point shooters during the regular season and that trend continues in the playoffs. LeBron wants to live in the paint, and Golden State is too long and too good to allow that to happen.
Don’t buy into the popular notion that the Warriors are a “small” team. There is nothing small about these Warriors. In fact, they are one of the biggest teams in the league. They average 6-7 across the board, and they are one of three teams to average six blocks during the season (the Cavs averaged only 3.9 blocks per game).
Klay (6-7) is more than capable of keeping Kyrie out of the painted area (Hubie Brown voice). That means the rest of the Warriors can cheat off their man and offer help-side defense against LeBron.
Head coach Steve Kerr can throw different bodies at LeBron. Harrison Barnes (6-8) will likely get the first crack at the four-time NBA MVP, but Andre Iguodala (6-8) will get the bulk of the minutes defending LeBron. If Barnes and Iggy get into any sort of foul trouble, the Warriors can also call on first-team all-defender Draymond Green to cover LeBron.
The Warriors’ length allows them to switch pick-and-rolls. And if Kerr is forced to play big he has three capable 7-footers (Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Mo Speights) at his disposal.
Bogut was the key in the Thunder series. When the Warriors fell behind 3-1 in the series, Kerr extended Bogut’s minutes to prevent OKC from dominating the paint. Bogut’s presence blocks off any clear path to the basket.
SMALLER THE BETTER
If Cavs coach Ty Lue is even thinking about going small in this series, he should rethink that idea. Going “small” means the Cavs can’t have Kevin Love or Thompson on the court at the same time. LeBron slides into the 4 spot and the backcourt combination will likely be Kyrie, Smith and Shumpert or Kyrie, Delley and Smith. Advantage Golden State.
The Warriors’ speed lineup (or Lineup of Death) — Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Draymond or Curry, Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Iggy and Draymond — demolished the league all season en route to 73 wins. Only the lightning-quick Thunder lineup of Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, Durant and Serge Ibaka were able to slow down the Dubs.
The Cavs do not possess the speed, athleticism and length of the Thunder. And they have two stars (Love and Kyrie) who can be liabilities on defense. Lue will have some interesting decisions to make in this series. Will he sit Love during the fourth quarter to avoid getting destroyed on defense? Or does he roll the dice and trust Love won’t have defensive lapses?
Cleveland averages around 104 points per game, which is 10 points less than what the Warriors average. Where are the Cavs getting those 10 extra points? Larry Nance ain’t walking through that door. Brad Daugherty ain’t walking through that door. Price ain’t walking through that door.
Don’t bother asking Hodor to hold the door. The Warriors are going to bust through that door open like a bunch of Whitewalkers and reclaim the title.