After a long break, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will tip off Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night.
Both teams have cruised through the playoffs with relative ease, with the Warriors going 12-3 on their way to the Finals and the Cavaliers going 12-2.
Much of the NBA world considers the Warriors the favourites in the Finals. Though Cleveland has been just as good in the second half of the season, many people feel the Cavs rode an easier path through a weak, battered Eastern Conference than the Warriors, who, statistically, rank among the NBA’s all-time great teams.
It figures to be a competitive series, but the Cavaliers will have their hands full on both ends of the court. Here’s how they could pull off an upset as the underdogs:
1. LeBron James dominates
James is clearly the biggest advantage for the Cavs. He remains the best player in the NBA, the ultimate deciding factor in any game.
LeBron recently said he’s playing the best basketball of his career, and while statistics don’t necessarily bear that out, he’s undoubtedly the driving force for the Cavs.
Everything the Cavs do on offence will have to depend on LeBron. As a ball-handler, he’s going to have to use his speed to get into the lane, suck in defenders, and try to find open teammates. If he’s not on the perimeter, expect LeBron to go to the post, where he can overpower smaller players. He brutalized the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler this way:
The Warriors could use Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala to defend LeBron, opting for speed and length to try and contain him. If they do so, LeBron will have to force the mismatch in the post. If the Warriors put the bigger Draymond Green on LeBron, he’ll have to use his speed to blow by him.
James hasn’t been efficient in one-on-one plays in the playoffs, so he’s going to have to use a smarter approach and find ways to create mismatches. If Kyrie Irving is still hobbled, James will have to be the engine of the offence, and he’ll have to use all of his smarts and physical tools to beat the best defence in the NBA.
2. The Cavs win the rebounding battle
Cleveland’s chances of winning become a lot greater if they stop the Warriors’ explosive offence from getting second chances all while giving themselves extra possessions on the other end.
The Cavs have been the best rebounding team in the playoffs while Warriors rank third. This isn’t a huge advantage for Cleveland, but winning the rebounding battle has a big part of Cleveland’s run to the Finals.
Against the Atlanta Hawks, the Cavs collected 57% of all rebounds, grabbing 30% of their own misses and 85% of Atlanta’s misses. The Cavs were getting offensive rebounds on nearly one-third of their shots while Atlanta was getting offensive rebounds on about one-sixth of their shots. Allowing a team with LeBron extra chances to score is simply too dangerous.
This could be key for the Cavaliers against Golden State. Their offence can’t go possession-for-possession with the Warriors, and while Golden State is actually an even better defensive team than they are an offensive one, the Cavs could exploit that defence simply by grabbing offensive rebounds and getting extra chances. Additionally, easier shots tend to come after offensive rebounds, either at the rim or on the perimeter where defenders have already left their assignments.
As Grantland’s Zach Lowe also noted on his podcast “The Lowe Post,” some of these rebounding scrums could be a chance for the Cavs to get the Warriors into foul trouble.
3. Kyrie Irving is healthy
Irving is what ultimately separates this Cavs team from being a one-man show in James, or being something closer to his Big Three Miami Heat teams.
As mentioned, Irving says he still isn’t 100% healthy, but if he can be close to 100%, it changes the whole dynamic of the Cavs’ team.
LeBron was able to take down the Hawks twice without Irving, but the Warriors are a far superior defensive team that boasts both perimeter and interior defenders to make James’ life harder. LeBron can suck in defenders and kick it out to shooters like Smith and Shumpert, but there’s a common belief the Warriors may experiment with letting LeBron run rampant while shutting down his other options. LeBron can will a team to a victory by himself, but can he do it four times in seven games against the best team in the NBA?
If Irving is healthy, he gives LeBron a far more versatile second option than anyone else on Cleveland. He can break down any defence with his ball-handling, get into the lane and score at the rim (58% in the restricted area in the regular season) or find shooters. If Irving is handling the ball while James waits on the perimeter, James’ gravity is such that Golden State can’t send an extra defender to stop Irving’s drives. Add Shumpert and Smith to that equation, and it allows Irving even more space to operate while the Warriors are attached to their defensive assignments.
Here, a simple pick-and-roll allows Irving to slither to the basket for an easy layup:
This is the basic principle of spread pick-and-roll offence. Keep the defence honest with shooters on the perimeter and give the ball-handler and roll man room to operate inside of the perimeter.
And though Irving is arguably the worst defender in the Cavs’ regular rotation, his health will be crucial on that end, too. He doesn’t have a prayer of sticking with Stephen Curry (who does?), but being healthy and nimble enough will at least give Irving the speed to keep up with Curry.
For the Cavs, there’s nowhere to hide weak defenders in Golden State’s starting lineup. Curry is unguardable, and Klay Thompson is in perpetual motion off the ball and can post up Irving, as can any other member of the Warriors’ starters. Until Golden State goes to their bench, Irving will be mismatched on defence. The best Cleveland can hope for is that he’ll at least be healthy, fast, and strong enough to physically keep up with whoever he’s guarding.
On paper, the Cavs seem outmatched by the Warriors. However, there is a blueprint to beating Golden State, and if the Cavs can pull off a perfect series with all three of the above factors, they have a shot at winning it all.
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