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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James never faced each other in the NBA Finals during the years when they were battling for the title of best player in the NBA (though we did see James go 0-1 in the Finals versus former MVP Dirk Nowitzki and 1-2 in the Finals versus former MVP Tim Duncan). It may turn out to be the case that 20 years from now when we look back at James' career his legacy is defined in no small part by his Finals matchups versus Stephen Curry. Reigning two-time MVP Curry will face four-time former MVP James in a rematch of the 2015 Finals, a series won by Curry's Golden State Warriors in six games after trailing James' Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1.

Overcoming deficits is nothing new for Curry and the Warriors; in the past two postseasons they have not only rallied against the Cavaliers in the Finals but they also bounced back after trailing 2-1 versus the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the 2015 playoffs and--in an instant classic series that will long be remembered by basketball fans and historians--the Warriors just recovered from a 3-1 hole to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.

The Warriors posted a 67-15 record in 2014-15 before setting the all-time mark with a 73-9 record in 2015-16. They are, paradoxically, a dominant team and a team that has displayed some vulnerabilities and weaknesses; the Thunder squad that upset the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in the second round of this year's playoffs came as close as a team could come to dethroning the Warriors without completing the task, building halftime leads in games six and seven before collapsing down the stretch.

Meanwhile, James has authored a streak of personal in-conference dominance that has not been seen since Bill Russell patrolled the paint. Russell led the Boston Celtics to eight straight NBA Finals--and, more significantly, eight straight championships--from 1959-66. Other than some of Russell's teammates, no player made it to six straight NBA Finals until James accomplished the feat this year, taking Cleveland to the championship round in back to back seasons after previously leading the Heat to the Finals from 2011-14. Yes, the Eastern Conference has lacked both star power and dominant teams during James' era but those facts do not diminish the historical significance of what James has achieved. He has displayed admirable durability, consistency and motivation, three traits that are essential for a player or a team to contend year after year.

Speaking of those three traits, please indulge a brief digression concerning the Oklahoma City Thunder and their two MVP candidates, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant and Westbrook have led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals in four out of the past six seasons; while that run cannot be compared to James' run, it should not be dismissed, either. The Western Conference has been the dominant conference in the NBA for several years, yet when Durant and Westbrook have been healthy they have perennially carried their team to the brink of the NBA Finals (and to a Finals trip in 2012). The ideas that Durant and Westbrook cannot play together or cannot win a championship together are ridiculous, because they already have an impressive track record of success. If Durant leaves the Thunder this summer then that will be a sign that--like James Harden, who previously left the Thunder for the opportunity to lead Houston to a series of first round playoff exits--Durant's top priority is not winning a championship; similarly, it would be foolish for Thunder management to voluntarily break up the Durant-Westbrook duo. The Thunder need to tweak their late game execution and perhaps their substitution patterns but a team that ousted the Spurs and nearly eliminated a historically great Warriors team should not be dismantled.

Back to James and the Cavaliers. James has rarely been seriously threatened in the Eastern Conference playoffs in recent seasons but in my Eastern Conference Finals Preview I noted that Toronto is "the type of team that has challenged James in the past during the playoffs (a good team that is hard-nosed and has several good but not great players). Tyronn Lue is a rookie coach and it will be interesting to see how he responds if the Cavaliers face adversity during this series, particularly if that adversity comes in the form of James becoming disengaged/disinterested (as has happened repeatedly during LeBron James' career after the first round of the playoffs)."

While most analysts expected the Cavaliers to trample the Raptors--a sentiment that gained popularity after the Cavaliers routed the Raptors in the first two games of the series--I felt that Toronto had the right elements to at least bother the Cavaliers. Many commentators struggled during the series to explain how Toronto took games three and four but those ebbs and flows did not surprise me--and it also did not surprise me that in a do or die game five the Raptors did not have quite enough firepower to deal with a fully engaged LeBron James (the enduring mystery of James' career is to predict/anticipate which big games will capture his interest versus which big games will cause him to be inexplicably passive).

James is reflexively described as a "pass first" player but his best trait--and the trait that has helped him win two NBA titles--is that he is almost impossible to stop when he attacks the paint with the primary goal of scoring. James scored a series-high 26.0 ppg on .622 field goal shooting during the Eastern Conference Finals; he had some moments of inexplicable passivity (moments that helped the Raptors notch two victories) but it was evident that when he either posted up or relentlessly attacked the paint off of the dribble the Raptors had no answer. The signature performances of James' playoff career all involve dominant scoring runs, while the bizarre losses that mar his playoff resume share one common trait: James refused to shoot and/or settled for shots far outside of the paint.

James' All-Star caliber teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have both played well this postseason, though Love has been less consistent and less aggressive than Irving. Irving is a dynamic scorer who is underrated as a passer and defender (he is not a great passer or defender but he is better in both areas than he is often credited for being). Love can score anywhere from the block to the three point line, he can rebound, he is an excellent passer (particularly excelling at delivering pinpoint outlet passes) and this season he has even shown flashes of defensive competence. Love has also discovered the truth in Chris Bosh's prediction when James signed with Cleveland two years ago: it is not always easy to play with James and doing so often requires sublimating your game/statistics to James' desire to control the ball. Love appears to be a sensitive player who does not have an assertive personality; it is telling that statistics show that Love's field goal percentage during a game can be predicted based on whether he makes or misses his first shot. If James were truly a pass-first player like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd, then James would look for Love early in every single game and make sure to get him going. Think back to how Johnson bolstered the young Vlade Divac's confidence and helped mold him into a player who could start at center in the NBA Finals. Instead, Love gets the ball when and where James or Irving deign to give it to him and that dynamic--combined with Love's lack of an alpha dog personality--explains why Love's numbers are so inconsistent.

Kevin McHale once said that he would love to play against the Warriors because "those guys couldn't grow enough to guard me." Both James and Love enjoy decided matchup advantages in the post against the Warriors and exploiting those advantages would enable the Cavaliers to control tempo and create foul trouble. If James or Love score 10 points on 5-6 field goal shooting in the paint in the first quarter of game one of the Finals then the Cavaliers will be in good shape; if James refuses to post up or passes out of single coverage in the post to three point shooters who are also single-covered then the Cavaliers will be in trouble.

"Stat gurus" argue that the math favors teams like the Warriors that emphasize three pointers over two pointers. As someone who loves to fire up three pointers in recreational league play--and who understands that a 40% three point shooter is more efficient than even a 50% two point shooter--I can relate to this sentiment but NBA basketball is about much more than just numbers and pie charts. If you force three point shooters to repeatedly get in a defensive stance and to battle in the paint against bigger foes then you can wear them down and ultimately chip away at their shooting percentages. This is not just a theoretical concept; we just saw the Thunder come within inches/minutes of dethroning the Warriors by playing this way--and it took record setting three point shooting by the Warriors combined with shaky decision making by the Thunder to save the Warriors.

While the NBA game is not nearly as physical as it used to be, both Conference Finals had some confrontational moments. One interesting aspect of the Eastern Conference Finals which did not attract much media coverage is how James dealt with hard fouls/physical play. In the previous series versus Atlanta, Jeff Teague cheap-shotted James, sending James flying into the stands where James crashed into some courtside spectators who fortunately were not harmed. James just dusted himself off and returned to the court, sparing us the fake macho displays of so many NBA players who run toward an opposing player as if they want to fight, knowing full well that an armada of players, coaches and referees will prevent any real punches from being thrown; the number of NBA players in the past two decades who truly wanted to fight and who truly knew how to fight comprises a very small list, including but not limited to Jerry Stackhouse, Charles Oakley and Alvin Robertson. Mind you, there is no place in the sport for fighting but I can at least respect a man who feels like he is being challenged/disrespected and who is willing/able to stand up for himself--but I have no respect for the "fugazi" guys, to borrow the term Tim Thomas used to describe Kenyon Martin (who never met a guy half his size that he was not afraid to act tough around, as long as there were people in the vicinity to prevent a fight from breaking out).

The NBA rules are set up to prevent fights by suspending players who throw a punch (even if the punch does not connect) or who leave the bench area while there is an altercation on the court. Therefore, smart players know that no matter what happens the best thing to do is keep your cool. LeBron James, when asked during the Eastern Conference Finals about his restraint in situations when other players might retaliate, quoted a Jay-Z lyric: "If I shoot you, I'm brainless but if you shoot me, you're famous." James added that when he feels angry or has an urge to retaliate he reminds himself to not be "brainless." James has demonstrated such restraint throughout his career, up to and including the aforementioned cheap shot by Teague. James knows that he is a basketball player, not a boxer or a professional wrestler.

James' restraint and his comment bring to mind the 2007 San Antonio-Phoenix series when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw (a current Spur who was then a Sun) were suspended one game each for leaving the vicinity of the bench during an altercation. Running on to the court when there is a fight or a potential fight may feel macho at the time but it is actually a stupid and selfish demonstration of lack of self control, because the NBA rules clearly state that such an infraction automatically leads to a suspension. Suns' fans who whine about the punishment should instead berate Stoudemire and Diaw for being "brainless." LeBron James--and Stephen Adams, whose private regions were twice used as target practice by Draymond Green during the 2016 Western Conference Finals--proved that a player does not have to throw a punch to be tough; real toughness is demonstrated by staying focused on the task at hand, which is doing whatever you can do within the rules to help your team win.

Green's kick to Adams' groin in game three of the Western Conference Finals was absolutely a dirty play; even if it was not intentional, it was at the very least reckless and dangerous: I have played basketball since I was a little kid and I have never kicked anyone in the groin as part of my follow through on a shot, nor have I seen anyone else do that either. Adams and the Thunder did not react in a "brainless" way but instead hit Green and the Warriors where it hurts the most: the scoreboard.

In my Western Conference Finals Preview I laid out the blueprint for an Oklahoma City victory over Golden State:  "(T)he Thunder's dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to play at an All-NBA First Team--if not MVP--level while the Thunder's platoon of big men dominate the paint." Yet, I picked Golden State to win because I considered Golden State to be a historically great team, while the Thunder appeared to be "merely" at the level of a "normal" championship contender.

That analysis proved to be very much on point. The Thunder showed that the Warriors can be rattled by size; even the Thunder's "small" lineup featured the 7-0 Durant (do not believe his "official" height of 6-9) and the 6-10 Serge Ibaka, plus long-armed perimeter players like Westbrook and Andre Roberson. The Thunder's "big" lineup pounded the Warriors on the boards at both ends of the court and often deterred the Warriors from shooting in the paint. The key against the Warriors is to not get discouraged when Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson hit shots from 25-30 feet away, because those guys are so good that they are going to make those shots no matter who is guarding them. Over the course of a game and a series, size can wear down the Warriors, but it is important for the opposing team to not get so rattled by a 12-0 run that they relegate all of their big men to the bench. The Thunder pummeled the Warriors with size en route to taking a 3-1 lead and, realistically, the Thunder outplayed the Warriors the majority of the time during the series--but what the Thunder lacked was the ability to close out games down the stretch, a problem that also plagued the Thunder during the regular season. The way that the Warriors outlasted the Thunder reminded me of how boxer Sugar Ray Leonard won some fights by picking up points on the judges' scorecards with end of the round flurries even though he had actually been outboxed for most of the round; the Thunder "outboxed" the Warriors for most of the series and yet succumbed to short flurries, usually at the end of quarters.

If the Cavaliers try to play small ball versus the Warriors, the Cavaliers could get swept; the Cavaliers must utilize their size, slow the game down and punish the Warriors in the paint. James must station himself on the block on offense and either score 40 points or else kick to open three point shooters if the Warriors double team him. The Warriors have no one who can check James one on one in the post and when the Warriors go small they have no one in the paint who can prevent James from finishing at the rim. The Cavaliers might consider using Love to anchor the second unit, running their offense through Love in the post when James takes a rare breather. When James or Love posts up, Tristan Thompson should be crashing the boards from the other side of the lane. A key element to the success of this strategy is the ability to make effective entry passes to the post without turning the ball over, something which at times seems to be a lost art in the NBA.

The conventional way to view this series is that James and the Cavaliers pushed the Warriors to six games last year without Love and Irving, so this year the Cavaliers are in a great position to win--but that ignores how/why the Cavaliers did well against the Warriors: in the first three games of the 2015 Finals, the Cavaliers utilized center Timofey Mozgov to good effect in the paint at both ends of the court but then-Cleveland Coach David Blatt capitulated to playing small-ball when the Warriors went small in game four. The Warriors cannot effectively go big, so their only option/adjustment when they face adversity is to go small and play faster--but the smart thing to do when the Warriors do that is to stay the course and not get rattled. Look at game seven of the 2016 Western Conference Finals; the Thunder led at halftime and even after the Warriors hit some incredible shots in the third quarter the game was still up for grabs--but the problem for the Thunder is that their players (and perhaps their coaching staff) panicked and acted as if a three point deficit was a 20 point deficit. The game was still there for the taking but the Thunder lost focus and started arguing with each other instead of focusing on the task at hand.

Will the Cavaliers have enough poise and discipline to stick with a big lineup? Will James be willing to play in the post and accept the challenge of scoring in the paint if the Warriors elect to single cover him? Those factors will determine how competitive Cleveland is in this series.

James has no excuses this time around: he has his handpicked coach and his handpicked roster, plus both of his All-Star sidekicks are fully healthy. James has the necessary tools in place to beat the Warriors but I expect the outcome this time to be the same as the outcome last year: Warriors win in six games. James will have the gaudiest individual numbers of any player in the series but Stephen Curry will make the key game-winning plays to cap off a dream season with his first Finals MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:14 AM