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Saturday, June 03, 2017

Durant Dominates as Warriors Rout Cavaliers, 113-91

The Golden State Warriors cruised to a 113-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in game one of the NBA Finals. The much anticipated--and unprecedented--Finals "trilogy" of two teams meeting three years in a row on the sport's biggest stage became an anticlimactic rout in the third quarter after a relatively competitive first half. Kevin Durant was the best player on the court, by far, leading the Warriors with a game-high 38 points plus eight rebounds and eight assists; he scored inside, outside and everywhere in between while also doing work as a rebounder, playmaker and defender. He had more dunks (six) than the Warriors had turnovers (four, tying a Finals single game record). Durant posted a +16 plus/minus number and did not have a single turnover despite his significant duties as scorer/ballhandler/distributor. Stephen Curry also played very well, scoring 28 points, dishing for a game-high 10 assists and grabbing six rebounds. Curry's plus/minus number (+20) led both teams. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green both shot poorly but they contributed to a stifling Golden State defense that held the Cavaliers to .349 field goal shooting while forcing 20 turnovers.

The biggest story of the game other than Durant's performance is that the Warriors were much more physical than the Cavaliers. It is almost inevitable that in the first few minutes of game two we will see a hard foul or even a flagrant foul by the Cavaliers in an attempt to assert their physical presence in this series. In game one, the Cavaliers played with regular season intensity while the Warriors looked like a team on a mission to win a championship.

The difference in physicality had a lot to do with Cleveland losing the possession game; the Cavaliers actually won the rebounding battle 59-50 (though it did not "feel" that way when watching the game) but they committed 20 turnovers, which is one reason that the Warriors launched 106 field goal attempts compared to just 86 field goal attempts for the Cavaliers. Cleveland held Golden State to .425 field goal shooting but those turnovers (plus the 14 offensive rebounds the Cavaliers allowed) gave the Warriors many extra possessions. The Warriors are difficult to beat under any circumstances but they are probably impossible to beat if they win the possession game by such a lopsided margin.

LeBron James remains the most enigmatic Pantheon player. He has led his teams to eight NBA Finals--but he has lost game one seven times and has won just three of those series. The game one winner ultimately wins the series over 80% of the time in the NBA, so losing the first game places a team at a serious disadvantage. James filled up the box score in game one (28 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists) but he--more than any other superstar who I have observed--has the propensity to produce large numbers that seem small; by the "eye test" he just did not have much impact on the outcome of the game and that subjective evaluation is backed up to some extent by the plus/minus numbers, as James had the worst plus/minus (-22) of any player on either team. James also had eight turnovers, so he played a significant role in the Cavaliers losing the possession game.

James' supporters will say that game one was an example of a great player doing everything that he could but just not having enough help; that is always the rallying cry for James' supporters: he would win the title every year if only he had enough help--but something does not add up in this equation. James is supposed to be the best player in the league, by far, and some people are even comparing him favorably to Michael Jordan (which really needs to stop; as several sensible people have noted, let James surpass Kobe Bryant first before we even bring up Jordan's name). James has two current All-Stars, plus former All-Stars and playoff-tested veterans coming off of the bench to help him now; in Miami, James had two future Hall of Famers (three if you count Ray Allen, a role player by that time) helping him and he still lost twice in the Finals in four tries. How much help does Michael Jordan's supposed peer need in order to win a championship? Kobe Bryant won two of his five championships with nothing more than Pau Gasol (a one-time All-Star before he joined forces with Bryant) and a bunch of role players, many of whom were soon out of the league--and for one of those titles Bryant's Lakers took down a Boston team featuring three future Hall of Famers. Dirk Nowitzki beat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the 2011 NBA Finals with a supporting cast of two past their prime former All-Stars (Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion) and some solid role players (Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, J.J. Barea).

Kyrie Irving (24 points on 10-22 field goal shooting) and Kevin Love (15 points, 21 rebounds, three blocked shots) both played well in game one, so it is not like James is one man against the world here. The Cavaliers' problem is that they treated the regular season like a joke and they believed that they could turn up their defensive intensity by flipping the proverbial switch. That worked during the Eastern Conference playoffs but it will not work in the NBA Finals--and that tone of deciding which games to take seriously and which games to blow off is set by the team's best player. Jordan and Bryant treated every game like a supreme individual and collective challenge, a veritable war--and they made sure that their teammates had a similar mindset. James is just not wired that way.

I understand that the Warriors are a great team but there is no reason for the Cavaliers to lose by more than 20 points. There is no reason for James to commit twice as many turnovers as the opposing team or for James to be outplayed at both ends of the court by his primary matchup, Durant.

This series is not over--at least not yet. The Cavaliers will be more physical in game two and they may very well seize homecourt advantage. Even if they lose game two, they proved last year that they can overcome a deficit, as they bounced back from trailing 0-2 and then 1-3 to eventually beat the Warriors. Of course, such an improbable comeback is even less likely this year now that the Warriors have added Durant to the mix--but James is always the main story in any game or series. Will he assert his will and dominate the proceedings the way that Pantheon players do in the Finals? As I have often stated when writing about Jordan, Bryant, James and other all-time greats, this is not about numbers--it is about impact. When Michael Jordan played in the NBA Finals, no one doubted who was the best player on the court--and the same is true for most other Pantheon players (unless they were facing another Pantheon player and I am not quite ready to put Durant in that club just yet). For all of James' wonderful accomplishments and despite his gaudy Finals numbers, it is far too often not clear that he is the best player on the court when the championship trophy is up for grabs.

The Cavaliers kept game one close for the first half. If they execute at both ends of the court--specifically, cut down the turnovers, stop giving up so many offensive rebounds and attack the hoop on offense--then they absolutely can compete with and even beat the Warriors. James has to set the tone, though, and in game one the Cavaliers followed his lead on offense (too many turnovers) and on defense (poor execution individually and collectively).

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Golden State Versus Cleveland Preview

NBA Finals

Golden State (67-15) vs. Cleveland (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 1-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James is not only productive but also engaged, if the Cavaliers are committed defensively and if James' deep supporting cast continues to play at a high level.

It has been suggested that (1) the Cavaliers are massive underdogs who can only win this series if James plays at a historically great level and (2) if the Cavaliers beat the Warriors then James will have equaled, if not surpassed, Michael Jordan. I disagree with both premises.

I agree that on paper the Cavaliers are the underdogs; that is self-evident based on the teams' won-loss records and the resulting fact that the Warriors enjoy homecourt advantage. However, the notion that the Cavaliers consist of LeBron James and a bunch of nobodies is ridiculous. James has two All-Star/borderline All-NBA caliber teammates: Kyrie Irving is a tremendous clutch shooter, perhaps the best one on one scorer in the league and an underrated passer, while Kevin Love is a premier scorer/rebounder/three point shooter/outlet passer who has accepted the Chris Bosh third option reduced role. Both of those guys can have big games against any team that is unwilling or unable to commit adequate defensive resources toward stopping them.

Tristan Thompson is the Cavaliers' Horace Grant, a reliable rebounder who is tenacious and versatile defensively (Grant was a better shooter, while Thompson is more physical). J.R. Smith is a very talented wild card who can be a defensive stopper and a deadly three point shooter.

Then, the Cavaliers bring off of the bench two former All-Stars: Deron Williams (who not that long ago was considered to be neck and neck with Chris Paul as the best pure point guard in the league) and three point marksman Kyle Korver. The Cavaliers' bench also includes Richard Jefferson (who was a 20 ppg scorer for the Nets back when they were an elite Eastern Conference team that advanced to two NBA Finals) and Channing Frye, a quintessential "stretch four."

Cleveland's All-Star triumvirate supported by former All-Stars/players who started for good playoff teams is reminiscent of the talent/depth that the best teams of the 1980s used to have.

Of course, everything runs through and around James, who has been extraordinarily productive during the 2017 playoffs, even by his lofty standards: 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.0 apg, .566 FG% (including .421 from three point range) in 40.9 mpg. During Cleveland's five game romp over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, James averaged 29.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 6.8 apg while shooting .580 from the field (including .345 from three point range) in 38.6 mpg.

It is not an accident or a fluke that the Cavaliers went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs--and they easily could have been 12-0 if not for a 21 point blown lead capped off by Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating, game-winning three pointer in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals. James' aforementioned numbers would have been even greater if he had not mailed in his game three performance (11 points on 4-13 field goal shooting in 45 desultory minutes).

That brings us straight to the Cavaliers' three biggest weaknesses/question marks: (1) Their defensive effort/execution is often subpar, (2) they occasionally do not treat their opponents with much respect and (3) James--more than any other Pantheon-level player--has a baffling propensity to quit/become disengaged/become passive (choose the adjective that you prefer, as some people find "quit" to be too strong a term even though it seems to best describe the phenomenon). Just to be clear, every Pantheon player has had bad games during their primes and some of them even had a bad series but James has had games/series during which it looked like he just did not care. At least this time, James (1) admitted that he played poorly instead of defiantly proclaiming that he had "spoiled" fans with his previous excellent play and (2) did not let whatever mental state he entered in game three linger into games four and five. If James quits for even just one game in the NBA Finals then the Cavaliers will surely lose, because they do not have the necessary margin of error to give away a game for any reason.

James will almost certainly be productive versus the Warriors but he must also be engaged during the entire series. Sadly, there is no way to predict whether or not that will be the case.

That melancholy thought brings us to point number two, namely the "ghost" (Michael Jordan) that LeBron James has openly stated that he is "chasing." Sparky Anderson once said that he would never embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench. I am not comfortable definitively naming Jordan (or anyone else) as the greatest basketball player of all-time but I feel comfortable saying that he is the greatest player of the past 30 years of so--call that the "modern" era if you want to, though of course the meaning of "modern" inevitably shifts over time--and I do not feel like the competition is that close. Kobe Bryant was the closest thing to Jordan at the shooting guard position since Jordan retired, Shaquille O'Neal was very dominant, Tim Duncan was consistently great (though not as dominant or imposing as O'Neal) and LeBron James is a marvelous all-around player but I would not take any of those guys over Jordan.

In the classic book Wait Til Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica, Goldman noted that after enough time passes, virtually every great athlete's resume and accomplishments are belittled in a way that would have been unimaginable during that athlete's prime. Goldman called the athlete's struggle to stay relevant a battle "To the Death" and he asserted that Wilt Chamberlain was perhaps the only athlete who grew more legendary over time, because we are reminded of his greatness every time someone becomes the first to do "this" or "that" since Chamberlain.

Not long ago, it would have been inconceivable to attack Jordan's resume but now we hear rumblings that the competition in his era was not so good and that his record of six championships/six Finals MVPs in six attempts is somehow tainted because he suffered several first round losses and may have suffered more such losses (or perhaps lost in the Finals, ending his perfect record) if he had not retired for about 18 months to play baseball.

Many people seem to have forgotten that, at least on paper, Jordan's Bulls were underdogs in the 1993 and 1998 Finals; in both of those series, the Bulls defeated the team that had the best regular season record and that season's MVP. If your retort to that is that "everyone knew" that Jordan was better than Charles Barkley and Karl Malone respectively, then it must also be acknowledged that "everyone knows" that James is better than Kevin Durant. The idea that Jordan did not face significant competition is ridiculous; he just made it look that way in retrospect because he was so dominant (with more than a little help from Scottie Pippen, of course, but there have been few championship teams that truly only had one star player).

The significance of Jordan's six for six accomplishment is that every time Jordan had a team that was good enough to advance to the Finals he won the title and he was the primary reason that his team won the title (though one could perhaps argue that Pippen was at least in contention for one or two of those Finals MVPs, depending on how much one values Pippen's all-around excellence versus Jordan's scoring dominance combined with very good all-around play). A team that loses in the first or second round was just not good enough to win a championship (unless there are mitigating factors such as a serious injury to a key player or the best player just quitting when his team had a great opportunity to win). James has lost in the Finals four times and on at least three of those occasions he was outplayed by lesser players who won the Finals MVP (Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala). During the 2011 Finals, James was not only outplayed by all-time great Dirk Nowitzki but he was also outplayed during key moments by Jason Terry.

Isiah Thomas has said that after his college coach Bobby Knight first coached Jordan in the Olympics, Knight said, "This one is a little different." It has also been noted that Knight advised Portland to draft Jordan and when the Portland brass stated that they needed a center Knight replied, "Then play him at center."

Those two quotes sum up Jordan compared even to the great players who followed him: he is just a little different and he would do whatever it takes to win in any situation. Jordan just had some levels and some skills that I don't see even in Kobe, Shaq, Duncan or LeBron, who are clearly the four best players of the post-Jordan era.

If James and the Cavaliers win the championship this season, then James will be 4-4 in the NBA Finals. Four rings is impressive in any era and any context but a 4-4 record on the game's biggest stage does not come close to a 6-0 record--period. Jordan never lost as the favorite and when he lost as an underdog he put up a hell of a fight. James' quitting and his losses as a favorite are part of his resume. Even if he wins six rings, he still has gaps and holes on his resume that cannot be filled when comparing him to Jordan.

Bottom line: if Cleveland wins this series it is an upset but not an upset of monumental proportions; nothing that James does in this series can vault him past Jordan.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are fully healthy and fully committed. It is not often that a team has two legitimate MVP candidates/top five players in the league but when that does happen then championships tend to ensue: Kareem/Magic, Moses/Doc, Jordan/Pippen, Shaq/Kobe. I don't know what the official MVP results will say but the reality is that Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are former MVPs who both rank among the league's top five players.

Durant has sustained his excellent regular season play (25.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.8 apg) during the playoffs (25.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.7 apg), while Curry has elevated his regular season play (25.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.6 apg) during the playoffs (28.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.6 apg). The Warriors did well for the most part when Durant missed 20 regular season games but when the Warriors have been at full strength Durant has clearly been their best player, though the gap between Durant and Curry has not been significant during the playoffs to this point.

Draymond Green provides great all-around play but he is in the perfect role on the perfect team for his talents; if he had to create his own shot as the number one option then he would not be nearly as effective, nor would he average anywhere close to 7 apg if he were not surrounded by three all-time great shooters.

Klay Thompson had an excellent--if somewhat overlooked--regular season but he has struggled with his shot during the playoffs. Even a slumping Thompson is still a problem for opposing defenses, because it would be a risky strategy to dare him to make open shots for an entire series.

Like the Cavaliers, the Warriors have a deep bench filled with former All-Stars and players who have previously been starters for playoff teams.

Some say that the Warriors' regular season success and one championship represent a vindication of Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns but, if anything, these Warriors are a repudiation of D'Antoni's philosophy: D'Antoni minimizes the importance of defense because he believes that in the long run a barrage of three pointers will prevail over a team that shoots two pointers; the Warriors are an elite defensive team that can win grimy, low scoring games if necessary, though of course they prefer to be involved in shootouts.

D'Antoni's Suns and Rockets are like basketball junk food; it may look good/taste good in small quantities but consumed in large quantities it is not so good. In contrast, the Warriors play a fun style that does not mock traditional basketball values such as defense and rebounding.

Other things to consider: Mike Brown has not lost a game since taking over as Golden State's interim head coach in the wake of the complications that have afflicted Steve Kerr as a result of back surgery. Many media members openly mock Brown but he is a very good coach, as demonstrated by the results that he has produced throughout his career, posting a 347-216 regular season record, a 47-36 playoff record prior to going 12-0 this postseason and winning the 2009 NBA Coach of the Year award. He led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals early in James' career and then guided the Cavaliers to 66 and 61 wins in the 2009 and 2010 campaigns respectively; the opportunity to win a championship at the expense of a star player who quit on him during the 2010 playoffs should not be dismissed as a factor in this series.

Although the Warriors and Cavaliers have both fully embraced the new era philosophy regarding volume three point shooting, both teams are throwbacks in terms of how they are constructed; most of the modern NBA teams have one star surrounded by role-playing specialists but the Warriors and the Cavaliers have multiple All-Stars backed up by players who were All-Stars during their primes. That combination of talent and depth--in addition to injuries suffered by key players on opposing teams--largely explains why neither team has been challenged very much up to this point.

Based on historical pedigree, we are looking at all-time greatness: the Warriors have posted the best three year regular season run in NBA history and have made it to three straight Finals while winning one title; the Cavaliers have not matched the Warriors as a regular season juggernaut but they have also won one title while making it to three straight Finals. In addition, LeBron James extended his personal streak of Finals appearances to seven, which is something that has not been accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in the 1960s.

This is the first time that the same two teams have met in three straight NBA Finals; Kareem and Magic faced Dr. J three times in a four year span from 1980-83 and then Kareem and Magic faced Bird, McHale and Parish three times in a four year span from 1984-87. The Kareem/Magic Lakers are viewed as the team of the 1980s in large part based on taking two out of three in both of those trilogies and the winner of the 2017 Finals will also likely assume an exalted place in pro basketball history.

The Warriors are like a basketball Death Star; they only have one weakness and it is not easy to exploit: teams that are willing and able to attack in the paint offensively without compromising their defensive floor balance can beat the Warriors. We saw this from the Cavaliers during the final three games of the 2016 Finals and we saw this from the San Antonio Spurs for the first three quarters of game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Zaza Pachulia's two step closeout took Kawhi Leonard out and effectively ended the Spurs' opportunity to compete with the Warriors. We will never know if the Spurs would have been willing and able to sustain that method of attack throughout the series but for over 30 minutes the Warriors looked quite mortal.

Will LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson pound the Warriors inside, opening things up for the Cavaliers' three point shooters to do damage if the Warriors are forced to collapse into the paint? As suggested above, the Cavaliers are capable of doing this but I do not believe that they will do this enough throughout the series, so I expect that Golden State will prevail.

Before the playoffs began, I picked Golden State over Cleveland in six games and after observing these teams storm through their respective conferences I will stick with that prediction.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 PM