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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Golden State Versus Cleveland Preview

NBA Finals

Golden State (58-24) vs. Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Golden State, 2-0

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James continues to perform at a record-setting level and if the Cavaliers continue to play much better defense than they did during the regular season.

LeBron James has been spectacular during the 2018 playoffs, averaging 34.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 8.8 apg, 1.4 spg and 1.1 bpg while shooting .542 from the field. Cleveland outlasted Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals as James averaged 33.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 8.4 apg, 1.1 spg and 1.1 bpg while shooting .524 from the field. James seemed like he was either pacing himself or in what he has called "chill mode" during substantial stretches of the regular season but he is fully engaged now and he is making it look foolish to consider anyone else to be the real MVP. If you need to win one playoff game or one playoff series and you have first pick among all active NBA players, there is no way that you take anyone other than James.

While James has been fantastic, it is worth remembering that basketball is a team sport and that James' individual heroics would have been in vain were it not for the fact that his much-maligned teammates have stepped up during the postseason, particularly at the defensive end of the court versus Toronto and Boston.

James' most talented and productive teammate is Kevin Love (13.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg during the 2018 playoffs), who missed Cleveland's game seven win over the Boston Celtics after suffering a concussion in game six of that series. Even though Love is Cleveland's second best player, in certain situations the Cavaliers perform better when he is not on the court, as Tristan Thompson and Jeff Green are more skillful defenders who can guard multiple positions after switches. In this series, Love's defense will likely be targeted by the Warriors but the Cavaliers will need Love on the court to post up, to space the floor by shooting three pointers, to provide timely passing and to rebound. Love is still in the NBA's concussion protocol, so his status for game one and the rest of the series is unknown at this time.

Former All-Star Kyle Korver has provided excellent shooting (team-best .449 3 FG%) and has even contributed defensively at times. George Hill missed three games during the first round but he is a key piece for Cleveland, a heady point guard who can shoot, defend and pass. J.R. Smith has struggled with his shot throughout the playoffs and the Cavaliers need for him to get going to have a realistic chance to beat the Warriors.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have survived the regular season gauntlet plus a seven game series versus the Houston Rockets and those experiences have revived their sometimes wavering focus.

Winning two championships in three years and advancing to four straight NBA Finals is mentally, physically and emotionally draining. The cracks showed for the Warriors this season as they battled injuries, mental fatigue and boredom. Like the Cavaliers, they did not always seem fully engaged with the task at hand. Falling down 3-2 versus the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals was perhaps just the challenge/wake up call that this group needed and the Warriors responded very well: they routed the Rockets at home in game six after falling behind by double digits and then they overcame a double digit deficit on the road to capture game seven.

Kevin Durant is averaging 29.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 4.1 apg during the playoffs while shooting .479 from the field. He averaged 30.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 2.7 apg while shooting .461 from the field during the Western Conference Finals. Durant has reverted to playing too much isolation basketball at times, perhaps because Stephen Curry was out for the first six games of the playoffs or perhaps because Durant wanted to personally outduel his former teammate James Harden of Houston; Durant accomplished that mission, as Harden averaged 28.7 ppg, 6.0 apg and 5.6 rpg in the Western Conference Finals but he shot just .415 from the field and he committed 34 turnovers, seven more than any other player.

The Warriors are at their best when they are passing and cutting to get everyone involved in the offense. They are also a very stout defensive team, as demonstrated by holding Houston to under 100 points in the last five games of the Western Conference Finals.

Curry is averaging 24.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 4.9 apg during the playoffs while shooting .472 from the field and .385 from three point range. He does not always look quite like himself as he recovers from a left MCL sprain but he has nevertheless often still been the best player on the court. Harden scored a few more points than Curry during the Western Conference Finals, but Curry had more impact at both ends of the court on the outcome of the series.

Klay Thompson would be the number one option on many teams but he is the Warriors' third option, scoring 20.5 ppg in the playoffs while shooting .462 from the field and a team-high .426 from three point range. Thompson is also an outstanding defender, though the Warriors survived his early foul trouble in game seven at Houston to post a come from behind win.

Unless Draymond Green plays for a different team, there will be an eternal debate if he is really a great player or if he is just a very good player who has been fortunate to land on the perfect team for his strengths/weaknesses. Green defends, rebounds, passes and has the luxury of taking less than 10 field goal attempts per game during the playoffs because the Warriors do not need his scoring.

Andre Iguodala, who won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP largely because he at least made LeBron James work for everything that he got, has missed four straight games due to a bone bruise in his left knee. His status is still questionable. Iguodala's absence was felt at both ends of the court during the Houston series.

Other things to consider: Last season, the Warriors and Cavaliers became the first two teams to meet in three straight NBA Finals; the closest thing that we have seen to that in the past several decades happened in the 1980s: the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson L.A. Lakers faced Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers three times in a four year span from 1980-83 and then the Lakers faced the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics three times in a four year span from 1984-87. The Lakers are viewed as the team of the 1980s mainly because they won two out of three times in both of those matchups.

James' biggest supporters say that his personal 3-5 mark in the NBA Finals should not be held against him in the greatest player of all-time conversations because James is carrying teams to the Finals that otherwise had no chance of getting there. However, it does not make sense to "credit" James for winning the Eastern Conference eight years in a row (and nine times total, including 2007 during his first stint with the Cavaliers) without also acknowledging that it is highly unlikely that he would have accomplished the same feat in this era had he been playing in the Western Conference. Magic Johnson is remembered not so much for leading the Lakers to eight Western Conference championships during the 1980s but rather because he won five titles in those eight appearances--and it is not like the Lakers faced the Sisters of the Poor in the NBA Finals: the Lakers beat strong Boston and Philadelphia teams, plus a rising Detroit team that soon won back to back titles.

James' won-loss record in the Finals is fair game when ranking the greatest players of all-time; context should be considered--which is true of any statistic or fact--but it would be odd if James becomes the first player who is measured by conference finals wins as opposed to championships, which is the rhetoric that some of his supporters seem to be spouting.

James' Cavaliers are clear underdogs in this matchup but there is a strategic road map to maximize their chances of victory. That road map obviously starts with James being far and away the best player during the series; the Cavaliers also must defend at an extremely high level for sustained periods of time, they must limit their turnovers and they must run selectively: when the Cavaliers have an advantage in transition they must push the ball to score but if they don't have an advantage then they must slow the game down and use the size of James, Love and Thompson to wear down the Warriors in the paint.

The Warriors must cut down on the careless turnovers and they must maintain an appropriate confidence level, one that involves being focused on the task at hand without skipping steps and relying on talent to carry the day.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:07 PM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 7:42:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Regarding ranking Lebron by his Conference Championships, I prefer not to look at straight-up Finals record or number of Finals first; as you noted, context matters a great deal in both cases.

For instance, there's a fair case that making the Finals with *this* Cavs team (or the '07 version, for that matter) is more impressive than winning the '12 or '13 title with Wade/Bosh/Battier/etc.

On the flip side, beating the Warriors in '16 could reasonably considered one of the greatest Finals performances of all time*, and an individual feat that guys like Magic and Bird don't really have a comparison to; Irving and Love are good, but they are not Kareem/Worthy or McHale/Parish, and the respective casts below the top 3 likewise favor LA/Boston; Bird and Magic just simply never needed to be not only the best player on the floor, but the best player at everything or almost everything on the floor. Very few have made it far enough with little enough to end up in that situation, and even fewer (Doc, Hakeem, Barry, Duncan, arguably Kobe) have risen to the challenge when they did. Whatever his other faults, Lebron was by far the best player in a series against a 73 win team on a roster starting average-ish players like JR Smith and Tristan Thompson with little talent to speak of on the bench.

*Even if I still believe the Warriors would certainly have won that series with a fully healthy team, and might have won it if Draymond had not gotten suspended.

That accomplishment of course is not the only thing that matters when evaluating Lebron, but it is one of the things that matters. I'm always impressed by anyone who can put their team on their back against (on paper) superior competition and come out on top.

When it comes to the comparison du jour-- Jordan vs. James-- I'll still take Jordan but Finals record has little to do with it, given their respective contexts. I think Lebron could likely have won most if not all of the rings Jordan won, if given Pippen/Rodman/etc. and the same level of competition opposite him. I do think Jordan might have managed one or two more rings than James did with James' supporting casts (in 2010 and 2011, specifically) but even that is not a hill I'm quite willing to die on as Jordan was not the rebounder James was, and while he was a better individual and team defender, he could not guard as many positions (a capacity which was key at least in Lebron's victory over the Warriors, if not a few of his other titles).

No, I take Jordan on account of a more complete skillset, a more reliable mindset, an even more unstoppable scoring game, and a greater defensive peak (and greater defensive consistency). Those, to me, count for more than raw rings or Finals appearances in either direction.

That said, if Lebron somehow keeps up an MVP-ish level of play another 3-5 years, he'll have a pretty strong longevity-based case against anyone. Guys aren't supposed to still be this good in year 15. Even Duncan, Kobe, and Kareem were a bit post-peak by then.

 
At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 8:12:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Good preview. There's been a lot of denigrating of this Cavaliers team outside of LeBron but they have gone 10 players deep in the playoffs so far and they seem similar in makeup to Kobe's supporting cast from 2008 - 2010. The Warriors are still incredibly talented up top but seem to have less off-the bench-depth than previous seasons and obviously less focus than last season, along with injuries taking their toll.

LBJ has a puncher's chance if he plays hard but the question will be if he maximize's his punchers chance. It will be interesting to see what happens.

 
At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 8:20:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

The Orwellian math being used to calculate LeBron's ring total is unsettling and that's putting it mildly. In Orwellian society they argued that two plus two equals five while a sizeable portion of the NBA media is flat-out saying that four would be equal to or greater than six. LeBron is just as great or even superior to Jordan yet his rings count as more than one each? He is the only player in NBA history who has been awarded this luxury.

If someone is going to use such childish logic the least they could do is be consistent. If LeBron's 2016 Finals performance is worth multiple rings then his 2011 Finals performance is worth negative rings and Dirk deserves multiple rings for leading his undermanned Mavericks to victory over a heavily favored super team. I obviously don't subscribe to any of this but I just want to show how many idiotic directions this type of thinking can be taken in and don't get me started on people who actually think that leading this Cavs team to the Finals is worth a ring in itself.

If LeBron were as great as his sycophants proclaim he is his Finals record would be 5-3 instead of 3-5. It is unfair to say that he had to go undefeated in the Finals to match Jordan but having at least a .500 record isn't some cruel and unusual requirement. He had several opportunities to do this and fell short. No amount of wacky math will change this.

 
At Tuesday, May 29, 2018 9:48:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

This is completely heart over head, but I'm going with Cleveland in six. Though they are great, I'm not a big fan of this Warriors team.

 
At Thursday, May 31, 2018 1:08:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

It will come down to a few things.
One: who's going to guard Kevin Durant? Crowder used to have this job, but he's gone. Not James, cuz Durant will just shoot over the top because James won't get that physical that far away from the basket.
Two: Can George Hill slow down Curry? Hill has been effective versus Curry in the past, posting a 10-4 record, and limiting Curry to 19 ppg, while averaging 13 ppg at solid percentages (0.484 FG% and .511 3FG%).
Three: Can the Cavaliers stay within striking distance at the end of the game? If so, they become nigh-invincible, going 7-1 in the playoffs within 5 points under 5 minutes, posting a 4.3 plus/minus.

But the GSW are just plain too deep, and even if the Cavaliers succeed in slowing down Curry they have too many other options. The strategy of trapping Curry in last year's Finals backfired, so Coach Lue has to try something else.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 4:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, was 2016 really that impressive? James did great, but so did Irving, who also played like a legit Finals MVP. And Green was the best player on the court in game 7. James cast performed very well, and as Keith mentioned, is very comparable at the very least to Kobe's cast from 08-10. When the 2 best performers in the series are on the same team, it'd be very hard for that team to lose, regardless of whoever else they have, which CLE had in the 2016 Finals.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 5:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Anonymous-

I mentioned Kobe as well precisely for that reason, but I think that the 73 win Warriors were just a lot more intimidating than the '10 Celtics or '09 Magic, and while Kobe played great in those series, Lebron led both teams in '16 in Points, Rebounds, Assists, Blocks, and Steals while shooting a high percentage, despite playing the league's best defensive team and helping cover for Love/Irving on the other end. To me, that's pretty damn impressive.

For his part, Kobe led the '09 Finals in Points and Assists, but was third in Steals/Blocks and sixth in Steals (all still impressive) so it less the Doing-It-All-Myself kind of performance I'm referring to. He led 2010 in Points and Steals and was second in Rebounds and Assists, while finishing in three-way tie for 5th in blocks. Again, still super impressive, but also again, not quite as impressive (to me) as the '76 Doc/'16 Lebron five-tool performances or '94 Hakeem/'03 Duncan anchoring their teams' entire defense while also throwing the offense on their backs. It's more of a piece for me with '75 Barry, '74 Doc, '95 Hakeem, or '05 Duncan; he carried the lion's share and beat a superior (on paper) team, but he had enough help to do it without having to go full Superman.

Not the main point, but briefly: I am not sure Irving/Love are a better or worse combination than Pau/Odom, and it may depend which year you pluck them from, but I do think Ariza/Artest and Bynum are better 4th and 5th guys than anybody on the 2016 Cavs team, and I think Phil Jackson is a much better coach than Ty Lue.

 
At Friday, June 01, 2018 5:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Quick Addendum Regarding this point: "When the 2 best performers in the series are on the same team, it'd be very hard for that team to lose, regardless of whoever else they have, which CLE had in the 2016 Finals."

I do not necessarily disagree, however I would make two points:

1) A very strong case could be made that Pau was the second best performer in both the '09 and '10 Finals; he was second in scoring in both series, second and first in rebounding, and second and first in blocked shots. In '10 he threw all of one fewer assist than Kobe, and while his assist numbers weren't great in '09 his passing set up a lot of cuts and hockey assists for his teammates then, too. Despite his historically soft defense overall, he also served as a surprisingly effective rim protector and help defender in both those series, apparently having learned after getting bullied by KG in '08.

2) I am not sure I agree that Kyrie was the second best performer in that series. He was certainly the second-best scorer but did little else at an especially high level. Despite a popular media narrative that he contained Curry defensively, the numbers did not bear that out (although Thompson did a surprisingly great job on Curry) and I think a reasonable case could be made for either Curry (whose statistics were slightly weaker than Irving's but whose extra spacing provided a ton of hard-to-quantify-in-a-box-score value for the Warriors) or, as you noted, Draymond Green. Regardless of what order you put those three guys in, though, it was pretty clearly Lebron, then everybody else.

 
At Saturday, June 02, 2018 11:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On paper, yes probably, 2016 GS looks tougher. In reality in what happened in the 2016 Finals, no. GS certainly played subparly to their standards in the Finals that year. James had a very supbar first 2 games and was outplayed by Green. Then he had a great game 3, but so did Irving. In game 4, he again wasn't the best player on the court, maybe only 3rd best. He had a fantastic game 5, as did Irving again, and no Green in that game. A great game 6. A great game 7, but Green was the best player on the court. At most, James was the best player on the court in 3 different game. This wasn't a legendary performance. He got tons of help, and GS choked and played very subparly.

 
At Saturday, June 02, 2018 8:54:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Nick,

Kyrie had more assists that series than Curry did, the 4th most overall in fact, as well as the second most steals, right behind the LeBron. Irving's defensive issue has always been his smaller size and slight frame, not his effort, but he matched up well with Curry defensively who is similar in stature. Irving certifiably smoked Curry on offense, including draining the series winning shot in his face, and maintained a consistent level of effort throughout the series while Curry faded and looked exhausted and spent by the time Game 7 came along. I think it's perfectly fair game to say he was the second best player that series, because that and LeBron is why the Cavaliers won.

 
At Monday, June 04, 2018 2:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Keith-

I think there's a fair case for sure, I just don't think it's a slam dunk one. He, Curry, and Draymond all had highs and lows throughout the series and IMO a similar ultimate impact (again, I think the extra space Curry creates for everyone else is almost more valuable than any scoring or passing he does himself).

 
At Monday, June 04, 2018 10:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irving was much better than Curry in 2016 Finals. It wasn't close, and Irving played some solid defense in that series. This is Curry's 4th Finals, and he hasn't been better than the 3rd best player at best in any of them until this year, which he's probably been the 2nd best player so far through 2 games.

 

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