The NBA Finals are being billed as “the rematch,” which is understandable, considering what we’re about to watch is, essentially, the exact definition of the word. But so much is different this time around. The Warriors are better this year than they were last year. The Cavs are healthy this time around — and, also, better. The teams are the same and the cities are the same, but when you start to break it down, this just feels like an entirely different animal.
And isn’t it funny how we’ve arrived at this point? The NBA has proven to be amazingly predictable in its outcomes over the long haul. There’s nothing predictable about the process — all the random variables of the regular season; the Thunder booting the Spurs from the postseason; the Thunder going up 3-1 on the defending champs…and losing — but this was the Finals matchup most predicted. And to continue with the theme of predictability, if the Warriors win this series, not one soul outside the most optimistic Cleveland fan (there aren’t many of those, considering their history) will be surprised. After all, this league is all about matchups, and it just feels like nobody can match up with Golden State.
Still, it’s not difficult to argue this is the best the Cavaliers have ever been, and they’re playing a style of basketball right now far different than what we saw last June. Obviously, that has more to do with personnel and injury situations than anything else. It’s been said all season: You can’t beat the Warriors at their game. Well, Oklahoma City nearly did, and it sounds like we’re about to watch the Cavs try.
1. Pace and space … and defense?
The logic being used by anyone picking Cleveland to win the series — or at least challenge — is simple and rational: The Cavaliers took two games against the Warriors in last year’s Finals without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. And while they certainly unlock options LeBron James and company did not have once they left the lineup, it remains to be seen how much more effective the team will be as a whole without its defensive aces being given prominent minutes.
Cleveland did everything it could to grind things to a halt during that series, playing at a pace of 94.78 possessions per 48 minutes with LeBron controlling the ball for as many as those possessions as possible. For perspective, that pace would’ve been second to last over the course of this regular season. It helped keep that Warriors offense at bay as well as it possibly could have.
That may not be the case this time around. One wouldn’t think, at least. Or, perhaps that’s not necessarily true.
When Tyronn Lue took over for the deposed David Blatt, much of the conversation was about the Cavs speeding things up — running a lot more than they previously had. That hasn’t exactly been the case. The pace hasn’t changed much since the regime change. Not like that’s surprising, considering it was never the Blatt system or the Lue system — it’s always been the LeBron system.
Still, perhaps there’s more freedom. Cleveland is playing at an incredibly slow pace during these playoffs — 91.83 possessions per 48 minutes — but it’s maniacally launching 3s. The Cavs are jacking up 33.2 shots per game from behind the arc this postseason, nearly three more than the Warriors on average, and they’re hitting at a better percentage, too.
That team knows it isn’t the same defensively as it was the last time these two met in the Finals, when Kyrie and Love were off the floor. So, while they still clearly realize the importance of controlling the pace and keeping the number of Warriors possessions at a minimum, they’re going to try and fight fire with fire. They’re going to fire away from deep, which means, inevitably, this series is going to be a blast from the start.
2. Can Cleveland adopt Oklahoma City's approach against the Warriors?
Speaking of defense, it’s probably the most interesting subplot of this entire series: How the hell is Cleveland going to deal with Golden State when they go small? Oklahoma City had the advantage of the fact their roster is stocked with giant, long, freak athletes. When the Warriors went small, the Thunder could go small with a lineup that was bigger, faster and stronger. The Cavs, while flexible, don’t exactly have that on the defensive end.
Lue said in a press conference recently his team isn’t going to change things against Golden State — that it’s going to run and shoot and play the way the way they like to play. But when you don’t have the ability to match up defensively, it’s sort of a terrifying proposition.
Cleveland has the ability to get in a shootout with anyone. Its lineups that feature LeBron surrounded by four shooters can be absolutely lethal. But the majority of those lineups don’t play defense as a unit the way the Warriors are capable of playing defense. Tristan Thompson is great defending guards in space on switches, J.R. Smith can rev it up at times, and Iman Shumpert is a very good defender, but there are legitimate holes on that side of the ball all over the place. The Cavs are at a disadvantage here, and unless their rookie coach finds some different roster combinations that help keep that Golden State offense down a little bit, it might do them in.
3. The health of the stars?
This will be short because there’s not much to say about it, but it remains incredibly important. It was weird how the conversation shifted to Curry’s health when the Warriors were down against the Thunder, yet vanished after the games they won. Everyone is banged up at this point of the season. Steph himself announced, “I’m back!” emphatically when he returned against the Portland Trail Blazers.
And yet, everything changes if Curry isn’t right. He’s looked pretty, pretty good the last few games, but if there’s any sort of setback, any sort of tweak, it can make a giant difference. When he’s hurting and the threat of him pulling up from 30 feet or beating you to the basket diminishes, everything changes. These two teams go as their superstars go, but the one in Cleveland has been nearly indestructible his entire career while the one in The Bay has moments that make you hold your breath.
I’m not saying the Cavs have no chance, but their best chance might come in the form of Curry being less than 100 percent. This matchup is too difficult for them, because the Warriors’ roster is filled with two-way players Cleveland simply cannot counter.
Warriors in 5.