It’s finally here! Game 1 of the NBA Finals is tomorrow night, and the dream matchup that we’ve all been waiting for is here.
In one corner, it’s the Golden State Warriors who are the defending NBA champions, the best regular season team ever with a 73-9 record, and have the two best shooters in the NBA, the Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry, back-to back MVP, and Klay Thompson, the 2016 NBA Three-intint Contest champion.)
In the other corner, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers who are the back-to-back Eastern Conference Champions, coasted through the Eastern Conference Playoffs in just 14 games, and have LeBron James and two other All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
How They Got Here: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers stomped through the Eastern Conference with King James scoring an astounding 24.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG and 7 APG in the playoffs, despite him playing the fewest minutes per game in his postseason career, as well as a postseason career-low in usage rate, which means that LeBron is coasting into these Finals ready for battle. With James taking a reduced role, he’s given Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and Channing Frye the opportunities to thrive, as all of them are hitting on more than 44% of their three-pointers.
This year’s Cavs team has also relied on its depth, something the 2015 edition sorely lacked. With Love and Irving healthy, they’ve allowed Matthew Dellavedova to return to an off-the-bench defensive menace role that he’s much more suited for, and guys like Iman Shumpert, Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Timofey Mozgov have all contributed in spurts, which has given LeBron the ability to be a distributor and not wear out save some of his scoring juices.
The Cavaliers are firing on all cylinders, as they are beating teams by 12.6 points-per-game, which leads all playoff teams. They beat the second-best team in the East, the Toronto Raptors, by 64 combined in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Lebron and Co. are ready for the defending champs.
How They Got Here: Golden State Warriors
The Warriors had a slightly tougher path to a NBA Finals return trip than their Eastern Conference counterparts. The NBA’s first and only unanimous MVP Stephen Curry tweaked his knee in Round 1 against the Houston Rockets and proceeded to sit out for about two weeks. Curry’s absence resulted in the lesser Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers stealing a game each off the champs, but his absence also helped the Warriors grow.
The other Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, got to experience life as the go-to-guy, and he thrived in the lead role, as he has averaged 26.2 points-per-game, the fourth highest total in these playoffs. If Thompson hadn’t experienced life without Steph, who knows if he would’ve been able to hit his NBA Playoff record 11 three-pointers if he hadn’t been used to being the guy taking all the shots?
However, Curry returned just in time for the Western Conference Finals and looked like his usual self as he launched his rainbow three-pointers over anyone and everyone in his path.
The Warriors also come into the Finals with the same depth they used last year to wear the Cavs down. The Warriors go six to seven players deep off the bench as Anderson Varejao, Festus Ezeli, Mo Speights, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, and whoever isn’t starting between Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala all get extended minutes. Golden State’s bench kept them hanging around in Game 7 and was the difference in winning the 2015 NBA Finals.
The X-Factor Matchup: Kevin Love vs. Draymond Green
The matchup of stretch power forwards will be a key factor in deciding the winner of this series and which team becomes the 2016 NBA Champions. After missing almost the entirety of last year’s playoffs, Kevin Love is back with a vengeance in 2016, averaging a near double-double in the playoffs with 17.3 points-per-game and 9.6 rebounds-per-game all while shooting 45% from the three-point line. The Warrior’s
Draymond Green,who is more more of a point forward because he plays every position on the court, is averaging 15.1 points-per-game, 9.8 rebounds-per-game, and 6 assists-per-game.
While Curry and Thompson provide the vast majority of the scoring in Golden State’s offense, Green facilitates their high-powered attack, often handling the ball at the top of the key while the Splash Brothers run defenders to death wit their dodging and darting up, down, and around hard screens set by Andrew Bogut and the rest of the Warriors frontcourt.
Love has the ability to take Green out of the series by using the same technique Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams used in the Western Conference Finals: size. Draymond is 6’7 and weighs 230 pounds. Kevin Love is 6’10 and weighs 250 pounds. With Love’s three-inch and 20 pound size differential, Love can push Green around on the low block and the glass, which is what the Thunder big men did repeatedly to Green in Round 3. Once the physicality took its toll on Green, his mental edge and trash-talking bravado that he’s known for started to fade, and Green started to resort to foul play like repeatedly kicking Steven Adams in multiple games, which took his focus off the game itself. All Love has to do is receive a lot of touches in the post and pound Green into submission or wait for foul trouble to force Steve Kerr to take him out of the game, like it he did in many games in the Western Conference Finals.
However, Draymond Green also has an edge over Kevin Love. Love is a below-average defensive player. He doesn’t possess much lateral quickness and his defensive instincts are reactionary at best, whereas good defensive players dictate the offense’s movement. With Green doing a lot of the Warrior’s ball handling, that could leave Love standing out on the perimeter to guard Green, which will cause all sorts of trouble for Cleveland’s defense. When Draymond beats Love off the dribble, the Cavs have to shift help over to protect the paint, which causes a perimeter defender to give a Warriors guard more space to breathe. If one of those guards is Steph or Klay, that’s an automatic three points for Golden State.
This power forward matchup could go either way and will most certainly go a long way in determining the NBA Finals Champion.
Prediction: Cleveland Cavaliers Defeat the Golden State Warriors 4-2
The Cavaliers are the most rested team in this year’s playoffs, as they’ve played the least amount of playoff games. LeBron James hasn’t needed to exert himself as scorer yet, so he’s ready to go full force in these finals. In last year’s finals, the Cavs were a ball-dominant team that played at a slow pace and relied on James’ one-on-one play. This year’s Cavs are averaging 22.9 assists-per-game, up 4.9 assists-per-game from last year’s playoff average of 18. They rely more on ball movement and three-point shooting now, which is the same formula the Warriors have used since their run of dominance began at the beginning of 2015.
While Cleveland can play small-ball just like the Warriors with lineups of Irving, Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith, Jefferson, and LeBron, as well as big, bully-ball lineups similar to ones the Thunder used to great success with the likes of Irving, LeBron, Love, Thompson, and Mozgov. If Cleveland wanted to go for an all-defense look to counter the Warrior’s death lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, and Green, they could use Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith, James and Thompson.
This year’s Cavs have lineup flexibility, something any team needs to defeat the Warriors.
Plus, this is LeBron James’ best chance to top Curry and his three-point gunners. He has depth, he has rest, and he has size on his side.
The Cavaliers will steal Game 1 on Thursday by using their rested legs and rebounding advantage, and then they will defend their home court with all they’ve got, especially after Steph Curry said he hoped the Cavs’ visiting locker room still smelled like champagne when the Warriors played in Cleveland in the regular season. Guarding Kevin Durant for seven games had to tire out 32-year-old Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP and the primary defender the Warriors used to guard LeBron James. James will take full advantage of Iggy’s weary legs.
If LeBron is to be one of the greatest players of all time, he needs to win this series and bring a championship home to Ohio.
LeBron James will deliver and bring home the NBA Title in six games now that he has a fully healthy roster behind him.
Featured image source: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images