The Hidden Keys For The Cavaliers vs. Warriors “Rubber Match”

The time has finally come for the long awaited tie-breaker between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. This is the third straight year that these two teams will meet in the NBA Finals (first time that has happened in NBA history). In 2015, the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in six games, with Andre Iguodala winning Finals MVP (Most Valuable Player). The Cavs were short handed in that series as Kyrie Irving suffered a knee injury in the first game and could not return for the rest of the series, plus Kevin Love didn’t play a minute in that series as he was out with a dislocated shoulder which he suffered earlier in the playoffs.

A lot of fans and analysts alike will tell you that the Warriors only won because of the Cavs’ injuries. In 2016, the Cavs beat the Warriors in seven games coming back from a three to one game deficit to do so. LeBron James was named NBA Finals MVP as he led both teams in total points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks.

There was some controversy during this series as an incident between Draymond Green and LeBron James in Game 4 led to Green being suspended for Game 5. To add to that, Andrew Bogut got hurt during the series and Iguodala was dealing with back issues. So of course some fans and analysts will tell you that the only reason the Cavs won that series was because of the Green suspension and Warriors’ injuries.

In 2017, both teams look to be at full strength coming into the series and all we can do is hope it stays that way. The Cavaliers have the same core unit as the past two seasons, with of course some changes with the role players. The Warriors look just a tad bit different as they added this guy who happens to be one of the best scorers in NBA history, at almost seven feet tall, with shooting guard skills and elite handles named Kevin Durant.

These two teams only played twice during the regular season on Christmas day but they had a classic game that ended with Kyrie Irving hitting a game winner over Klay Thompson. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Warriors blew the Cavaliers off of the court as the Cavs were going through a rough part in their schedule and actually contemplated resting their star players before the game. It seems like those two games happened ages ago and since it has been quite a while since they played, we can’t really look at those games as foreshadowers because both teams have improved a lot since then.

 

(photo courtesy of USA Today)

Keys To The Series

The keys to the series for the Cavaliers are to slow the game down, create mismatches and the stars have to play like stars. During the regular season, the Warriors were one of the top teams in pace. Golden State was fourth in the league in pace as they averaged 103.5 possessions per game. Cleveland was 16th in pace this season as they averaged 99.5 possessions per game. Now this may not seem like a big difference but if Cleveland can get the Warriors to play at their pace, that can have a big impact.  This could be the difference between Kevin Durant getting six or eight 3-point attempts, or Steph Curry getting three or four more open three point shots.

Four less possessions can be the difference between the Warriors scoring their average of 115 points per game instead scoring maybe 105 points per game during the series. Slowing down the pace just a bit would be to the benefit of the Cavs who averaged 110 points per game this year. The process of slowing the game down will also create mismatches.

 

Kyrie Irving’s game winning shot during game 7 of last year’s finals.
(Photo courtesy of Sir Charles in charge)

Last year in the Finals, Cleveland experienced a lot of success when doing pick-and-rolls and getting either LeBron James or Kyrie Irving matched up against Stephen Curry. They were able to isolate and score or create scoring opportunities for others by exploiting Curry’s man-to-man defense. The Warriors’ biggest strength on defense may also be their biggest weakness when playing against a team as individually talented as the Cavs.

Golden State loves to switch everything, and against most teams, it makes their pick-and-roll a lot less effective. Now against Cleveland, the switching everything philosophy can land Curry and company in hot water. This year is a bit different as the Warriors have another long and capable defender in Durant and this may make it harder for the Cavs to create the mismatches that got them a ring last year. The Cavaliers also need every “star” to show up this series which includes Kevin Love.

(photo courtesy of Sports Quotient)

During last year’s NBA Finals, Love was nowhere to be found as he averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds per game, shot 36% from the field, and 26% from three-point range. Love was also a defensive liability in the finals which limited his playing time. Richard Jefferson actually played more minutes during last years’ Finals than Love.

That type of performance will not be satisfactory this season as the Warriors have even more fire power. Love needs to contribute the same way he has during this playoff run as he has averaged 17.2 points, 10.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 45% from the field and a very impressive 47.5% from three point range so far. Love’s rebounding, inside scoring and outside scoring will be needed for Cleveland to win this series.

The keys to victory for the Golden State Warriors are to play at a fast but controlled pace, keep one of your superstars in the game at all times and find Klay Thompson. Earlier I mentioned that the Warriors play at a faster pace than the Cavaliers, which is great but sometimes with speed comes mistakes. The Warriors have to limit their turnovers while not losing possessions.

Against most teams, they can get away with unforced turnovers like when Curry throws the ball behind his back out of bounds or Green throwing the ball away as he thought a player was cutting back door when they weren’t. The Cavs will turn these mistakes into points on the other end as turnovers lead to mismatches because of the fast turnaround you may end up with Zaza Pachulia on Irving for a possession. That is something the Warriors will want to avoid at all cost.

Turnovers will also lead to getting other players going who may not be able to score in half court situations. Golden State definitely does not want to give open transition three’s to Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Deron Williams and company. The Warriors also have to make sure that one of their MVP’s is in the game at all times.

 

(photo courtesy of Yahoo Sports)

This may sound simple but creating a good substitution pattern for a NBA team isn’t as easy as it may seem. It will be a difficult balance but the Warriors should never be on the court without either Durant or Curry being out there. If they are not out there to match-up with  James and Irving, the Cavs will take advantage. This is where the absence of Steve Kerr may come into play.

Kerr has mastered the art of getting players in and out of the game without losing momentum and giving the other team opportunities to go on runs. Mike Brown is very experienced but he isn’t Steve Kerr. Will Brown be able to handle the tough situations when adjustments need to be made, plays need to be drawn up out of timeouts and push the right buttons to win the series? Will he be able to help Thompson get going?

 

(photo courtesy of NBA Family)

Thompson is a vital part of the Warriors’ success as he usually sticks the best perimeter player on the other team and provides clutch and consistent shot making. This year’s playoffs have been a different story for the sharp shooter as he has struggled, averaging 14.4 points per game while shooting 38% from the floor and 36% from three point range so far. During the regular season, Thompson scored 22.3 points per game, shot 47% from the field, and 41% from beyond the three point line. The Warriors need Thompson to get back to his regular season form if they want to win the championship.

 

X-Factors

(photo courtesy of NBA.com)

The X-Factor for the Cavaliers is Tristan Thompson. The unsung hero for the Cavs was huge during last year’s Finals as he constantly attacked the boards and played great defense. He was able to hold his own on the perimeter after switches would find him on a island against Curry. This year he may find himself trying to stay in front of not only Curry but Durant as well. Thompson needs to be able to play the same level of defense this year along with viciously attacking the offensive boards. Thompson’s ability to effectively switch on to Durant or Curry and create second chance points will definitely play a major role in how this series turns out.

The X-Factor for the Golden State Warriors is Draymond Green. Green is the backbone of the Warriors because of his defensive versatility and play-making ability on offense. A lot of people still blame Green for the Warriors losing that 3-1 game lead they held last year. Green can make up for last year by doing all the things he normally does and providing the one part of his game that hasn’t been consistent, three point shooting. If the All-Star can shoot the deep ball with confidence, this will make it pretty much impossible for the Cavs to slow the Warriors down. This will open the floor for Curry, Durant and others to drive, plus open lanes for Zaza Pachulia and Javale McGee to get easy dunks and lay-ups.

Prediction: I see this being a very competitive series with a few classic games. The Warriors will prevail in six games because they have too much fire power and the Cavs won’t be able to keep up.

 

Damian Adams

San Diego, California

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