LeBron James making his annual voyage to the NBA Finals is like rain in my hometown of Seattle: You know it's simply a matter of time. The 30-year-old James averaged 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta to become the first player in NBA history to reach that average in a playoff series. James earns his fifth consecutive run into June, this time with a Cleveland team sans three-time All-Star Kevin Love and an injured Kyrie Irving, the same Irving who earned Most Outstanding Player during Team USA's gold medal FIBA World Cup run last summer. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers -- who are an impressive 12-2 during the playoffs -- have never won a world championship.
In the West, Golden State, the proud holders of the league's best record and a franchise-record 67 wins, hopes to win its first title in 40 years and, as ESPN.com pointed out, to do so with more title-series newbies than any team since Michael Jordan's 1991 Chicago Bulls. The Warriors are 12-3 in the playoffs, and as I recently examined, there is not a more balanced or efficient team on both sides of the ball. League MVP Stephen Curry has continued his brilliance by averaging 29 points on 44 percent 3-point shooting during the postseason, but has also been buoyed by the stellar play of Steve Kerr's multifaceted juggernaut offense.
Let's take a look at what we can expect to see during the Finals, where this year is the first time two rookie coaches have gone head-to-head since the NBA's inaugural season in 1946-47.
When Cleveland Has The Ball
The Cavs' success in the playoffs with a small-ball offense that employed LeBron at the four almost makes you forget that this was once a 19-20 team with rookie head coach David Blatt seemingly on the ropes. Even with a healthier Irving, Blatt will use the same lineup because of LeBron's versatility and, perhaps just as importantly, the terrific play of Tristan Thompson, who has stepped up his production with Love no longer available. James' comfort level in the post allows him to be both a passer and a scorer, as these two clips display:
In addition, James can either isolate or run screen-and-roll with Thompson. And as I recently discussed, he can go small-to-small with Dellavedova or Irving as well, because either can handle the ball. The guard-to-guard action actually takes a page out of Erik Spoelstra's playbook for Miami: Force the defense to a) make a decision if it wants to switch and b) force a big to uncomfortably rotate onto a guard 20-plus feet from the hoop.
Golden State's counter to this is the versatility of its perimeter defenders, specifically Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. All three can defend multiple positions on the floor and Green, although not an elite athlete, can legitimately defend five spots. Part of the Warriors' formula for becoming the league's top-ranked defense this year has been its ability to jump ball screens and force the playmaking guard to get rid of the ball. The downside to this against the guard-on-guard pick-and-roll is that you're then vulnerable against a 3-pointer. But Kerr demands that rotations be tight and on time, particularly when he elects to jump ball screens.
The question here is what will ultimately give. Consider this: Cleveland ranked fifth during the regular season in 3-point shooting, converting a healthy 36.7 percent. Golden State, meanwhile, swarms long-distance shooting. It ranked fourth in defending the triple this year, and has been significantly better in the playoffs.
Irving's playmaking ability -- both in the open floor and the half-court -- is formidable, but so is a nagging series of injuries that has sidelined and slowed him for weeks. And LeBron has been outstanding -- so much so that Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer recently said that "his confidence has gone to another level." But can the two of them consistently go off against a Warriors defense built on eliminating dribble penetration and clean looks at the rim? Moreover, assuming LeBron will get his, can Irving -- whose postseason averages include drastic dips in field goal percentage, scoring and assists -- do enough?
When all is said and done, both Irving and James will have to be in top form for Cleveland to win this series.
Meanwhile, Curry's defensive prowess has been well-documented and what was once a glaring chink in his armor has now become a strength. In fact, as I chronicled in April, he is one of the league's premier defensive point guards. The challenge for Irving is twofold. First, he needs to be healthy enough to push tempo and attack in transition, an area where he has proven to be nearly unstoppable, both as a facilitator and as a scorer.
The second, and more important, question is whether or not he will effectively navigate a half-court offense predicated off spacing and his knack for creating pressure on the defense. Such was not the case in the series against the Hawks, with the exception of Game 4. Irving's brilliance is his scoring ability. Few players -- not merely point guards -- are as feared as him in terms of scoring, and like Tony Parker in his earlier days, Irving has morphed into one of the league's premier paint scorers.
But first he has to get there. With Curry hounding him armed with a slew of capable wing defenders, along with two rim protectors in Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, the Warriors will be hellbent on not letting Irving reach his sweet spots.
When Golden State Has The Ball
The league's second-ranked offensive efficiency unit operates like Inspector Gadget: Curry is the catalyst, but he is flanked by a multitude of highly effective scorers who in turn make him that much better. What makes the Warriors so special, though, is how they use the 3-pointer. Not only do they convert at the best clip, but the simple threat of it forces the defense to overreact and surrender a variety of clean looks other teams simply don't get.
Case in point? The conference finals against Houston, in which subtle misdirection and decoys led the Warriors to average 109 points with a splendid 110.7 offensive rating in a commanding five-game series victory. With 16-year veteran Jason Terry -- known for his sticky perimeter defense -- on him, Curry used a vicious backdoor cut, set up by Terry's refusal to let him catch the ball with a clean look at the rim:
Part of Golden State's scoring efficiency is an up-tempo attack that puts the defense in compromising positions, including the lack of a shot-blocker at the rim. They lead the league in fast-break points and it's because of plays like this one, in Game 5 against Houston: Harrison Barnes, who will be tasked with defending LeBron, sees that nobody is in the paint and provides a crucial lift, reading this play perfectly.
And here, Curry hits a streaking Thompson, who is halfway up the floor by the time of the rebound:
Curry is a sniper but he is also unlike many point guards in that he sets up the drive with the triple. Typically, he looks to first establish a shooting rhythm, and then, as the game progresses, we see him become more aggressive going toward the basket. Furthermore, his magic comes from the rare ability to shoot so well off the dribble. But, as Synergy Sports Technology shows us, Curry is also an elite spot-up shooter. His teammates know it and in turn, know how to deliver him the ball in ideal catch-and-shoot situations. In a Game 2 win versus the Rockets, we saw a sample of it, when Curry buried a trio of 3s, all from passes:
Finally, one of Kerr's trademarks -- and this was something that his predecessor Mark Jackson never did grasp -- is knowing the distinct value of bigs who can pass. Both Green and Andrew Bogut are two of the best, either from the low block, or in this case with Bogut, from the high post. Again, we see the threat of the 3-pointer -- this time from Thompson -- lead to an easy deuce:
The challenges are immense for a Cavs defense that ranked just 20th in opponent field goal percentage during the regular season, the third-worst clip of any playoff team. Size can be a great equalizer, though, and Blatt has seen that with the improved play of his 7-foot-1-inch center, Timofey Mozgoz, a January acquisition via trade. A natural shot-blocker who clogs the paint, Mozgoz has averaged nearly two blocks per game in the playoffs, which slots him ahead of well-known defensive artists like Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
When going small, Blatt has to make a critical decision about how to use LeBron defensively. We know he can guard several positions, but at what cost? Is chasing Thompson around worth the physical toll on James' legs that checking Green or Barnes might not take? Or does Cleveland's unremarkable defense need James to guard Thompson -- or even Curry -- for stretches?
This is also the value in having swingman Iman Shumpert, whom the team acquired from New York in January. The 24-year-old Shumpert, at 6 feet 5 inches and 220 lbs., is a rangy, top-rate perimeter defender known for bothering scorers. Against Atlanta, he was sometimes tasked with guarding All-Star point guard Jeff Teague, who, thanks in part to Shumpert's defense, suffered through a wildly inconsistent series, including a 5-16 Game 2 performance. Shumpert's role in the Finals will be no different: Make things as tough as possible for Curry and Thompson, depending on the matchup Blatt needs.
Another challenge for Blatt will be deciding how to defend against Golden State's dribble penetration. It's one thing to give up 3s in transition, but when you start to give away clean looks in the half-court against this offense, as Houston did, a game -- and a series -- can quickly go awry. Expect to see less help off shooters, especially with a smaller Cleveland lineup, so that rather than Curry and Thompson beating the Cavaliers from distance, the Warriors are forced either to make more 2s or to have more ancillary components like Iguodala, Barnes, Bogut and Green (who has not shot the ball well in the postseason) do so.
One last note on the Finals: Either way, 2015 will be the first time a rookie head coach wins a title since Pat Riley did so with Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 1982.
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