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Sam Smith's NBA Finals Preview
Sam Smith previews and predicts the NBA Finals matchup between the Warriors and the Cavs
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By Sam Smith | 6.4.2015 | 9:00 a.m.
Finally, the Finals!
That was too easy, but will it be worth the wait?
It really should be as the Cleveland Cavaliers with the generally recognized best player in the game in LeBron James face the league’s winningest team with the MVP, Stephen Curry. It’s as classic as you can get for an NBA championship. It starts 8 p.m. Thursday on ABC.
The two teams have been so dominant in the playoffs that it’s resulted in the longest ever break for two teams between the end of the conference finals and the start of the NBA Finals, seven days off. The NBA establishes a Finals date and given travel and housing arrangements for the thousands of media and fans coming from around the world it’s too difficult to change dates, much like a Super Bowl. Though it hasn’t been uncommon for teams in the last decade to have five off days before the start of the Finals. The champion Bulls once had eight off days when in 1996 they swept the Magic and made Shaq scared to play while Seattle went seven games with Utah. The Bulls closed on May 27 and the Finals began June 5.
The Bulls then won the first three games of the Finals, the narrative then being rest is good. Rest, however, is bad when you lose.
No excuses this time as both teams pretty much got the same time off with Golden State closing out Houston May 27, a day after the Cavs sweep. It’s given Klay Thompson enough time to recover from a concussion in the last game while the Cavs got additional rest for Kyrie Irving, though Irving said he’s still not near recovered from lower extremity ills.
Though none of that should take away from the dominant theme which seems to favor the Warriors: Is it better to have the best player or the best team?
History generally favors the best team theory, like last season when the San Antonio Spurs smothered James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. When Miami beat the Spurs in 2013, the Heat also were the winningest team with the best player.
The Warriors come in with the league’s best regular season record of 67-15 and 12-3 in the playoffs for a remarkable 79-18. The Cavs were 53-29 in the regular season and 12-2 in the playoffs with sweeps over Boston and Atlanta. LeBron James is giving Oscar Robertson’s marks a run, averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the playoffs in one dominant performance after another. And that’s with shooting under 20 percent on threes. Imagine if he could make shots.
The history of these sorts of matchups greatly favors the more well balanced team, which suggests Golden State.
In 1964, Wilt Chamberlain was the dominant player of the era, but his then San Francisco Warriors lost to the Hall of Fame laden Boston Celtics. Boston was just a 48-win team in 1969, however, so not the best in Bill Russell’s last season when they defeated Wilt and the Lakers by a basket in Game 7.
In 1970, it was the quintessential team as the New York Knicks with their balanced attack defeated the Lakers with Wilt and Jerry West. The Knicks also did in 1973, but it was the Lakers with more wins. And Wilt wasn’t the dominant scorer any longer.
The 1974 Boston Celtics with Dave Cowens were a vintage team to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks with the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, though the Bucks also had a better record. There was no true one dominant player above the others in the 1980s with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and Moses Malone.
Then the Bulls dynasty teams of the 1990s generally had the better record along with having the dominant player in Michael Jordan. In 1993, the Phoenix Suns had the best record. But it would be difficult to suggest the Suns were a better overall team given Dan Majerle was their second leading scorer.
Then it was on to 2007 with James the league’s best player and the Spurs team dominating in the Finals.
In 2008, the more versatile Boston Celtics team defeated the Lakers with the best player in Kobe Bryant. In 2010 when the Lakers defeated the Celtics, the Lakers also were the better all around team.
The best team generally beats the best player.
Unless the best player’s team has been the more dominant team that season.
This Finals also is the return to the 2-2-1-1-1 format.
The Finals schedule is Thursday-Sunday-Tuesday. There are two-day breaks between—if necessary, of course, and we hope—Game 4 and Game 5 and Game 6 and Game 7. Those are both travel periods, so the change of cities at the end should not become an issue.
The teams met twice in the regular season with little to be gleaned at this time, the last meeting Feb. 26. Though it was a James statement of sorts with Curry the frontrunner for MVP. James scored a season high 42 points in a 110-99 Cavs runaway that even had Brendan Haywood and Joe Harris playing. Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 31 points on 10 of 30 shooting while Irving had 24. A month before on Jan. 9 in Oakland, Curry and Thompson combined for 47 points in a 112-94 Golden State victory. James, however, didn’t play as he was on his two-week mid season hiatus in Florida. J.R. Smith led the Cavs that game with 27.
The Cavs have morphed a few times this season, first with major trades for Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and Smith and then with Kevin Love being injured in the first round series against Boston. After a brain cramp of starting James Jones against the Bulls in Game 1 of the conference semifinals, the Cavs went with Tristan Thompson, an impressive offensive rebounder. It’s made the Cavs a much better defensive team, though everything revolves around James on the offensive end. Many view the health of Irving as a deciding factor given his ability to be a high level scorer who can make his own plays.
The Warriors bring the essence of the game with the spectacular shooting backcourt, though Thompson has been inconsistent in the playoffs. They’re the new fun-to-watch version of last season’s Spurs with active ball movement, player movement, unselfish play and hustling defense. Their home court advantage, where they are 46-3 this season, has been the best in the game. They have the home court advantage to start the series by virtue of the better regular season record.
It’s also the Warriors with their 40-year championship drought and the Cavs without a title and Cleveland not celebrating since the Browns in 1964. There’s James playing in his fifth consecutive Finals and every Warriors player in his first. And the rookie coaches, though Cleveland’s David Blatt pretty much bristles about that with his international coaching resume.
The matchups with be evolving and changing like most in these playoffs and the NBA these days. Both teams like to go to small lineups, the Warriors especially to enhance their shooting and switching defenses. And James will pretty much move around and play different players. Though the Cavs do like to “rest” him on a weak offensive player at times, that will be difficult with the Warriors varied offense.
It finally begins Thursday, and it should be worth the wait.
Cleveland Cavaliers 53-29 (12-2) vs Golden State Warriors 67-15 (12-3)
Point Guard: Kyrie Irving vs Stephen Curry
It’s going to be difficult for Irving to chase around Curry with Irving’s knee problems, which flared up during the Bulls series. Irving still is the Cavs second leading scorer at 18.7 per game and shooting 48 percent on threes. So he can make a difference. But it’s tough to find a weak offensive player for him to defend. Draymond Green, for example, would just bull him into the post. Shooting guard Iman Shumpert probably will defend Curry often, though Thompson is too physical for Irving. Curry is averaging 29.2 in the playoffs and is likely voted the player most want to watch with his trick dribbling and quick draw shooting. And then bringing his daughter to the post game interviews. But look out Curry? Matthew “the battering ram” Dellavedova is in reserve and he’s already taken a few guys out of these playoffs.
Shooting Guard: Iman Shumpert vs Klay Thompson
Though Thompson hasn’t been spectacular, like his 37-point quarter this season, he’s averaging 19.7 in the playoffs. There are few backcourts that matchup with them, anyway. Shumpert is probably the Cavs best perimeter defender unless LeBron wants to try, though with Irving ailing they need his offense too much to ask him to constantly defend one of the “Splash Brothers” guards. Shumpert has come from Knicks purgatory with Smith to average 10.1 points in the playoffs and make some timely threes against the Bulls in the only series the Cavs were challenged.
Small Forward: LeBron James vs Harrison Barnes
James played Mike Dunleavy extensively against the Bulls and probably will remain on Barnes. Barnes probably will start on James, but James will see different defenders, like Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Though Jimmy Butler did as good as he could against James, it’s more advisable to show him different looks. Also, you don’t want to double team James as his court vision and sense is as good as anyone’s in the game. The Cavs are at their best when they can get scoring elsewhere. You almost want to ask James to get 40. Of course, when he did in February the Cavs beat up the Warriors. As there are no ready solutions for Curry and Thompson, there are none for James. The Cavs need his three-point shot to return. The Cavs could try to put their weakest defender in Irving on Barnes to try to force the Warriors to adjust and go to Barnes with the mismatch, which isn’t their philosophy. It’s unlikely they’d fall for that sort of trap.
Kidding, LeBron. Wanted to make sure you still were playing attention.
Power Forward: Tristan Thompson vs Draymond Green
The Cavs have become a tougher team with Thompson at power forward, but he has basically no offensive game other than the offensive boards. He goes hard and is effective, but the Warriors will come flying out with rebounds with almost anyone dribbling out and passing ahead and it’s trouble if Thompson is caught back. The Cavs will go with James often at power forward to open the court and provide more speed. Green has been the Warriors’ Swiss Army knife from Saginaw, able to switch and defend just about every position. His three-point shooting has been down in the playoffs. But he’s second to Curry in assists and keeps the ball moving in the pivotal move coach Steve Kerr made in starting him over David Lee, who rarely plays anymore. He could take Thompson away from the basket, changing the Cavs’ front court and maybe with LeBron then defending him.
Center: Timofey Mozgov vs Andrew Bogut
Bogut doesn’t even look to score with all the acts going on in the Warriors offense. But he will be a good counter for the physical Mozgov. It’s probably as motivated about basketball the indifferent Bogut ever has been. He’s a good shot blocker and adequate passer and should be able to offset some of the pick and roll James likes to run with Mozgov. Mozgov was an emergency addition when Anderson Varejao was injured, but Mozgov fits better with his more physical style and ability to make a short jumper.
Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith and James Jones against Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli and perhaps a return of Marreese Speights. This is a tough one for the Cavs and where the loss of Love hurts so much as their veteran backups like Shawn Marion and Mike Miller have pretty much dried up. Their X-factor is Smith and his threes, which are going up guarded or not, needed or not. The Warriors go deep into their bench for a playoff team with players flying into the game and pushing the ball, which has to be wearing for the Cavs. Ezeli is an underrated big man with skill and Iguodala would start for most NBA teams, including the Cavs.
Coaching: David Blatt vs Steve Kerr
Blatt was moments from infamy with the famed Game 4 timeout the refs didn’t see against the Bulls that could have made that series 3-1 Bulls and saved the job of Tom Thibodeau. That’s how little difference there can be between greatness and bitterness. Blatt has been under scrutiny and condemnation, as coaches often are with James around since he gets a lot of credit. But Blatt has basically handled himself well and proved to be a good NBA coach. He’s not quite the offensive genius as advertised, but who is besides guys like Curry? Kerr has been the new coaching rage of the NBA, the model for the Bulls’ hiring of Fred Hoiberg, a young, personable and innovative alchemist who has been able to turn the steel of a strong team into the gold of a true title contender.
Pick: Warriors in 6