2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

NBA Finals Preview: Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers meet for Round 3

Third straight showdown on NBA's championship stage fully of drama, history and questions

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Framed one way — unstoppable force (LeBron James) meets unguardable offense (Golden State Warriors) — The 2017 Finals sound like the sort of high school physics class in which you struggled to keep up, stay awake or both.

Framed somewhat differently — inevitable Finals rematch leads to irresistible championship-level basketball — the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors promise enough fun and excitement to make up for six weeks of blowouts and snoozers.

Instead of the ultimate paradox, we’re getting a pair of ultimate teams pitted against each other to the surprise of exactly no one. This is the clash NBA general managers expected back in the fall, this is what some media and fans tried to hype in the Cavaliers’ and Warriors’ two regular-season meetings and, now that it’s here, this is what must carry 2016-17 to a hoped-for climactic conclusion.

There are no guarantees — the Warriors or the Cavaliers might catch fire at precisely the right time for a short series, or the two could take turns respectively flexing and stinking in a best-of-seven that lasts a while but lacks drama. That said, who really would bet against a Finals that came within a stray Boston victory of synching up two 12-0 teams (through the preliminary rounds).

Golden State vs. Cleveland: Across three postseasons and, in 2015 and 2016, 13 memorable games a rivalry was forged. It’s been built from the Warriors’ outrageous abundance of talent along with the Cavaliers’ immediacy and determination, boosted directly from James.

Each has the chance to make this era its own: James is making his seventh consecutive trip to the Finals, already has been crowned as the league’s all-time leader in playoff points and is leading the Cavaliers toward a second title for The Land. Meanwhile, the Golden State team is eager to cap its remarkable three-year run – the 2015 championship, that 73-9 nosebleed regular-season record, a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry and last summer’s most head-turning acquisition – with another Larry O’Brien trophy.

Each wants, but only one can.

3 quick questions and answers

What’s changed from last year? Cleveland added some helpful pieces on the fly in Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Derrick Williams, then used up some of its 82-game “preseason” to get them acclimated (and vice versa). But Golden State rocked the NBA when it signed free agent Kevin Durant last summer.

The Warriors had their own learning curve, as well as a 21-game injury layoff for Durant, but they still managed to win 16 more games than the Cavs. JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, David West and Matt Barnes brought some grit and heft to Golden State’s front line — and let’s not forget twice-fired former Cleveland coach Mike Brown filling in for the Warriors’ Steve Kerr — but it’s the thin man with the wicked scoring touch who will captivate as the biggest addition to the Finalists’ rubber match.

Do LeBron James and Kevin Durant guard each other? It would make for great theater — or would it? The reason we’re likely to see cross-matches is the energy drain each superstar would face chasing around the other for 40 minutes. Draymond Green probably will spend more time on James than Durant will, while Cleveland doesn’t have an obvious alternate defender to shadow Durant. Oh, and even though Durant is the new variable in this showdown, let’s remember that he and James have Finals history of their own, dating to the 2012 clash of Oklahoma City and Miami. James and the Heat took that Finals in five games.

Who are the most likely “X” factors? Just as a reminder, Curry still plays for Golden State. Sometimes it gets easy to neglect that fact. And yet the player most likely to loom large — or not — for the Warriors is Klay Thompson. Assuming coach Tyronn Lue and his staff make enough adjustments to enable the Cavs to thwart the Warriors’ first and second options, Thompson is the guy who’ll pop up third or fourth in priority. It’s been a bit awkward for the deadly sharpshooter, slipping a notch in the Warriors’ pecking order with Durant on board; his attempts and scoring average were in familiar territory during the season but he shot 32.5 percent and averaged 11.0 points in the West finals against San Antonio.

For Cleveland, with Kyrie Irving established as 1A for clutch scoring and Tristan Thompson the designated possession-extender on the offensive glass, the “X” factor likely will be Kevin Love. Especially early in games, the Cavaliers seem to go to Love and get from him quick points and fast starts. Plus, don’t sleep on the nifty defensive footwork he showed in front of Curry in the final minute of Game 7 last June.

Numbers to Know

120.7 — The Cavs have scored 120.7 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, the highest postseason mark in the last 40 years (since the league started counting turnovers in 1977). They’ve been 9.8 points per 100 possessions better offensively in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. Their postseason effective field goal percentage of 59.8 percent is the highest in NBA history. Channing Frye (72.7 percent), J.R. Smith (66.1 percent), LeBron James (62.5 percent) and Kyle Korver (62.3 percent) all rank in the top 10 in effective field goal percentage among the 88 players who have taken at least 50 shots in the playoffs. The Cavs also have the second highest free throw rate in the playoffs, getting to the line 33 times per 100 shots from the field. The Warriors’ mark of 115.8 points per 100 possessions is the fourth highest postseason OffRtg of the last 40 years and their effective field goal percentage of 57.3 percent is the second highest in that time. While Cleveland has played teams that ranked eighth, 12th and 16th defensively in the regular season, Golden State has played two of the league’s top three defenses (Utah and San Antonio), though the Spurs were missing Kawhi Leonard for 3 1/2 of the four games in the conference finals.

99.1 — The Warriors have allowed just 99.1 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, the fewest through the first three rounds and 8.8 fewer than the postseason average (107.9), which is the highest mark in the least 30 years. The Warriors held Portland, Utah and San Antonio — three top-12 offenses in the regular season — to 11.5, 9.8 and 5.6 points per 100 possessions fewer than their regular season averages, respectively.. In regard to opponent field goal percentage, they rank No. 2 in the restricted area, No. 4 on other paint shots (and No. 1 in the paint overall), No. 2 from mid-range, and No. 4 from 3-point range. They’ve allowed just 94.4 points per 100 possessions with Draymond Green on the floor and 111.9 with Green on the bench. That 94.4 mark is the lowest on-court DefRtg for any player that has played at least 20 minutes per game in four or more games.

18.5 — In last year’s Finals, the Cavs were 18.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Tristan Thompson on the floor than they were with Thompson on the bench. The Warriors scored just 98.6 points per 100 possessions in Thompson’s 226 minutes on the floor and 117.1 in Thompson’s 110 minutes on the bench. With Thompson on the floor, the Warriors shot worse (effective field goal percentage of 48.5 percent vs. 57.3 percent), got to the line a lot less often (19 free throw attempts per 100 shots from the field vs. 39 per 100), and turned the ball over more often (15.9 turnovers per 100 possessions vs. 12.3). Golden State also scored just 0.86 points per possession when Thompson was the screener’s defender on a ball-screen. Thompson had the best plus-minus (plus-40) in the series.

— John Schuhmann

Making the pick

Now that we’ve finally got what we were waiting for, it’s tempting to recast this Finals as a best-of-69 series and root for one or the other to finally claim it, 35-34. But once things get underway on June 1 at Oracle Arena (9 p.m. ET, ABC), there will be maximums of seven games and 17 days to enjoy it. It probably is not fair to pick on Cleveland’s stubbed toe against the Celtics, their loss in Game 3 that spoiled the 12-0 shot, but it did offer a glimpse of the Cavs’ defensive vulnerability. If they’re going to struggle with transition D now, that will be a problem. Cleveland can score with Golden State but it might not be able to get stops at the same rate. So assuming Green stays eligible for every game this time, and since we didn’t believe Lue’s claim that defending the Celtics was harder than defending the Warriors, we see but one outcome: Warriors in 6.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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