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Dubs Deep Dives

Previewing the Warriors-Cavaliers Series With the Help of MOCAP Analytics

Welcome to the NBA Finals, where history is about to transpire in front of our very eyes.

As the league’s two most recent champions, the Warriors and Cavaliers have been responsible for their fair share of record-breaking performances over the last two-plus years. But never before have the same two teams met in the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons. Well, until now.

Golden State and Cleveland enter the Finals flying high. The Warriors just became the first team in NBA history with 12-straight wins to begin a postseason, while the Cavaliers suffered just one defeat on their way through the Eastern Conference. The single loss between the two teams sets a league record for the fewest combined losses entering the Finals since the NBA went to the current 16-team format in 1984, and their combined postseason scoring margin of plus-14.9 points per game is by far the largest such margin entering the Finals in NBA history, eclipsing the plus-11.0 mark of the Minneapolis Lakers and Syracuse Nationals in 1950.

Given their record-breaking margins of victory, it’s safe to say both teams have dominated on both sides of the ball up to this point in the playoffs. However, when taking a closer look at the data, it’s clear the Warriors and Cavs’ offenses in particular have been on an entirely different level from the rest of the league.

Both teams have displayed great shot taking, with the Warriors averaging 1.17 expected points per shot attempt, just slightly more than Cleveland’s average of 1.14. Meanwhile, they’ve both limited their opponents to average shot taking of 1.07 expected points per shooting play. While Golden State has had the advantage in shot taking, it’s the Cavs who have been most efficient with their shot making. Cleveland has generated 1.27 points per shooting play, a great mark that is just slightly ahead of the Warriors’ 1.23 points per shooting play.

As you can see from the graphics above, both teams have outperformed on offense, and in Cleveland’s case, particularly so from three-point range. The Cavaliers have taken the most three-pointers of any playoff team (14.6 per game), and with a shooting percentage of 43.5 percent, have knocked down those treys at the highest clip of any team in the postseason. In fact, they have nine different players averaging at least one three-point attempt per game in the playoffs, and of those, Kyrie Irving is the only one shooting below 40 percent from three-point range.

For Golden State, the lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green has been particularly lethal. That fivesome has created outstanding shots throughout the playoffs, and produced an expected value of 1.27 points per shooting play. Defensively, they’ve limited the opposition to 1.13 expected points per shooting play, and their net rating of plus-21.1 points per 100 possessions is the second-best of any five-man lineup on Golden State that has played at least 30 minutes together. This five-man unit is effective for a multitude of reasons, but particularly because of its interchangeability on defense. All five players are able to switch almost any defensive matchup, allowing them to cut off drives to the basket while also remaining connected to shooters on the perimeter. The Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green lineup has restricted the opposition to 33.3 percent shooting from three-point range so far in the playoffs, and the degree to which they’re able to limit the Cavs’ long range attack in the Finals could have a profound impact on the series.

Position-by-position, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more star-studded series than the one about to take place. The two teams feature a combined 11 players who have been named All-Stars (including seven this year), the most in a Finals series since the 1983 matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers. At small forward, there’s LeBron James and Kevin Durant. At power forward, Draymond Green and Kevin Love. And at point guard, a battle of two of the craftiest floor generals in the game today between Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. Both point guards are currently in the midst of one of the best stretches of their respective careers, and each played a vital role in helping their teams reach this stage.

Curry averaged 31.5 points per game in Golden State’s four game sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, scoring seven more points than expected per game (best on Golden State). Irving, on the other hand, averaged six more points than expected per game in the Eastern Conference Finals for an average of 25.8 points per contest. They’re both electric scorers, but in different ways. Curry is a formidable weapon whether he’s on or off the ball, whereas Irving is dominant with the ball in his hands.

Curry is in constant motion on offense, and he’s particularly efficient as a playmaker coming off screens near the three-point wings. Following Curry’s off-screen catches on the right wing, the Warriors averaged a lofty 1.21 points per play this season. To put that in perspective, a team averaging 1.21 points per play would lead the league in offensive efficiency.

Irving, in his own right, is a wizard in the pick-and-roll. He’s extraordinarily quick and uses his speed to turn the corner and attack the paint for a layup, or to draw the defense and kick it out to Cleveland’s arsenal of perimeter shooters. Irving is capable of driving into the paint in either direction, but tends to drive right more than 60 percent of the time and creates nearly two more points per game on paint drives to that side than he does to his left.

The strengths of each point guard are exhibited in their shot track graphics from their respective playoff scoring-high games.

Curry’s versatility was on full display in Golden State’s Game 1 victory over San Antonio, in which he notched his first career 40-point postseason home game. While he attempted a playoff-high 16 three-pointers, he was effective in scoring at all three levels, converting shots from downtown, midrange and in the paint. His shot track from that game displays his ability to move without the ball (long, white streaks) and his effectiveness in creating off the dribble (long, orange streaks). Notice the high volume of three-point makes from the right wing.

Irving’s shot track from his 42-point performance in Cleveland’s pivotal Game 4 victory over the Celtics demonstrates his aggressiveness with the ball in his hands (long, orange streaks towards the rim). He was in attack mode and played downhill all night, scoring effectively and efficiently as the ball handler out of the pick-and-roll. He poured in points in a hurry, scoring 19 points in less than five minutes during the third quarter of that game.

Simply put, we’ve never seen anything like what’s about to take place. Two historically great teams are going to battle it out for a third consecutive year for the league’s ultimate prize. Cleveland has suffered just a single postseason defeat, and by the time Game 1 of the Finals tips off on Thursday, Golden State will have lost just one game over the previous 82 days. Talk about a heavyweight matchup.

From a team standpoint, both defenses will certainly be put to the test, and the side that is best able to limit the oppositions’ scoring efficiency – particularly from three-point range – may provide their team with the decisive advantage in the series. Then again, in a series littered with this many phenomenal individual talents, it may very well boil down to which star players are able to make the winning plays in crunch time.

The two sides have been building to this point since last July. Now – finally – we get to see how it all plays out.

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