(Thearon W. Henderson /NBAE/Getty Images)

Series Preview: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

The Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors face the Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals, beginning with Game 1 at Oracle Arena on Thursday night.

REGULAR SEASON SERIES
The Warriors swept the 2017-18 regular season series with the Cavaliers, beating Cleveland on two of the biggest days of the NBA calendar.

12/25/17 at Golden State: Warriors 99, Cavaliers 92
Golden State held Cleveland scoreless for the final 1:58 and scored the final seven points of the contest to claim victory in the third-straight Christmas Day matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers. Game Recap

1/15/18 at Cleveland, Warriors 118, Cavaliers 108
Golden State erased a seven-point halftime deficit and limited Cleveland to only 11 points in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter before coasting the rest of the way to a double-digit road victory, defeating the Cavaliers on Martin Luther King. Jr. Day for the third consecutive year. Game Recap

Notes:

-In the regular season series, the Warriors totaled 61 assists and 13 blocks, compared to 38 assists and five blocks for the Cavaliers.

-Draymond Green had his first triple-double of the season on Christmas Day and just missed another one by a single assist on MLK Day. In the two regular season matchups, Green averaged 11.5 points, 14.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists per contest.

-Stephen Curry did not play in the Christmas Day game due to injury.

-Cleveland played four players in the regular season series against the Warriors that are no longer on the team: Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye.


MATCHUP AT A GLANCE

Regular Season Ranks in Parenthesis

GSW CLE
58-24 50-32
2nd in West 4th in East
PTS: 113.5 (1st) PTS: 110.9 (5th)
REB: 43.5 (17th) REB: 42.1 (23rd)
AST: 29.3 (1st) AST: 23.4 (12th)

PROJECTED STARTERS
GSW: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney
CLE: George Hill, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson

INJURY & ROSTER NOTES
GSW: Andre Iguodala (left lateral leg contusion/bone bruise) is out. Team Notes
CLE: Kevin Love (concussion) is available to play. Team Notes

CLEVELAND SCOUTING REPORT
For the first time in the history of the four major sports, the same teams will meet in the Championship round for the fourth-straight season when the Warriors and Cavaliers begin the 2018 NBA Finals on Thursday night. As such, one might logically assume both Golden State and Cleveland know each other like the back of their hands, and that there will be little to no mystery involved in the series ahead. After all, the two sides have played a total of 26 times over the last three-plus seasons, with the Dubs prevailing in 17 of those contests, including both matchups earlier this season. That assumption might be a bit misguided, however, as the Cavaliers have changed drastically since the last time the Warriors saw them.

About three weeks after Golden State defeated Cleveland 118-108 in their second and final regular season meeting, the Cavaliers made a series of moves at the trade deadline aimed at shaking up a roster that had been headed in the wrong direction. Out were players like Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Isaiah Thomas, and in were acquisitions George Hill, Larry Nance and Jordan Clarkson, among others. Following the trade, Cleveland won 19 of their final 29 games to complete the regular season with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Despite the trade, however, Cleveland’s level of play remained relatively the same. The Cavaliers averaged 1.5 more points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break than they did before it, but offense was never the problem. Cleveland allowed 0.8 fewer points per 100 possessions after the break than they did before it, but still finished with a cumulative defensive rating of 109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, the second-worst defense in the league ahead of only the last place Suns.

Since the league began counting turnovers in 1977 (41 seasons), no team had ever ranked in the bottom three defensively in the regular season and gone on to win a playoff series, until Cleveland did just that – three times – on their way to these approaching Finals, defeating the Pacers, Raptors and Celtics in succession. One main reason they were able to accomplish that feat has been their improvement on the defensive end, where they’ve allowed 3.6 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did during the regular season. That’s the second-most improved defense in the entire 2018 playoffs, which is obviously great news to their hopes of competing for another Championship. The bad news? The only team that has improved more on the defensive end in the playoffs is Golden State, who have allowed 4.5 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, had the top ranked defense in every round of the playoffs thus far, and just held the Rockets below 100 points in five consecutive games.

The Cavaliers have one of the better offenses in the league, so Golden State’s defense will face yet another serious test in the series ahead. However, the Warriors’ would seem to have an advantage on offense against the Cavs’ defense, and if they can exploit it, that may prove to be too much for Cleveland to overcome.

TEAM PLAYOFF LEADERS

GSW CLE
PTS: Durant (29.0) PTS: James (34.0)
REB: Green (11.6) REB: Love (10.0)
AST: Green (8.1) AST: James (8.8)

MATCHUP TO WATCH
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about the Cavs, it’s that everything they do continues to revolve around LeBron James. Now in his 15th NBA season, James has shown no signs of slowing down, and is currently in the midst of one of the best seasons of his extremely decorated career. He’s currently averaging 34.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the playoffs, and his 612 points through the first three rounds of the 2018 postseason are 16 more than any other player in league history has scored entering the Finals. So, as the Warriors prepare to take on the Cavaliers for the NBA Championship for the fourth-straight year, you can be sure James has their full attention.

There is no such thing as a LeBron James “stopper”, so defensively, the Warriors are likely to do it by committee. If Andre Iguodala (who missed the final four games of the Western Conference Finals with a bruised knee) is able to return at the start or some point in the series, the 2015 Finals MVP will likely draw the majority of defensive assignments opposite James. Whether or not Iguodala is available, however, plenty of Warriors will be asked to make life tough on James, including players like Draymond Green, Jordan Bell, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. Of the players most likely to defend James, none has the ability to take a game over offensively (and make life tough on James in a different way) quite like Durant can.

While James has been on a tear throughout the playoffs, Durant has been no slouch himself. He’s coming off a Western Conference Finals series in which he scored 213 points in seven games against the Rockets, surpassing Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal for the most points by any player in a Western Conference Finals since the NBA divided teams into conferences in 1970-71. He was the Warriors’ leading scorer in both regular season matchups with the Cavaliers, totaling 57 total points on 48.6 percent shooting from the field and 46.7 percent shooting from three-point range. He also totaled six blocks in the regular season series with Cleveland, with five coming in Golden State’s Christmas Day victory, including one on James in the final minute to seal the win.

And let’s not forget it was Durant who sank the wing three-pointer over James in the final minute of Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals to put the Warriors in front on their way to a commanding 3-0 series lead before winning the series in five games. There’s certainly no guarantee such an iconic moment featuring two of the best players in NBA history will take place once again, but if Durant can provide the kind of two-way production he has in Golden State’s last several encounters with Cleveland, it could tilt things in the Warriors favor.

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