Zach Lowe’s 2017 NBA Finals preview, prediction for Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

We got here, through meaningless first-round series and embarrassing blowouts and the lamest conference finals ever, and now a lot of people are telling us the hyped endgame will be anticlimactic.

Our own Basketball Power Index gives Golden State, a 67-win super-team that could have sniffed 73 again had it wanted, a 93 percent chance of avenging last season’s humiliation. The same system says Golden State has a 64 percent chance of stomping the Cavs in four or five games. The esteemed Kevin Pelton went so far as to calculate the Warriors’ odds of completing the first undefeated 16-game postseason in modern NBA history.

The Cavs are 12-1 in the playoffs with a point differential nearly equal to Golden State’s all-time-best figure, and an offense scoring at a ludicrous rate that looks like a typo. As Pelton notes, they compiled that dossier against competition only slightly worse than Golden State’s Glass Joes once you consider injuries. I don’t care about the particulars, you don’t paste a 53-win team by 40-ish points twice — on the road, and once in just a single half — without carrying the capability of historic greatness.

LeBron James is the best player. Kevin Love is playing perhaps the best basketball of his Cleveland tenure, and when he produces like this, the talent gap between Cleveland’s Big Three and Golden State’s three best players — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — isn’t insurmountable. This Love can hang defending Zaza Pachulia when the starters match up, and slide over to Andre Iguodala when the Warriors shift Green to center in various Death Lineups — the only groups that have reliably outscored Cleveland over the past three seasons.

Klay Thompson has the edge on Tristan Thompson in the No. 4 spot, but the latter excels at dirty work no one else on the Cavs really does.

The Cavs are healthy. They are trying on defense again. LeBron is rested. They are riding a perfectly timed crescendo into an epic trilogy against the juggernaut they’ve been eying all season. Iguodala, the key that unlocks Golden State’s scariest lineups and its best James bulwark, is 3-of-27 from deep in the playoffs, and we have no idea how far he is from 100 percent health.

If Cleveland regresses to somewhere between its current form and its desultory regular-season play, this is a walkover. If the Warriors have another gear in reserve, this is a walkover.

If neither of those things prove true, this is not a walkover. The Cavs have a fighting chance.

Cleveland spent the first two games of last year’s Finals messing up a switch-heavy scheme with which they were unfamiliar, and overthinking different ways to attack Golden State’s impenetrable defense. Some with the Warriors privately remarked those two blowouts felt like regular-season games.

By Game 3, the Cavs had the switching thing down well enough to win, and settled on a single, ruthless strategy they could use in every half-court possession: find Curry’s man, and have him screen for LeBron. It wore Curry down, mentally and physically.

Some wild stuff happened, of course. Green’s suspension, earned after weeks of groin kicks and one foolish body slam, provides an unanswerable what-if. Love’s concussion in Game 2 forced LeBron to guard Green, and made it easier for Cleveland to switch every Curry-Green pick-and-roll. Curry wasn’t 100 percent.

The Cavs won, and Golden State swapped out Harrison Barnes for Kevin Durant.

Even so, the terms of engagement feel set. That’s what makes this series so exciting: These teams know each other. They understand what is coming, and how to respond, and the responses to the responses. Now it’s about execution, and mettle, and a little bit of luck.

The central question is whether Cleveland’s ho-hum defense can get enough stops, because the Cavs are going to score. They will run selectively, just as they did in nearly doubling up Golden State in fast-break points last time around.

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And when they don’t, they are going to pull Curry into uncomfortable situations that require extra help away from Cleveland’s long-range snipers.

Curry takes pride in his defense. He probably wants to guard Kyrie Irving, as he did over the first two-plus games of last year’s Finals before the Warriors slid Klay Thompson into that role. I’d bet on Golden State starting with Thompson on Irving. If Cleveland is determined to yank Curry into LeBron’s orbit, the Warriors will make them use less dangerous wings — J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver — to do it.

This is one of the only pick-and-roll combinations the ultra-switchy Warriors don’t want to switch. Doing so leaves Curry at LeBron’s mercy, a runt about to have his lunch box snatched away. They prefer Curry lunge at LeBron to cut him off, and then scurry back to Smith:

(Yes, Curry is on Irving there. The teams prefer different matchups on defense, and a key in-the-weeds theme will be how they negotiate those cross-matches: Which team is better at finding the proper matchups in the chaos of transition without breaking apart? When Love is stuck defending Green — because Green will often guard Love on the other end — can he tread water? What about Curry when he can’t escape Irving? Things get hazier as Golden State switches on defense, and scrambles the matchups even more.)

Curry likes to lunge early at LeBron, before he even hits the screen — Curry’s way of getting the pain over with. When Smith sees that, he will abort the pick early, and fly into open space.

The Cavs will even have Tristan Thompson nail Curry with a second pick, so that Curry falls hopelessly behind a dangerous shooter unless Thompson’s man — usually a lug — darts out to help:

Even if the hedge-and-recover gambit works, it creates temporary openings. LeBron is better than anyone at zipping the ball through those openings. Golden State is better than any team at shrinking those openings, and closing them fast. It is basketball at the highest level. Delight in every instance of LeBron, in predatory mode, sizing up Green’s twitchy movements along the back line.

When the Cavs generate that switch, the Warriors send extra help toward Curry. Cleveland is ready for that. The Cavs spy Golden State players sliding into the paint toward Curry, barricade their path back outside with flare screens, and whip the ball to open shooters:

That is what Golden State fears most: LeBron as distributor. The Warriors may dial back the help a smidgen, and dare LeBron to beat them by scoring 45. Have fun with that!

They might also explore some gimmicks to spare Curry. They saw the wacky zone Brad Stevens used to hide Isaiah Thomas in one game against Chicago. The Warriors probably won’t go to that extreme — they know LeBron would figure it out fast — but they will search out chances to switch Curry out of the pick-and-roll if he passes another Golden State player (Klay Thompson here) on his way toward LeBron:

That isn’t foolproof, but it buys time. It forces James to go one-on-one against a (kinda) like-sized player, with Green’s expert help waiting at the rim as the shot clock drains. Remember: Critics bashed LeBron in the middle of last year’s Finals for struggling to attack Barnes, Iguodala, Green, Klay Thompson, and Shaun Livingston on switches. LeBron is stronger than those dudes, but they are all long and feisty. When they can pass him off like a baton, he can’t build a head of steam. He has to shove and slither around them, and that’s easier said than done.

He will have to do it some for Cleveland to win. If Iguodala isn’t 100 percent, Durant, Livingston, and others will have to step up their physicality against LeBron.

The Warriors will switch most other pick-and-rolls, including Irving-Love duets that leave Klay Thompson on Love. The Cavs need Love to do damage in the post as a scorer and passer. On the flip side of that switch, Irving’s ability to dust Green one-on-one could be a bellwether.

Cleveland will poke at the only other unswitchable pick-and-roll: LeBron and Irving taking screens from the Cavalier — likely Thompson — guarded by Golden State’s center. If the Warriors drop their bigs back, both Cleveland stars will lick their chops and attack Pachulia, David West, and JaVale McGee going downhill. Irving will rain midrange fire. If Golden State switches, its bigs are toast — though Pachulia will hang once every few tries.

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Golden State will mix up coverages, sit on Irving’s right hand, and send the occasional trap at him — a means of forcing the ball to Tristan Thompson in space:

The Warriors’ trump card, as always: Slide Green to center, and lean on the unconventional five-out lineups that have blitzed the league since they turned the 2015 Finals. The Warriors have used them sparingly under both Steve Kerr and Mike Brown, at times frustrating their fan base. Brown has been a little more adventurous sending them out early when the Warriors need a jolt. He should be even bolder now.

One way or another, they will be a key factor in this series — perhaps the decisive one.

Golden State is never easy to defend, but the Cavs know how to do it when both teams play bigger groups: Love guards Pachulia, Thompson takes Green, and LeBron chases (gulp) Kevin Durant. These Warriors can make LeBron expend energy on every defensive possession. Cleveland messed around in the regular season with both Shumpert and Richard Jefferson defending Durant, and it went about as you would expect. The time for messing around is over, though the Cavs may unearth Jefferson.

Golden State will target Love the way Cleveland targets Curry: find his guy, and have him screen for Curry and Durant.

Pachulia will set nasty off-ball pindowns for Klay Thompson, another way of putting Love in the same pickle: either leap out to help, or concede open triples that could awaken the slumping Splash Brother.

The Cavs think they can survive in that alignment. They’ll trap the Golden State stars, invite passes to Pachulia, and dare him to make plays in open space. Pachulia is slow; Cleveland is confident it can chase down his layups. If Green or Iguodala is on the floor, the Cavs will ditch them to contain Pachulia’s lumbering drives:

If those guys make their open 3s, you lose. If Pachulia makes flailing, groaning layups, you lose. Cleveland will sit back a little more against McGee to snuff his lob dunks, and that could free Durant and Curry for pull-ups.

But the Cavs are hopeful they can fight over picks, switch without screwing up, and hang with Golden State’s bigger groups. The Warriors were minus-30 over 106 minutes in last year’s Finals when Green shared the floor with one of their traditional centers, per NBA.com; they outscored the Cavs by 26 points in the remaining 230 minutes.

There is a ton of noise in those numbers. Golden State’s best Death lineup, featuring Barnes and Iguodala, sputtered as the series went on. Other versions with Leandro Barbosa and Livingston feasted during the first two blowouts. Those smaller groups are vulnerable on the defensive glass, especially when Green switches onto a shooter far from the rim.

The Cavs hung against Death Lineups last season without contorting the matchups much; LeBron stayed on Green, while Thompson and Love patrolled the two least threatening wings: Iguodala and Barnes.

Things get much, much harder (duh) with Durant in Barnes’ spot. Thompson stays on Green, and Love will take Iguodala. Love is moving well, and he can handle a lot of that job. But when the Warriors are engaged, they will make that job really hard. They’ll use Iguodala as a screener for Curry and Durant, so he can roll into open space and make Green-style plays:

If Durant is taking that shot instead of a quivering Barnes, you are in trouble.

Even when the Warriors play two bigs, they will put Love through the ringer: multiple pick-and-rolls, off-ball goodness, and lethal screen-the-screener actions in which one Warrior slams Love before Love even arrives at the pick-and-roll.

The Cavs have counters. They can go small, and replace Love with Korver or Shumpert; Korver will have an easier time playing against Golden State’s small-ball lineups, anyway. (He may be unplayable against their starters.) Cleveland should use Love at center over extended stretches, but that’s a better matchup against Golden State backup groups that include West or McGee. They can go super-small with James at center, a look they have flashed since acquiring Korver and Deron Williams.

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Those lineups are dangerous. Any lineup with LeBron and four shooters is dangerous. But the solution to Golden State’s most potent lineups probably doesn’t involve removing two of your four best players. The Cavs don’t have enough good defenders to survive a ton of minutes without both LeBron and Tristan Thompson on the floor.

The Warriors have enough two-way players to counter almost anything. Their smaller lineups with Green at center are so devastating now with Durant aboard, they should withstand bully ball from Love and Thompson. Their ceiling, when they are locked in and healthy, is higher. They are locked in and mostly healthy now, though it’s not a stretch to suggest the state of Iguodala’s knee could swing the series. He is that important.

If he is good to go — and maybe even if he isn’t — Golden State should avoid any prolonged scoring droughts. The Warriors have conserved their stars so that they can unleash them in extended minutes. If Brown wants to scrap those bench-heavy groups that feature neither Curry nor Durant, now is the time.

They should be fresh enough to cut, screen, and pass with a crispness that is hard for any defense to track over 48 minutes — a visceral, blurry speed that vanished as the pressure mounted a year ago. They have hungered all season for this challenge. They should meet it with an urgency we haven’t yet seen from them. Cleveland has improved its defense after lazing away the winter, but if the best offense in league history plays with zippy diligence, the Cavs will suffer occasional breakdowns.

And when the machine stalls, when the noise and the pressure and the fatigue overwhelm, the Warriors can turn to two all-time one-on-one players to bail them out. They are the better defensive team.

The stakes are enormous. Golden State just wrapped the greatest three-year regular-season run in league history. Coming away with one title would be an undeniable disappointment. In the age of analytics, we judge teams based on large sample sizes. That is one reason Warriors owner Joe Lacob claimed recently that the Warriors were “the better team” last season.

Zoom out, and he’s right. But we all agreed long ago to determine champions on the court, in short series. You don’t raise banners for season-long point differential. You have to win, four times in seven tries, sometimes amid adversity. There is being the best team, and there is being the best team head-to-head when it matters most. Do both, twice in three 67-plus-win seasons, and you join the all-time pantheon.

Durant is already there, though a title would boost him to a new level. LeBron is probably the second-greatest player ever. He has a chance to finish his career as the all-time leading scorer, and one of the half-dozen greatest passers in history. In the end, maybe he won’t even need a win in this series to state his case as the best to ever do this. Maybe a strong showing in defeat would be enough.

That would drop LeBron to 3-5 in the Finals. That is three fewer titles than Michael Jordan, with five more losses on the biggest stage. But at some point, the gap in appearances — eight and counting for LeBron, six for Jordan — starts to matter, too.

But if Cleveland wins? Against this team? The discussion gets real, right now.

The bet here, though, is that the Cavs fall short in a competitive series.

Warriors in 6

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