and then there were two…
Cleveland is looking to avenge a 2015 NBA Finals loss to the Golden State as it heads to Oakland to face the Warriors in a rematch of the 2015 Finals that ultimately put G.S. on the map as one of the better teams in the league — which we later found out in 2016 to be the best team after finishing the season with a record-breaking record of 73-9.
The names are the same but Clevland looks totally different in this anticipated rematch. After having to take on the Warriors in last year’s finals without Kevin Love — who was hurt in the first round versus Boston — the team also lost starting guard Kyrie Irving after game one due to a broken kneecap which drastically changed the landscape of a finals match-up that many thought that the Cavs could still win.
This year those two are back to help Lebron James fulfill his desire to bring back a title to his hometown of the ‘land — yeah we know he is from Akron, but it’s close enough; however this time he and his band of merry men enter the finals as the underdogs to a Golden State squad that is riding high after making an improbable comeback in the Western Conference Championship against Oklahoma City.
Cleveland Wins if:
It’s all Love:
Kevin Love has been up and down since making his way to Cleveland after being traded from Minnesota. When he is up, he seems to resemble the piece that many felt could be the difference maker in the Cavs title hopes. Unfortunately, when he has been down, he basically is non-existent. In this year’s playoffs, he has done a better job of being consistently above average but in order to get past the Warriors, he has to be very good. In the 12 Cavaliers victories this post-season Love is averaging 19 points per game and 10 rebounds but in the two losses he is only averaging 6.5 points per game and 5.5 rebounds. Sure, the sample size isn’t that large with the losses, but it brings up a valid question; how will one of the Cavs big three respond to adversity in a key moment? If is closer to the 19/10 side of things, he will provide a legitimate spot up shooter for the driving Lebron and Kyrie who will command a double team in the paint.
Earl stays on fire
Smith’s impact on this year’s finals is two-fold. He has surprisingly turned into the Cavaliers best three point threat — shooting even better than Steph Curry from beyond the arc during the playoffs — but he will also be called on to slow down the splash brothers defensively. Maybe it’s because of the return of Love and Irving for the entire playoffs but it seems as if J.R. Smith has finally shed the label of being an erratic shooter from deep. In the past, you would see smith hoist ill-advised three points that would kill the momentum for his team while allowing the opponent to either get back into the game or build upon a lead; not this year. So far he has had more games (seven) shooting above 50% from beyond the arc, than he has not and that is a far cry from the player who in last season’s playoffs did not make more than five three-pointers in any of the six finals games — including a rim breaking 0-8 performance in the momentum shifting Game 4 of the series. Just like with Love, if Smith can remain consistent with his hot shooting and force the Golden State defenders to hesitate to leave him open as Lebron and Kyrie drive that will bode well for them. But expecting consistency from Earl is like expecting restraint from a young athlete in a Twitter celeb DM.
Lebron knows when to take over
We have all heard the complaints about Lebron; he doesn’t have the killer instinct; he can’t will a team to victory; he is more Magic than MJ, and while those arguments may have some validity last years finals taught us that Lebron has it in him to dominate, the problem is he doesn’t always unleash it. Maybe it was because he realized that it was him versus the Warriors last year, but whatever it was that led to the scoring barrage that saw him post three 40+ point games and another 39 point performance, he has to know when to tap into that if Cleveland gets into trouble this year. Truthfully that was my issue with Lebron going back to the 25-point outburst against the Pistons in 2007, he has always had the potential to go beastly, he just chose not to.
Golden State Wins if:
Draymond stays out of trouble:
Draymond Green is the player you hate as an opponent but you love him as the teammate. He is the guy that will stick his nose in a situation to protect a teammate but unfortunately for him, it’s found him on the brink being a detriment to his team. After picking up the Flagrant 2 foul after kicking Oklahoma City center Steven Adams in the groin, Green is one technical foul away from being suspended for one game. Yes, Curry and Klay Thompson have been the better players in the playoffs so far but against Cleveland, the defensive match-up with the perimeter-oriented Kevin Love and offensively inept Tristan Thompson should suit Green a lot better which may allow him to recover his shooting touch. Against Houston and Portland Green shot a respectable 45% from the field but when forced to exert more energy defensively against OKC his offensive numbers plummeted to 35% from the field and a woeful 20% from three.
Curry gets his groove back:
It may be hard to fathom saying that a guy that averaged 28 points per game had an off series, but against OKC Steph Curry did not look like the same player that unanimously won the 2016 NBA MVP. Against the longer Thunder defenders, Curry struggled to make shots that during the season were second nature to him. Maybe it was the rust from missing six games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but whatever it was it seemed as if Curry’s shooting touch escaped him which led to uncharacteristically forced shots.In Game 7 we saw more of the Curry we were used to; he shot 54% from the field and made 7-of-12 three-pointers on the way to a 36- point performance, so maybe he has finally gotten over what was ailing him mentally and physically. If so, this could spell trouble for Irving who is not known for his defensive prowess — and Tyronn Lue can’t justify playing Matthew Dellavedova over Irving just because of his defense.
Its version of Small Ball plays Big
Whoever ends up at the PF and Center position for Golden state could hold the key to winning the championship this year. Last year with no Kevin Love, we say guys like Harrison Barnes, Green and even Andre Iguodala playing significant minutes at that those two positions. Center Andrew Bogut started the 2015 finals in the middle but as the games progressed his minutes slowly decreased and even after he went on the DNP list the final two games his minutes was divvied up to the aforementioned trio and not the other true bigs on the roster. If that approach is replicated this year, it will be important for the Warriors trio up front to be able to do better than it did against OKC.
This will be a far more competitive series than last year and it will be good to see how Golden State fares against a complete Cavaliers roster. I think if this were last year, the Warriors may have been overwhelmed by the moment and the talent on the Cavs roster, but because they have the confidence and swagger of a champion I think the Warriors find a way to get the job done once again.
Warriors in 7
MVP: Steph Curry