How They Got Here
• Golden State: The 67-win Warriors entered the postseason as title favorites and have played to that level throughout the first three rounds. Their 12-3 record in the playoffs comes out to a winning percentage just shy of their regular-season mark, which is to say that they've been elite against the best teams in the best conference even if they were somewhat fortunate to avoid the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers. If the Warriors were impressive back in mid-April, then they only look better now.
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The Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets provided many examples of what Golden State does well. Games 1 and 2 were both very tight contests in which the Rockets very easily could have won, particularly in the latter. However, the Warriors made the necessary plays, got superstar-level performances from 2014-15 MVP Stephen Curry, and stayed just far ahead enough in crunch time to control the terms.
Based on the first two outcomes in Oakland, most expected the Rockets to play well when the series shifted to Houston for Game 3. That was most definitely not the case — the Warriors cruised to a 35-point blowout that confirmed their focus, commitment, and excellence. The Rockets won Game 4 with a record-setting first quarter, a terrific game for James Harden, and a scary fall for Curry, but that proved to be a brief hiccup for the Warriors. Game 5's clinching victory saw them overcome rough games for the Splash Brothers (for different reasons) and early struggles to take control in the fourth behind very strong play from Harrison Barnes and other secondary players. Golden State enters the franchise's first finals appearance in 40 years with a loaded roster, no obvious weaknesses, and many different ways to win.
• Cleveland: No team received as much attention as the Cavaliers this season, and early on it looked as if that pressure might have gotten to them. Nevertheless, here they are, where they were always supposed to be, in the NBA Finals as East champs. They claimed the title by obliterating the competition despite a fair run of bad luck, with both Kevin Love (out for several more months) and Kyrie Irving (active but limited with several ailments) suffering injuries. The brilliance of LeBron James and several excellent showings from role players were enough to get them back on top of the conference for the first time since 2007, way back when LeBron was just 22 years old. They have lost just twice in the playoffs, with both coming in the conference semis against the Chicago Bulls.
Their sweep of the Atlanta Hawks was thoroughly dominant. While the Hawks were a clear disappointment this postseason, most figured they'd put up a fight against a Cavs team that didn't look in peak form vs. the Bulls. That didn't work out so well. Cleveland pulled away in Game 1 with a huge second-half run and crushed Atlanta in Game 2, essentially ending the series right then and there with two road wins. Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena was much tighter and forced the Cavs to win in overtime, but Game 4 was easily the most one-sided of the whole series with the fourth quarter (and really most of the second half) serving as an early victory party.
The Cavs enter this series without having faced the same level of competition as the Warriors, but they've also had to adjust for major postseason injuries that likely would have sunk lesser teams. Love hasn't played the last two series at all, and Irving played Games 1 and 4 against the Hawks and has lacked his typically elite burst for about a month. Of course, LeBron can cover for a lot of gaps all by himself.
Head to Head
It's hard to know what to make of the two matchups between the Cavs and Warriors this season. Both won fairly convincingly at home, but LeBron missed the game in Oakland and dominated the one in Cleveland. On the other hand, Curry was fairly terrible in Cleveland as the Warriors collectively had one of their worst games of the season in the middle of their longest road trip.
The first, at Oracle Arena on January 9, was going to be tough for the Cavs regardless of how well they played. James sat out with knee and back issues, Iman Shumpert was out with a dislocated left shoulder, and Timofey Mozgov wasn't playing yet after only having been traded two days earlier. Regardless, the Warriors won by 18 as six players scored in double figures, and Curry and Thompson combined for 47 points. They were without Andrew Bogut, but the defense didn't necessarily suffer, because the Cavs shot 40.7 percent from the field and 7-of-23 from three-point range.
LeBron played on Feb. 26 and things changed a bit. The Cavs won 110-99 with James going for 42 points on 15-of-25 shooting against primary defenders Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. The Warriors committed 24 fouls to give the Cavaliers 35 free throws, with LeBron and Kyrie accounting for 21. Meanwhile, Curry scored only six points after the first quarter on his way to 18 points on 5-of-17 shooting. The Warriors were so out of sorts that David Lee led them in scoring with 19 points. It would be tempting to say that James is a matchup nightmare for them, and that's surely true to an extent, but their play was rough enough at both ends that it's probably best to call it an outlier.
Prediction: Warriors in six.
-- Eric Freeman
Likely Starting Lineups
• Golden State: The Warriors' starters — the All-Star backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the All-Defensive Team frontcourt of Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, plus Harrison Barnes on the wing — have been one of the NBA's best groups all year. They outscored opponents by 19.6 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, the best mark of any unit to play at least 300 minutes. They've topped opponents by 10.5 points-per-100 during the postseason, the third-highest "net rating" among playoff lineups with at least 75 minutes of shared floor time.
What makes Steve Kerr's first five so exceptional is their versatility. This group can beat you just about any way you want to play.
Curry's unprecedented combination of shooting range, accuracy and volume — he's led the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted in each of last three years, setting regular- and postseason records for long-distance proficiency — propels an offense that stretches defensive schemes past their breaking points. His ability to pull up from anywhere inside of 30 feet, blow past you if you play him too closely and find the open man when you overcommit fuels everything the Warriors do.
Thompson — who finished second in the NBA in 3s made, fifth in attempts and 10th in per-game scoring this season — punishes opponents who devote all their perimeter resources to corralling Curry. He suffered a concussion in the last game of the Western Conference finals, though, and while Kerr expects him to be ready in time for the Finals, his status will bear close watching.
In the five regular-season games Thompson missed, Kerr often leaned on little-used reserve Justin Holiday (just nine minutes of playoff playing time) to take his place while keeping the rest of the rotation in theirs. Jrue's brother was solid in Thompson's stead, but with several more seasoned options available, would Kerr take the same tack with a championship on the line?
Green's a pivotal "playmaking four" who bolsters the offense without forsaking defensive and rebounding responsibilities. He's on track to become just the 15th player ever to average at least 14 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and a steal per game in the postseason. Former No. 1 pick Bogut is the lineup's lone non-threatening shooter, but he's a deft passer and crunching screen-setter who can finish alley-oops, deposit putbacks and convert short hooks.
If you stall every other option, there's still Barnes, who works off the ball as a cutter or spot-up shooter and exploits smaller individual defenders. The former Tar Heel torched Houston for 24 points in the Game 5 win that sent the Warriors to the Finals for the first time since 1975.
The Warriors' starters incinerated the Pelicans, with Curry and Thompson combining for nearly 59 points per game. They suffocated the Grizzlies, holding Dave Joerger's crew to just 88.9 points-per-100 over the final three games of the series with Thompson blanketing injured point guard Mike Conley and frequent double-teams flustering Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the post.
Perhaps the best illustration of what makes Golden State so dangerous, though, came in the Western finals. The Warriors' starters had a comparatively tough time against the Rockets, outscoring Houston by a single point over the course of 51 shared minutes. And yet, the Dubs still comfortably handled a 56-win opponent, with sixth man Andre Iguodala, backup point man Shaun Livingston, reserve center Festus Ezeli and attacking guard Leandro Barbosa all making timely contributions.
Even without the high-scoring Marreese Speights, who's been sidelined by a calf strain since Game 3 against Memphis and only just returned to non-contact work, Kerr has a boatload of options at his disposal if his starters aren't getting the job done. With the league's MVP leading a skilled and versatile group, though, that doesn't happen much.
• Cleveland: The Cavaliers entered Round 2 needing a new normal, with Kevin Love lost to a shoulder injury and J.R. Smith serving a two-game suspension. They found something much better than "normal."
Cleveland's new-look starting five — LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Timofey Mozgov, with Tristan Thompson in for Love and Iman Shumpert in Smith's place — has been dynamite. The group outscored the Bulls and Atlanta Hawks by 9.1 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-best postseason mark of any unit with at least 75 minutes of shared floor time.
With All-NBA scorer Irving limited by left knee tendinitis and a strained right foot, James has shouldered an even larger share of Cleveland's playmaking burden. He has responded with characteristic brilliance, averaging a shade under 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists per game in the past two series. He came up just three assists shy of averaging a triple-double in the four-game sweep of Atlanta, and very easily could've racked 'em up if he hadn't sat out the final 13 minutes of Cleveland's Game 4 blowout.
LeBron's ability to do everything allows everyone else to just do their thing. A hobbled Irving can still make an impact as a spot-up shooter, hitting 48.1 percent of his 3s against Chicago and Atlanta. The relentless Thompson can dominate the boards, pulling down 11.1 rebounds per game (4.1 on the offensive glass) over the past two rounds. He's also paired with the massive Mozgov to push the Cavs' interior defense to a new level; Cleveland's allowing a scant 92.1 points-per-100 with them on the floor together this postseason.
Despite suffering a groin pull early in the Chicago series, Shumpert's been a committed, determined and effective defender. He's averaging nearly two combined steals and blocks per game this postseason, and has worked hard on and off the ball to limit Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Kyle Korver. He's also offered floor-spacing shooting (38.3 percent on six 3-point tries per game in the past two rounds) while helping on the glass and making the extra pass.
Cleveland's rotation isn't as deep as the Warriors', but David Blatt's gotten significant contributions from his second unit, too.
Backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova stepped in for Irving and became a folk hero. He's gotten under opponents' skin by playing tough defense at the point of attack, and has proven to be a capable ball-mover and spot-up release valve, shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point range on 5.6 attempts per game since Game 6 vs. Chicago, when Irving aggravated his knee injury. The Cavs' preferred small-ball lineup with Irving ailing — Thompson, James, Shumpert, Smith and Dellavedova — has blown opponents' doors off, posting the best net rating (a whopping plus-29.2 points-per-100) of any postseason lineup to play at least 50 minutes.
Smith's been huge since his suspension, averaging 15.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He's shooting a blistering 45.9 percent on 7.6 3-point tries per contest over the past two rounds, tilting Game 1 of the Eastern finals while also playing focused defense. James Jones might be a defensive liability, but he's also a veteran shooter whom LeBron trusts implicitly after their time together in Miami. He's been ready when called upon, hitting 40 percent from deep over the past two rounds.
"It's not like [LeBron's] asking us to shoulder the burden of the entire thing," Jones told NBA.com's Ian Thomsen. "He's just asking us to do our piece. To do a little bit."
That "little bit" has been enough to get Cleveland back to the Finals. Will it be enough to topple the Warriors? — Dan Devine
How Golden State Can Win
A rotating cast of characters led by Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, and backstopped by Andrew Bogut, keeps LeBron from exploding four times. Stephen Curry torches Iman Shumpert, Kyrie Irving, Matthew Dellavedova and anyone else David Blatt throws at him. Klay Thompson's none the worse for wear after his concussion and clamps down on Irving while maintaining the shot- and playmaking rhythm he rediscovered late in the Houston series. When the action goes small, the Warriors' Draymond-at-the-five lineups beat Cleveland's Tristan Thompson-in-the-middle groups. — DD
How Cleveland Can Win
Time off restores Kyrie Irving to All-Star form, giving Cleveland another top-flight creator and distributor to puncture the Warriors' D. LeBron James gets his touch back just enough to make sliding a strong-side zone his way and playing him to be a jump-shooter untenable. Tristan Thompson makes the Warriors pay on the glass for any additional attention their bigs devote to LeBron. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova keep making perimeter shots when their numbers are called, and slow down the Warriors' All-Star guards. — DD
Prediction: Warriors in five.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 10 out of 10.
Took you long enough.
The eight day layoff between games? Sure, it hurts, and the NBA doesn’t exactly rely on an NFL-styled show of pomp and circumstance to hype things up in the days prior to its final pairing. Worse, the layoff will do absolutely nothing to quell questions about Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s potentially lingering concussion concerns, and it won’t give us back the Kyrie Irving we saw in the regular season. The six day rest between the last two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs didn’t help Irving’s knee and foot issues in the slightest, and both player and coach are admitting that Irving just won’t be the same until 2015-16.
Which is a shame, as is the presence of Kevin Love and his unfortunate arm sling sitting uneasily on the sidelines. A fitful regular season robbed us of the chance of seeing the Cavaliers at the team’s best, despite a dominant turn starting around midseason, and these two injuries have thinned out what could have been a team for the ages.
They have a player for the ages, though, perhaps for all time. And Golden State, with its 67 wins and dynasty-styled point differential from the regular season, is working relatively unscathed. Even in a too-short (shouts to Oakland), five-game run these two squads could give us a brilliant basketball series, as the clashing factors should intrigue far beyond the delight of seeing the league’s MVP and the league’s best overall player go at it.
Cleveland is wafer-thin, only working with eight players. One of those, Matthew Dellavedova, is a recent phenomenon and another (James Jones) couldn’t even see the light of day on an even thinner Miami Heat squad from last season. Golden State, meanwhile, seems to feature an answer at every turn with even David Lee (an All-Star as recently as 2013) leading the team in scoring in one of Golden State’s two matchups with Cleveland this season.
Golden State turns the ball over repeatedly, yet still manages to work up a blindingly efficient offense. Cleveland rarely causes turnovers, but they feature the game’s best one-man fast break in LeBron James, a possible series tipping point. Another would be Cleveland’s love for crashing the offensive glass, an anathema in the modern NBA, either an advantage for the Cavaliers or an opportunity for the Warriors’ brilliant fast-break ball to frighten yet again with their four-on-twos.
Cleveland’s defense, out of nowhere, has been brilliant. LeBron James’ three-point shot, out of nowhere, has become brutal. James’ usage, out of necessity, is astonishingly high.
Golden State’s adherence to movement, distaste for ball screens, love of the three-pointer and ability to win with both grace and brutality has sustained into the postseason. To get out of the Western Conference playoff bracket with a 12-3 record is a massively underreported achievement.
If he finds space, Irving can still dominate offensively while working flat-footed – his fundamentals are that good. LeBron’s long jumpers have to return to the mean at some point, and even brilliant shooters like Curry and his crew can have a bad week. It is absolutely in the realm of the possible for LeBron’s ever-evolving team to take Game 2 in Oakland, the next two in Cleveland, and look to clinch at home in a Game 6. The exhaustion created by this long season, lack of depth, injuries, and LeBron’s impossible schedule from 2010 onward could be staved off by this record-long pre-Finals delay.
It’s a new, weird season. Let’s hope it lasts the full two weeks.
Prediction: Warriors in seven.
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