Let’s be honest, the NBA Playoffs have failed to deliver the excitement we all expected back in April. Outside of the San Antonio-Clippers & Clippers-Houston matchups, most of the series have been one-sided, with the top two seeds advancing to each conference finals.
Atlanta won 60 games during the regular season to finish with the best record in the East, but like many of us predicted the Hawks’ jump-shooting offense was no match for LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Sure, the Hawks were weakened by injuries to DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver early in the series, but that’s still no excuse for getting swept by a Cleveland team that was playing without Kevin Love, and only had a limited Kyrie Irving for two games.
The story wasn’t much better out West, with Stephen Curry and the Warriors dominating Houston in five games. Curry suffered a head contusion after a scary fall in Game 4, and his fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson suffered a concussion after taking a knee to the head from Trevor Ariza in Game 5. Fortunately, both players had over a week to recuperate, so we should see the Warriors at full strength in the Finals.
So, which team has the edge? Golden State steamrolled through the regular season with an NBA-best 67 wins, while Cleveland had to go through a feeling-out period with James, Irving and Love playing together for the first time under rookie head coach David Blatt. The Cavs started out 19-20, but finished strong to earn the No. 2 seed in the East. A season-ending injury to Love in Round 1 of the playoffs against Boston could have derailed Cleveland’s title hopes, but they bounced back to beat the Bulls in six and then sweep Atlanta, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of Knicks’ castoffs, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
The key for Golden State in the Finals will be finding a way to keep James from getting into the paint to score on his own or kick the ball out to wide open 3-point shooters. Smith has been on his best behavior and burying the triple during these playoffs, including 47 percent from beyond the arc against Atlanta, and outside of James, he’ll be the main focus of the Warriors’ defense in this series.
Golden State is known for its offensive firepower under Steve Kerr and top assistant Alvin Gentry, who was recently hired as the new head coach in New Orleans. But the Warriors are also among the league’s top ranked defensive teams, and they’ll be able to throw a series of long-armed, active defenders at LeBron in Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. Big Ten fans know all about Green’s defensive tenacity and leadership skills from his days at Michigan State, and he finished second to the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler for Most Improved Player honors while being voted to the All-Defensive first team this past season. Barnes is extremely quick with good leaping ability, while Iguodala is a known commodity as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and is coming off a great performance against James Harden in the Conference Finals, helping to force him into 12 turnovers in the decisive Game 5.
Outside of James’ playmaking ability and brute strength, and the 3-point shooting of Smith, Shumpert and Irving, the Warriors biggest concern defensively will be keeping Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov off the offensive boards. Thompson was a terror on the boards against the Bulls and Hawks, and he’s averaging four offensive rebounds per game in the playoffs. His size and relentless energy could pose problems for a Golden State team that’s lacking in size behind starting center Andrew Bogut.
The Warriors will get frontcourt reserve Marreese Speights back from a calf injury for the Finals, and his size and outside shooting ability should be a nice addition to Kerr’s bench. But keeping Bogut out of foul trouble will be important to Golden State’s success in the series, since he’s been one of the best rim protectors so far in the playoffs.
From the Cavs’ perspective, they’ll have to find the best defensive matchups against the Splash Brothers. It will be next impossible for James to guard Thompson or Curry for 40-plus minutes, while also initiating the offense and being the primary scorer. James seems almost super-human when it comes to his strength and endurance, but he is in his 12th season in the league and has shown more signs of fatigue in these playoffs than we’ve seen in the past.
Chicago area native Shumpert will probably be asked to chase Curry around multiple screens, with Irving drawing Barnes and James on Thompson. But as mentioned, James won’t be asked to guard Thompson for the entire game, and the Cavs might have a tough time hiding Irving on the defensive end, especially when Smith is in the game.
Cleveland has to figure Curry and Thompson are good for about 45 points in every game, and make sure none of the Warriors supporting players have big scoring nights. The Cavs are saying Irving still isn’t fully recovered from the foot and knee injuries that slowed him in the previous two series, but I get the sense there might be some serious sand-bagging going on, and Irving will be back to his All-Star form for the Finals.
Most of the national experts are predicting a Golden State win based on the Cavs’ injury situation and the way the Warriors dominated a much stronger conference. But Cleveland’s defense has been operating at an exceptionally high level in these playoffs, and you can never underestimate the ability of the world’s best player to find a way to carry his team to four more victories.
After all the mismatches we’ve seen earlier in these playoffs, basketball fans should be entertained by a fast-paced, entertaining Finals.
I’m going to call it Golden State in 7, thanks to the Warriors’ 3-point shooting, superior depth and underrated defense. And that would mean Steve Kerr can start sizing up rings for a second hand after winning five as a player with the Bulls and Spurs.