Clash of the Titans Part 3: 2017 NBA Finals Preview

Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers

The march for the NBA Championship has been a clear two horse race since the moment Kevin Durant decided to join the Golden State Warriors, the team that had won 73 games the season before. He teamed up with back-to-back NBA MVP Stephen Curry, perennial Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) candidate Draymond Green, and the human flamethrower Klay Thompson. Questions about how they would mesh and blend was the only foreseeable obstacle and even that proved to be futile. The Warriors steamrolled through the regular season obliterating opponents at record pace with a net rating of 12.1, winning 65 games and securing the winningest 3-seasons stretch in NBA History. In the postseason, they’ve upped their games (albeit under extenuating circumstances), winning all 12 games with an average net rating of 16.8. The Warriors are running at peak capacity with the NBA Finals on the horizon and not even a healthy Kawhi Leonard could have stopped them.

The Cavs have also spent this postseason obliterating teams. While LeBron cryogenically slept through the regular season, his LeBron James clone led the Cavs to a ho-hum 51-31 record, the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference and a rather pedestrian 2.9 net rating (8th best in the league). However, advanced statistics do not consider that a truly generational talent was hibernating throughout the regular season to ensure he was at peak performance come playoffs time. And in these playoffs, LeBron the Great has returned from his cryo-sleep and led this team to a 12-1 record, with a 16.1 net rating. And he’s ONLY averaging an absurd 41 minutes, 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists per game. Peak LeBron is a scary proposition but if any team is built to withstand legendary exploits from one of the all-time great players in NBA history, it is this Golden State team. With 2 former MVPs, a future DPOY and quality veterans who are playing well above their pay grade, the 2017 NBA Finals will be both LeBron and Golden State’s toughest challenge yet.

Golden State Warriors AKA Golden State Death Machine

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(Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images)

The Golden State Warriors strength in numbers moniker is almost a statement of fact. The Warriors can and will go 12 deep with their rotations. Their depth is weakest in the frontcourt where JaVale McGee has become the lightning rod off the bench (and as a starter). He’s a highlight waiting to happen with this Warriors team and is allowed to run, jump, block and dunk to his heart’s content. He still gets overzealous and will return to Shaqtin’ JaVale which usually gets him benched quickly. Zaza Pachulia is a hard 6 fouls, solid perimeter and post defense and great at boxing out. Zaza is constantly moving bodies in the paint to get better position or to allow the wings to swoop in for rebounds.

Draymond Green is the workhorse in the frontcourt. He powers the defense from the 4 or 5 and allows their small lineups to thrive by having the strength to battle centers on defense and 3-point ability to stretch the floor on offense. David West is a shell of David West. He provides all the grit, midrange shooting and passing with none of the athleticism from much earlier in his career. And he turned down 11 million dollars to ring chase. He may get his ring but 11 million is a lot of money to leave on the table.

Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson are the lanky wing linchpins that allow their defense to be even more switch capable and the offense to flow as smoothly as it does. The playmaking ability of Andre Iguodala has long been underrated and in a lineup, that features Durant and Thompson’s scoring abilities, Iguodala can thrive finding teammates, making precise cuts and finishing at the rim. When his jump shot is falling, opponents have no chance. Klay is the deep-range assassin. He floats around on offense, cutting and finding open spots to bomb 3s from. What makes Klay special though, is his ability on defense. On a nightly basis, he  uses his length and size to effectively bother the other team’s best perimeter scorer. Durant is more of the mid-range assassin. Durant is usually working through the wing and high post where he can easily beat his man off the dribble or shoot over the top of him. He’s also deadly when spotting up and off the dribble from three. The fuel that powers the death machine is Stephen Curry. When he’s cooking (no pun intended) he can single-handedly destroy opponent leads, or build Golden State’s with unguardable 30+ foot jumpers. He’s a wizard with the ball in his hands and cannot be guarded when he’s on. It’s crazy cause I could use this exact sentence with KD and they have both of them. Sigh!

The Warriors also have two vastly different change of pace point guards in Shaun Livingston and Ian Clark. Shaun Livingston is 6’6, extremely lanky and will dunk all over your face. He’s very smooth and methodical in his offense and specializes in all things midrange. Also with his height and length, he is a frustrating defender for most guards. Clark is a 6’3 guard with elite quickness and shot 37% from 3 during the regular season and 40% during the playoffs. He’s another sparkplug off the bench averaging 18 points per 36 minutes. Clarke flies around the court, plays pesky defense and shoots 3s. The final potential contributor is Patrick McCaw. He’s a complete wildcard in regard to playing time but he’s a cool customer. If he plays, he’ll be a lesser Ian Clark. McCaw will fly around the court, play scrappy defense and hit 3s. He doesn’t provide much playmaking but as the 29th pick in the 2016 NBA draft, the fact that he can provide meaningful minutes in the Western Conference finals and potentially NBA Finals is more than Golden State could have asked for. Oh, and Matt Barnes will play spot minutes across the wing in a pinch.

Cleveland Cavaliers AKA LeBron the Great and his band of Cavaliers

LeBron steals game 2 on the road
(Getty Images)

LeBron James is the Cleveland Cavaliers. They barely go 10 deep and Channing Frye probably won’t be able to stay on the floor against the Warriors. Everyone understands their role on the team: shoot the ball when LeBron passes it to you. LeBron is the alpha and the omega. Kyrie Irving is his right-hand man and Kevin Love is next in line. They will pace the offense (won’t play much defense) as necessary by hitting a ton of 3s and isolation buckets. This will allow LeBron to rest on offense and play off ball as a cutter and finisher. JR Smith is Kyrie after about 7 shots of Hennessy. He has all the tough bucket making ability of Kyrie but he seems inebriated at the tip of every game. Some games he can tie the record for most 3 pointers made in a game and sometimes he’ll tie the record for most 3 pointers attempted in a game. It’s the Earl Smith Experience.

The rest of the Cavs team are very specialized players who were brought on by GM LeBron for a particular reason. Tristan Thompson is an offensive rebounding dynamo and great at containing guards on the perimeter. Cleveland will get a few uncontested 3s per game off of Tristan Thompson offensive rebounds. Once the ball gets to perimeter it will hop between shooters until they find an open shot. What Tristan doesn’t offer in offensive talent, he makes up for with rebounding, defense and hustle.

Kyle Korver and Channing Frye are shooters. That is all they do and that is all that is asked of them. If they do anything other than shoot 3s or swing the ball, it usually does not end well. Richard Jefferson and Deron Williams play the role of the wily vets. They will control the pace of the game and make sound decisions when the stars are getting a breather. This is 2017 though, not 2007. They can provide about 20 solid minutes but anything more than that and again you’re asking for trouble. The final rotational player the Cavs will deploy is the only player (outside of LeBron) that will give you a net positive on defense. Iman Shumpert is usually tasked with pestering the opponent’s best offensive wing (Paul George, Demar Derozan, Isaiah Thomas) where he has varying success. He’s solid. He’s not a great 3-point shooter but he’s not self-check either and he’s a good finisher with above average athleticism. If the Cavs are relying on his offense, they are in serious trouble.

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record but this team is essentially LeBron, his 2 generals, a captain and some townsfolk. This team requires LeBron James to be the best player in the world to supplement the deficiencies of their role players, because all Kyrie and Love do is get buckets. However, when Kyrie and/or Love are getting buckets effectively, the game opens up for LeBron, which then opens the game up for his band of merry men. This is when the Cavs start clicking and will steamroll teams into the dirt without playing an ounce of defense. Or LeBron can go God Mode and completely dismantle his opponent single-handedly.

The Battlegrounds – Oracle Arena and Quicken Loans Arena

Oracle Arena aka Roaracle is the home of the Golden State Death Machine and it gets its name because of how loud and intense it gets inside. During a Steph-splosion, the arena gets rocking to a point that all the other Warriors instantly snap into rhythm as well, which is instant death in most cases. 39-2, 39-2, 36-5 are the home records for the Warriors over the last three seasons. That is 114 wins and 9 losses over a 3-year span. In the playoffs, they are 22-2 at home but only 4-3 versus LeBron in the NBA Finals in that same span. It is safe to assume that LeBron does not fear the Roaracle crowd in any way. He averaged 33.2 points per game in that arena over those 7 games, with a high of 44. However, that was all pre-KD. This Warriors increased their offensive rating by almost a full point at 113.2 (112.5), while maintaining their defensive rating at 101.1 (up from 100.9). Anything is possible with LeBron, Kyrie, and lil’ Kev… but bruh, they have Steph, KD, Dray and Klay. The Roaracle crowd will fuel the role players and Ian Clark and JaVale McGee (my god, I really just wrote JaVale McGee) will be the difference makers. Let this take scorch your tongue: LeBron and his men will not win a game in Roaracle.

Quicken Loans Arena is not as overwhelming as Roaracle but the Cavs do find a comfort there. The Cavs were 31-10 at the King’s Castle and 20-21 elsewhere. However, LeBron often cruises through the regular season as evidenced by the 120.7 offensive rating they’ve posted in the postseason (110.9 in the regular season). They’ve won 5 of their 6 home games this postseason and won 9 out of 10 home games in the 2016 postseason (and had a 112.5 offensive efficiency as well). Golden State has found a way to win 3 out of 6 NBA Finals games in Quicken Loans arena over the last 2 seasons. For all intents and purposes this is a push. LeBron and Kyrie have talents that will travel well. The same cannot be said for the rest of the team. Being within the cozy confines of the King’s Castle brings out the best in role players such as Kevin Love (extremely talented role player), Iman Shumpert, and Tristan Thompson. JR and Kyle will shoot regardless of arena and the wily vets (Williams/Jefferson) will play smart, hard and minimize their impact (positive or negative). This is where things get interesting though. Will that be enough to neutralize the many weapons that Golden State possess. LeBron and Untucked Kyrie should be able to hold serve for a game or 2 but they will need legendary performances to push this to the brink.

KEY MATCHUPS: Kyrie Irving vs Wardell Curry

Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry are essentially the same player. Limitless range, endless buckets of sauce, shot creating and finishing abilities gifted from the gods themselves, obvious defense liability with enough athletic ability and coordination to make a great defense play every now and then, and so much more. The scary thought is that Steph is also 4 years older and has been in the league 2 years longer. Kyrie is coming for him. And when he gets there, his jersey will be untucked. When Kyrie’s jersey comes untucked he enters his peak form, capable of torching any defender, defense, team or organization. Kyrie Irving is one of the best scoring guards in the league. After finishing the Celtics with a career high 42 in game 4 and an efficient 25 in game 5, he turns his focus to the NBA Finals again where he last averaged 27 points per game. Kyrie will be guarded primarily by Klay Thompson but it won’t matter. Kyrie will get his buckets.

HOWEVER, Steph is not a 2 time MVP and first ever unanimous MVP for nothing. He’s been lights out all playoffs after a relatively quiet regular season (25/6/4) averaging a blistering 29 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds. He’s also blazing a trail to the 50/40/90 Playoff Club (50% from field, 40% from 3, 90% from free throw). Steph Curry is a walking offensive explosion. His nuclear meltdowns are the stuff of legend and can only be matched by the exploits of his backcourt teammate (Klay Thompson). He can pull up from 30 effortlessly or can break you down and toss a floater over your head. It’s confounding. JR and Iman are the more likely parties to be chasing Steph around screens and picking him up at half court. But, the only person capable of stopping Steph is Steph, as evidenced by his disappearing act in back-to-back NBA Finals. This series hinges heavily on Steph being Steph. If the 2017 version continues rolling then Golden State should as well. But if he reverts to a pumpkin again, his legacy could be forever tarnished.

LeBron James the Great vs Kevin Durant

LeBron-14s-Durant-Warriors-Cavs-Christmas - Copy
(USA TODAY Sports)

*clears throat, Bruce Buffer voice* AND NOW, ITS TIIIIIMMMMMEEE! This is the matchup the NBA has wanted since the 2012 NBA Finals between Miami and Oklahoma City. We thought at the time that they would blossom into the dominant NBA rivalry of the next half decade but James Harden was sent to Houston, LeBron went back to Cleveland and Durant went west to Oakland. And somehow, in some weird way, we still end up with prime LeBron (Jesus) and prime KD in a battle for the NBA Championship for (possibly) the next half decade.

LeBron the Great won a championship in Cleveland, Ohio after overcoming a 3-1 deficit versus the Golden State Warriors after those same Warriors won an NBA record 73 games in the regular season. He’s smart, athletic and uniquely motivated to be great. He does whatever he wants, when he wants on and off the basketball court. He’s easily the greatest player of his era and will be on the pantheon of sports when he’s done. What he’s done this season while essentially conserving his energy for the postseason is ludicrous. LeBron is so good, that he knows he can play at 75% speed for a season and still average 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists per game. Then he’ll waltz into the playoffs and average an absurd 32 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists per game while shooting 56% from the field and 42% from 3. He’s the King and we are all peasants.

The Slim Reaper (unofficially) is the latest edition to the Golden State Death Machine. He’s a 7-foot scoring assassin. Kevin Durant has the handle to get anywhere on the court, the size to shoot over anyone and the athleticism to blow past defenders and finish through traffic. He essentially replaced Harrison Barnes which is absurd. The team that lost in the NBA Finals in 7 games the previous year, replaced their starting small forward with the second-best player in the league. That is ABSURD! Now we have a 74-game sample size of Kevin Durant and the Warriors (20 games lost to a sprained knee) and we see how devastatingly efficient these guys are. He’s averaging the lowest minutes per game of his career and is still averaging 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. He may not win the statistical battle with LeBron but he doesn’t have to. If he continues to play with this kind of otherworldly efficiency Golden State should have no problems winning this series. And if need be, the Slim Reaper is always capable of taking over and winning a game on his own.

Lil’ Kev vs Draymond Green

Lil’ Kev is lil’ Kev in this series because big Kev is Kevin Durant. So lil’ Kev has to earn his Kevin status. This is slightly disrespectful to Kevin Love who has been playing lights out this postseason. While he’s only averaging 17 points (role player) he’s shooting almost 48% on 3 pointers. He’s also grabbing 10 rebounds per game, helping form a dynamic duo with Tristan Thompson on the boards. While he’s not shooting particularly well from inside the 3-point line, Cleveland doesn’t ask him to go down there much anyway. If he continues shooting near 50% from 3 then they won’t ask him to take another 2-pointer for the rest of his Cavalier career. He’ll probably be matched up with Durant and Draymond Green so he’ll need to make the most of his opportunities on offense while minimizing his ailments on defense.

One thing that may play in lil’ Kev’s advantage on defense is that he will be guarding Draymond Green who is the lowest offensive threat of the Warriors big 4. However, if he gets rolling… it’s over. I feel like I’ve said that exact line 5 other times. There are so many players in this series that can get going in an instant and swing the tide of an entire game. Draymond is a freight train in transition, he’s hitting 47% of his 3s in the playoffs while averaging 7 assists and 2 turnovers per game. And he’s the LOWEST OFFENSIVE THREAT OF THE WARRIORS BIG 4. My god. He’s the integral cog that keeps the machine moving. His unselfish offensive play coupled with the 3-point prowess allows them to space the floor and attack with Steph, Klay and KD. And that’s not even where he’s most valuable. He should run away with Defensive Player of the Year this season because he’s been that good. He passes every eye test, metric test and stupid test you want to put it against. He protects the rim, plays the passing lanes, showcases stellar 1 on 1 post and perimeter defense and is the linchpin of their defensive communication. Draymond’s unique versatility is essential to the Golden State Death machine. And his intensity helps too (or it could also get you suspended for a NBA Finals game).

X-Factor Matchup: Earl Smith vs Klay Thompson

Shirtless Earl Smith
(Aaron Josefczyk, REUTERS)

This last matchup is a coin flip, not in talent but in impact. Klay Thompson is a far better player than Earl Joseph Smith. He’s better offensively, defensively and statistically. Both players will be asked to do essentially the same thing though: supplement the scoring of your mega-star teammates and defend the mega-star backcourt scorer. They will chase Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving around the court for the entire series and they will each get pieces of LeBron and KD, respectively. On the other end of the court they will be expected to hit lots and lots of 3s.

While the defensive ability of Klay is a known commodity, his shooting has been suspect this postseason. While Golden State hasn’t needed him yet, they also have not had to play a team with the offensive firepower of Cleveland. Klay is currently shooting 38% from the field and 36% from 3. This slump has continued each round and if you are Golden State it’s becoming troublesome. But it’s only slightly troublesome because Klay Thompson moonlights as the Human Torch, so from time to time he will go from shooting slump to 60 points in 29 minutes.

Meanwhile JR Smith has never been a player you could consistently rely on. If you tried to, you were doomed to fail. That was until June 19th 2016, where Earl Joseph Smith became an NBA Champion and world treasure. He unforgettably went shirtless through the Vegas night after that legendary Game 7 victory. He then continued his shirtless march through the Cleveland parade. Earl is a cult hero. He’s also shooting 48% from the field and 45% from 3. He is, again, not a player you would count on for consistency but he does get buckets. His confidence never wavers and he always thinks every shot he takes is going in. That type of swagger may be enough to help Cleveland to the unthinkable, two years in a row.

Prediction: Golden State Warriors beat Cleveland Cavaliers (4-2)

Golden State Warriors v Detroit Pistons
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

LeBron is great but we’ve seen him fall short. In 2007, when he was still a young pup. In 2011, with the pressure of “The Decision” looming. In 2014, where the Spurs were simply better. And in 2015, where he couldn’t carry the entire city by himself. This season feels a lot like 2014. LeBron will be the best player in this series, as he has been these playoffs. But Golden State will have the next 3 best players. The impacts of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green will be too much for LeBron. How Kyrie performs against Klay Thompson will be the determining factor of this series. I expect Kyrie to have a good series with at least one 35+ point game. I don’t expect it to be otherworldly enough to carry the Cavs to the level necessary. LeBron’s individual greatness can only carry them so far. And if his greatness is enough to get past the Golden State Death Machine than he will unequivocally be the greatest player ever.

I don’t see that happening. Golden State will be far too suffocating and overwhelming. Their role players are better, their team is deeper and their stars are more numerous. I expect Golden State to win a slug-fest in Game 1, and cruise in Game 2. Games 3 and 4 are Cleveland’s to lose so expect LeBron and Kyrie to go bananas in these two games to hold serve. They will probably be lil’ Kev’s best games of the series as well. Game 5 will be should be a wire-to-wire win for Golden State. Game 6 should be a classic in Quicken Loans arena, with LeBron and Kyrie attempting to stave off elimination. I’d fully expect Kyrie to start this game with his jersey untucked and will empty every bucket of sauce he has left. LeBron will have a classic, unstoppable LeBron elimination game but it won’t matter. Steph and KD will combine for 70+, Klay and Dray will play harassing and suffocating defense all game and a few timely 3-pointers from Green, Thompson, Iguodala and Clark will be enough to win Golden State their 2nd title in 3 years.

How great would it be if the Cavs and Warriors met for the next 4 years and made a best of 7 series out of the NBA Finals? I’d also take the Warriors in 6.

Finals MVP: Kevin Durant 33 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists 54/39/85

– Be The Player You Want To Be

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