The NBA Finals doesn’t present us with drool-worthy matchups every year. The closest in recent memory was the 2010 Lakers-Celtics finals, and it was only epic because Ron Artest thanked his therapist.
No therapists will be thanked this year, unless J.R. Smith has one that we don’t know about. But the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have both faced long championship droughts — the Warriors for 40 years and the Cavs, well, ever — and some city is bound to be partying in the streets or setting fires to small businesses out of pure jubilation. (Please don’t set fires to small businesses out of pure jubilation.)
Not only is it going to be an epic series based on the teams playing, but also the matchups and depth. Golden State is filled with guys who can contribute and be an X-Factor. Cleveland has a roster that can counter everything Golden State has.
It’s going to be fun. Here are some things to watch in this series.
Everyone and their mother will guard LeBron James
Golden State gets attention for their offense, and rightfully so. They only have the best shooter on the planet as the MVP of the league. But the Warriors have held teams to 96.3 points per game during these playoffs, and have allowed more than 100 points only three times this postseason.
In short, the Warriors’ defense is stellar. But they’re taking on an entirely different animal in a Cleveland team with weapons galore, including the best player in the world.
Next to Kyrie Irving, no one needed that week off longer than LeBron. There’s a chance he’s dealing with two sprained ankles and some other leg problems. He needs to be at his best for the Cavs to have a shot, and putting the Atlanta Hawks away early was probably the best thing that could’ve happened, even though this long wait for the Finals was a joke.
The reason why Golden State’s defense is so terrific is because their wings are so long. Draymond Green will probably start and end with guarding LeBron (which may pave the way for Tristan Thompson to have a big series), but Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are also capable defenders. They won’t be able to contain LeBron, but may slow him down enough. Green has spent most of his time these playoffs at power forward, which means Cleveland can take advantage of Golden State’s small-ball lineup with their size.
There will be double and triple teams galore each time LeBron touches the ball. How Cleveland’s other players respond will be key in this series. The one time LeBron played against Golden State this year, he put up 42 points. Trust me: There will be double and triple teams.
Steph vs. Kyrie
This is going to be the matchup that ultimately determines who hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy. If Kyrie Irving isn’t even close to 100 percent, there’s no chance in the world Cleveland makes it to seven games.
Steve Kerr probably spent all week drawing up more plays to get Steph Curry open while moving without the ball. The Warriors are going to make Kyrie work this series. Fortunately for the Cavs, they have plenty of options to hopefully slow down Curry if Cleveland were to play zone. That would also risk the chance of leaving Klay Thompson open, however, which also sounds like a terrible idea.
But if Kyrie’s healthy, that changes everything for Cleveland on both sides of the floor. Not only would he be able to go step-for-step with Curry, but he can also make Steph work on defense. The reigning MVP leads the league in total steals, so he’s not a scrub defensively. But he also hasn’t played against a point guard like this in these playoffs. This will be the first big test for Steph, just as much as it will be for Kyrie.
Watch this matchup every chance you get.
Cleveland: Iman Shumpert
LeBron’s going to get his. J.R. Smith will get his 20 3-point attempts. If Kyrie Irving’s healthy, he’s going to get about 20 points a night.
But if Iman Shumpert can make a few shots and play the lockdown defense he’s known for, that’s going to be huge for Cleveland. The Cavs need the Shumpert that played big in the Chicago series, when he scored in double figures four out of the six games, and the one in Game 3 against Atlanta when he scored 15 big points and made four 3-pointers.
Shumpert is a capable scorer. He just doesn’t have to score on this team. But with the double teams LeBron will get, as well as Kyrie showing if he’s truly healthy or not, Shumpert may need to be called upon to make a few big shots. If he can, then Cleveland will not be stopped. The flood gates will have opened, and Lil’ B would have confessed his love for the city of Cleveland.
Golden State: Harrison Barnes
After Game 5 against Houston, this is a no-brainer.
You’re not a bust if you come up huge in big moments. Harrison Barnes may get the short-end of the stick sometimes, but when the playoffs start, he reminds everyone why he was a lottery pick for a reason. He may never score a bigger 24 points while he’s with the Warriors, but there are teams that are probably willing to pay him close to top dollar for his services.
Barnes isn’t shy of the big moment. When he’s called upon to make shots, he does it. There’s probably going to be another instance in this series where Barnes goes off like he did on May 27 in the clincher against the Rockets. If that’s the case, he needs to deliver for Golden State. Plus, he’ll instantly become the No. 2 option in the offense if Klay Thompson has another awful series like he did in the Western Conference Finals.
Who wins the coaching matchup of Steve Kerr vs. LeBron Ja … I mean, David Blatt?
LeBron James is judge, jury and executioner for the Cavs. Or, in basketball terms, he’s player, coach and general manager. But for the purposes of actual occupations, David Blatt needs to be in this conversation.
First thing’s first: David Blatt is a good coach. But until he shows otherwise that Game 4 against Chicago didn’t almost happen, he’s not that great of a coach. The same can be said for Steve Kerr: He came to Golden State with the roster already in tact, but also added a defensive identity to it.
We’re going to find out this series who the better coach is, literally and figuratively. Blatt can’t have any more screwups like he did TWICE in Game 4 against Chicago. Since that game, he hasn’t been put in a situation to show he can lead. When the playoffs began, I tweeted that Blatt may be the first coach ever to win a championship, then get fired the next year. It probably won’t happen, but if he shows any more lapses in these finals, it won’t be a far-fetched idea to consider.
Right now, Kerr has the edge in overall composure and ability to coach. He keeps his players calm and can communicate well with his team. Blatt hasn’t been put in such a position to keep his composure. In these first two games, in the loudest arena in basketball, he’ll need to make sure his team is composed.
So … Who wins?
Golden State has the look of a team that can do no wrong. If the Warriors get hot, which they are capable of doing, Cleveland may not have enough to contain them.
But I think Cleveland does have enough to contain them.
You can’t use finals experience as an excuse, but LeBron James is on the roster. He’s developed into the leader that he always wanted to be. After sweeping Atlanta, LeBron told reporters that Cleveland will play their asses off. I firmly believe that, because one Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs should not damper anything in regards to LeBron.
Golden State is a team built for the future, and their time will come, but not now. I’m sipping the Kool-Aid that LeBron is determined to bring Cleveland a championship, and that he will do everything in his power to make it so. Steph Curry will win a championship at some point (maybe next year). But it’s the Cavs’ time.
Cleveland wins in six games, the celebration inside Quicken Loans Arena is maddening, and LeBron wins his third title and third Finals MVP.