The Runner Sports

The Complete 2017 NBA Finals Preview

The NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers begin on Thursday. It was the finals we all predicted, and after playoffs full of blowouts, it’s finally here. These teams are meeting for the third year in a row, and the series is all tied up 1-1 now.

Golden State has amassed a super team by adding Kevin Durant in the offseason and they will be going up against the greatest player of our generation in LeBron James. Most experts are picking the Warriors to win the series easily in 4 or 5 games. As we learned last year, you can never count LeBron and co. out. This series has several different factors that will decide the outcome. Xs and Os, x-factors, star power, coaching, and pressure all will play its part. Legacies and dynasties are on the line.

LeBron James

LeBron James is averaging 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists on 56% shooting in this year’s playoffs. Outside of a random dud in Game 3 against Boston, he has been magnificent. To lead the Cavs to an upset, he will need to post these numbers if not more. He will also need to guard the second best player on earth in Kevin Durant.

Last year, James ignored Harrison Barnes, and he wasn’t able to make them pay for it. You obviously can’t do that against Kevin Durant. James may need to play the entire game in this series. If he rests, it won’t be more than 2-3 minutes. In the first three rounds, he has been resting on defense, often playing as a “free safety”, meaning he is not often guarding an individual player. He is playing the passing lanes, and quarterbacking the defense. That is easy to do against DeMarre Carroll, not the likes of these Warriors. James will have to guard Durant a lot in this series, and that may take a toll on his energy.

Cleveland will also throw Iman Shumpert at Richard Jefferson on Durant, but expect James to be on him in key situations. Everyone will be looking at James’ offense, but his defense on Durant and as a whole is critical in this series.

On the offensive end, James, of course, will have to be masterful. Expect Golden State to test his jumper, something they have done in the past two finals. LeBron is hitting 42% of his threes in these playoffs; if he can keep that up, Cleveland has a chance. However, LeBron has been known to be streaky from outside, and if his jumper is not falling, the Cavs have serious issues.

Don’t expect too many double teams from the Warriors; they are probably more scared of Cleveland’s shooters. Don’t be surprised to see the lineup of James, Kyle Korver, JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Deron Williams in heavy use. LeBron at the five surrounded by four shooters is lethal. The key will be if Korver and Williams can hold their own on the other end, but we will get into that more later.

Andre Iguodala will get the bulk of minutes guarding James, and he is one of the best at it. Expect Durant and Draymond Green to also spend time on James. Either way, expect James to get his, and keep Cleveland’s elite offense rolling, even against a lethal defense in Golden State. The main question in this series is if Cleveland can get enough stops.

Cleveland’s Defense and What to Watch For

Obviously, Cleveland’s defense was a disaster in the regular season due to laziness and complacency. They have been much improved in the playoffs improving their defensive efficiency from 108 points allowed per 100 possessions to 104 points allowed. Four points doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but it is. Their current defensive efficiency would have put them at 8th best in the league. Far better than their 22nd regular season ranking.

However, they are still prone to breakdowns, and any breakdown against the Warriors is lethal. For the starters, the players to watch are Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Love is a competitive defender and he’s smart, but still struggles to defend in space. Expect the Cavs to stick him on Zaza Pachulia to start, and possibly Iguodala when the Warriors go small. This will help, but the Warriors will still try to put Love in as many pick and rolls as possible. How Love holds up could be one of the biggest keys in the series.

Irving is also a suspect defender, although his effort has been much improved in the playoffs. Last year his defense was his offense. He attacked Stephen Curry relentlessly, which hurt Curry on the other end. No doubt he will try to do the same this year, but Curry is healthier and the Warriors are more prepared for this. Irving will have to defend, and Curry is playing the best basketball of his career right now. Kyrie’s ability to limit Curry’s deadly pull-up threes is critical.

Cleveland will mix it up, they will switch, putting Tristan Thompson on Curry at times, they will trap at times, and ideally, they will force Curry to hit midrange jumpers. For the role players, the players to watch are Korver and Williams. Cleveland needs both on offense, but hiding them on defense can be tricky. Expect Williams to guard Shaun Livingston. Korver is trickier, especially if they decide to put Love on Iggy when Golden State goes small. Korver’s only safe spot may be Iggy and Livingston.

Shumpert is Cleveland’s best bench defender, but Golden State will dare him to make shots and he needs to hit them in order to play huge minutes. Jefferson may also get some more burn than he has recently in the playoffs. A tough veteran, and a versatile defender, who as mentioned, will get time on Durant. How Cleveland manages its rotations will be very interesting to see.

Golden State’s Role Players

The trio of Zaza Pachulia, Javale Mcgee, and David West has been solid all year long. In this year’s finals, you can expect a quick hook for Zaza as a starter if he struggles on switches and protecting the rim. On the other end, as mentioned, Cleveland will put Love on him, and give him drives and midrange jumpers. Any offense he gives Golden State is gravy. Mcgee may get limited minutes in this series, due to his poor pick and roll defense, and limited offense. The majority of the center minutes may go to David West, due to his passing and toughness.

I think Golden State goes small more and unleashes the death lineup with Iguodala earlier. Iggy’s defense on LeBron and his passing are critical. Iguodala is still suffering from knee soreness and if it gets worse, that’s bad news for the Warriors. Cleveland will dare him to make shots, and he’s shooting a horrible 11% from three these playoffs.

Shaun Livingston had 20 points in Game 1 of last year’s finals. His versatility on defense is key to the Warriors, especially when they decide to switch everything. If he can give them something on offense, especially in the post, Cleveland is in trouble. Ian Clark, who has been the bench hero for the Warriors in this year’s playoffs, may also be in for limited minutes due to his defense. If he does play, expect the Warriors to put him on Shumpert.

Matchups

Expect Klay Thompson to start on Irving. Last year, Curry has trouble with Irving, especially when LeBron was the screener. A bigger defender will help, and the Warriors will put Curry on JR Smith. Smith needs to hit a few threes per game in this series, because they will be there. Tristan Thompson will be on Draymond Green. Expect him to concede Green threes, even though he has been hitting them. If Green continues to hit threes at a 40% rate, it’s over for the Cavs.

As mentioned, Love will probably be on Zaza to start. On the other end, expect the Warriors to go straight up in the frontcourt with Green on Love and Zaza on Thompson. Love needs to do some damage in the post and try to get Green in foul trouble. Thompson needs to crash the glass and give Cleveland some extra possessions.

Cleveland is a slightly better rebounding team, and will no doubt need to win the battle of the boards. They must also win is the turnover battle. If Golden State has a weakness, it’s turnovers. Cleveland usually likes to play at a slower pace, but they need to make Golden State pay on live ball turnovers, so don’t be surprised if they run a little more.

Final Thoughts

Much has been made about James’ great head to head record over Durant. That doesn’t mean Durant hasn’t gotten buckets on LeBron before. Expect Durant to be aggressive early, I don’t think he is afraid of LeBron anymore. We may even see some more Curry/Durant pick and roll.

Steve Kerr will most likely not coach Game 1, and may not coach at all in this series. I don’t think it will matter, this is a veteran team, and Mike Brown is a veteran coach. Kerr will still be around the team a lot.

We have not addressed Klay Thompson’s shooting slump. He is only averaging 14 points on 38% shooting. No one is sure what brought about this slump, and it hasn’t mattered yet. It will matter in the finals, and the Warriors simply need more from him. Golden State may even post him up some on JR, and run a few more plays for him to get going.

Prediction

Warriors in 6! Expect more close games than last year, and LeBron is simply too good to get waxed by Golden State. However, the Warriors are the superior team. Cleveland needed a banged up Curry, a Draymond suspension, a Bogut injury, an Iggy injury, and a historically awful performance by Harrison Barnes to win last year’s finals. All of these things won’t happen again and Harrison Barnes is now replaced with Kevin Durant.

Steph Curry is healthy and will bounce back after an awful finals last year. Cleveland’s immense firepower will keep them close, but they simply don’t have enough high-quality defenders to win. That being said, these teams know each other well, and each will give us a surprise, which should make for a competitive series.

Golden State is deeper, more talented (although it’s close), and better on defense, which is why they will win this series.

Evan Dyal

Evan Dyal

Charlotte Hornets Writer at The Runner Sports
Evan Dyal