Yesterday, TCC all-timer Mike Calo wrote on how he thinks this year is the year that Cleveland finally wins its first championship since 1964. The city of Cleveland, with three major professional sports teams, has not won a title since the Cleveland Browns (original version) won the 1964 NFL title – not the Super Bowl, though, that didn’t come into existence until 1967. The Cleveland Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948 and, of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers have never won the NBA title. The only sadder sports cities are Ottawa, which only has the Senators NHL team and hasn’t won anything since 1927, and San Diego, which won the 1963 NFL title, but has never seen a World Series, or indeed an NBA title – though it currently has no NBA team. Of course, it’s San Diego. They have a lot more going for them there in southern California than other parts of North America.
The Cavaliers, after starting the season slowly (7-6 in November, 10-7 in December) ended up with the second overall seed in the Eastern Conference, unable to catch the high-flying Hawks who ended up 60-22, but easily disposing of them in the Eastern finals and giving themselves a much needed week off before the NBA Finals kicks off in Oakland tomorrow.
There they will meet the even-higher-flying Golden State Warriors, who just reeled off an all-time great regular season, their 67-15 record only five games short of the mighty 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls. Among those losses were a three point loss to New Orleans in April, a two point loss to Brooklyn in March, a two point OT loss to Chicago in January (one of only two home losses all season), a six point loss to Indiana in February, and a three point loss to San Antonio in November (the other home loss). Basically, the Warriors were about ten plays away from a 72-10 record. They never lost more than three games in any given month. To lose the NBA finals, the Warriors would have to four games in a single month for the first time this season.
In The Playoffs, the Warriors have not had a particularly tough time of it, their toughest series being the Conference Semi-Finals against Memphis. They disposed of the Houston Rockets in the in the Conference Finals 4-1 and had a bit of breathing room even then, though Klay Thompson’s concussion will concern them, particularly if he isn’t on point for game one tomorrow.
Now, one of their losses was to Cleveland in Ohio. LeBron had 42 and 11 in a game where David Lee, who barely even gets off the bench for this Warriors team, led the team in scoring with 19. The other meeting between the teams this season saw the Warriors win, in Oakland, 112-94. Thing was, LeBron didn’t play. Not did Iman Shumpert, but equally, Andrew Bogut started on the bench, his starting spot taken by Mareese Speights. So perhaps that game isn’t a fantastic indicator of how the Finals series might work out.
So, how might the 2015 NBA Finals play out?
Well, the Warriors have one major question: how do you stop LeBron? Put simply, you can’t. You can, however, contain him as the San Antonio Spurs were reasonably effective in doing last season. Even, despite their ultimate defeat, the season before the Spurs found different ways to limit LeBron’s effectiveness. At times. At the moment, there is a mind-blowingly obvious way to stop him as well: make him shoot long jumpers. He is, this postseason, shooting 17.6% from three, a career low and on pace for one of the worst playoff three point shooting performances ever. One might expect a regression to the mean, though: LeBron was 40% from three in the playoffs last season and shot 35% from the arc this regular season. That’s twice as good as his long range shooting is at the moment. From distance, LeBron was 37% from 16 feet to the three point line this season, 35% between 10 and 16 feet, 41% from 3 to 10 feet and a consistently high 72% from inside three feet. Even in the playoffs, he is shooting 32% on long two pointers. Just that extra couple of feet’s worth of distance sees his percentage plummet.
Expect Harrison Barnes and Andre Igoudala, likely to be the first two men up in the battle to contain LeBron, to stand quite far off him when he catches the ball outside the three point line, or brings it up the floor. They will know you can’t let him get a head of steam up when attacking the basket. He’s unstoppable then. Equally, you don’t want to just give anyone a wide open shot at this stage in the season, but Barnes and Igoudala should be able to contest LeBron’s jump shots.
So, if the Warriors manage to contain LeBron, no easy task, they then have to consider Kyrie Irving. Kyrie remains a bit of an x-factor given the injuries he has struggled with these past few weeks. Irving played a career high 75 games this season, but tendinitis has limited him, particularly in the Eastern Finals. Offensively, Kyrie is tough and has still managed to compete despite these injuries, but one would expect the Warriors, the best defensive team in the NBA this season, to be able to find a way to limit Kyrie enough. Conversely, there is a major question mark over how effective Irving can be on the defensive end.
Offensively, there is no question that the Warriors will continue to rely on their studs Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry is unguardable in a completely different way to LeBron. Watching Curry play basketball in the NBA is akin to watching a pretty competent shooter getting a few leisurely shots up in an empty gym. Except he’s playing in actual NBA games. Curry weaves through defenses without a care in the world, stopping on a dime to nail a jump shot of more or less any distance he fancies. The task facing LeBron James or Iman Shumpert, most likely the latter, is great. Nobody has really found a way to limit Curry this season and the Cavaliers, though effective at limiting the jump shooters of the Atlanta Hawks, have hardly faced such a talent. They could always just have Matthew Dellavedova plunge through his ankles, which was one way of limiting Kyle Korver’s effectiveness in the last round…
Klay Thompson brings a slightly more streaky shooting game to the finals, but has the size and speed to attack the rim. Who Cleveland assign to Thompson could decide this series. Can JR Smith, never known for his defensive intensity, or his defensive smarts, be the man to limit Klay? The problem with Smith has always been consistency throughout an entire game. On any individual play, JR Smith can look like the best player in the world, but the issue is four plays later when his man cuts backdoor on him for a wide-open dunk. Or, more damagingly in this series, a wide open three. Shumpert could slide over to guard Thompson, but that then leaves Curry being guarded by either LeBron or a less effective defender. LeBron chasing Curry around the court for an entire series cannot be a good thing for the Cavaliers who heavily rely on the best player in the game.
One of the more interesting secondary battles will be between Draymond Green and Tristan Thompson. Thompson has been an absolute beast on the offensive glass (the Cavs claim nearly 30% of their own misses in the form of offensive boards), but Green will challenge Thompson defensively with his tendencies to leak out and lead the break. If Thompson gets caught under the basket with the Warriors in possession, the Cavs will have to react and adapt very quickly to prevent the Warriors literally running away with the game. Inside, the battle between Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mosgov is hardly all that intriguing, but the two have significant responsibilities as help defenders – particularly Bogut, if the Warriors are to limit LeBron’s effectiveness attacking the rim.
Although I am picking the Warriors to win the NBA Finals in six, I do add the caveat that if the Cavaliers can win the battle of the boards, particularly the offensive glass, that they will have a chance to take this. Therefore, a lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of Tristan Thompson. If he comes up big then the basketball fans of Northeast Ohio might indeed finally have something to celebrate.
Prediction: Warriors in six.