After a seven game war between Golden State and Oklahoma City, we finally have the matchup that everyone predicted at the beginning of the year. The Golden State Warriors will host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. The teams got here by incredibly different paths. You know, the smartest decision LeBron has made in his career was never playing for a Western Conference team. He's been able to dominate the Eastern Conference for the vast majority of his career, only facing real competition from the Big Three Celtics of the late 2000's. If I was Kevin Durant, especially after this hellish series, I would be taking a long look at some of the Eastern Conference squads as a new place to call home.
When you look at the disparity of talent between the conferences you could almost make the argument that whichever team makes it out of the West should be allotted an automatic win in the Finals, at least until they eliminate conferences for playoff purposes. I'm kidding here, but not entirely. When you look at the teams that Cleveland had to play to get to this point, let's just take Toronto as an example, it's clear that they have a huge advantage over the top teams in the West. The Raptors have two very good players in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but they would not be a top two player on six of the eight teams that made the playoffs in the Western Conference. Would you rather have those two than Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, or Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? I wouldn't. I won't even get into how much better the Warriors, Thunder and Spurs are compared to teams in the Eastern Conference.
I want to make this clear, I'm not trying to diminish how impressive it is that LeBron James has made six NBA Finals appearances in a row. That is one of the most impressive feats I've seen in professional sports, but even James would have to admit that such a feat would not have been remotely possible playing in the West. Just look at the series we just watched. Both the Warriors and Thunder were playing historically great basketball. It took one of the most impressive three point binges of all time to eliminate OKC, and last night most of 17 threes that Golden State hit were contested shots that literally only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or maybe Damian Lillard would even think about shooting.
Meanwhile the Cavs have been lying in wait. I like to imagine LeBron James chilling on a beach somewhere sipping pina coladas and watching the Western Conference Finals on his iPad. He knows what's coming, last year James carried an undermanned Cavs squad to a couple of improbable wins over the would-be champs. Now he has the team he constructed, led by the coach he handpicked, ready to take on a team that just scraped and clawed their way back from a 3-1 deficit against the most physical team in the league.
That said, I don't think the Cavs are ready for what is coming. They have not had to deal with even a fraction of the adversity that the champs have been through in these playoffs. There have only been a couple of moments in which Cleveland has been caught off guard by an opponent in the playoffs and when that has happened Ty Lue has not seemed to have quick answers. What happens when the Warriors go small against a lineup including Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, how do you hide their defensive deficiencies? A major reason the Thunder were able to push the Warriors to the brink was that they had the size and athleticism to counter the champs small lineup, especially against Draymond Green.
Golden State has the right answers for Cleveland, they have Andre Iguodala, who just proved once again that he is one of the league's premier defenders against Kevin Durant. LeBron James no doubt remembers what happened when the two matched up against each other last year, when Iggy won Finals MVP mostly for his otherworldly defense against the King. Klay Thompson just spent half of a series defending Russell Westbrook, it’s safe to say that he is ready to take on the challenge of Kyrie Irving. Draymond Green is going to love not having to deal with Steven Adams anymore. For as talented as Kevin Love is, he has not shown the ability to dominate in the post this year, and Green will be ready to take on a different kind of challenge, whether it be from Love or Tristan Thompson.
The Warriors will not have to make any lineup adjustments to defend the Cavaliers, but Cleveland is going to have to twist itself into a pretzel to defend Golden State. There is no way that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving can defend the Steph/Draymond pick and roll. The Raptors abused the two Cavs stars in the pick game in their series and they were doing it with Bismack Byombo, a one dimensional player who is not nearly as dangerous of a shooter or passer as Green. There are going to be times in this series when Lue is going to have to pull one or two of his stars just to be able to properly defend Golden State’s offense, and it’s going to cause a lot of friction within the team. Are we going to see Matthew Dellavedova play big minutes with the starting team and Kyrie Irving coming off the bench where he can be more effective as a scorer and not have to agonize over trying to defend Steph or Klay? It seems like a smart move, but I’m not sure Coach Lue has the kind of sway to be able to make that decision.
I was a huge fan of how the Cavaliers played with their rotations in such a way that LeBron would start every second and fourth quarter playing with four bench players. These lineups were among the best in league during the playoffs, and with shooters like Richard Jefferson, Delly and Channing Frye around the perimeter you can see why. This is a lineup that makes it really hard on an opposing team’s bench to effectively guard LeBron one-on-one without giving up wide open threes. Just look at the Cavs three point binge against the Hawks if you need proof of how nasty this lineup can be. The problem that Cleveland is going to face here is that the league’s best answer to guarding James just so happens to come off of Golden State’s bench. If the Warriors decide to play Thompson and Iggy together in the second unit I don’t see the Cavs getting the same kind of scoring boost they have gotten in past series with their reserves. I also don’t see guys like Shaun Livingston and Mo Speights playing as poorly as they did against the Thunder.
You guys can probably see where I’m going with all of this. We’ve been waiting all year to for this rematch, and now here we are. But part of me feels like the Finals already happened. The two best teams in the league just played each other and the Warriors came out on top. Now we have a matchup with a lot of star power but nearly as competitive a pairing as the one we just got to enjoy. That’s not to say that the Cavs are helpless in this series. They have built a team as capable as the Warriors of blowing their opponent out of the water with three point shooting. They are a talented, well rested squad who have been waiting for a year to get their hands on Steph Curry and Co. Also, Cleveland has LeBron James, and that counts for a lot.
We’ll see how much Golden State has left in the tank in Game One. The Thunder may have lost the series, but they took a good piece of the Warriors with them on their way out. If I’m LeBron James I throw everything I have into Game One and hope for the best. Will it be enough to send the champs reeling? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that once the Warriors find their groove in this series there will not be a whole lot that the Cavs will be able to do to answer. The Thunder were a worthy adversary to the champs, they played a style that directly countered a lot of what Golden State tries to do. Cleveland has built a team in the image of the Warriors, but the parts do not fit together nearly as well. They have a team that can hit a multitude of threes or defend really well, but they can’t do both at the same time. Golden State can do what Cleveland can not, and I think they will expose the Cavs for being an incomplete team in time. Perhaps five years ago the greatness of LeBron James would be enough to overcome any deficiencies the Cavs have, but this is 2016 and the best player in the series resides in Golden State.
LeBron has spent years trying to calculate the easiest way to win titles, and I really respect his foresight in doing so, but no one in the league has been able to solve the equation of stopping Steph Curry and the Warriors. If winning the Eastern Conference was passing Algebra 1, beating the 73 win defending champs is taking the Calculus Final. I hope the Cavs have used all that free time they’ve had lately to start cramming.