Three Keys to the 2015 NBA Finals

Javier Cortez, Contributor

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The 2015 NBA Finals are upon us and it brings into focus the league’s best player in LeBron James and the league’s best team in the Golden State Warriors. This small market vs small market matchup has had more than a week of hype, but now the talking is over and the playing will finally begin.

Over the course of the next 1,500 words or so I have put together three keys for each team respectively that will play an important role in this year’s NBA Finals, starting with Cavs and finishing with the Warriors.

 

First Key: LeBron must post up

LeBron has always been known to be a streaky shooter, but in these playoffs “The King” has posted some of his worst shooting numbers since his 2008 playoff run with the Cavs. In contrast to LeBron’s last year in Miami, where he scorched defenses from nearly everywhere on the court, James has struggled mightily everywhere else besides finishing at the rim.

In the 2014 playoffs, LeBron shot close to 64 percent 3-to-10 feet from the basket, this year he’s plummeted to 37.5 percent, which is coupled with a career low 3-point field goal percentage of 17.6 percent. It’s safe to say LeBron needs to concentrate his game from 16-feet in, and stop bailing defenses out with the 3-pointers and long two’s.

When LeBron plays in the post he’s not only the best at his position, he’s one of the best in the league. In the playoffs he ranks sixth in points per possession [PPP] and third in field goal percentage, in a minimum of 20 possessions and a minimum post up frequency of 15 percent.

Golden State has plenty of good defenders on the wing that will all get time guarding LeBron, but none of them can stop him. Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes are simply too small when LeBron gets position in the post. That only leaves Draymond Green, who is one of the more versatile defenders in the league. Green can match LeBron’s strength, but is too slow to stop LeBron from getting to the rim.

 

Second Key: No Kyrie, No Ring

If Kyrie Irving is not healthy enough to break down a defense and finish at the rim the Cavs will not have enough to get past the Warriors, it’s that simple.

When healthy, Irving is just as good as any point guard in the league when it comes to scoring.

From an offensive standpoint Irving is essentially Allen Iverson with range. Not only can he break down a defense and finish at the rim as well as anyone who has ever played listed under 6-feet, 5-inches, he can also bury teams from the outside. Whether it’s off the dribble or coming off screens, Irving can fill it up from beyond the arc.

If he’s not healthy, then Irving is just another floor spacer that will spot up for LeBron. More importantly he will become a defensive liability and in this series you cannot hide him.

If you cross match by putting Iman Shumpert on Curry and Irving on Thompson the advantage goes to Golden State. Even if Irving guards Barnes it’s an advantage for the Warriors. Barnes has a size advantage, he can post up and he’s explosive going to the rim.

Third Key: Cavs must space the floor

The Cavs offense has been terribly simple over the past month.

In a nutshell, the Cavs put LeBron in an isolation play, which commands a double team nearly every time, which leads to a wide open three for Cleveland. It has been highly efficient although it’s extremely predictable from a bird’s eye view.

Throughout the whole postseason the Cavs have been bludgeoning their opponents with the 3-pointers. The Cavs are only behind the Rockets and Warriors in 3-pointers made this postseason, but they are first in offensive efficiency despite the lack of efficiency by their best player.

With LeBron being the Cavs designated power forward for most of the playoffs, Cleveland has mastered the art of spotting up when LeBron passes out of the double team. Chicago and Atlanta both paid the price of the Cavs’ spacing, but they will probably need a lot more than that against the most versatile defensive team in the league.

The Warriors lucked out with Kevin Love’s shoulder injury, because Love was ultimately the key to the Cavs spacing success.

Although Kevin Love’s usage in Cleveland’s offense during the regular season at times was a disaster and a crime, by the end of the season things were starting to gel and it showed in the Cavs first round series against the Celtics.

Having Kevin Love simply being a floor spacing big man who only shoots 3-pointers, is like having Ariana Grande sing back up in a pop band.

Nevertheless, the Cavs will have to downsize and hope that the Warriors double LeBron in the post, so Shumpert, Smith, Irving, and the rest of the Cavs get wide-open shots. Which leads me to my first key for the Warriors.

 

First Key: Do not double LeBron

LeBron getting double teamed in the post is what makes the Cavs offense go at this point. Not only are the Warriors equipped to throw different guys on LeBron throughout the whole series, they can also wear him down when it’s his turn to play defense.

Kyrie can’t penetrate defenses and Kevin Love is not playing, so after those two the scoring possibilities are a significant downgrade.

J.R. Smith can get his shot off, but he lives off shooting terrible shots and he can go dry at any point in the game. Iman Shumpert has a nice crossover that he can combine with a nice mid-range jumper, but he’s not good enough to consistently get his shot off against a Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala.

That only leaves LeBron James, who can get any shot he wants. This leaves the Warriors at an easy dilemma, they can’t stop LeBron but they are better off letting him score at will. Unless you have dementia, you remember last year’s NBA Finals when the Spurs gave LeBron any shot he wanted.

In five games against the Spurs last year, LeBron shot 57 percent from the field, 51 percent from the 3-point line, while averaging 28 points per game. Still, the Spurs demolished the Heat in one of the most lopsided NBA Finals and they did not double team.

LeBron can get to the rim whenever he wants, but he has a history of bailing defenses out with mowing down the shot clock and taking long two-point shots. He did it almost exclusively against the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, regardless of the Hawks help defensively.

There is no reason for the Warriors to double-team LeBron. Make LeBron try to beat you, especially when he is going through one of the worst shooting slumps of his postseason career.

 

Second Key: Warriors versatility trumps Cavs simplicity

With all the injuries Cleveland has sustained over the past month, they have simplified their offense and played through LeBron James to a nauseating degree. LeBron’s usage percentage is 36.4, which ties his playoff career high which he set in his 2009 playoff run with the Cavs.

Not only does he lead the playoffs in usage percentage, he also leads in isolation frequency, which charts one-on-one plays. When the Cavs ball movement goes dry and they start settling for isolations with LeBron and Kyrie Irving or high pick-and-rolls it plays into Golden State’s hands.

The Warriors have a plethora of more than capable defenders and they have no problem switching on the pick-and-roll, which is why they are one of the best defenses in the league.

If and when the Cavs run a high pick-and-roll with LeBron and Tristan Thompson, the Warriors can switch with Draymond Green.

LeBron can beat Green to the basket any day of the week, but that’s what help defense is for. If Green can shade LeBron to his right, or shade him towards Andrew Bogut, LeBron might settle for a long two or a 3-pointer, which he has done plenty of this post season.

The Cavs were poised to have one of the most versatile and efficient offenses in the league this season, David Blatt’s motion offense that saw him dominate Europe has not made an appearance since the preseason. Instead of having a Princeton-esque all-encompassing offense, the Cavs can go dry when the ball stops moving.

And that’s the main problem for Cleveland, they run way too many isolations plays and they milk the crap out of the high pick-and-roll.

Against good defensive teams like the Warriors, the Cavs simplistic offense will crack.

 

Third Key: Golden State matches up well against Cavs reinvigorated D’

After a long regular season that saw the Cavs defense go through so many changes, they have finally made their mark as an upper-echelon defensive team in the playoffs. Ironically the Cavs improvement on defense came from their injuries.

Tristan Thompson replaced Kevin Love and the Cavs rim protection got better. Matthew Dellavedova’s minutes increased as Kyrie’s tendinitis in his left knee has worsened and the Cavs perimeter defense improved.

With that being said, the Cavs have also gotten favorable matchups on defense throughout the playoffs.

When Irving went down and played hurt the Cavs hid him on defense. To preserve him late in games LeBron got favorable matchups guarding Mike Dunleavy in the Bulls series and DeMarre Carroll in the Hawks series.

The Warriors are not a favorable matchup for the Cavs.

Depending on how the Cavs defend the Warriors’ pick-and-roll, whether it be having their big men come out and show or switching, the Warriors will always have the advantage.

Draymond Green spacing the floor takes Tristan Thompson away from the basket, so Cleveland playing Mozgov and Thompson together does not bode well. Even when the Cavs go small with LeBron at the power forward position, the Warriors can still matchup.

 

Put your money on the Warriors

If you watch a lot of ESPN it’s hard not to be romanticized by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But do not bet against the Golden State Warriors. They’ve had the best team all year offensively and defensively. They’ve had eye-popping stats all year that historically have led to an NBA Championship.

Ex: they were in the top two in offensive and defensive efficiency and their point differential of 10.1 is in the top 10 all-time.

More importantly though, Golden State is too deep.

They play nine guys every game, and 2-time All-Star David Lee, who averaged a shade under 19 points and 10 rebounds last year rides the bench. They can play big and beat Cleveland, but they can also play small and beat Cleveland.

When Kevin Love went down, the Cavs had no choice but to play small and for the most part it has worked for them. The Warriors majored in small ball all season long though. Draymond Green has been far down the list on credit that has been given to the Warriors, but besides Stephen Curry, he has been the most important player to the team.

So with all this being said the Warriors will bring a championship back to Golden State for the first time since 1975. Stephen Curry will be the MVP as the Cavs go down in five closely contested games.

 

Javier Cortez may be reached at [email protected]

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