Our exceptionally long wait is over. After lengthy layoffs following short conference finals, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will get back work on Thursday night in Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif. The question facing us: Which participants in this championship bout will matter most in the series ahead?
In the interest of providing guidance to BDL’s readership in a trying time, I submit to a trusting public a new installment of Dan Devine’s Inarguable Power Rankings, identifying which items in a group of things are most powerful. In this episode: Dan Devine’s Inarguable Who Matters Most in the 2017 NBA Finals Power Rankings.
Let’s dig in and weigh in. And please remember, as always, that the list is the list.
32. Edy Tavares. The Cavs signed the 7-foot-3 former Atlanta Hawks center off the Toronto Raptors’ D-League team in April. He made one regular-season appearance, broke his right hand in a scrimmage during the Cavs’ long waiting period between the second and third rounds, and is out for the rest of the playoffs. Enjoy the front-row seat, Edy.
31. Kevon Looney. The 2016 first-round pick hasn’t played since April 4, and missing the last seven weeks with a left hip strain after being limited to just five games as a rookie due to a pair of hip surgeries. He’s reportedly healthy, but if he wasn’t a viable option in February and March, it’s pretty unlikely he’ll be one in June.
30. Kay Felder. On one hand, it’d be neat to see the athletic 5-foot-9 second-round pick out of Oakland (no, not that Oakland) get a chance to show out. On the other, he’s seen the floor just seven times since the All-Star break as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has rolled with veteran Deron Williams as his second-unit point guard. If Felder’s on the floor over the next few weeks, that means D-Will can’t go, which would be bad news for a Cleveland squad that’ll already be asking for near-complete games from its top two ball-handlers.
29. Damian Jones. The Warriors’ rookie center has seen 21 minutes of postseason mop-up duty in fourth quarters in which Golden State’s been up by a million points. In theory, you could see Mike Brown (or Steve Kerr, if he’s able to get back on the bench) reach deep into the rotation for the Vanderbilt product should the Warriors need a big healthy body to keep Tristan Thompson off the boards. In practice, there are at minimum six other Warriors in front of Jones for that gig.
28. James Jones. LeBron’s longest-tenured teammate hasn’t gotten much burn over the last two years, and at age 36, he’s a dicey defensive option against a team with so much speed, quickness and athleticism on the wing. If Lue desperately needs a designated hitter for a short stretch, though, it wouldn’t a complete stunner to see him turn to Jones, who got spot minutes in five Finals games last season and who’s gone 31-for-68 (45.6 percent) from 3-point range in his 14th season.
27. Dahntay Jones. I, for one, can’t believe that Dahntay Jones is one slot higher on the DDIPR this year than he was last June. But you just can’t discount the disruptive potential of a player who, after being signed just before the end of the regular season two years running, has shown zero compunction about getting exceedingly physical in the postseason. Especially when the other team includes an opponent with whom he’s got history …
… and whom the Cavs might (and, frankly, should) be looking to frustrate once again.
26. Derrick Williams. It seems unlikely the former Arizona star will ever live up to the high hopes that attended his selection with the No. 2 pick in the 2011 NBA draft. But after disappointing in Minnesota, Williams reinvigorated his career as an energy-and-athleticism reserve. The 26-year-old has been stuck at the end of Cleveland’s bench for the bulk of this Finals run, but the 6-foot-8 combo forward could see some spot-minutes action in a series that seems destined to get and stay small.
25. James Michael McAdoo. McAdoo had seen a grand total of two minutes and 35 seconds of playing time in the month heading into the 2016 Finals, only to find himself pressed into action midway through the Finals as Kerr looked for more athletic frontcourt options to match up with a Cleveland team forced into small-ball due to Love’s concussion. He was effective in a short stint in Game 4 but less so in Games 5 and 6, as LeBron took advantage of his inexperience on the defensive end, before sitting out all of Game 7. If all goes according to plan for the Dubs, the 6-foot-9 McAdoo is superfluous; should things go Bogut’s-hurt-and-Draymond’s-suspended-level haywire again, though, we could see him as a small-ball five again.
24. Matt Barnes. The Warriors brought back the “We Believe”-era wing as a stopgap replacement after Kevin Durant went down with a sprained medial collateral ligament and tibial bone bruise in his left knee in late February. The 37-year-old acquitted himself about as well on the court as he has over the past several years — solid supplementary playmaking helping mitigate below-average shooting, pitching in on the defensive glass while often looking a step or two slow guarding on the perimeter — before largely receding from view once Durant came back. It never hurts to have more veteran swingmen with plenty of experience, but after logging just 52 postseason minutes, it’s likely Barnes’ biggest contribution to the Warriors’ postseason story has already happened.
23. Channing Frye. Heading into last year’s Finals, I expected Frye to play a pivotal role for the Cavs, ranking him ninth in the 2016 DDIPR after he’d been shot a scorching 62.1 percent from the floor and 57.8 percent from 3-point range. But while the veteran big man’s shooting was key to unlocking some of Cleveland’s most potent five-out lineups to that point, the Warriors’ ability to target him on the defensive end with their own brand of small-ball wound up leading Lue to park Frye on the bench for Games 5, 6 and 7. That trend has continued this postseason.
Frye was dynamite in the first two rounds, roasting Indiana and Toronto to the tune of 8.8 points in 14.3 minutes per game on 60 percent shooting, including a 55.2 percent mark from long distance. Against the Celtics in the Eastern finals, though, Lue chose to use Love at center to start the second and fourth quarters, put Frye in mothballs. The Cavs will need a ton of minutes from Tristan Thompson, LeBron and Love, limiting the four-five minutes that need to be plugged up off the bench. Frye’s shortcomings as a rim protector and space defender make me think Lue will keep opting for smaller solutions unless he absolutely can’t live without Frye’s floor-spacing.
22. Ian Clark. The fourth-year man earned a bigger role this year as Golden State’s fourth guard, playing more than twice as many minutes as he did last season while slotting in alongside Shaun Livingston as the Warriors’ primary backcourt reserves. He’s fared well this postseason, canning 60 percent of his tries inside the arc and 40 percent of his triples as a second-unit finisher who allows the Dubs to continue pouring in points when their top guns hit the bench. He could be a factor if Golden State’s offense bogs down and the Warriors need an extra floor spacer, but he hasn’t gotten much tick against the Cavs over the past two seasons, due in large part to the defensive problems he poses as a 6-foot-3 guard who can struggle chasing shooters around screens.
21. Richard Jefferson. Thirteen years after his last appearance in the Finals, Jefferson became vital for the Cavs last spring. First, he served as a key piece in the killer small-ball lineup — Frye, LeBron, Jefferson, Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova — that absolutely torched Cleveland’s Eastern playoff opposition. Then, when Love was sidelined by a concussion in Game 2, Jefferson stepped up in a big way, averaging 6.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 26 minutes per game over the last six games of the Finals while shooting 53.6 percent from the field and hustling on both ends of the floor.
After his energy helped tilt the series back in the Cavs’ favor, he announced he’d be retiring on top. Two days later, he said to hell with that, came back for one more year, and played more minutes nearly as productively at age 36. Jefferson has seen his minutes come and go this postseason as Lue has leaned harder on Shumpert and midseason acquisitions Deron Williams and Kyle Korver on the perimeter. If the Cavs need an injection of toughness, spacing and smarts, though, don’t be surprised if Lue calls RJ’s number in a big spot.
20. Patrick McCaw. It feels kind of odd to be slotting a second-round rookie this high in the rankings, but it’s been clear since the start of the season that McCaw — a 6-foot-7 swizzle-stick out of UNLV — had earned the trust of the Warriors’ coaching staff with his defensive aptitude and feel for the game.
The 38th overall pick has averaged 15 minutes per game this season as Andre Iguodala’s understudy on the wing, earning praise for his combination of energy, shooting, length and quickness. Golden State’s coaches have shown enough confidence in his defensive chops this season to throw him into the fire on a wide array of assignments and trusted him to contribute. So far, so good: he’s shooting 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point land, moving the ball on offense and holding his own on the other end. Ideally, Golden State’s veteran wings will handle the heavy lifting, but the Warriors won’t hesitate to call on the 21-year-old in a pinch.
19 (tie). Shaun Livingston and Deron Williams. There is — or, at least, I’d like to believe there is — an alternate reality in which things shook out differently, and these two top-five picks from the 2004 and 2005 NBA drafts wound up as oddball All-Star sparring partners and styles-make-fights postseason rivals. Alas, we take what we can get, and having two of the smarter and more decorated backup point guards in the league (and former Brooklyn Nets teammates!) working opposite sides of the street in the Finals is pretty decent, all things considered.
Livingston was huge in the first two games of the 2016 Finals before slumping over the final five, averaging 6.2 points per contest on 38.7 percent shooting after Game 2. The Cavs outscored the Warriors by 19 points in Livingston’s 97 minutes over the balance of the series, taking advantage of his status as a non-3-point threat by using him as a defensive hiding spot for weaker individual defenders like Love and Kyrie Irving.
He’s been more effective from the floor this postseason than he was heading into last year’s Finals, shooting 61.3 percent from the field, but he’s only taken 3.4 shots per game, and has only 14 assists against nine turnovers in nine playoff appearances. The Warriors would benefit greatly from getting his smarts, length, playmaking skill and defensive versatility on the floor for longer stretches this postseason, but in order for that rotation choice to be worth Brown/Kerr’s while, he’s got to be active enough to make Cleveland pay for treating him like a non-factor.
Williams has been just what the doctor ordered when LeBron made it clear he believed the Cavs needed another “f—— playmaker.” The former All-Star has played a more circumscribed game since coming over from Dallas, but he’s been effective, averaging better than two assists for every turnover, limiting mistakes and knocking down open looks.
He’s been a steady hand as a backup point guard and a solid spot-up option as a shooter playing off the ball alongside LeBron in small-ball lineups that have blitzed the opposition, while holding up well enough defensively. Williams has played his best in closeout games, scoring 14 points on four shots to eliminate Indiana, chipping in five points, four dimes and two steals in the clincher in Toronto, and adding 14 more on six shots in Game 5 in Boston.
Neither Livingston nor Williams will be counted on to play a major role, but both are capable of providing the kind of jolt that can help their stars lock down a win. Either could help tilt a game, or more, in a hard-fought series.
17 (tie). Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee. Each of the Warriors’ centers brings a different flavor of game to the table. Pachulia’s slow and can’t jump over six stacked sheets of looseleaf, but he offers rebounding, two-way physicality and nimbler-than-you’d expect interior playmaking. West’s a tough and smart paint defender who’s been a tremendous hub of offense from the high-post and a strong midrange-shooting release valve. McGee’s been one of the league’s best redemption stories, giving Golden State a vertical weapon to exploit the defensive attention demanded by all their shooters and a hard-charging shot-contester who never stops running the floor.
Collectively, they will need to find a way to help Green and Durant slow down Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love enough to prevent Cleveland from extending possessions and neutering Golden State’s transition game. They’ll also need to provide enough complementary offensive production to keep the Cavs from getting away with ignoring them to focus on the more threatening scorers, and will need to set the kind of on- and off-ball screens that can spring Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for clean looks and chances to attack downhill.
Last June, the Warriors got within two minutes of a championship despite giving 77 total minutes in Games 5, 6 and 7 to Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao and Marreese Speights. They need steadier, more productive and flat-out better play in the middle this time around to finish the job.
14. Iman Shumpert. The former Knick wing saw his playing time increase in Cleveland’s two regular-season meetings with Golden State, logging 29 minutes in the Cavs’ one-point Christmas Day win and 30 minutes in their Jan. 16 blowout loss. Both of those games came before the acquisition of Kyle Korver, though, and after Korver joined the team and J.R. Smith returned to the fold following thumb surgery, Shump’s role shrunk. He’s made the most of his playoff minutes, though, knocking down his open looks (48.8 percent from the field in the postseason, 8-for-17 from deep) while working overtime to harass opposing perimeter scorers.
Lue will run with Smith to start and look to Korver to strike fear into the heart of the Warriors’ defense. But he’ll count on Shumpert to use his length — 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-9-1/2 wingspan — and quickness to defend Curry, Klay Thompson and maybe even Durant, and to serve as a like-size cog capable of switching screens against Golden State’s smaller lineups. If Korver proves a step too slow to survive against the Warriors’ ball and player movement, and if playing Love big minutes against Golden State’s small-ball lineups proves untenable, expect Shumpert to see a significant role.
13. Mike Brown (we think?) and Tyronn Lue (tie). No less an expert on coaching than Gregg Popovich never misses an opportunity to remind us all, at the end of the day, it’s never really about the coaches.
“You know, it’s about players,” he said during one such corrective session on an off day in the middle of the Spurs’ 2014 Western Conference finals matchup with an Oklahoma City Thunder. “The players step up at this time, and also it’s about the physicality, the energy, the determination. […] it’s more about on that particular night who plays well and who is the aggressor, rather than some kind of an O or X.”
“Who plays well and who is the aggressor,” though, can be aided (or impeded) by coaches’ tactical choices and rotation management.
Lue will have to lean on several of his top players — James, Irving and Tristan Thompson especially, and Love if he keeps playing the way he did through the first three rounds — for major minutes to pull the upset. But how does he handle the rest of his rotation? How long a leash does he give floor-spacers like Korver and Frye, given their susceptibility on the defensive end? How much does he trust this Cleveland-best version of Love at center — a configuration that torched the Cavs’ Eastern competition by 48 points in 44 postseason minutes, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup stats — as a viable defensive option when the Warriors downshift to Draymond or Durant at the five in Death-ly lineups?
What counters does he have in store to neutralize Golden State’s attempts to hide Curry from James in the pick-and-roll, the matchup the Cavs want to force and punish every time they have the ball? Who does he have LeBron guard? Lue figured out how to gum up the Warriors’ free-flowing offense last year. What new answers can he find for a healthy and rested version of that also boasts Durant as an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass isolation scoring option?
The view from the Warriors’ sideline is a bit more muddled.
Brown — who, as you might have heard, used to coach in Cleveland — has stepped up to the head of the bench in place of Kerr, who hasn’t coached since Game 2 of the Warriors’ opening-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, as he has battled pain related to the 2015 back surgery that caused him to miss the first 43 games of the 2015-16 season. Kerr’s not expected to suit up for Game 1, keeping Brown in the driver’s seat. He, too, has some big choices to make.
Chief among them: How early, and how often, does he go small with some variant of the Death Lineup — Curry and Klay in the backcourt, Draymond and Durant up front, with a fifth wing (primarily Iguodala, though Livingston will get the call, too, as could McCaw or Barnes) alongside? Such units have played only 74 minutes through 12 playoff games, per NBAwowy.com, outscoring opponents by 38 points in that span. Loathe as the Warriors are to move away from their big men, maximizing Golden State’s offensive advantages in this series could require Brown to aggressively increase that per-game floor time, especially considering all the principal pieces come into this Finals having played far fewer minutes and with way more rest than they did after last year’s seven-game barn-burner against the Thunder.
If Kyrie starts going off against the defense of Klay Thompson — as he did late in the 2016 Finals, as he did on Christmas Day — where does Brown turn to cool Irving down? Can he find the answer to slowing down Tristan Thompson that has eluded every opponent the Cavs have faced in the last three postseasons? When, and how often, does he flip the switch on the potentially devastating Curry-Durant pick-and-roll that the Warriors have largely kept under wraps?
Lue proved his mettle last season, and now finds himself with an opportunity to become the first man since John Kundla in 1949 and ’50 to win championships in his first two seasons as a head coach. Brown’s done as well as anyone could after being asked to take the Warriors’ reins midstream, and could put himself in position for another crack at a top gig with a win here. It’s a fascinating coaching matchup between two men with intimate knowledge of the opponent, and their choices could provide the on-the-margins difference in this rubber match.
11. Kyle Korver. The Cavs’ midseason deal for Korver seemed downright absurd on its face. How the hell could a Hawks team that Cleveland decimated two springs running give LeBron exactly the kind of high-volume, quick-release, deadeye gunner that would make an already nigh-on-unguardable offense even more explosive? Sure enough, the Cavs have scored a blistering 124.5 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs when Korver’s on the wing alongside LeBron, even as the veteran sniper has “cooled” from a 48.5 percent regular-season 3-point mark after coming to Cleveland to a mere 41.5 percent from deep in the postseason.
Opponents just don’t leave Korver away from the ball, making him a valuable magnet to pull defenders away from the paint and primary offensive actions, giving James and Irving more room to operate. When they do lose sight of him, in transition or off miscommunication, it barely takes a heartbeat for the Cavs’ playmakers to find him and for him to fire; he’s bombing 11.6 3s per 100 playoff possessions, the highest 3-point launch rate of his postseason career. Plus, at a legit 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-9-1/2 wingspan and a sharp eye for defensive positioning off the ball, he’s got the size, length and smarts to somewhat mitigate his lack of foot speed while playing the wing in smaller lineups.
Or, at least, that’s been true thus far. Golden State’s a very different animal. If the Warriors can crank up the pace, force Korver to match up in transition and stay with their wings off screens, he could struggle to keep up, creating the kind of open looks that Golden State can turn into crooked numbers on the scoreboard. If Korver can hold up defensively, the Cavs can afford to keep him on the floor for extended stretches, which would be a huge boon to their efforts to match fire with fire.
10. J.R. Smith. This time two years ago, it seemed borderline unthinkable that Smith’s presence would be felt more on the defensive end of the floor than on offense. Wait, scratch that: unthinkable that it would be felt in a more positive way. But that’s the role that Smith has assumed over the past two seasons, guarding the opponent’s top perimeter scoring option first and getting in where he fits in on offense after that. Such is life on a team with LeBron and Kyrie on the ball and shooting everywhere.
It’s a life J.R.’s lived well, checking the likes of Paul George and DeMar DeRozan this postseason while knocking down the 3-point looks he gets in the flow of the offense at a 45 percent clip. A matchup with the Warriors brings even greater challenges. Smith will spend time on both Klay Thompson and Curry, and must also hold up when switched or cross-matched onto bigger opponents like Durant and Green. He has to remain locked in navigating the thicket of off-ball screens Golden State throws at opposing defenders. He’ll also need to make the Warriors pay when they lose track of him while hustling to stay connected to James and Irving in the pick-and-roll, and keep Curry honest defensively so that Steph can’t roam into passing lanes or spring flash double-teams.
But then, Smith’s handled far greater challenges than that this season. The Cavs don’t need him to be a star; they need him to be a star in his role. As he showed in last year’s Finals, he can do that.
9. Klay Thompson. As was the case last year, it feels almost disrespectful to slot Thompson — a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection — this low. The reality is, though, that Klay hasn’t yet been at his best in this postseason, averaging a career playoff-low 14.4 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting … and it’s scarcely mattered, as the Warriors have continued to torch opposing defenses even without him getting right.
Make no mistake: Golden State would love to see Thompson find an early offensive rhythm and rip off one (or more) of those several-minute stretches in which he goes on a double-figure scoring spree. But with Curry in form, Durant in tow, Green setting the table and the spectre of his shooting still spooking the defense, Golden State can still find ways to generate buckets even if Klay’s not scorching the nets. The key for him, then, comes on defense, where he’ll once again be asked to use his height, length, balance and discipline to slow down Irving, and to dig in when switched onto James and Love in the pick-and-roll. If he can do that while also punishing whichever wing Cleveland sticks on him with off-ball motion and timely cuts to create openings for himself and others, the Warriors might go from tough to beat to unstoppable.
8. Andre Iguodala. Two years ago, Iguodala earned Finals MVP honors for his defensive work on LeBron. Last year, neither Iguodala (who, to be fair, was limited late in the series by a back injury) nor any other weapon the Warriors could wield was enough to keep the King from taking the throne.
The good news, this time around? Iguodala’s not coming off spending seven games chasing and fighting Durant in the conference finals, because now that dude’s on his team, and the Warriors swept through the West in the minimum 12 games to get everybody an extended vacation. The bad news: Andre hasn’t looked right all postseason, battling a left knee injury that kept him out for Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. He’s been a step slow on defense, allowing lesser opponents to beat him off the bounce, and has shot just 3-for-27 from 3-point range.
Iguodala’s health and effectiveness could be the single biggest X-factor in this series. His all-around gifts unlock the Warriors’ best lineups, and he’s still Golden State’s preferred defensive option on LeBron. He will get offensive opportunities in this series — the Cavs basically have to ignore him if they want to address the Warriors’ more threatening scorers, and he’s the lone hiding spot for Love in the Death Lineup — and he must knock down open shots and make plays in space. If he can’t, and if he can’t hold up defensively, Cleveland’s chances of pulling the upset increase exponentially.
7. Kyrie Irving. Again, it feels insulting to put Kyrie — the man behind The Shot, the author of the two most explosive individual playoff scoring performances of any LeBron running buddy ever, one of the deadliest isolation scorers in the league — this low. But in a series with this many intriguing moving parts, even a megawatt scoring savant can find himself bumped.
That doesn’t mean he’s not crucial. Irving’s likely to see the bulk of the defensive matchup on Curry, who’s been on unanimous-MVP behavior this postseason. When he’s off that matchup, he can’t fall asleep, because the Warriors’ other perimeter players will force him to work through a maze of off-ball screens, and he’ll have to stay connected to avoid giving up layups and open 3s. He’s got to torch his defender — likely Klay to start, though frequent switches and cross-matches mean he’ll see all sorts of long-armed, quick-footed Warriors — and get into the teeth of the defense, then finish in traffic.
He must torture whichever Golden State big’s in the middle at any given time, forcing Pachulia, West and McGee to choose between stepping up to contest and leaving themselves susceptible to blow-bys or hanging back and leaving him open for pure midrange jumpers. If they navigate that paradox, he’s got to keep making smart passes — he’s assisting on a playoff-career-high 27.2 percent of Cleveland’s possessions this postseason — through the cracks in the Warriors’ coverages, and trust that his teammates will make the next play.
As noted by Anthony Slater of the Bay Area News Group, in the 11 regular- and postseason games between the Warriors and Cavs over the past two years, Irving has averaged 18 points on 37.8 percent shooting in six losses and 29 points on 48.7 percent shooting in five wins. When he’s cooking, LeBron has had the help he needs to topple anybody. When he’s bottled up, Cleveland’s vulnerable.
6. Kevin Love. Nobody’s disputing that Love’s playing as well as he has since coming to Cleveland. He’s draining 47.5 percent of his 3-point tries and dominating the defensive glass, clearing a whopping 31.4 percent of opponents’ misses to shut down second-chance opportunities and trigger the Cavs’ transition game with his peerless outlet passing. And nobody would deny that Love earned a measure of validation for a difficult start to the 2016 Finals by gritting out 14 rebounds and the stop of his life in last year’s Game 7.
No matter how well he’s played, though, the song remains the same: Love’s the defender the Warriors will most look to exploit. Whether he can stand up to the challenge consistently will likely stand as the primary determinant of whether the Cavs can compete in this series.
Even up, he’ll defend the Warriors’ center and try to stay near the rim. When Golden State goes small, he’ll try to hide out on Iguodala, Livingston or whichever wing option looks the least threatening. When he’s drawn into pick-and-rolls, he’s got to rely on his guards to get through the screens and stay with their men, because over a large enough sample of possessions guarding Curry on the perimeter, you can’t like Love’s chances of survival. The job doesn’t get easier when he’s got to deal with Green or Durant as shooters or playmakers in space.
Love’s looked quicker and more active on defense this postseason, but the Warriors can create bad, scary matchups for him to have to deal with on nearly every possession. He has to limit the fallout, dominate the defensive boards, trigger the fast break, beat up smaller defenders off switches, make Durant defend on the block, and keep knocking down 3s. If he can’t do all, or most, of those things, Lue might need to downshift with another wing (Korver, Shumpert, Jefferson) in Love’s place to stay afloat on D against the Warriors’ starters and top small-ball lineups.
The best version of Love gives Cleveland a chance to match Golden State’s best groups. One that’s shaky on defense and unable to impose his will on the other end puts the Cavs in danger.
5. Tristan Thompson. As was the case last year, the Cavaliers’ best chance of stopping the Warriors’ offense is probably to keep them out of transition. The best way to do that is to make shots and, when you miss, to extend your possessions with offensive rebounds. Enter Tristan Thompson, whose relentlessness helped break the Warriors over the last four games of the 2016 Finals, and whose irrepressible play makes him one of the most “deflating” players in the league to face.
Thompson is the toughest player in the league to box out, forcing opponents to pay more attention near the basket than they otherwise would, limiting leak-outs and wreaking havoc on best-laid half-court defensive game plans. He’s one of the best bigs in the league at holding up in space when switched onto a perimeter ball-handler — his work on Steph and Klay over the past two postseasons has proved that — and recovering to the paint to protect the rim. He’s a nasty screener who’ll spring unannounced and flatten dudes on or off the ball, creating runways for LeBron and Kyrie to take off.
The Cavs don’t have another defensive option up front good enough to hang with Golden State’s offense; he and LeBron are the only two defenders whose presence and activity can give Cleveland a chance of short-circuiting the Warriors’ attack. He must play giant minutes — like the 42 and 43 he saw in Games 5 and 6 last year — and play brilliantly in them for the Cavs to repeat.
4. Draymond Green. At the risk of repeating myself … well, allow me to repeat myself:
He’s got to outwork Tristan Thompson on the interior, clamp down on Cleveland’s floor-stretching bigs when the series goes small, punish Love whenever he gets that matchup, and do his level best to deal with LeBron without picking up fouls or getting so frustrated that he retreats back inside his head, sapping himself and the Warriors of his intensity. When Green’s locked in and bringing the dog to the fight, the Warriors feed off his energy and reach new heights. When he’s rattled, they’re vulnerable.
Over the last two Finals and their two regular-season meetings this year, the Warriors have outscored Cleveland by 99 points in 261 minutes in which Green is their one big man. They have been outscored by 26 points in 469 minutes with all other units on the floor. At the end of the day, Draymond at center, in all its variations, is the lineup for which the Cavaliers just don’t have the antidote.
He believes, as do I, that the Warriors would be entering this series looking for a three-peat if he didn’t get himself suspended for Game 5 last year. He has been laser-focused on redeeming himself in this matchup. He must be better than ever to do so.
3. Kevin Durant. This is why Durant left Oklahoma City: to return to the biggest stage in the sport with the best possible chance to earn the first title of his career. This is why Golden State imported him: to effectively neutralize the strategy Cleveland deployed last June.
Starting in Game 3, after Love went out with a concussion, the Cavs put LeBron on Draymond, limiting his effectiveness as a driver, shooter and playmaker. They started switching every on- and off-ball action, funneling the ball toward the likes of Harrison Barnes and Iguodala, and betting that the non-star Warriors wouldn’t hit enough shots to win. They bet right, as Barnes suffered through a nightmarish close to the Finals, Iguodala couldn’t keep pace, Golden State’s bigs offered nothing and the Warriors’ offense devolved into just heaving and praying.
So long, Harrison. Hello, Kevin.
LeBron can’t guard Draymond and Durant at the same time. Any other Cavalier defender’s at a size or speed disadvantage against Durant, a 7-foot mismatch everywhere on the floor. He can shoot over the top of Smith, Shumpert and Jefferson; he can blow past Tristan Thompson and Love. He just shot 60 percent from the floor against San Antonio in the conference finals, is hitting 42 percent of his 3-pointers in the postseason, and gives the Warriors another legitimate defensive rebounder and rim protector to pair with Green when Golden State goes small.
He will be counted on to not only demand LeBron’s attention, but to win (or least push) his matchup with the best player in the world. He will be expected to keep the Warriors’ beautiful machine whirring on both ends of the floor and, should the Cavaliers introduce enough chaos to shut it down, to take matters into his own hands. That’s a lot of responsibility; if Durant can effectively handle it, his reward will be the sport’s ultimate prize.
2. Stephen Curry. After a poor 2016 Finals, Curry spent the early part of this season sacrificing to make room for the incoming Durant before reminding everyone just how devastating he could be during the month KD missed. He sparkled throughout the first three rounds, averaging 28.6 points, 5.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game on shooting splits — 50.2 percent from the floor, 43.1 percent from 3-point range, 90.7 percent from the free-throw line — on par with what he produced during his unanimous MVP campaign last season. He is healthy (save for some swelling in his right elbow that he insists is not impacting his shooting) and playing his best at the most important time of the year.
He will be put through the wringer in this series. The Cavs will try to hunt him down, force him to defend in the pick-and-roll, and make him deal with the full brute-force physicality of LeBron as frequently as possible. They will get as physical as the refs will allow with him off the ball, trying to wear him down and frustrate him into the kind of foul trouble that can result in hurled mouthpieces. They will try to pound him until he breaks.
He must be ready for that, and to answer by raining pull-up fire from deep and using that now-healthy wheel to blow past switches on the perimeter, get into the paint and finish at the cup. He must walk the line between carefree and careless, taking care of the ball while still hunting opportunities to produce early offense and knock the Cavs back on their heels.
The Warriors were 16.2 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the floor than off it this season. That jumped to 28.2 points-per-100 in Golden State’s run through the West. For as much complementary talent as the Warriors have — arguably the best scorer in the world, the likely Defensive Player of the Year, the second-best shooter in the sport, the 2015 Finals MVP and Sixth Man of the Year finalist — the Warriors are Stephen Curry’s team. (I love the way Marcus Thompson II, the man who literally wrote the book on Steph, put it: “Draymond Green is the heartbeat of the team. But Curry is its nervous system.”) When he falters, they can be had. When he’s great, they don’t lose.
1. LeBron James. This spot, like his crown as the game’s best player, is his until someone takes it.
He has been devastating this postseason, demoralizing three straight Eastern opponents into facing existential questions about when or whether they can even reasonably compete with his greatness. He has become the NBA’s all-time-leading postseason scorer by turning every opponent into roadkill as he bulldozes to the rim. He is Cleveland’s best, most versatile and most important defender; the Cavs have allowed 15.5 more points per 100 possessions in the playoffs on the rare occasions he has rested.
He will have to play something like 45 minutes per game for the Cavs to have a chance. He will have to kill every first-line-of-defense option — Iguodala, Durant, Green, whoever — to puncture Golden State’s elite defense, creating openings for his bevy of role players, star and otherwise, to exploit. He will have to hit jumpers — he’s shooting 40.5 percent outside the paint in the postseason, up from 35.9 percent entering the 2016 Finals — to keep the Warriors from ducking under screens and trying to form a wall in front of the rim. Even if they do barricade the lane, he will have to slither through the tight spaces Golden State leaves to get there, anyway.
He will have to defend every Warrior of consequence — Durant and Green one-on-one, Curry and Thompson on switches, comparatively lesser lights to conserve energy — to keep his finger in the dam. He’ll have to play point guard and center, sometimes on the same unit, while also finding energy to be Love’s best wide receiver in transition and the Cavs’ roaming back-line stopper in the half-court. If he does not do all of that — absolutely all of it — Cleveland will lose. Perhaps quickly.
As detailed beautifully by Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated, these Warriors are effectively the cumulative response to the way LeBron has dominated the league for the last half-dozen years. The styles, approaches and stars birthed to defeat him, and that he then vanquished, have come together in one of the best teams in NBA history, and the most talented opponent he has ever faced. This presents an awe-inspiring challenge … but also, an opportunity.
Pull this off, and it’s four titles in six years. Pull this off, and you’re within striking distance of the ghost. Pull this off, and what few hollow critics remain shrivel into corn cobs.
It seems impossible; I don’t expect him to do it. But then, I didn’t expect him to carry a team back from a 3-1 deficit against the first 73-win team ever by averaging 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.0 blocks to win three straight Finals games, two in Golden State’s gym, with a triple-double in Game 7 sealed by the greatest defensive play of his career. To hell with expectations; I will believe he is beaten when I see it. He’s earned that respect, and the status as the most important player in any series in which he appears.
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