By ELITE EPs
KEYS TO THE SERIES
1. The health of Kyrie Irving
If Kyrie Irving is healthy, he is the difference maker for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving has the firepower to combat Steph Curry’s scoring. Although you can’t stop Curry, if you have a player who can match his production, you are in that much better shape to beat the Golden State Warriors.
If Irving is healthy enough to play Curry to a draw, then so much offensive pressure is taken off of James’ shoulders. The Cavaliers will need Irving’s scoring and ball-handling, especially down the stretch.
Irving’s health is directly correlated to James’ minutes. In their last 10 playoff games excluding the Game 4 blowout of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, James has played 7 games of 40min+ while Irving has only played in two such games.
Even more compelling, Irving has missed his team’s last three playoff games and has been limited since Game 3 of the Chicago Bulls’ series.
He left Miami because he starting pulling the weight by himself. With no Kevin Love and an injured Irving, this sure smells like palm trees doesn’t it?
Which Kyrie shows up will go a long way to telling us the length of the series and maybe even the victor.
2. Which role players will step up?
JR Smith and Iman Shumpert must step up. During the first part of the regular season, JR Smith was a lost cause; jacking up three pointers on a whim for a struggling New York Knicks team. Since his trade to the Cavs, Smith’s turned into an elite level role player who seems to make every big shot down the stretch of games for Cleveland (i.e. Game 4 v CHI and Game 1 &3 v ATL).
Smith is a trigger-happy gunner, who can get hot quick. His production was crucial in the sweep of the Hawks. If he can get shots to fall, his points from beyond the arc will be invaluable for the Cavs.
His companion, Shumpert, has had a more silent impact but it has been extremely useful. He’s a great rebounding guard, has contributed on defense and while his three-point shooting percentage isn’t spectacular (36.8%), his perimeter shooting has greatly aided the team in the absence of Kyrie Irving during stretches of the playoffs.
They face a huge task in the perimeter players of the Warriors; if Smith and Shumpert don’t rise to the occasion, it’ll be a long series for Cleveland.
And for Golden State, the duo of Harrison Barnes/Andre Iguodala must be dynamic. Many questioned Steve Kerr’s decision to move Barnes to the starting line-up and Iguodala to the bench at the beginning of the season, but it has transformed the Warriors into the powerhouse in the NBA Finals.
While the individual numbers won’t “wow” you, their impact cannot be downplayed, especially in these playoffs. There is no greater example than game five of the Western Conference Finals. Iggy harassed James Harden to 13 turnovers, while Barnes put the Rockets away with a furious run of points with a struggling Steph Curry and injured Klay Thompson.
3. LeBron has to be… well, LeBron
There is no way to stop Lebron James. You can only slow him down as he so eloquently put it in his media day answer.
If the Cavs are going to win this series, Lebron is going to have to average triple double like numbers. For these NBA playoffs, he has flirted with doing so on most nights. For the postseason, James is averaging 27.6ppg, 10.4 rebs, and 8.3asts. If he can continue this trend, Cleveland will be in a position to win each and every game.
For the Warriors, they have to slow down James. Easier said than done right? The Warriors really don’t have to do too much in this series. If they can slow down Lebron and turn him into a jump shooter, they will be all right.
Lebron has stretches in games where he commits crucial turnovers in key moments averaging 4.4 turnovers per game in these playoffs. If Golden State can clamp down on defense on the role players and make Lebron do it himself, they will put themselves in a solid position.
Just like in the series with the Rockets, look to see multiple defenders and looks thrown at Lebron. Expect to see Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iguodala all on James.
4. Which team can close out on shooters better?
The Cavs have the potential to be a very dangerous defensive unit, in fact they are the number one defensive unit in the playoffs this year. The Cavs are holding teams to only 92.6ppg while shooting under 44-percent from the field.
The core defensive cast of Matthew Dellavedova, Lebron James, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, and Tristan Thompson is very formidable the Warriors wield a defensive cast that is just as good, if not better.
During the regular season, the Warriors led the NBA in defensive efficiency. And in these playoffs, they only trail Cleveland in that same category. Warriors are holding teams to only 96.3ppg while shooting 46-percent from the field.
The Warriors are going to take some head-scratching shots and it starts with Steph Curry. His game is just that good where he takes, makes, and misses bad shots. The Cavs must play like the Grizzlies did for a stretch and really clamp down on Steph.
You can’t stop him, but you’ve got to make him at least uncomfortable. It is up to Cleveland to make him pay for those misses on bad shots. The Cavaliers must get out in transition and score easy buckets.
It will be interesting to see what defensive matchups David Blatt employs. Look to see some of Lebron, Shumpert, Delly, and even a Shawn Marion sighting on Steph.
5. What happens when the shots don’t fall for GS?
Everyone who is familiar with the game of basketball has heard this line: “A jumpshooting team can’t win an NBA title.” Well, Golden State can shut critics up for a lifetime with four more victories.
In each series there have been games or stretches where the jump shot just isn’t flowing, as it should. The course of action that Steve Kerr’s squad takes upon this dilemma will determine a lot.
The Warriors take awful shots. If the shots aren’t there, the Warriors shouldn’t force them. There are too many matchup problems they can create that can steady the ship when the tide gets rough. The Warriors should look to limit the bad shots, run the offense, and get some easy points in the paint during times of drought.
6. Who wins the turnover battle?
During the regular season, Golden State led the NBA in points off turnovers. The athletic Warriors squad wants to play in transition for large portions of the game and blow teams off of the floor.
However, that has not been the case in these playoffs. The Warriors have been one of the most undisciplined teams, ranking 15th out 16 of playoff teams with over 15 turnovers per game.
On the other end, Cleveland is ranked in the top five teams in the fewest turnovers category. It’s simple, neither team wants to give extra possessions to the best players in the league right now (Curry, James). The team that can protect the ball the most has a tremendous chance to win.
7. Which rookie head coach doesn’t cost their team the title?
Both Kerr and Blatt have excelled in the rookie seasons and postseasons as a head coach in this league. But, the Finals are where legacies are defined and etched in stone for all eternity.
After the first two games, look to see which coach makes the minor line-up, minute distribution, or schematic change to push his team over the edge. Both coaches have superstars who can lead their respective teams. The key is which coach can let his superstar be a superstar without micromanaging.
Kennington: Welcome to the winners circle, Bay Area. Warriors in 5.
AJ: Golden State has Curry and a deeper squad, but the Cavs have Lebron James, who makes everyone else better. If we can see a healthy Kyrie, I think their best two players can be better than Golden State’s.
The Warriors will live and die by the three. Plus, Lebron’s legacy is once again on the line. He can’t afford to lose this one. Cavs in 7.
Jamari: Stephen Curry is the most exciting player in the NBA today. He’s the MVP, he has a beautiful family, and his daughter has dominated the meme game in the past two weeks. Curry is on top of the world.
However, this is LeBron’s world. I don’t make a habit of betting against the best player on the planet. He came back to Cleveland with one thing in mind, deliver the city of Cleveland a championship. And he will… next year. Kyrie’s health is too scary for me.
Golden State in 7 in a thriller of a series.