Warriors Mea Culpa + Finals Preview

After Game 4 two Tuesdays ago, I immediately penned a furious screed in an effort to channel my anger  and to better make sense of what I was watching in the sudden 3-1 Thunder series lead over the Warriors. I wrote that the series was over and that the Thunder would close it out in Oakland in Game 5. It was the worst call in DotB history, and a valuable lesson. Don’t be a prisoner of the moment, and never write off the Warriors.

I’ve watched a ton of Warriors basketball this year and the team that went down 3-1 was unrecognizable. Whether the endless debate on Steph Curry’s health had any merit, or the Thunder found the Warriors kryptonite in their long athletic defenders, the magic was gone. After Game 4 the Warriors seemed dead to rights, which pissed me off. For one, I was angry that after a lackluster first two rounds, the Western Conference Finals I’d been waiting for all season would be short and non-competitive. I also couldn’t reconcile how the magical 73-win season could end like this.

This is painful to read now, but here’s a thing that I wrote that night: “There’s no question at this point that the Thunder are the better team. Russell WestbrookKevin DurantSerge Ibaka and Steven Adams have been the best four players on the court in three of the four games. The series goes back to Oakland at 3-1, but the next time OKC sees its home building will be in the NBA Finals.”

Always remember to take a deep breath and think before blogging, kids.

It’s remarkable how quickly things can change in the NBA playoffs. The overwhelming emotion, momentum and energy that surrounds a hot team in its home building simply does not carry over to the next game. I forgot, as Andre Roberson rained down threes and Westbrook sprinted for transition points while entering Angry Frog Mode (copyright: my wife), that the next game starts out 0-0. In a post I wrote for Hashtag Basketball a few hours before Game 5 (after I had a couple days to calm down), I spelled out a path to a comeback. I didn’t believe it would happen, but I acknowledged it could. It doesn’t absolve my rant in this space, but at least I noted that if the Warriors went nuts from the 3-point line, they could make up for their major deficiencies elsewhere. Golden State ended up outscoring OKC 114-30 from beyond the arc in Games 6 and 7. Mind-blowing.

Durant said after the series was over that OKC beat the Warriors in every facet of the game except for 3-point shooting. It was a little sour grapes, yeah, but it was also true. I can’t think of another team in NBA history that can lose the battle of the boards, points in the paint, turnover percentage and free throws, yet still win playoff games convincingly. The math problem is real: three is greater than two.

Sorry for doubting you, Golden State. Math was never my strong suit.

NBA Finals Preview

Now to the Finals rematch we’ve been expecting most of the season. Golden State took the scenic route to meet the Cavaliers, who have been waiting patiently since Friday night. Cleveland lost just two games in the Eastern Conference Playoffs and have yet to lose at home. But they haven’t faced a team that’s even close to the Warriors, yet (or the Spurs or Thunder for that matter). LeBron James and Co. get their shot at revenge now. But can they overcome, or will James’ Finals record drop to 2-7? Let’s take a look at some keys:

  • The 3-point battle – Of course this is the first item on the agenda. It’s 2016. After losing to the Warriors in six games last year, Cleveland transformed itself into a 3-point shooting machine to solve the math problem. Channing Frye was a major addition midseason. JR Smith became the clear starting 2 guard over Iman Shumpert, thanks to his ability to go off from three. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are excellent 3-point shooters. James has struggled with his shot all season but is always a threat. Richard Jefferson, Matthew Dellavedova and Shumpert are passable from three off the bench. This re-invention manifested itself in some of the best 3-point shooting we’ve ever seen in the playoffs. Frye is shooting an obscene 58% on 45 playoff attempts. The Cavs blitzed the Hawks with 77 threes on 51% efficiency in four games, including a record 25 makes in Game 2. That followed a four-game performance in which they made 57 threes against Detroit. We all know what the Warriors can do with the 3-ball. If the Cavs’ hot shooting keeps up (there were some dips against Toronto in the Conference Finals), we could be looking at a high-scoring NBA Finals. It will be absolutely crucial for Cleveland to average 10-15 threes per game if they are going to beat the Warriors.
  • Cavs defense – At first glance it would seem the Cavs chances are great. After all, they took Golden State to six games a year ago without Love and Irving. Those two pieces of their big three are healthy, so it stands to reason the Cavs should be able to get over the hump. However, it’s somewhat of a paradox. Without those two guys, the Cavs had to become a big, slow team centered around LeBron. He nearly averaged a triple-double while scoring 35 points a game in the Finals last year, but it wasn’t all that exciting. It did slow down the Warriors immensely and at times Golden State’s big shooters struggled with the Cavs’ defense-heavy lineup. Now with Love and Irving back, the Cavs can play more freely and dynamically on offense, but their defense will suffer. The Warriors are expert at finding weak links in a team’s defense and exploiting them mercilessly. Love and Irving are minus defenders who the Warriors will target in pick-and-rolls and off-ball screens whenever they’re on the court. Irving could get lit up by either Curry or Klay Thompson, which means Dellavedova will have to play a huge role. Love cannot guard Draymond Green or even Harrison Barnes one on one, and he can’t switch onto Golden State’s guards. The dirty little secret of Cleveland’s impressive Eastern Conference run is that their defense has been suspect (102.9 DefRtg) against less than stellar offensive teams. It could get ugly against Golden State’s potent attack.
  • Crunch-time lineups – It will be fascinating to see who Cleveland closes games with. Tyronn Lue may be forced to bench Love or Irving (or both) late in games if Golden State is exposing them on defense. Cleveland found success with James at the 4 and Frye at the 5, which spaces their offense without sacrificing much rim-protection. Meanwhile, where does Tristan Thompson fit into the equation? OKC was the first team to give Golden State’s Death Lineup problems, but will the Cavs be able to make them pay for going small? If Thompson and James can dominate the glass like Adams and Ibaka did, that will help. But without Frye or Love on the floor, Cleveland’s shooting suffers big time. The Warriors have proven amazing in clutch situations – games that are five points or less in the last five minutes – all season long, thanks in large part to the Curry-Thompson-Green-Barnes-Iguodala lineup. Cleveland needs a counter-punch.
  • Coaching – Say what you want about Steve Kerr using too many players in his rotation, it’s at least kept the Warriors fresh. Part of the turning of the tide against OKC was the 6-man rotation of the Thunder getting gassed late in games, while the Warriors got their stars more rest. Kerr’s decision to start Andre Iguodala and mirror his minutes with Durant was a stroke of brilliance. Kerr comes in with Finals experience and a lot of weapons at his disposal. Kerr will also have to recognize when Andrew Bogut doesn’t have it, and quickly go to Festus Ezeli to help keep Thompson off the boards. Lue, one can argue, has a much tougher job in front of him. He’ll need to find the right mix of players to close games and adjust on the fly when things aren’t going well. There is so little margin of error against the Warriors. Cleveland has responded to Lue’s coaching style much more than it did for David Blatt, and most importantly, he’s got LeBron on his side. The young coach will be tested early and often in his first trip to the Finals.
  • Composure – Last but not least, it’s always crucial to keep your wits about you in a championship series. There will be moments when everything from whistles to turnovers to shot-making is going against you and your playoff mortality comes into focus. Emotions run high and with so much at stake, it’s easy to make a mental mistake. Green, specifically, needs to keep from picking up another flagrant foul or else he will be suspended a game. You can bet everyone on the Cavs is aware of this little piece of information and will try to poke the bear. Smith is another wild card, known for dirty fouls and even throwing punches at the worst possible time. The Cavs will likely follow the Thunder’s example and push, pull, chip, elbow, grab Curry anytime he’s moving without the ball. Curry needs to keep his cool but the Cavs also need to makes sure they don’t cross the line. The Warriors have been tested and have overcome, making guys like me look like idiots. The Cavs haven’t seen much adversity yet in these playoffs. Expect that to change soon.

Finals Pick – Warriors in 5. 

After much internal debate, I can’t see Cleveland shoring up their defense while simultaneously scoring enough to exact revenge on the Warriors. I expect most games to be close, but I don’t think Golden State will lose again at home and I think they can steal one in Cleveland. I envision the Warriors going back to Oakland up 3-1, and surely they know how important it is to close a team out right away, after their comeback against OKC.

This pick doesn’t account for the potential for King James to go nuclear in his quest to finally win one for the ‘Land. You can’t rule that out. Basketball is awesome.

Enjoy Game 1 everyone!

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