ANALYSIS: NBA Finals Preview: Cavs v. Dubs, The Trilogy


LeBron James catches lob from J.R. Smith during last year’s NBA Finals. By Erik Drost [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

John Ferraro, Sports Editor

Eighty-two regular season games. Forty-five Russell Westbrook triple-doubles. Seven months.

The wait is finally over.

In what’s being billed as the most anticipated NBA Finals in decades, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are set to battle it out for the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy.

According to ESPN, this is the first time in NBA history that two teams are meeting in the Finals for three consecutive years.

It’s a matchup between two offensive juggernauts that seemed inevitable even before the season started.

After winning a regular season record 73 games in 2016, the Warriors landed former NBA MVP and four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant as a free agent.

Durant has been regarded as a top-five player in the world for the past decade. With a 7-feet-4-inch wingspan, he can do almost anything on a basketball court.

Adding Durant to a lineup already including two-time NBA MVP (one-time unanimous) Steph Curry, three-time All-Star Klay Thompson and two-time All-Star utility man Draymond Green is almost unfair.

Golden State dominated the regular season winning 67 games, good for first place in the West. The Dubs then went a perfect 12-0 in the playoffs.

On the other side, you have The King and his crew.

LeBron James is a virtual lock to get to the Finals every year. Why? He is about to play in his seventh-straight NBA Finals.

Only members of the Boston Celtics dynasties of the 1950s and 1960s and LeBron’s close friend James Jones, who has been on the roster with him for all of his trips, share this honor.

But LeBron didn’t do it alone.

Four-time All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and rebounding machine Tristan Thompson joined him in the starting rotation throughout the year.

The defending NBA Champions locked up the #2 seed in the East with a 51-31 record before gliding to a 12-1 record in the postseason.

What does this all mean for the Finals? Which team has the edge? Which player has the most pressure to win? I have all the answers (I hope).

First, a Tale of the Tape.
Graphic credit/ John Ferraro

Love, Thompson and James all ranked in the Top 20 in rebounding. In order for the Cavs to control tempo, they are going to have to rebound effectively on the offensive and defensive end. Love’s rebounding resurgence gives the Cavs a big advantage.

Even though the Cavs are the best statistical three-point shooting team this season, the edge has to slightly go to Golden State. Four of the Dubs’ five starters can get hot from beyond the arc at any moment. Plus, while LeBron improved his three-point shooting in these playoffs, he can be inconsistent at times and lose his rhythm.

To acquire Durant, the Warriors imploded their bench. Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights and others were let go to make room for the superstar. While Golden State did restock, the Cavs added more pieces to an already seasoned bench with three-point specialist Kyle Korver and former All-Star Deron Williams.

The Warriors are an offensive powerhouse, no doubt. But it was their defense which gave opponents fits. The Dubs led the league in both blocks and steals, suffocating offensive schemes in both conferences.

Both teams have NBA Finals experience. But, only one player from either team has been to eight of them. The wisdom and leadership LeBron gained in those games gives the Cavs an edge.

While the Cavs have better isolation players, the Warriors can spread the floor like no other team in the league. The Dubs led the league by a healthy margin, with 30.4 assists per game in the regular season. They remain the number one ranked assisting team in the postseason. With four future Hall of Famers in the starting rotation, that’s very impressive.

Clearly, a simple Tale of the Tape doesn’t go far enough in choosing a winner.

It’s time to dig deeper.

Golden State’s Biggest Key

For Golden State to get the revenge they are seeking from last year’s collapse, they must defend the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving pick-and-roll. ESPN Senior Writer Zach Lowe described it as “the most dangerous version of the league’s most dangerous play” in an article for ESPN.

In last year’s Finals, James and Irving took advantage of Curry in many of these situations. Curry is already a defensive liability. Putting him in the pick-and-roll doesn’t help matters.

Either Curry got stuck on the low-block with a much taller and stronger LeBron or he was left on an island with Kyrie. The Cavs exploited Curry both ways on several occasions last year helping them come back from a 3-1 hole.

With the acquisition of Durant, the Warriors might have an answer this time. Durant gives Golden State the ability to hide Curry on defense, especially in pick-and-roll scenarios.

For example, the Warriors can now have Durant and Thompson or Durant and Green defend it and let Steph shadow the two-guard, J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert.

But the Cavs can also run the pick-and-roll with other players like Korver, Williams, Love and Thompson. If the Warriors can slow down this action, especially with James and Irving, it might be the difference between a second NBA title in three years or another disappointing Finals loss.

Cleveland’s Biggest Key

For Cleveland to repeat, they must communicate on defensive switches/rotations and continue to “play physical” the Warriors.

Because Golden State will spread the floor with Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green, the Cavs need to act as one unit on defense. Cleveland cannot afford to take any possessions off against a team that can overcome a double-digit deficit in seconds.

Even more importantly than defensive communication, the Cavs need to amp up the physicality, yet again, against a team of mainly finesse players.

With the exception of Green and Javale McGee, the Warriors are a small lineup lacking in both size and stature. Watching the last two Finals tells you all you need to know about Cleveland’s ability to play “bully-ball” with Golden State. Whether it’s hitting Curry with hard screens or bumping him on the low block, the Cavs have been relentlessly physical.

Even with the addition of Durant, the Cavs have a distinct advantage. Yes, Durant is a seven footer. But, he’s not built like LeBron or Thompson or even Love. Be prepared to see multiple scenarios where Durant gets pushed around just like Curry last year.

Golden State must match Cleveland’s aggressiveness to maximize their chances of winning. How can the Dubs do this? Simple. Zaza Pachulia.

The newly found “enforcer” for the Warriors has been quite the topic of conversation this season with a few borderline dirty plays. The most recent was this contest of San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard courtesy of NBA Highlights. Watch for Pachulia to rough it up against the Cavs while McGee acts as the rim protector to combat LeBron’s drives to the basket.

For the first time in his career, LeBron heads into an NBA Finals with no pressure to win. The Warriors are the huge Vegas favorites. The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead last year and added a top-three player and future Hall of Famer to a 73-win team. The pressure is all on the Dubs, but more specifically Durant, to win the chip.

How will Durant respond to pressure he’s never before faced in his career? Will he rise to the challenge, be the reason Golden State wins the title and finally be mentioned in the same sentence with The King?

If the Golden State Warriors are going to dethrone the Cavs, Durant needs to show up both offensively and defensively. LeBron will dominate the Warriors as he has the last two seasons and Kyrie will channel his inner Mamba. It’s up to Durant to answer the bell.

Yes, Curry has disappeared in back-to-back NBA Finals and has some pressure on his shoulders to perform. But, this Finals matchup is solely about one man: Kevin Durant.

The Warriors are in a similar position to the Spurs in the 2014 Finals against the LeBron-led Miami Heat. They’re out for blood. With the addition of Durant, it’s going to be uphill battle for the Cavs to repeat.

As a huge LeBron fan, I hope I’m dead wrong. Warriors in six.

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Twitter: @JohnFerraroTWW