The Rematch: 73-win Warriors Meet Healthier Version of Cavs in Finals

If this were chess, LeBron and Steph would no doubt be the queens, moving in any and all directions. The question, as is forever the case with the queen, is how early to bring her out, let the queen dominate, and how much energy to keep in reserve.

When will LeBron choose to unleash himself on the Warriors?

This is why Curry’s third quarters have been legendary since his star shot out across the NBA’s midnight sky. Curry paces himself because he knows his moment will arrive. During this year’s playoffs, the lingering knee injury has limited his explosiveness, but not to the point where its a built-in excuse. Credit Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka for pouring water on the kindling that is the Steph-Draymond pick-and-roll.

In one sentence: Steph and the Warriors have endured the much more hazardous route to the Finals. First it was the ankle tweak, then it was the random wet spot that banged up his knee. On top of that, the impossible length and mental toughness of the Thunder playing their most-focused defense as a unit. The Warriors barely survived.

Hoops-Drinking Haterade

“Durant choked,” is the haters’ narrative. and it was passed around like the hoops-loving nation’s joint on Twitter for the last five days. There are all kinds of haters. Twitter makes it easier to hate, and people love to click on controversial click bait. When people realize it doesn’t help to engage with people who simply want to hate, we’ll all be better off. When you dislike yourself, you spread that dislike on to those athletes you choose to invest your emotional energy in. That’s the worst of the Twitter-sphere. Of course, some people aren’t just hating. They have reasonable arguments. However, those people need more than 140 characters to make those arguments.

Golden State Survival

Here’s what stymied the Warriors:

  • Steven Adams’ pure grit, lateral movement, huge and high hands and wrestling acumen
  • wingspans of Roberson, Ibaka and Durant
  • sheer quickness of Westbrook
  • unless Kanter or Morrow were on the court, everyone on OKC could defend well

These factors messed with the Spurs (Parker and Aldridge especially) in ways few people expected. The physicality and tenacity of OKC’s defense rolled on into the Warriors series. It stifled Draymond Green’s attack-mode style. No one, not even Green or Curry, can find passing clearance through a forest of arms. The Warriors offense struggled mightily.

On top of that, Green’s play in OKC was noticeably off. The controversy surrounding Green’s kick to the crotch of Steven Adams, and the pure length of the Thunder messed with Draymond. Players flail when they can’t find openings. They lose their cool, and hope the referee bails them out. It’s a strategic tactic, but it also shows a sense of desperation. Green was desperate. He is the initiator and there was very little initiation. OKC attacked with their swarming defense and Russell Westbrook’s relentless downhill rim-running.

Then Klay and Steph made impossible shots. Klay Thompson single-handedly kept the Warriors afloat in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of Game 6, while Westbrook and Durant, possibly worn down by heavy minutes and a heavier offensive burden, stopped making outside shots. OKC’s energy went from overpowering to merely aggressive. Andre Roberson, a young Andre Iguodala on defense, who improved his long-range shooting from last season’s abysmal 25% to not-good-enough-yet 31% from deep this year, made 11 of 19 from beyond the arc between the series clinching Game 6 win over San Antonio and the first five games of the West Finals. In Game 7, Roberson missed all four of his attempts.

The climactic moment of the series was clearly the last five minutes of Game 6, during which the Thunder morphed into a deer caught in the Warriors high beams. OKC played their best seven players throughout the series, shortening the rotation in a move that many praised. The extra burden may have contributed to the sloppy play over those crucial moments.

Thunderous Length and Mentality

The Warriors offense had been silenced once again like we haven’t seen in two years. After missing nine straight shots between the end of the first and start of the second quarter, Golden State was feeling the pressure of the moment and doubt crept in. Shots were blocked or clanged off the rim. Passes were stolen. They couldn’t get anything going. Curry was harassed from the moment he crossed half-court. Steph was scoreless until he hit a 25-footer with 7:20 left in the half. With 4:44 left in the second quarter, Durant hit one of his patented unblock-able fadeaways, lifting OKC to a 41–28 lead. The following three minutes may well have saved Golden State’s season. Two deep three-pointers by Klay Thompson and a savvy Curry detecting Westbrook’s outstretched arm that led to three free-throws. Instead of trailing by 15 or more at the half, the Thunder led 53–48.

Klay Thompson’s record-setting 11 three-pointers on 18 attempts, leading to 41 of Golden State’s 108 points came mostly on well-defended shots that Thompson released over outstretched arms.

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Klay Thompson’s Game 6 shot chart.

Draymond Green has regained his ferocity…or has he? Golden State’s thrilling Game 6 comeback was sparked in part by Green’s harassing defense (and a foul that wasn’t called when Green slapped Westbrook’s elbow, causing one of the six infamous turnovers). At the same time, Green’s play in OKC was clearly off. The pure length of the Thunder messed with Draymond. How Cleveland defends Green will be a huge factor in the series. Kevin Love clearly can’t do it, but Love has nowhere to hide unless Bogut plays big minutes.

Deep Frye’d

Cleveland may choose to play Channing Frye more than rebounding machine Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love, whose post game isn’t strong enough to damage the small-ball lineup with Draymond’s interior defense. Cavs reserve center Channing Frye has made 26 of his 45 three-point attempts in the playoffs. Frye was acquired by Cleveland in a three-team deal involving Portland and Orlando. Ironically, Anderson Varejao, a high-energy big man whose effectiveness has dwindled with age, now finds himself on the Golden State bench. Varejao provided a 3-minute lift to the Warriors in Game 7. Frye’s ability to create space with his range and his sheer height (6'11") allow him to get off contested threes that other players can’t even attempt. The fact that Frye has drained nearly 60% of his shots shows how much spacing the Cavs have with Frye, Love, and J.R. Smith on the court. This spacing allows LeBron’s unparalleled court vision to boost the Cavs offense even more.

LeBron’s Been Waiting

Andre Iguodala’s defense on LeBron won him the NBA Finals MVP last year. Of course, LeBron was forced to carry an impossible offensive load with Irving and Love sidelined. The fact that the Cavs pushed the Warriors to six game last year remains impressive. People love to hate LeBron because they are tired of hearing about LeBron’s greatness. The spectacle of “The Decision,” still lingers in the subconscious of many casual fans. The spectacle of LeBron’s July 2014 free-agency, which loomed over the entire 2013–14 season, added a thick layer to what we might call “LeBron fatigue.” After choosing to return to Cleveland, last year’s Cavs Resurrection was the dominant story line, and with it came the inevitable “Are they really any good?” sub-story lines.

What is often lost in all of this is LeBron’s dominance. It is beyond tiring for genuine NBA lovers to hear about LeBron 24/7, to see yet another magazine cover of LeBron, and to see endless commercials involving LeBron. To some extent, the rise of the Warriors over the last two years has eased the media’s obsession with LeBron click bait. Now that the rematch is upon us, the simple narrative of “Love the Warriors, Hate LeBron” will bubble up and the attention of the casual NBA fan, the attention of the Finals, all of it will give rise to heated sports talk nonsense. Every Steph Curry three and every LeBron miss will be followed by bloated “Who’s the best?” The bar stool conversation starter.

It’s a dumb question. They both are the best. And we’re lucky to have the rematch. Klay’s Game 6 gave LeBron the chance to scratch that nagging itch. The one that forces him to ask why he’s spending so much energy invested in winning one more ring, and giving the city of Cleveland that elusive title they’ve been missing.

One aspect of the series that I’ll be watching is the Cleveland huddle. Is Tyronn Lue running this team? Does he have to? Is LeBron really a player-coach once the game begins? I don’t mind if he is. Too often, we give coaches too much praise if their team wins and too much blame if their team loses. Certainly, there are match-ups to exploit. Is Lue asking LeBron about whether or not he wants Love or Frye? If I were LeBron, I’d want the 60% three-point shooting center, who can ably defend the pick-and-roll. The trick is, you still need Love to produce for at least 15-20 minutes, feasting on Mo Speights if given the chance.

The Cavs are healthy. The Warriors won 73 games. The Finals are here. Enjoy.

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