Every NBA Finals decides the highest team honor in basketball, but only a few decide bigger-picture history. This is one of those Finals. Golden State is chasing a repeat, a grueling feat that on its own vaults a team into exalted territory. As the culmination of a record 73-win season, it would give these Warriors a legitimate claim as the greatest single-season team in history.
LeBron James, already perhaps one of the half-dozen greatest players who has ever lived, enters these Finals at peak bounding health, surrounded by the deepest and most versatile Cleveland team ever. He is also 2-4 in the Finals. That mark is not as damning as the implacable, cherry-picking critics would have you believe. James has played well in all but one of those Finals, and in three losses, his teams fell to clearly superior opponents. Oscar Robertson, an undisputed top-10 all-time player, made the Finals just twice in his 14-year career.
Dropping to 2-5 would put a career .500 Finals record almost out of reach, and transform LeBron into a rare archetype: the generational superstar whose teams lost on the biggest stage much more than they won. He would almost become the successor to Jerry West.
Again: there is nothing wrong with that. We call West “Mr. Clutch” despite the Lakers’ 1-8 record in the Finals during his career, and with the calm of time, we will better reconcile LeBron having played well in defeat. But a Finals record tilted so steeply toward the loss column would muddle LeBron’s place in history, just as it has with West, perpetually underrated even in debates about the greatest Laker ever. Fall enough in June, even as an underdog, and there are conversations you can’t get into.
A win would bring James closer to equilibrium with plenty of years ahead, and given the juggernaut opposition, it would almost count double. LeBron cares about that stuff, and that should scare the Warriors.
His Cavaliers enter this rematch with more questions to answer, starting with this: Can they defend the Warriors well enough with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor? And if they can’t, how does Tyronn Lue reshuffle?
Cleveland has allowed 103 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, a mediocre mark compiled against mostly mediocre offenses, and they’ve been much worse with Irving and Love together. Opponents have scored 1.2 points per possession on any trip involving a pick-and-roll with Irving and Love as the defenders on the play — a mark that would have ranked next to last among 119 such pairings that navigated at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular-season, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com.
Of 63 post-season pairings who faced at least 40 pick-and-rolls, only eight barfed up worse figures — and they were mostly odd-ball duos who played limited minutes for teams that exited early. Opponents know this: they’ve put the Love/Irving duo through more screens than any post-season pair, and the Warriors will hunt them down wherever they are.
Oklahoma City almost killed the Stephen Curry–Draymond Green pick-and-roll by switching every time; defending it with Irving and Love would be the hoops equivalent of plunging a hypodermic needle into Mrs. Mia Wallace’s chest.
Love has usually defended Green, but Lue probably needs to run away from that matchup — fast. Love has no shot switching onto Curry. He usually resorts to trapping, which unlocks the deadly 4-on-3s that sliced apart Cleveland a year ago:
Love has tried the lunge-and-recover route, but he’s not fast enough to cut off Curry and scurry back in time to Green; he often struggles to do either:
When the Warriors get Vine-level mean, they have a third player smash Love with a pick before the Curry-Green show even starts:
Love works hard, and he and Irving managed the Kyle Lowry–Patrick Patterson dance neatly enough for Cleveland to cruise to the Finals in six. We know the Cavs have another gear in reserve for an opponent they actually respect. But after seven games against Oklahoma City’s frantic, pressurized defense, Golden State may feel relief against Cleveland. They Cavs are slower, their arms are shorter and they don’t jump as high. The Warriors can breathe again.
The easiest adjustment would be to slide Love onto Andrew Bogut and use Tristan Thompson on Green. Thompson can slide step for step with Curry until Irving recovers, and at least have a shot at preventing an easy slip pass to Green. Thompson can hang with Curry on an emergency switch, though Curry in Game 7 against the Thunder rediscovered those looping, step-back 3s he launches over bigger victims.
The Warriors will still Love him into the Curry-Bogut pick-and roll, but Cleveland’s best shot involves Bogut (and the rest of Golden State’s centers) logging heavy minutes as lurching playmakers in open space.
If the Cavs go with the Thompson/Green and Love/Bogut matchups, the Warriors will happily run their go-to Curry-Green play anyway; doing so would yank Cleveland’s best rim protector 30 feet from the rim, leaving last-line-of-defense duties to the ground-bound Love. That’s life in the Finals: elite opposition imposes uncomfortable sacrifice.
Cleveland’s best option would be unleashing LeBron on Green as a switch-everything monster in the mold of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, but given the load LeBron carries on offense, that feels like a crunch-time-only thing. Then again, Durant just pulled the trick over a seven-game war, and James is as well-rested and healthy as he has ever been going into a Finals — flanked by two other stars who should soak up some of the scoring burden. With LeBron blowing up pick-and-rolls, the Cavs could stash Love on Barnes or Iguodala.
Yeah, LeBron is 31, with 46,000 minutes on the odometer, but if this isn’t the time for a balls-to-the-wall, two-way effort, what is?
Hiding Irving on Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes is harder. If Irving is not guarding Curry, the assignment falls at first to either J.R Smith or LeBron — unappealing options for different reasons. This will be the greatest challenge of Irving’s career. He rose to the occasion in Game 1 of last year’s Finals before suffering a knee injury, but he has been his usual milquetoast self since, bumping into screens that leave him 10 feet behind ball handlers who don’t require even half that space to rise and fire.
Curry has also baited Irving into leaving the backdoor open:
Lue may need to find more time for Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova. Shumpert could be an X-factor, if he cans enough triples. The Cavs have used him on Curry, Thompson and Green — the latter in small-ball lineups in which Shumpert serves as something like Shane Battier, guarding Green so that LeBron doesn’t have to.
Those super-small groups loom as a way to match Golden State’s speed without sacrificing defense, but Lue has rarely used them. Richard Jefferson has usurped the Battier role, and with Channing Frye spitting fire, the Cavs have been fine playing two of the Frye/Love/Tristan Thompson duo. A lineup like Irving-Smith-Shumpert-LeBron-Thompson looks promising, but the Cavs featured it for just 36 minutes in the regular season — and none so far in the playoffs, per NBA.com.
If Love quakes and the Cavaliers fall behind, it wouldn’t shock me if Cleveland at least broaches the idea of starting Shumpert in Love’s place mid-series.
Alas, going provides Curry easier resting places on defenses, chips away at Cleveland’s rebounding edge, and opens the door to more of the Warriors Death Lineup with Green at center. If Golden State concludes it can play that group as much as it’d like, the Cavs are probably toast. The Warriors fretted about leaning on it last time around because they feared Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov would obliterate them on the boards. Does any Cleveland lineup inspire that same panic now?
The Love/Tristan Thompson combo has the offensive rebounding chops, but that won’t matter if Love wilts on defense. The Love-Frye super-shooting combo doesn’t bring enough bully-ball — the Warriors could switch almost across the board — and the Golden State offense could run circles around it. (Frye shooting over smaller dudes is a real concern for Golden State. Ditto for Smith firing over Curry).
A smart, dialed-in defense can hang with the Warriors when one of Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao is on the floor. When Curry invites those behemoths into the pick-and-roll — perhaps as a way of targeting Love — defenses can usually catch them before they do any damage lurching toward the basket. When they don’t have the ball, they clog up the lane, making it harder for Golden State to flit through all the interior space Curry and Klay Thompson open up; if Iguodala or Barnes is in Bogut’s place here, this floater becomes a dunk — or a kick-out pass for an open corner 3:
The closer Golden State’s center minutes come to totaling 48, the better Cleveland’s chances.
This isn’t last year’s crippled Cleveland team. They have the talent to inflict pain against Golden State’s deadliest lineups, and the flexibility to shape-shift. They can stay big against the Death Lineup (or the Coma Lineup with Shaun Livingston), stash Love on Barnes, Iguodala or Livingston, and try to bludgeon the Warriors on the other end with Love’s post game.
These Cavs can cut minutes for either Irving or Love — and still play enough shooters around LeBron to stretch Golden State’s defense several feet farther in every direction. Last season’s Cavs generally played only two shooters around LeBron; Golden State could effectively guard him with five players, shading every help defender toward his post-ups:
Sprinkle more Cavs around the arc, and suddenly, James has room to plunder. You cannot watch him go one-on-one in the post — not even against Iguodala. James pulverizes any wing player; leave Iguodala on an island, and James will get to the rim every single damn time:
You have to help, and with this souped-up Cavs team, those rotations are longer.
The Warriors are the sharpest help-and-recover team in the league — five dudes sharing the same neural circuitry, moving as if they can read one another’s thoughts and those of the opposing offense. But LeBron surrounded by enough shooting can bust any defense — including the Death Lineup. That group might be able to switch any pick-and-roll, but they can’t switch their way out of a LeBron post assault. The Thunder reminded us that you don’t have to outscore the Green-at-center crew over hundreds of minutes. You just need to do it once or twice to swing a series. The Cavs, big or small, have the goods to do that.
These Cavs have the personnel to go a step further, remove Tristan Thompson, and play four shooters around LeBron by slotting Love or Frye (or, hell, even LeBron if things get off-kilter) as the lone big man. If LeBron is the worst shooter on the floor — if he has the lane to himself — you are not stopping Cleveland’s offense. Your only hope is to outscore them.
This is why that weirdo hybrid bench mob of Dellavedova, Shumpert, Jefferson, James and Frye has been unstoppable — to the point that Golden State may have to tinker with its own bench rotation in response. You need to be as switchable as possible to contain that group, and it’s hard to imagine the Warriors pulling it off with both Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights on the floor.
Golden State’s “A” lineups are the league’s switchiest, and the series may turn on whether the Cavs have enough pick-and-roll weaponry to poke at the few weaknesses they’ll discover. Golden State should stick Klay Thompson on Irving from jump street, a setup that triggers switches the Warriors can absorb.
Run the Irving-James pick-and-roll, and Golden State is fine switching Klay Thompson onto LeBron. James can overpower Thompson, but not to the degree the Warriors would send hard double-teams. Switching the Irving-Love pick-and-roll is dicier, since Love can back down Thompson for jump hooks — an option the Warriors have usually lived with as a least-of-all-evils thing.
When Golden State has contorted itself to bail Thompson out of the matchup, the Cavs have shown they can pass their way to smart looks:
If the Warriors don’t switch, Love might be able to launch some pick-and-pop 3s — though Green is an expert at running dudes off the line.
The other side of that switch — Irving with Green on him — is even juicier. Irving can torch Green off the bounce, and stands as the shoulder-shaking mismatch that can tilt this series. Coaxing Green into switches that remove him from the rebounding scrum could also help the Cavs snag more second-chance points, a key deterrent against Golden State going super-small.
Cleveland is the slow-poke here, but they should push off Golden State misses when Irving is guarding Curry as a way of trapping Golden State into that matchup on the other end.
When Curry gets stuck on Irving, the LeBron-Irving pick-and-roll becomes unswitchable; LeBron can mash Curry flat, and Irving can bolt around any Warrior wing one-on-one:
If Curry ducks under that LeBron pick, Irving can make it rain triples. When Cleveland flips it, with LeBron as the ball handler, the Warriors will go under and dare LeBron to hit jumpers. LeBron needs to hit some open 3s. But he also has a bunch of tricks — re-screens, fakes, just being LeBron — to ram his dude into the pick anyway, and fly uncontested toward the rim:
When Curry settles onto Smith, the Cavs should — and will — experiment with LeBron/Smith pick-and-rolls, too.
This isn’t about Curry being a bad defender, by the way. He’s fine. He’s just not nearly as good as Klay Thompson in ways that are important for the Irving matchup. Guarding Smith is no picnic for Curry, either. We all went bonkers for the nutso threes Thompson hit in saving the Warriors’ season in Game 6 against the Thunder, but Smith has been canning insane contested triples all postseason. His height advantage over Curry matters. He cannot fall apart in the Finals again.
Klay Thompson is taller than Curry, better-equipped to bother Irving from behind when he scoots around a pick, sniffs open territory and rises for pull-up jumpers. That shot is a key battleground; if Irving has enough room, he can launch them over Bogut anytime he wants given how Bogut prefers to hang back:
Thompson has become among the league’s best at slithering around screens, attaching himself to a point guard’s hip and snuffing that precise shot.
There is no perfect answer against an All-Star jitterbug like Irving, but Thompson is a good one. Having him switch onto LeBron and Love on the pick-and-roll isn’t ideal, either, but winning at this level rarely unfolds in an ideal way. You need to absorb some punishment — to accept defeat, get dirty and go right back at it.
And that’s where I keep ending up: Golden State has better and more varied counters to all the problems Cleveland presents. The Warriors can slot Thompson on Irving, switch more easily, dance around Cleveland’s best big lineups and out-small their smaller ones.
The Cavs will inflict damage. They are good enough to win this series. The Warriors have been just a bit better all season, and they hold the trump card of playing Game 7 at home.