I’ll confess off the top that this Warriors-Cavaliers series would be extraordinarily difficult for me to forecast even in normal circumstances, but the injury situations of Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving have made it virtually impossible.
“A man must have a code.”
The Injury Report: The Warriors are blithely assuring us that Klay Thompson will be back to normal and playing by Game 1, just as his agent blithely assured us that Klay didn’t have a concussion at all. (I assume these statements are not attempts to game the NBA protocols, because with the long-term health of their player at stake, that would be morally reprehensible. Right?)
They’re full of crap. Neither the Warriors nor Bill Duffy, Klay’s morally compromised agent, nor Klay himself have any idea whether Klay will be ready to go in Game 1. None. Zero. Nada.
Just as the Warriors had literally no idea whether or not Curry or Klay had concussions when they let them leave the locker room to return to the floor. It frequently takes some time for concussion symptoms to manifest themselves, as Klay’s situation demonstrated to the casual fan. (But surely the professionals who “evaluated” the players already knew that, right? And communicated that clearly to the grown-ups present in the locker room with them, right? Or perhaps Warriors management and staff have just shown themselves to be willing to sacrifice the long-term health of a player, any player, in order to line their own pockets. Or keep their jobs.)
No one has any idea whether Klay will be ready, because it simply cannot be known. The recent cases of Justin Morneau and Brandon Belt have shown that concussion symptoms can linger for weeks, months or even a year or more. Both of those players had periods of feeling better, and of getting cleared to play, only to later suffer setbacks, and again sit out. And those guys are baseball players. Not basketball players, who have to jump up and down on hardwood. (Is that jarring at all?) I hate to say it, but it wouldn’t shock me if Klay were to miss the entire Finals. It also wouldn’t shock me if he returned to play, but then suffered a relapse of symptoms that forced him to sit out again. Nor would it shock me if he were entirely fine by Game 1, and ready to go seven with no after-effects at all. Nobody knows. Nobody.
So how to forecast this series? Stephen Curry has hardly been blitzed at all this postseason, but I’m virtually certain that he’s about to get the crap blitzed out of him by the extremely mobile Cavs. If Klay is out, or rusty and diminished? The Cavs’ blitz will be completely unpunishable. They can live with whatever Dray, Barnes and who… Holiday? Barbosa? Livingston? give them.
The Kyrie Irving situation is equally unpredictable. The Cavs have been calling his knee injury “tendonitis”, but I think they’re just as full of crap as the Warriors. Irving got almost the same amount of time to rest his knee before the Hawks series as he’s getting now, and yet by Game 3 of that series he was unable to go. If this is tendonitis, I’ve got a Warriors season ticket to sell you. I’ll lay… mmm… 2-1 that Irving has off-season surgery.
So what does Irving’s situation mean for the Cavs? I’m not as sure about this as I am about Klay’s. When completely healthy, Irving’s All-World offensive abilities completely outweigh his well-known defensive deficiencies. His supreme three point shooting (41% regular season; 48% on one leg this post-season) perfectly complements LeBron’s supreme point-forward skills. His ball-handling and ability to penetrate the defense for either layups or kick-outs can give LeBron a much-needed breather.
Does he still help the Cavs when playing on one leg? That’s a difficult question. He’s still obviously valuable as a spot-up shooter, but whether or not that outweighs his incapacity for defense will probably depend mightily on Harrison Barnes. Yes, Barnes. More on that later.
The Cavs without Irving altogether? That’s easier to analyze than Irving on one leg. Judging from this post-season the Cavs are still a superb team playing entirely without Irving. Mathew Dellavadova, Iman Shumpert and JR Smith all pick up more minutes, and the three point shooting suffers only marginally (Delly 41% reg. season, 36% playoffs; Shump 34% reg. season, 37% playoffs; JR 38% reg. season, 40% playoffs). The defense goes from good to superb. The biggest downsides are in the predictability of the Cav’s offense (only LeBron can really initiate), the shortness of the Cav’s rotation, and in particular the huge demands placed on LeBron’s stamina. He wore down badly against the Hawks.
So assuming all of my injury assumptions are correct, how do you predict this series? I think anyone who believes they know what the outcome will be, is — like the Warriors management, their “doctors”, and their player agents — simply full of it.
I’m sorry to start out on such a downer. I am genuinely excited to see Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and the Warriors in the Finals, and particularly against The King and his latest Posse, in what could very well turn into one of the great Finals matchups of all-time. I just have to lead with the truth, when the powers that be are currently leading with falsehood. That’s been my m.o. here, something I can’t help, one of things that impelled me to start this blog.
So on to the series. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but for the sake of more comprehensible analysis, as well as for the sake of my own heartfelt desire, I’m just going to assume that Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving will be perfectly healthy throughout, and go from there. (Hey, I’m full of crap too!) Here are a few things I think we might see in the Finals:
“Game’s the same, just got more fierce.”
— Slim Charles
Guarding LeBron: Ahahahaaaa! Haha! Let me just lead with that.
The Warriors have a natural defender for LeBron in Draymond Green, someone who can’t guard him at all, of course, but can’t guard him better than anyone else in the league can’t guard him, except possibly Kawhi Leonard.
The problem the Warriors have is that they can’t get Draymond on LeBron. At least I don’t think they can. The Cavs start LeBron at SF, with the 6-9″ 240 Tristan Thompson at PF. Thompson is a beast on the boards, a player who admires and styles himself after Dennis Rodman, and is averaging 10 rbs/gm in the playoffs, and 12 in the last five games. Harrison Barnes is averaging 5 rbs in the post-season, slightly less in the last five games. My point being that I don’t think the Warriors could crossmatch these positions even if they wanted to.
But what about when the Cavs go “small”, with Thompson at center and LeBron at four? Again, I don’t think there’s any way the Warriors could crossmatch Dray and Barnes in this spot. I’m not even sure the Warriors could get away with playing Barnes at all against those two, without having either Bogut or Ezeli behind him.
Mo Speights is apparently ready to play again after sitting out the Houston series with a calf injury. But even if he weren’t now rusty and poorly conditioned, I think this might be a poor matchup for Mo. He can’t bully either Thompson or LeBron, and they have him badly out-quicked in what promises to be an up and down series. The last time these two teams matched up, Mo got 7 minutes. My gut tells me he’ll average less in this series.
David Lee got 21 minutes in that last game, and put up 19 points on 8-11 shooting, but we won’t see that again. That was during Kerr’s experimental regular season phase. It’s clear from these playoffs that Kerr would rather suck lemons than play Lee. It would mean changing his system and trying to win with offense, and he’s not prepared to do that.
My gut tells me that Kerr is going to try to ride Festus Ezeli when Bogut is done giving his 18-21 minutes. Other than Dray, Ezeli is likely to be the Warriors’ best defensive center against the combination of power and speed that the undersized Thompson and the oversized LeBron present. Kerr prizes defense above all on his second unit, and given that fact, and the nice Houston series Ezeli is coming off of, I believe Festus will be his man. And the best way to get Dray matched up against LeBron.
But can Festus really run the floor with the Cavs’ small unit? That remains to be seen.
And can Dray really slow LeBron? In the last game, LeBron backed him down with apparent ease, and went 3-3 with Dray guarding him. So that remains to be seen as well.
“I’ll do what I can to help y’all. But the game’s out there, and it’s play or get played.”
The Harden Defense: If the Warriors can’t get Dray on LeBron when playing against the Cavs big unit, then who will guard him? Nominally, it will be Barnes and then Iggy. The problem with this is that neither has a prayer against LeBron on his own. Barnes has more size, and some athleticism, but doesn’t have… IT. LeBron went through him like a knife through sauteed butter in their only matchup this season.
And Iggy wasn’t any better. Iggy never could guard LeBron, even in his prime. Back then it was an issue of LeBron’s size, combined with equal athleticism. But the Iggy of 2015 has lost a step. I was dismayed in the last game to see that Iggy couldn’t even keep LeBron in front of him on the perimeter. Iggy can’t do to LeBron what he did to James Harden in Game 7.
Clearly, the Warriors are going to have to reach into Ron Adams’ box of tricks one more time for a defensive gameplan.
The Warriors played a box and one zone against Harden in the last series, essentially trying to force him to shoot outside against the length of Harrison Barnes, by threatening to trap his drives. And come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what the great Gregg Popovich did to LeBron in last years’ finals? A box and one, with Kawhi up top? The difference was that instead of pressing up on the slow-footed Harden, as Barnes did, Kawhi sagged all the way off LeBron, and literally dared him to shoot every time down. A brilliant strategy against one of the great facilitators in NBA history.
And the strategy we can expect the Warriors to deploy. Particularly since LeBron is currently struggling badly with his outside shot. 12 for 68 from three in this post-season, I believe. Yowza. As he did against the Grizzlies and the Rockets, Ron Adams will borrow from the master to try to slow LeBron.
But will it work? Unlike James Harden, LeBron can literally blow by his initial defender. Unlike Harden, LeBron has the power to bust through double teams like Jim Brown busting through an offensive line. Unlike Harden, LeBron will not only draw the foul, but he’ll finish the shot.
And unlike Harden, LeBron has some truly great three point shooters around him, to find on the drive and kick: Kyrie and JR are lights out, better than anyone on the Rockets. Shump and Delly are just as good as anyone on the Rockets. Not to mention James Jones, the graybeard three point specialist who has been seeing some time off the bench.
And what of Mike Miller, who is riding the pine? Could he be dusted off for this series? Hmmm.
The Kyrie Effect: In any game that Kyrie plays close to healthy, the Warriors will be facing two players who require two defenders each to guard. That was the World Champion Heat’s winning recipe, and it will stretch the Warriors defense to the absolute limit.
This is the first series the Warriors have played in which their defense has the potential to get ripped to shreds.
The Battle for the Boards: If the Warriors have an Achilles heel this season, it is rebounding. They were 15th in the league in rebound rate, at 48.8%. None of the teams they’ve faced so far in the post-season have been able to exploit that. But what about the Cavs? Can they exploit it?
I think they might. The Cavs outrebounded the gigantic Bulls by 261 to 245. They absolutely crushed the Hawks on the boards, 208 to 157. Mozgov will be a handful for Bogut. Tristan Thompson is a superb offensive rebounder, who has at least three inches on Draymond. And LeBron, of course, dwarfs both Barnes and Iggy.
What happens if the Cavs win the battle for the boards? Well, it will be the Cavs beating Bogut down the floor, instead of the Warriors beating Mozgov. It will be the Cavs getting early transition looks at threes, instead of Curry and Klay.
I’m particularly worried about the Cavs getting on the offensive boards. There is no better way to slow a great fast break team than by crashing the offensive glass. I learned this by watching the great Bird Celtics beat the Showtime Lakers, when victory seemed impossible.
This is one series that could be decided by rebounding
And if things start going south, I predict that Kirk Lacob will approach Steve Kerr mid-series with a printout ranking Warriors players by rebound per minute, and offer some suggestions.
The Stephen Curry Problem: OK, enough depressing stuff about how tough the Cavs are going to be to defend in this series. We all know that the Cavs face a tough defensive problem of their own. Guarding the 2015 MVP, one of the greatest offensive wizards to ever set foot on the hardwood. Can the Cavs guard him?
Not with Kyrie Irving, that much is clear. Particularly not with a one-legged Kyrie Irving. Curry will run him through so many screens he’ll wind up feeling like cutting his gimpy leg off at the thigh. And that would, of course, take away one of the Cavs’ own great offensive weapons.
I don’t think the Cavs will want to guard Curry with Kyrie. Not for long anyway. And fortunately for them, they have several good alternatives: JR Smith and Iman Shumpert to start. Particularly Shump, who is a superb defender. But JR is extremely underrated defensively himself. And the Cavs might also turn to Matthew Dellavodova, who as we’ll all seen, loves to throw his body around in reckless fashion, and is a pretty good defender. Although with Delly, I think a Curry blitz would be an absolute requirement.
So far in these playoffs, Curry has had it extremely easy. He’s been guarded by length, but not quickness (injured Quincy Pondexter, Tyreke Evans, injured Tony Allen); he’s been guarded by quickness, but not length (injured Conley); and he’s been guarded by neither (decrepit Jason Terry).
He’s also very rarely been pressed or blitzed. His opponents just didn’t have the personnel. Or the coaches.
That’s going to change now. The Cavs can get both length and quickness on Curry, and with LeBron and Thompson on the front line, I think they have the overall team defense to blitz the crap out of him. This team can blitz like LeBron’s Heat teams, recover to the shooters, and always have a rim protector near the paint.
What happens if the Cavs just decide to take Curry off the board? Can the Warriors beat an all-out Cavs blitz?
Klay Thompson: That’s going to depend heavily on Klay, of course. And for the third series in a row, he’s going to draw a great defender for much of the game, either Smith or Shumpert.
I’ve been disappointed in Klay’s post-season so far. He has both struggled with his shot, and struggled getting to the line. The Warriors haven’t needed great scoring games from him yet. But I strongly suspect they’ll need them badly in this series. Klay has got to get to the line, especially if his shot’s not falling.
“My name is my name.”
Playoff Barnes: It’s almost a shame that this series is following right on the heels of what was possibly the best game of HB’s career. One feels he should get to bask in the glow a little bit longer before matching up with LeBron.
There might be some good news, though. In the last game, the Cavs matched up conventionally to start the game, and LeBron completely ignored Barnes to concentrate on giving help. That led to numerous wide-open Barnes threes, three of which he converted.
And if the Cavs try to hide Kyrie Irving or James Jones on Barnes, which I think they will, Barnes could have a field day.
Can Playoff Barnes break the Cavs’ blitz? This is the biggest test of his young career. And perhaps the best opportunity he’ll ever get to make his name in the league. His real name, not his brand name.
“Is this money? Mothafucka, money be green!”
The Draymond Green Factor: Smart fans know that the Warriors had two MVPs this season. Stephen Curry was the fans’ MVP. Draymond Green was the undercover MVP.
His elevation into the starting lineup was the single biggest reason why the Warriors exploded from 51 wins to 67. His defense, his rebounding, his toughness, his energy, his ability to stretch the floor, to lead the fast break, to pass out of the high and low post, to coach on the floor and light a fire under his teammates, to do literally everything his team needed, transformed this Warriors team into a legitimate contender.
In the last series he dominated not only Josh Smith but Dwight Howard in the paint. Can he carry it over against the bigger and far, far badder Cavs front line? Against a Tristan Thompson who is coming into his own? Against The King himself?
Can he do it while helping to break the Curry blitz with his offense?
Money Green’s performance is a major key to this series. Quite possibly THE key.
“I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?”
Coaching: The Warriors have had a huge edge so far in these playoffs in the coaching department. Will that edge carry over to this series?
I don’t know, I think LeBron knows what he’s doing.
“Look the part, be the part.”
— Prop Joe
The Final Adjustment: I’m sure you can already tell that I’m nervous about this series. But what has me truly terrified is the thought of the final adjustment that awaits Stephen Curry, when the chips are down.
Being guarded by LeBron.
Do you remember, as I do, the last time LeBron faced an MVP point guard in a playoff series? It was Derrick Rose in his prime, and LeBron took on the challenge of guarding him in the fourth quarter of the close-out game.
And destroyed him.
What happens if the Cavs guard Curry with LeBron at the end of close games? For entire fourth quarters? Well, I know that Stephen Curry is not Derrick Rose. He has many more weapons than just a right-hand drive. He’s got the handle, the step-back, the unlimited range. He’s got the court vision, and the passing ability. But I’m still worried.
We’ve seen Curry guarded by Kawhi Leonard this season. And the result was not pretty. And we’ve also seen, for 8 minutes of one quarter, Curry being guarded by Kevin Durant. That also wasn’t pretty: Curry went 0-4 with 3 TOs, and the Thunder took control of the game by turning a 5 point deficit into a 9 point lead. The fact of the matter is that Stephen Curry has in the past proven extremely vulnerable against great defenders with great length and great athleticism.
Stephen Curry has had a season for the ages. He has demonstrated offensive gifts the likes of which have never before been seen in the NBA. But now he’s coming face to face with the player who just might be the best in NBA history. And if Curry is to prevail, there is going to be a moment of truth when he has to beat that player mano a mano, MVP to MVP.
The Baby-Faced Assassin is coming for The King.
And as Omar would tell him:
Come at The King, you best not miss.