I’ve heard a lot of people knock the NBA, saying that its postseason is inferior to both the NFL and NHL playoffs. There is some validity to that sentiment, particularly given how anticlimactic the first and second rounds usually are in basketball. But admit this: at its best, when two heavyweights like the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet in the Finals, the NBA is absolutely epic.
Just look at some of the storylines! In one corner you have the Warriors, who can legitimately lay claim to being the best team in NBA history if they win the championship to cap off a record-breaking 73 win season. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are on a mission to spoil Golden State’s dream-season in hopes of bringing the first pro sports championship to Cleveland in over 50 years.
On top of that, you all have sorts of intrigue among the stars in this series. Most notably, I believe a win for Cleveland would undoubtedly cement LeBron James’ status as one of the five greatest players of all-time. And yet, another loss for LeBron- which would drop his Finals record to 2-5-would likely damage his reputation as one of the game’s greats beyond repair. Moreover, there’s also a battle between James and Stephen Curry as to who the best player in the league is right now. Plus, there’s plenty of intrigue regarding the “other” stars in this series. Klay Thompson is another three-point explosion away from securing his status as a superstar while Kyrie Irving will look to prove how elite he is when he finally gets an opportunity to battle Curry for an entire series.
Now that we’re aware of the stakes, let’s analyze this matchup. We’ll start with the essentials. Golden State finished with a record of 73-9 with a point differential of +10.8 points per game. Cleveland, on the other hand, went 57-25 with a differential of +6.0. It’s important to keep these basic facts in mind because sixteen of the last twenty teams to have both a superior record and point differential in the Finals won the title. The Warriors hold up as the superior team when we turn to advanced stats as well. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index is giving Golden State a 75% chance to beat Cleveland while FiveThirtyEight gives the Warriors a 69% of repeating. In short, the Warriors are clearly the better team based on these important indicators, and that bodes well for them in this series.
Offensively, the Warriors have the edge; but it’s not as big of an advantage as you might think. In the regular season, Golden State led the NBA in offensive efficiency, true shooting percentage, and three point percentage while Cleveland lagged significantly behind. But things have changed recently: the Cavs are first in each of those categories in the postseason, far outpacing the Warriors in both offensive efficiency and true shooting percentage in particular. So does this mean the Cavs have a better offense than the Warriors now? I wouldn’t go that far because the playoffs are a pretty small sample size. However, Cleveland hasn’t played any defensive pushovers in these playoffs; Atlanta, for example, ranked 2nd in defense efficiency this year and the Cavs torched them.
If Cleveland does want to have an advantage offensively over the Warriors, they will need to hold their own in the three-point battle. In last year’s Finals, the Warriors made roughly three more three-pointers per game than the Cavaliers, shooting 36.5% from behind the arc compared to the Cavs’ mark of 29.5%. Given the way Cleveland has shot the three in this year’s playoffs (43.4%), these Cavaliers are now capable of matching the Warriors shot for shot.
Now let’s look at these two defenses, where the edge would appear to belong to Golden State once again. The Warriors were superior in terms of defensive efficiency, opponent true shooting percentage, and opponent three point percentage in the regular season; and in contrast to the offensive metrics I mentioned earlier, these edges have held up in the playoffs. What’s most disconcerting for the Cavaliers is that they rank only 12th in opponent three point percentage entering the Finals. That’s not a recipe for success against Curry and Thompson, which means that defending the three-ball will be as important for Cleveland as making it.
And yet, Cleveland has actually done a great job at limiting Golden State offensively. The Cavaliers may only be 2-6 in their last eight meetings against the Warriors, but they’ve held Golden State to only around 103 points per game. That’s very good considering that the Warriors have averaged an NBA-high of roughly 112 points per game in the last two seasons.
Ironically, their offense is the main reason why they’ve been successful in slowing down Golden State. One of the key things to know about Cleveland is that they play at a slow pace: they averaged roughly 95.5 possessions per game, which was only 28th in the league during the regular season. In this year’s playoffs, their possessions are down to 91.8 per game. Normally, fewer possessions would hinder a team’s offense; but since the Cavs offense has been extremely efficient this postseason, it hasn’t. Moreover, last year’s Cleveland team pales in comparison to the offense they have this year (104 points/100 possessions in 2015 playoffs vs 116.2 points/100 in 2016 playoffs).
So, in theory, Cleveland may be even more poised to beat the Warriors this year because a) LeBron and the Cavs were able to take a 2-1 lead in last year’s Finals without the services of Irving and Kevin Love, b) they’ve had past success containing Golden State with their slower pace of play, and c) their offense entering the Finals is far better this year than it was a season ago.
The only problem with this theory is that Cleveland’s slow pace does little good if they can’t score. The Warriors have limited LeBron and company to just 92.5 points per game in their last eight meetings. If we look at their two most recent regular season meetings in particular, Cleveland only put up 83 points in an 89-83 loss in Oakland on Christmas Day and then a deceptive 98 point total in a 132-98 beatdown at home in January.
Before getting to my predictions for this series, I want to discuss some of the important players. I contend that while the two superstars in this series are obviously vital to the outcome, I don’t believe they are the real keys to victory. LeBron James had a herculean performance in last year’s Finals, but the series was ultimately decided by him not having enough help around him. Similarly, the Warriors took control of that series once Andre Iguodala was inserted into the starting lineup.
Looking first to Golden State, Iguodala and Draymond Green will play vital roles because of their defense. It’s safe to assume that a combination of Iguodala and Green will check LeBron when he’s on the floor. Green, in particular, will be the key defender for Golden State because his versatility will allow him to disrupt Cleveland offensively both on the perimeter and in the paint.
I think the two key players for Cleveland are Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Everyone has assumed that their presence would have dramatically altered last year’s Finals, but they were glaring no-shows in each of the two regular season meetings. Irving shot 4-15 from the field and 0-6 from three in the first meeting and followed that up with an 8 point, 3-11 performance the second time around. Love was just as bad- he was 0-5 from three on Christmas day and finished with only 3 points in the second meeting. I have faith that Irving will perform well in this series, but I’m not too sure about Love. I’ll elaborate on that when I get too my predictions.
Another x-factor for Cleveland will be Tristian Thompson. He is Cleveland’s key rebounder, and he’s arguably the main reason why they were one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA. Thompson broke out in last year’s Finals, averaging 13 rebounds per game; but he hasn’t reached those same heights in this postseason (he’s averaging only 8.4 rebounds). Oklahoma City was able to dominate the Warriors underneath early in the Western Finals; so if Thompson can perform like he did in last year, that will be key for Cleveland.
10 Predictions for the 2016 NBA Finals
Enough analyzing! Time to make some predictions for how this series will play out.
Matthew Dellavedova will be a non-factor
I figured I’d get this easy prediction out of the way first. After “shutting down” Curry early in last year’s Finals, we won’t hear much from Dellavedova this time around considering he only averaged 11 minutes a game in the Toronto series.
Golden State will out-rebound Cleveland
Oklahoma City had the big’s to dominate the Warriors on the glass. But given that Cleveland has fell in love with the three, this will leave them undermanned underneath. Tristian Thompson alone will not be enough for Cleveland to have the same advantage on the boards that they had last year.
Draymond Green will shut down Kevin Love
He might make the occasional three-pointer, but Green’s physicality will get the better of Love. This will put more of a burden on Cleveland’s other two stars- James and Irving.
Cleveland manages to split the first two games again
The Warriors are one of the better home teams in the NBA, but they are certainly not indomitable. They dropped Game 1 to Oklahoma City recently and they struggled to start fast in both Game’s 5 & 7. This will allow Cleveland to secure home-court advantage heading back to Quicken Loans Arena in Game 3.
The single-game record for three-pointers made by a player in an NBA Finals game will be broken by Stephen Curry
The record belongs to Ray Allen, who hit eight three-pointers against the Lakers in 2010. I wanted to go really bold and say that this record will be broken twice in the same series by both Curry and Klay Thompson. But I’ll settle with my prediction that Curry, who finished the Thunder series on a three-point tear, will hit ten three-pointers in one of these games to set the record.
Kyrie Irving will lead Cleveland in scoring
Don’t expect LeBron James to carry as big of a load for Cleveland in this series. James’ usage rate and shots per game have fallen from 37.2% and 27.2 shots in the 2015 playoffs to 29.2% and 17.9 shots in this year’s playoffs. So I expect Cleveland’s game plan to not be quite as LeBron-centric, which is why I like Kyrie Irving to pick up the slack for the Cavs offensively with most of the attention still expected to be on LeBron.
Three-point shooting will decide this series
In each of the last eight meetings, the team that has had a higher three-point shooting percentage has won each game. Plain and simple, this series will come down to that once again. So who will win the battle behind the arc?
Cleveland will ultimately die by the three-pointer
You live by the three and you die by the three. Cleveland has lived by it during this postseason. Golden State has lived by it over the past two seasons. I think the Cavaliers will shoot more like they did in the regular season, when they made about 36% of their threes as opposed to the 43% clip they have shot at in the postseason. After all, who do you trust more? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson? Or a combination of James, Irving, Love, J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, and Iman Shumpert? In this case, less is more.
Stephen Curry will get the better of LeBron James
I thought Curry was nervous in last year’s Finals. Frankly, Curry lucked out by having supporting players like Andre Iguodala step up to finally squash LeBron James, who had little help of his own, as we know. But it will be different in this year’s Finals because Curry has already completed his greatest hurdle by defeating Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder. The moment is no longer too big for him. As for LeBron, I think the Cavaliers will make it a point to not rely solely on their best player. Moreover, I expect Tyronn Lue to push the tempo, which will be a mistake because that will play into what the Warriors do best. And for these reasons, Stephen Curry will outshine LeBron James and lead the Warriors to another title…
Golden State Beats Cleveland in Six Games; Stephen Curry Wins Finals MVP