The NBA Finals start in about an hour, but Sports-Editor Matt Van Liedekerke and Editor-in-Chief Aditya Joshi have been exchanging texts about it non stop for a week. They decided to take our conversation to the site, and fire off some quick thoughts and points of tension ahead of Game 1. Welcome to the 2015 NBA Finals Layup Line:
Biggest Question for the Cavs:
Aditya Joshi: Who’s going to step up and take the load off Lebron and a gimpy Kyrie? We all know, having heard about/watched him at length over the last 12 years, how great and talented Lebron James is. We Dukies are also well aware of how incredible Kyrie Irving can be when healthy. But they’re going up against the deepest team in the playoffs. The Warriors have the depth to attack the Cavs with a variety of different lineups, going big or small. They can play Draymond Green at the 5 (with Curry, Thompson, and some combination of Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston) and shred the Cavs’ 2 big lineups to death offensively thanks to elite spacing. Consequently, the Cavs need to try to make them pay on the other end of the floor (which, as Matt showed the other day, is not easy). Iman Shumpert and JR Smith are going to be important, and Lebron can win you a game or two on his own. But to become champs, the Cavs need continued offensive production from Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, and maybe even (gulp) James Jones. Production from just one of them won’t be enough to stop the dominant machine that is Golden State.
Matt Van Liedekerke: I don’t know, Thompson and Mozgov are good, but you know what you’re getting: rebounds, defense, and finishing at the rim. But I understand what you’re saying. If Thompson goes off for say 8 offensive rebounds, that can change a game. The contribution doesn’t just have to be in the scoring column. But to me, the big question is Slowing down Stephen Curry. He makes Golden State’s offense run, as I’ve previously wrote about (see above link). When he’s bottled up, Golden State can get stagnant offensively as they wait for him to get open or make a play. The Grizzlies provided a plan for guarding Curry: denying him the ball when he doesn’t have it and pressuring him when he does. Given that baseline defensive strategy, Shumpert is the Cavaliers’ best option to so over the course of the series because of his combination of length, strength, and quickness. And while at times inconsistent, he has shown the defensive intensity and focus that could give Curry problems. Irving, theoretically has the quickness to stay with Steph but has been a definite minus defensively over the course of his career. Lebron could certainly guard Steph for small stretches if necessary, but he’s going to have to carry the load offensively so can’t take the primary assignment of guarding Steph. Further, putting Lebron on Curry would cause all-types of cross-matchup issues. Ultimately, it’s going to have to be a team effort with Shumpert as the point-man. If they can slow Curry down and take him out of his rhythm, they give themselves a chance in the series, if not, good luck.
AJ: Stopping Lebron, stopping Steph; these will always be major points of concern for an opposing team. But if I’ve learned anything from watching sports, it’s that championships seem to always hinge on the shoulders of an unsung hero, a great play at a pivotal time from an unexpected source. America loves when a role player steps up big. Think Grayson Allen in the NCAA Championship, David Tyree in the 18-1 Super Bowl, and Robert Horry in every NBA Finals he ever played in. If the Cavs win, it’ll be because of one of the role players I mentioned earlier. Though the impact of “one shining moment” is mitigated a bit with a seven game series, look for a Cleveland role player (or multiple) to thank if the Cavs make this series close.
Most Interesting Matchups:
AJ: Tristan Thompson the Offensive Rebounding Vacuum vs. the GSW Turbo Train. This is where I was incorporating your comment on the first topic, Matt. It’s no secret that Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov have been cleaning up the offensive glass for the Cavs, securing tons of valuable second chance opportunities (which are doubly helpful considering Lebron’s shooting slump). However, the crashing of the offensive glass could open a door for Golden State’s #1 ranked transition offense to rip the Cavs apart. Cleveland’s second chance points have been a big swinging point for them in the playoffs thus far, and merely the threat of a Steph Curry transition three could cause Thompson and Co. to go running back on D. If the Cavs lose this advantage, the only solution for them offensively is just to make shots at Curry-like levels of excellence. Based on what I’ve seen over the last couple weeks, I’m not putting money on that.
MVL: I absolutely love Thompson’s energy on the offensive glass. He’s one of my favorite players to watch because of the way he gets after it. In terms of matchups, I’m interested in watching Lebron and the Cavs trying to crack openings in the Warriors defense. Especially with Kyrie out, the Cavaliers have had a tendency to stagnate on offense and rely heavily on Lebron isolations. They got away with it because he’s the best player in the world and they were going up against inferior competition but it won’t work against Golden State in a seven game series. They have plenty of length to throw at Lebron, and Bogut will always be luring in the paint, cleaning up any opportunities at the rim. Look, Lebron will be able to get his, but what will be key is if Golden State can devote resources to slowing him down but also not allow him to use his elite passing ability to set up his teammates and get the Cavs going. While we saw JR go off in game one of the Eastern Conference finals against the Hawks, I’m not sure he can repeat that. Kyrie’s health is paramount. If he can play close to to level that we’ve seen from him all year, the Cavs have chance. If not, I don’t see the Cavs being able to score enough to beat Golden State four times.
Most Likely to Play Himself into Big Money:
AJ: Draymond Green is getting the max this offseason, and whether the Warriors give it to him or not, he’s not losing that this finals. A more intriguing situation in my mind is Iman Shumpert, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Knicks dealt Smith and Shump together for a second round pick, and they have on more than one occasion kept the Cavs afloat late in games this playoffs… I predict Shump and Thompson being the reason this series is closer than FiveThirtyEight and others think it will be, and I could definitely see someone like Vivek Ranadive getting enamored by a great elimination game performance by Shump, and tendering him a large (not max, but overvalued) offer sheet that the Cavs can’t match.
MVL: I’m going to go with Harrison Barnes. He’s up for a rookie extension this summer and has really proved himself this year as a solid starter in the NBA. His contract negotiations will be a test case for how players and teams are approaching the massive cap leaps coming in 2016 and 2017. Will the Warriors give Barnes $15 million a year knowing that that number is going to look a lot smaller two years from now? Will Barnes accept that offer or elect to instead become a restricted free agent in 2016 when the cap is expected to jump more than $20 million and teams will be flush with cap space? These negotiations will be interesting, all the more so if Barnes has a big finals.
AJ: As much as I want to say Steph here, it’s has to be King James – he’s gonna need to score a ton of points and take over in a big way, just to keep Cleveland in it. His ball distribution may have to take a back seat.
MVL: I agree, The King is going to have to come up big for the Cavs. There’s no other way to put it – this team’s future rests on his massive shoulders.
MVL: Am I allowed to say Lebron again? I can see him averaging 30-10-10 in this series and the Cavs still going down.
AJ: Steph Curry – Dude’s gonna hit his 3’s, break some ankles, and take some great pics with his feisty, adorable daughter. But unlike the GSW, Cleveland doesn’t have a bunch of elite defenders. Steph is going to draw a lot of the defensive attention, which, in conjuction with some well spacing heavy lineups, will open up passing lanes and allow him to show how he averaged more than 7 assists a game this season.
Defensive Player of the Series:
AJ: One worry for Golden State is the possibility of Draymond Green getting into foul trouble. Between dealing with him playing the 5 in small ball lineups and guarding Lebron when Bogut or another true big is on the floor, Cleveland will surely attack Green at the rim. Luckily for the Warriors, they have Andre Iguodala. It’s kind of a sleeper pick, but I’ve loved AI since his early Sixers days, and I think he’s gonna be a crucial part to the eventual triumph of Golden State.
MVL: The combination of Barnes/Iggy/Green/Klay taking turns trying to guard Lebron. I can see all four of those guys spending time guarding Lebron. The Warriors switch so much on defense that a couple of them could spend time on him in any given possession. Plus, giving Lebron a bunch of different looks will keep guys fresh. If those guys can keep James somewhat in check, the Warriors will be holding the O’Brien Trophy.
Series Winner & MVP:
AJ: We’ve been building to this all year. Once again, the Finals are coming down to Lebron and a broken down cast of supporting players vs. a great coach, well oiled team basketball, and a once-in-a-lifetime player. And just like last year, I think the Lebron just isn’t enough to beat the systemized brilliance of his opponent. Regular Season MVP Steph Curry has been unbelievable this playoffs, and I think he caps the greatest shooting postseason of all time with a Finals MVP. Lebron will get you at least a game, and I can see his heroics plus a big game from Kyrie getting them another. But sadly for Cleveland, Splash Brothers and friends aren’t going down this year Warriors in 6.
MVL: It’s so hard to bet against Lebron but I’m going to have to go with the Warriors as well. They’re just too good for this Cavs team. I wish we could watch a series with a healthy Kyrie and Kevin Love. I think it would be much more of toss-up. But the Cavaliers’ lack of depth has really cost them. They’ve had to give James Jones legitimate rotation minutes, whereas if they had Love there’s no way he sees the floor. But as it stands, Golden State is just better. I’m taking them in five if Kyrie doesn’t miraculously regain midseason form.