The Trilogy: Cavaliers vs. Warriors III
Well it’s finally here, the finals we have all been waiting for that was all but pre-ordained from the beginning of the season, the epic round 3 between the Warriors and the Cavs.
These playoffs have been a huge disappointment so far from a watchability standpoint with so many blowouts and the worst conference finals ever. Now most are predicting a finals will be another blowout where the Cavs will be lucky to win one or two games. At first glance on paper it seems like the Warriors are going to destroy the Cavs, after all, they were up 3-1 last year and now added the second best player in the league to an already stacked roster. I see things differently though, and let’s first look at the matchups…
Point Guard: Kyrie Irving vs. Stephen Curry
This is the matchup that the Cavs absolutely have to win if they want to win this series. Curry has the MVP and gets more love, but Kyrie is the most clutch player in the league who always plays his best in the biggest moments. Kyrie is the definition of a closer and is playing the best basketball of his career with a few dominant performances in the ECF. For whatever reason, Curry never plays well against the Cavs. After keeping Curry mostly irrelevant during the NBA Finals, the Cavs once again held him in check holding him to just 15 points on Christmas.
For all the swag Curry brings to the game on most nights, Cleveland somehow manages to mostly eliminate the fun Curry usually plays with, even going as far to having him lose it and throw his mouthpiece in epic fashion in game 6. We’ve seen Curry come up small in back-to-back NBA Finals, as it’s been Klay and others having to step up for the Warriors (let’s not forget Iggy, not Steph, got the MVP in 2015). In fact, in eight playoff games against each other, Kyrie is averaging 26.6 points on 46.6 percent shooting while Curry is shooting 41.7 percent and averaging 23 points. Curry is the better player overall, but I trust Kyrie more in big moments than I do the baby faced assassin. When the game is on the line, call me crazy, I’d rather have the ball in Kyrie’s hands. Both of these guys are going to get their points offensively and will all but cancel each other out scoring wise. This is extremely close and I want to give the advantage to Kyrie, but in the sake of being as objective as possible I’ll call this a very tight draw. Advantage: Draw
Shooting Guard: JR Smith vs. Klay Thompson
This is the one matchup where the Warriors have the decisive edge. JR Smith has been shooting lights out this post season 48.4% from the field and 45% from three but is only averaging 6.6 points per game. He’s a shooter who needs his shot created for him and can be hit or miss but is also a solid defender. Klay has scored double digits in 10 of the 12 playoff games and has yet to catch fire, which you would think he is due to one of these games. Thing is with Klay though, ever since Durant returned from his injury he has been the third option at best and just isn’t finding his rhythm because he isn’t getting the looks he needs with Curry and Durant taking so many shots. Klay has a bigger ceiling to go off for 20+ in any given game but JR has the sneaky ability to hit some clutch 3’s as well. That said, Klay is the much better overall player and wins this matchup rather easily Advantage: Warriors
Small Forward: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
This is the matchup everyone is looking forward to watching in this series. This is the best player in the league vs. the second best, and neither of these need much of an introduction. The Cavs get the edge here as Lebron is still the best player in the world playing arguably the best basketball of his career. Also remember that LeBron has a history of owning KD and is 14-4 against against him in the regular season and 4-1 against him during the playoffs. Sure, a lot of those numbers came on different teams and the playoff series was when Durant was just 23 years old. Still, it goes without saying that LeBron is still the best player in the world and the fact he’s owned Durant teams every time they meet gives him the mental edge as well. Advantage: Cavs
Power Forward: Kevin Love vs. Draymond Green
Curry and Durant are the two best players on the team, but Draymond Green is still the heart and soul of the Warriors because of the little things. He’s the the tireless defensive presence, the instigator who pisses off the opponent, and the more than capable scorer who can chip in 20+ any given game along with double digit rebounds and assists. Kevin Love is often considered the third wheel in Cleveland, but he’s really come on this postseason and is looking like the top 10 player he was in Minnesota. He’s scored no less than 15 points in five straight games and is shooting 47.5 percent from three during the playoffs while averaging 10.4 rebounds. Lue is finally using him correctly letting him get into the post and dominate instead of just standing out on the wing waiting for his shot like he did most of the regular season.
If Love can maintain this level of play it is going to make the Cavs a much more dangerous team. This is the most KEY matchup in my opinion and I really think whoever wins this matchup wins this series. When these teams played on Christmas, Love had twenty points along with six boards and three assists. He forced his way to the line early and often, he needs to continue to play like that and get into the low post and bang with Draymond and establish himself as a scorer this series. If he can and averages 20 & 10 this series which isn’t unrealtistic, the Cavs are going to be in a great position to win. With how well Love has been playing this is another close one but I give Draymond the slight edge because defensively he is the far superior player. Advantage: Warriors
Center: Tristan Thompson vs. Zaza Pachulia / JaVale McGee
This is the other key matchup in this series. Kyrie/Steph and Lebron/Durant are going to cancel each other out, so it’s going to come down to who wins the battle between Love/Thompson and Zaza/McGee/Draymond. Tristan Thompson is probably the most underrated player in this series and no one attacks the glass like him. He has dominated the Warriors because they just don’t have anyone who can match his physicality and surprising athleticism.
Tristan is one of the top rebounders in the league and has seven double-digit rebounding performances these playoffs. He’s also making 66.7 percent of his free throws, which is a win for the Cavs when you consider he shot under 50 percent during the regular season. Pachulia doesn’t help out in the box score much, but he sets physical screens and is a decent rim protector. McGee is the athletic center who I think will likely see a lot more playing time this series. He is shooting 74 percent these playoffs, giving the Warriors an option for easy buckets with a lot of wide open dunks. Still, Thompson is the wildcard this series and is the better player between the three and should control the glass this series. Advantage: Cavs
Bench: Cavs vs. Warriors
The main difference between last year’s Warriors compared to this year’s other than obviously adding Durant is their lack of depth on the bench. They still have Shaun Livingston and Iggy, but these guys aren’t the same players they were back in 2015 when they impacted this series. Iggy has definitely lost a step and isn’t the same defensive player he was in 2015 when he terrorized Lebron. He’s also really been a liability on offense struggling to score and has just been anemic from beyond the arc (3-27 this playoffs). The other role players in Ian Clark, David West and Matt Barnes are all marginal players at best. The Cavs have turned Deron Williams into a productive player again, Channing Frye is still chipping in when he actually plays, Kyle Korver is shooting 41.5 percent from three thee playoffs and Iman Shumpert is a great defender who is shooting 48.8 percent from the field. The Cavs constructed this bench to be able to keep pace with the Warriors and everyone can shoot and that’s what gives them the edge here because of their outside shooting. Korver and Frye tilt this in the Cavaliers favor with their ability to get hot from three. Advantage: Cavs
Coach: Tyronn Lue vs. Mike Brown / Steve Kerr
With Kerr likely out for the finals, there is no coaching edge. Mike Brown and Lue are both unspectacular and neither are going to out gameplan the other so I don’t see any edge here. Advantage: Draw
Physicality of the Finals:
In the finals they always let the players play more physically and that’s a huge edge for the Cavs with Lebron and Thompson and the more physical team. Colin Cowherd calls the Warriors the skinny jeans all-star team and that’s a great description for them. They are finesse players who don’t have that toughness to them outside of Draymond and certainly don’t have anyone who can match Lebron’s physicality.
3 point shooting:
You would think by default that the Warriors are the best three point shooting team in the league, but not in this year’s playoffs.
The Cavs have shot two more 3’s per game than the Warriors and are shooting the three at a much higher percentage, 43.5% compared to 38.9% which is a pretty big difference.
Love and Kyrie are shooting over 40 and JR Smith is shooting at 45%. Korver who has actually been struggling is still hitting at 41%. The Cavs can absolutely match the Warriors firepower from 3. Don’t get me wrong, Curry is hands down the best 3 point shooter in the league but guys like Kyrie, Love, JR Smith and Korver aren’t that far off. The Cavs overall have more shooters and shoot better than the Warriors.
The long rest period is a negative for the Warriors. They are a young team and young teams don’t need long rest periods. The longer they are out for, the worse they will play as we saw in game 1 against the Spurs.
Cavs are the oldest team in the league and are really going to benefit from this long rest period, the veterans are going to come ready to play in game 1 and the rest is only going to help the Cavs, especially LeBron who takes his game to another level when he has a long rest period.
The Warriors are the better team and should be favored, but a lot can happen in a seven game series like we saw last year.
You can be the best team over the course of the season, over the first four games of a playoff series, or over the first 40 minutes of any particular game, but closing is a skill. But the bottom line is that Golden State has choked against the Cavs in 4 out of 5 of their last game and the Cavs have been the better team at executing with the games on the line.
If Curry shows up and plays like MVP Curry, the Warriors will have a great chance to win this series. If Curry plays like the Curry who has played in back-to-back NBA Finals, the Cavs will have the edge. All of the talk is about Durant, but really Curry is the most important player on Golden State. Durant missed a ton of time and the Warriors barely skipped a beat once they adjusted to life without him, but they are a sub .500 team when Curry isn’t in the lineup.
All of the pressure is on Golden State. No one in the media is giving the Cavs any chance to win and neither is Vegas. Curry needs to have a strong finals after underperforming in two straight. The first championship the Warriors won the Cavs didn’t have Kyrie or Love and Iggy was the MVP. Curry hasn’t played well in either of his finals and all eyes will be on him again with the whole world expecting the Warriors to crush the Cavs. If Durant doesn’t win the title after leaving Oklahoma City to join the Warriors, he will be the laughing stock of the league.
The one worry I do have is how many wide open looks the Cavs have been giving up these playoffs, especially from three. If they leave Golden State that wide open, the Warriors won’t miss like how the teams in the East were. That said the Cavs have the ability to really step up their defense when needed and that will likely be the case.
The Cavs depth and ability to use different looks is really the key for me this year. Draymond Green gives the Warriors a huge advantage when he plays center in their “Death Lineup” but when Love and Frye can space the floor with their three point shooting, it creates an imbalance for opponents in trying to find matchups. The Warriors aren’t going to be able to rely on Iggy in this series like they have years past. He clearly isn’t himself, isn’t the same kind of defender he was and is probably somewhat injured. When the Warriors go small and force Cleveland to leave a big man on him, he’s going to have to make them pay occasionally with hitting some 3’s and that’s something he just hasn’t been able to do this playoffs (3 of 27 from 3).
I have no doubt what Kyrie is going to do given his ability to play well in big games. Kyrie is the most clutch players in the league and he steps up big times in big games. In the finals last year he outplayed Curry, and if he outplays him again the Cavs have a great shot at repeating. We know what to expect out of Lebron who outside of that one blip in the Boston series has been playing like a man possessed this post season.
Curry has seemed tentative at times this year in big spots, almost like he wants to make the right play and doesn’t want to take over or make a mistake. He is the anti-Westbrook in that sense. But he’s never had a dominant game vs. the Cavs where you looked at it and say “Steph Curry won that game.” I keep saying it but I just don’t trust Curry or Durant in the clutch where they have came up small so many times in their career.
The Warriors fast pace of play benefits the Cavs because Cavs are actually better at it. They have just as many shooters if not more and with Lebron playing point forward he can penetrate and find the three point shooters or drive into the lane which is something Curry and Thompson can’t do.
The last three games of the 2016 Finals were not a fluke, and they re-surfaced again on Christmas. The same flaws the Cavaliers exposed in the Warriors last June remain a year later, even with Kevin Durant in the mix. The Cavaliers proved they are mentally strong enough to battle back from whatever fireworks the Warriors throw at them and the Cavs have the mental edge after winning 4 straight.
Don’t under estimate the mental effect blowing that 3-1 lead last year will have. All of the pressure is on Golden State with everyone expecting them to win with the addition of Durant and with them being the huge favorite. They cruised through the Western Conference going 12-0, haven’t been challenged and haven’t faced any adversity. Not that the East was any harder but every team they played in the playoffs had a key player injured (Nurkic, George Hill, Leonard) so their 12-0 playoff record is definitely inflated. If anything I am happy the Cavs lost a game because it re-centered them after getting complacent and I loved how the responded with a huge blowout in the face of adversity.
If the Warriors lose game 1, that is going to really shift the series in Cleveland’s direction because we don’t know how strong the Warriors are mentally in the face of adversity. With Lebron’s history of stealing a game on the road, I really think the Cavs win one of the first two games, and if that happens, I don’t see any way the Cavs lose this series.
Official prediction: Cavaliers in 6
Cavaliers to win Championship +225
If your book has it, you are better off splitting the bet for the Cavs to win in 6 or 7. They are definitely not sweeping and it’s very hard to see them win in 5, so if the Cavs win, it will be in 6 or 7. The odds for winning in 6 or 7 even if you split the bet (and lose one) will have a better payout than simply taking the +225.
All offshore books and Vegas offer these odds:
Cavaliers to win in 6 +575
Cavaliers to win in 7 +700
If Cavs win, it is likely James who will get MVP again, but I can see a scenario where Kyrie comes up huge in the final game and gets it as well.
Lebron James +225
Kyrie Irving +900