The 2015 NBA finals are set. Cleveland Cavaliers, with a rookie head coach in David Blatt and LeBron James, facing the Golden State Warriors, with a rookie head coach in Steve Kerr and the reigning league MVP, Stephen Curry.
Road to Finals
The Cavaliers swept the Boston Celtics in the first round although losing Kevin Love to a shoulder injury after a WWE move by Kelly Olynyk was a blow for them. At least it felt like it’s going to really hurt them. In the conference semifinals they ran into the Chicago Bulls and also had to play with Kyrie Irving far from his best. Despite falling 1-2 behind, the Cavaliers pulled through to once again knock out the Bulls from the playoffs, something that happens quite a lot since LeBron James is in the league. In the conference finals, without home court advantage, the Cavaliers probably looked their most impressive, sweeping the Hawks despite not having Irving on the floor most of the time.
The Warriors, like the Cavs, swept the first round of the postseason against the New Orleans Pelicans. Things got a bit more difficult in the conference semifinals. Just like the Cavaliers, they fell 1-2 behind the Memphis Grizzlies, but a defensive adjustment by Steve Kerr and the inability to keep up with Stephen Curry in the backcourt meant the Warriors won three in a row and won the series 4-2, just like the Cavs. In the conference finals, the Warriors beat the Rockets in close contests in games 1 & 2 before one of the finest playoff performances we’ve seen this spring from a team, winning by 35 points on the road in game 3. The Rockets did get one win but it was simply delaying the inevitable.
Stephen Curry is a great player. The MVP, and established himself this season as one of the faces of this league, not to mention one of the best players in it. But the focus, the individual one, will be on LeBron James. It’s impossible to eclipse him. Maybe he’s hated, and maybe some of the reasons have some solid foundations. But James, for better or worse, is the most interesting player in this league, and will remain so until he is no longer capable of dragging teams to the NBA finals.
The numbers of both players don’t tell the whole story – not of their ability, of their influence, and the difference between them personally and their teams. James will have moments of guarding Curry, although it’s harder and harder for him to shut down point guards like he did in the past. Curry won’t have possessions in which he’s guarding LeBron, unless the Cavaliers are able to force such a switch.
Despite a bad game for Curry (maybe signs of a concussion he had in game 4), the Warriors prevailed because they have a deep team and can withstand a bad game here and there from him (but not all the time). James having a bad games for the Cavaliers isn’t the end of the world on some nights, but his presence is more important. Why?
Curry does more than score or be a floor manager. Running through screens along the perimeter makes a defense shift and change. But his help on the defensive side of the ball or in rebounding is meaningless. So what if he boxed out Dwight Howard? LeBron James is a different matter. Sure, there are roles for each and every player on this team. But James still does a little bit of everything, including covering for players in the paint and defensively, in ways that don’t always show on the stat sheets.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have 108.6 points per 100 possessions in these playoffs, more than anyone else. Their defensive efficiency of 98.5 is third best, but the top 4 teams, led by the Bulls with 98.1, are under 99 with very small differences. Their net differential of +10.1 is the best in the league. They’re only 8th in field goal percentage (43.6%) and fifth in 3-point percentage (35.9%). However, they held teams to just 41.2% from the field (2nd best behind the Bulls) and 28.1% from beyond the arc, the best in this postseason. Their rebound ratio of 53.8% is also the best in the playoffs.
The Warriors aren’t far behind. Their offensive efficiency is 107.3 (2nd) and defensively they’re at 98.9 (4th), giving them the 2nd best net differential at +8.4. They shot 46% from the field so far (2nd) and 38% from beyond the arc (also 2nd). They’ve held teams to 43.1% from the field (5th) and 31% from beyond the arc (2nd). Their rebound ratio of 52.8% is the second best.
The Other Guys
Timofey Mozgov as the option in the paint and the ability to draw Andrew Bogut a bit away from the basket thanks to his midrange shooting, and do a good job in the paint. Tristan Thompson isn’t a stretch four, but he’s a monster on the glass, but also a problem from the line, and we know the Warriors don’t have problems hacking, something the Cavaliers should try to do on Bogut.
Harrison Barnes has been up and down in these playoffs but he has the unexpected quality that’s hard to define. He was the Warriors’ best player in the game 5 clincher. Green can do a bit of everything, but his most important role might be trying to slow down LeBron James although we’ll probably see more than one guy on him, unless Green can play like Kawhi Leonard from last year in the finals.
Klay Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Andre Iguodala. They’re all players that are expected to guard and hit 3-pointers, although some (like Smith and Thompson) will be more involved in the offensive game. Both Iguodala and Shumpert are defined as defensive experts, although when Iguodala is on the floor he’s more involved in the offensive game.
Kyrie Irving? He might be a huge difference maker, but that will happen only if his knee suddenly heals up. Matthew Dellavedova will try stopping Stephen Curry and generally piss people off on the other team. Leandro Barbosa is the backup point guard on the other team, but his role is creating mayhem and thriving in it. The same goes for Marreese Speights, whose very specific skill set doesn’t seem to work in every game.