Watching the Warriors this year has been a joy, and they definitely earned their Western Conference Championship. Even after the Thunder went up 3-1, most people probably felt comfortable that Golden State would handle business. Maybe it’s different if two of the final three games were in Oklahoma rather than California. But nonetheless, the Warriors made the shots in Games 6 and 7 to beat the Thunder. Make no mistake about it; Oklahoma City outplayed Golden State for most of that series, but it’s a make or miss league, and Klay Thompson’s Game 6 and Stephen Curry’s Game 7 will haunt the Thunder for some time. Thompson’s Game 6 might more memorable than Curry’s Game 7 because if Thompson missed one or two threes in the first several minutes of the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City probably wins that game. Thompson’s shooting ability kept Golden State in the game. He obviously scored the most points, so media gave him plenty of praise, but Curry hit big shots down the stretch and Andre Iguodala made defensive stops. It was the definition of a team win, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the difficult shots Thompson made.
Last year’s postseason, aside from parts of the NBA Finals,Los Angeles Clippers/San Antonio Spurs Round 1 and the Clippers’ collapse, felt dull. The NBA severely missed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and even Dwyane Wade and a somewhat competent team to compete against LeBron James. Even though Toronto couldn’t do anything away from Canada against Cleveland, the Raptors made the series at least interesting. The East might’ve improved in the standings, but eight of the ten top MVP candidates played in the West. The top-tier talent rests out West, which is why no East team can compete with wherever LeBron plays. Cleveland had a real chance to beat Oklahoma City. As a fan, the most competitive possible Finals makes for the best Finals. But LeBron James and Co. now have an opportunity to beat the best regular season team (record wise) of all-time, and that’s more compelling than a Thunder-Cavaliers Finals.
Last year was interesting but it was only a matter of time until Golden State figured out the short-handed Cavaliers. This year presents an entirely different obstacle. Not as difficult defensively, but Cleveland’s much more dangerous offensively. Cleveland’s 3-point shooting gives them an actual chance in this series. The match-ups are compelling; the storylines riveting. How many fourth quarter minutes will Kevin Love play? Does Andre Iguodala continue to start? Will the Warriors have enough legs after a seven-game epic? Can Kyrie Irving’s offense outperform his pedestrian defense? Who covers Stephen Curry? How does Golden State cover Cleveland’s perimeter? Can Cleveland slow down Curry and Thompson at all?
The Warriors spent seven games competing against extra long, bruising athletes that made the Warriors work tirelessly on offense. On defense, the Warriors had to worry about two of the best scorers in the world, but the Thunder made 33 percent of its threes this postseason. Cleveland three-point weapons connected on 43 percent this postseason. Six Cavaliers (Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Irving, Richard Jefferson and Love) who’ve played at least 13 postseason games have made 44.6 percent or higher of their 3-point attempts.
The Warriors could sweep the Cavaliers, and not many people would be too shocked. After all, Golden State beat up Cleveland the last time they met this season. But it’s important to note how fundamentally different Cleveland plays. Cleveland didn’t have Frye then. Cleveland had a different coach. And Cleveland has just played better. It doesn’t matter they play in the Eastern Conference. Confidence is important. Cleveland has the confidence to beat Golden State. Last year they knew they had to play a certain way to beat Golden State. LeBron’s usage rate was sky high, and guys like Smith didn’t hit enough shots to give Cleveland a better chance. This year Frye can space the floor, Irving can breakdown the defense and maybe Love can find his rhythm. Matthew Dellavedova was born last NBA Finals. He provided on-ball pressure on Curry. Maybe Dellavedova has another gear to make things challenging for the two-time MVP. Frye’s ability to stretch the defense gives Cleveland flexibility. How will Steve Kerr defend Cleveland when the Cavaliers put their three-point line-up in the game? Frye only plays 15 minutes a game, but he’s posting an absurd 148 offensive rating during those minutes.
Frye and Dellavadova aren’t difference makers, obviously. Cleveland needs Kyrie Irving to play the series of his life. He can’t be flustered like he was in Toronto. He’ll be most likely guarded by Klay Thompson. Thompson has the size to impact Irving’s shot and the patience to react to Irving’s dribbling. Cleveland can win the first three quarters with outside shooting and steady defense, but when the game gets tight and Golden State’s paying lots of attention to LeBron, Irving needs to thrive. Irving might be the NBA’s third most dynamic scoring point guard. Irving’s been criticized vastly over his short NBA career, but here’s a phenomenal opportunity for him to showcase how great he truly is.
Last year’s NBA Finals thankfully went six games. Let’s hope this one can last just as long.