If you somehow missed the entire NBA season up until now, we are right where you thought we’d be. The Cavaliers and Warriors are headed to the Finals for the third consecutive year.
Before we preview Cleveland vs. Golden State Round III, let’s take a quick look back at the 2016 Finals.
I think we can all agree if Draymond is not suspended for game 5, and Bogut doesn’t get hurt in the same game, the 2016 NBA Finals and 2017 season turn out much differently. The Warriors almost certainly close out the series 4–1, Kevin Durant probably doesn’t join the Warriors that summer, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli are likely still in Golden State, and maybe the Cavs trade Kevin Love?
Either way, the Draymond suspension did happen, Bogut did get hurt, and the Cavaliers did complete arguably the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history capped off by The Block and The Shot.
But all of that is in the past now, so it’s time to look at this year’s NBA Finals.
First, here are the key moves these two teams made since last season:
Cleveland’s key additions: Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Derrick Williams
Cleveland’s key losses: Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov
Golden State’s key additions: Kevin Durant, David West, Javale McGee, Matt Barnes, Patrick McCaw
Golden State’s key losses: Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Mo Speights
Both Golden State and Cleveland are more talented than they were last year. As a result, the Warriors swept through the entire Western Conference while the Cavs lost just one game on their trip to the Finals.
As we head into Cavs-Warriors Round III, the biggest roster change comes in at the small forward position…
LeBron vs. KD
Kevin Durant is exactly where he wanted to be — back in the Finals going head to head with LeBron James.
Regardless of who wins this year, the focus will be on this matchup. Will Kevin Durant finally get the best of LeBron? Or will LeBron maintain the career-long dominance he’s had over Durant.
In the regular season, James has only lost to Durant four times in his career.
In the playoffs, Durant has taken down James just once.
Going into the series, LeBron will undoubtedly have the mental edge over KD.
But Durant is a much different player now. He’s also surrounded by much better talent than he’s had in the past.
In the 2016 Finals, James spent the majority of his time on the defensive end covering Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston. This allowed him to save the majority of his energy for offense.
Now, LeBron will not only have to carry Cleveland’s offense, he’ll have no choice but to cover Durant on defense.
Covering Durant instead of Barnes who made just 5 of 32 shots in the last three games of the 2016 Finals will certainly be more exhausting for James. Whether or not he’s able to cover KD and carry Cleveland’s offense for potentially 7 games remains to be seen.
Then again, we’ve learned that doubting LeBron is never a good idea. It’s not too difficult to imagine LeBron averaging a 30-point triple-double in this series and bringing another title back to Cleveland. Especially in a year where they have been counted out by everyone and considered the underdog.
Can Golden State close out tight games?
Kevin Durant is arguably the hardest player in the league to guard one-on-one. He’s practically a 7-footer with the ball-handling and shooting skills of a guard. With Durant on the Warriors, Golden State has something they desparately needed last year — a go-to scorer when they need an easy bucket.
In the closing moments of the 2016 Finals, down 3 points, the Warriors needed a basket more than anything. Naturally, they went to Curry. But he was stuck helplessly trying to get around Kevin Love, settling for a difficult 3-point attempt.
Now, the Warriors can get the ball to Durant who can go to work. He’ll also have the option to kick it out to Curry, Thompson, or Draymond as well.
If you look at the Christmas game, they went to Durant on the final play. Now, Durant tripped on that play. But it shows that’s who they’ll go to down the stretch.
In the last few minutes of that game, the Warriors just couldn’t seem to get a bucket though.
That’s when Kyrie crushed their hopes with another devastating dagger.
The Warriors also fell apart in the 4th quarter of game 7 last year when they only scored 13 points in the 4th quarter.
When playing against the Cavs, Golden State has not demonstrated an ability to close out tight games. If this series turns out to be a close one, Golden State could be in trouble again.
If you look at the 2016 Finals, the three games the Warriors won were all double digit victories. So they have no problem actually beating the Cavs. But it’s the close games where they have trouble finishing — that gives the Cavs an undeniable edge.
For Golden State, Durant’s outstanding one-on-one skills should help them solve their past issues in these situations.
We’ll see if that’s the case in this year’s Finals.
In every NBA Finals series, there’s always the role players who step up and change the series. In the 2013 Finals, it was Shane Battier who went 6–8 from 3-point range in game 7 to help clinch the victory for the Heat.
One game prior to that, it was Ray Allen who hit possibly the most clutch shot in NBA history.
So, who’s going to step up this year?
My money is on Kyle Korver. Korver’s never played in the NBA Finals before, but if there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that Korver is a knock-down 3-point shooter. If anyone’s going to have a crazy game where they just can’t miss from downtown it’s going to be Korver.
Also coming off Cleveland’s bench is Deron Williams, who is essentially replacing Delly for the Cavs. Williams is undoubtedly a better all-around player who will give the Cavs a scoring punch off the bench. But I wonder if Cleveland will actually miss Delly.
Cleveland has enough offensive fire-power as is. But they struggle on the defensive end. Delly did an outstanding job of bothering Curry during the last two Finals, and perhaps that’s something that actually played a larger role in taking down Golden State than we thought.
For the Warriors, the big question on their bench will be whether or not they can trust Javale McGee. Javale has played surprisingly well for them thus far, but the NBA Finals is a totally different stage. Will he be able to thrive in this series? An unnammed player on the Cavs doesn’t think so.
What’s even scarier for Golden State is Zaza Pachulia’s health. Pachulia has been cleared to play in game one of the Finals, but if his heel starts to act up again, the Warriors will have to rely on Javale even more. This could cause some problems for the Warriors. They have to hope Pachulia will stay healthy.
LeBron James will always be the MVP of the Cavs. Similarly, Durant and Curry will be the go-to guys for the Warriors.
But, the X-Factor in this series will likely either be Klay Thompson or Kyrie Irving.
Regardless of how good the defense is, Kyrie’s incredible shot-making ability is unstoppable at times. We saw that on display in the last two games of the 2016 Finals.
If Kyrie can consistently put up those numbers, making one impossible shot after another, this series could go Cleveland’s way.
On the other hand, if Klay Thompson gets hot during this series, this one could be over quickly.
Take a look at Klay’s splits for this season:
When he’s shooting well, the Warriors don’t lose very often. It’s just that simple.
Before the Finals tip off on Thursday night, here’s a few other things to look out for:
Which Steph will show up in the Finals? Curry admitted he didn’t play well in the Finals last year. Then again, his health was definitely a factor. Now, Steve Kerr says Curry looks fresher, faster, and stronger than last year. So there’s no excuses this time. We’ll see if Curry can live up to expectations.
Will Klay Thompson get into a rhythm? Throughout the playoffs, Klay has struggled with his shot — his playoff averages are 38.3% from the field and 36.4% from 3-point range. Does Golden State actually need Thompson to shoot that well to win though? He’s arguably more important on the defensive side of the ball to stick with Kyrie.
Can Kevin Love keep this up? He’s playing by far his best basketball since arriving in Cleveland — averaging 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per game in the Boston series while knocking down 53.5% of his attempts from 3-point range.
Can Draymond keep his cool? Last year, Draymond arguably cost Golden State the Finals after being suspended for game five. He’ll have to be much more careful this year. Knowing how crazy Draymond can get, I wonder if the Cavs will intentionally try to tempt him to get technicals.
How big of a factor is Mike Brown? Kerr is undoubtedly a better coach, and there’s still a chance he could return at some point in the Finals. But if he doesn’t, how much will not having Kerr to make in-game adjustments impact the series?
How good is the Cavs defense? In the playoffs, they improved a considerable amount on the defensive end. But that was against team’s that didn’t have anywhere near the offensive firepower that the Warriors have. This was Cleveland’s biggest issue all year long and it will most likely be the determining factor of the Finals.
Leading up to this point, the 2017 playoffs have been a bit of a disappointment. Cleveland vs. Golden State Round III is our one last hope to change that.