Cavaliers vs. Warriors: 2015 NBA Finals Preview, Predictions and More
Thirty teams entered the 2014-15 NBA season with a clean slate. Sixteen squads turned those blank canvases into a playoff berth.
Now, ahead of the 2015 NBA Finals, just two franchises remain.
All these months and games later, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors stand alone. The next phase of their championship hunt begins on June 4, when the NBA Finals actually tips off and the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy speeds toward its epic conclusion.
The Warriors are still riding a regular-season high. They became just the 10th team in league history to notch at least 67 victories and have lost just three times during the playoffs, despite navigating a rationale-rending Western Conference bracket.
Injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love threatened the Cavaliers' championship chase in the first round. Love is done for the postseason after undergoing shoulder surgery, and Irving has been playing through a sore left knee.
Even so, the Cavaliers are here, largely because of two-time NBA champion LeBron James. It's on his back that Cleveland steamrolled the Eastern Conference, posting a 12-2 record through three rounds.
This matchup has a little bit of everything. It pits the current MVP in Stephen Curry against a four-time MVP in James. Two rookie head coaches will be waging sideline warfare in Golden State's Steve Kerr and Cleveland's David Blatt.
James is leading a group consisting mostly of NBA Finals first-timers against a Warriors contingent comprised only of NBA Finals first-timers.
Spotlights don't get any brighter. The stakes don't get any higher. The Cavaliers and Warriors will put everything on the line in this best-of-seven series, fighting one last fight for the right to stand completely and utterly alone.
Jan. 9: Golden State 112, Cleveland 94
Feb. 26: Cleveland 110, Golden State 99
Although Cleveland and Golden State split their season series, this 1-1 tie comes laced with question marks—mostly on the Warriors' behalf.
They have yet to beat the Cavaliers at full strength. More than that, they've yet to beat the Cavaliers while they're rolling.
LeBron James missed the Jan. 9 outing, as it came toward the tail end of his two-week sabbatical. The Cavaliers were 3-10 without him in the lineup during the regular season overall, and it's hardly surprising a 67-win Golden State outfit dealt one of those 10 losses.
Between Jan. 13 (James' return) and April 8 (just before the team limited James' minutes and appearances ahead of the postseason), the Cavaliers went an NBA-best 32-8. They maintained a league-best offense. They beat a fully healthy Golden State squad by double digits.
That lone win over Cleveland, then, means little, if anything, for the Warriors. That team is nothing like the LeBron-led faction they face now.
All NBA Finals games will be played on ABC. Games 5-7 are denoted with asterisks and will only be played if necessary.
|1||Thursday||June 4||9 p.m. ET||Oakland, California|
|2||Sunday||June 7||8 p.m. ET||Oakland|
|3||Tuesday||June 9||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland|
|4||Thursday||June 11||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland|
|5*||Sunday||June 14||8 p.m. ET||Oakland|
|6*||Tuesday||June 16||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland|
|7*||Friday||June 19||9 p.m. ET||Oakland|
Referring to what the Warriors have as "home-court advantage" is a gross misrepresentation of the luxury they've earned.
Steve Kerr's crew went 39-2 at Oracle Arena during the regular season. Including the playoffs, the Warriors are now 46-3 on their own turf. Their average margin of victory through those 46 wins is a staggering 14.9 points.
Caveat inbound: The Warriors' net rating at home in the playoffs (plus-eight) is actually lower than that of their road showing (plus-8.7). The Cavaliers also own the postseason's best road net rating; they're outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions in their own gym.
In that same vein, the Warriors enter as the NBA's second-best playoff road team. So while home crowds will be a factor—Cleveland has never won a title, and this is Golden State's first Finals appearance since 1975—both the Cavaliers and Warriors have done nothing if not prove they can win anywhere.
Key Postseason Stats
Offensive Rating: 107.3 (2)
Defensive Rating: 98.9 (4)
Net Rating: 8.4 (2)
It's perfectly reasonable to say the Warriors have not been playing their best basketball. That they're repping a historically fantastic Western Conference in the NBA Finals anyway is just plain scary.
All three of the Warriors' offensive, defensive and net ratings are worse now than they were for the regular season. They're also playing at a markedly slower pace, using just over 96.6 possessions per 48 minutes (sixth) after leading the league with nearly 100.7.
But the rate of play tends to decrease during the postseason, and the Warriors spent six games battling a painfully slow, magnificently methodical Memphis Grizzlies team that forced them into more clock-exhausting sets than usual.
Given the chance to speed things up against the Houston Rockets, the Warriors ran like crazy. They're now working off a five-game set that saw them generate more than 101.4 possessions per 48 minutes.
Plus, it's not like playing slower has hit the Warriors especially hard. It has disrupted their offensive flow at times. But they're still shooting 38 percent from distance, and their per-100-possession splits remain comparable to those from the regular season.
Offensive Rating: 108.6 (1)
Defensive Rating: 98.5 (3)
Net Rating: 10.1 (1)
Noticing that the Cavaliers' offensive, defensive and net ratings are all better than those of the Warriors is...weird.
The Cavaliers enjoyed an easier path to the Finals than their counterpart. No, there isn't a stark difference in strength of schedule. Golden State ripped through three opponents with a combined regular-season record of 156-90; Cleveland's three opponents went a combined 150-96.
Still, the East is inherently easier than the West. And though the Cavaliers have tussled with more top-10 offenses (two) than the Warriors (one), their two most touted opponents—the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks—weren't playing their best basketball at the time.
As John Schuhmann writes for NBA.com:
But according to SportVU, the Cavs have contested just 29.7 percent of their opponents’ jump shots in the playoffs, a rate which ranks 11th out of 16 teams. Furthermore, the average distance for the closest Cleveland defender on opponent shots in the playoffs is 4.25 feet, a rate which ranks ninth.
Those numbers support the theory that the Cavs faced some good teams that were playing poorly at the time. The Hawks were held well under their regular season offensive efficiency mark in the first round by the Brooklyn Nets, who ranked 24th defensively. Atlanta shot 27 percent on uncontested jumpers in the conference finals, down from 41 percent in the regular season.
Credit the Cavaliers for their postseason uprising on the defensive end. They're playing smarter off screens and putting their bigs in better spots to grab rebounds and contest point-blank opportunities.
Just don't view their playoff performance as a definitive harbinger of Golden State's inferiority.
Warriors' X-Factor: Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes has officially entered postseason prince mode. The third-year swingman came up huge in the Warriors' series-clinching Game 5 victory over the Houston Rockets, tallying 24 points and seven rebounds in addition to helping smother James Harden on the defensive end.
Something about the playoffs seems to register with Barnes. His career postseason player efficiency rating (12.8) dwarfs his regular-season mark (11.4), and he consistently brings the heat on defense, even as he shimmies between shooting guard, small forward and power forward assignments.
Color the Warriors fortunate. They'll need him firing on all cylinders against the Cavaliers.
Cleveland boasts the postseason's best three-point defense thus far, so Barnes' off-the-dribble and back-to-the-basket acumen is now huge. Imperative still, the Warriors need him to pitch in defensively as they try to accomplish the impossible: slowing down James.
"You just try to throw different things at him," Andre Iguodala said, per the San Jose Mercury News' Diamond Leung. "We talk about 'Strength in Numbers,' that being our slogan, trying to wear teams down, trying to wear guys down."
Iguodala knows what he's talking about. He saw more time on James than any other Warriors player during the regular season, according to SportVU matchup data (h/t Schuhmann). But James (6'8", 250 lbs) has two-to-three inches on him, and Barnes, at this stage of his career, is better at changing directions on a whim.
Hence why the Warriors threw him on Harden for long stretches in Round 3. James, of course, is a different animal altogether. He's finesse and explosion and brute force rolled into one towering and overpowering alien life form.
The Warriors, for that reason, will put a ton of bodies on him. Everyone from Draymond Green to Klay Thompson to Iguodala himself will line up against the NBA's resident one-man show.
Barnes will be a huge part of that defensive rotation. And his capacity to defend the world's greatest while still giving the Warriors that fourth-option-turned-superstud on the offensive end will go a long way in determining the next NBA champion.
Cavaliers' X-Factor: Kyrie Irving
Superstars are not supposed to be X-factors.
Kyrie Irving is an exception. And it's his body that's making him an exception.
He missed Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, absences attributed to a lingering left knee injury. But his entire body has appeared worse for wear. The Cavaliers have been using him strictly as an offensive weapon through three rounds, electing to hide him on the opposition's least effective scorers for their defensive sets.
Stashing Irving anywhere isn't an option against the Warriors. All four of their starting perimeter threats—Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson—will torch immobile counterparts off the dribble or while coming off screens.
On the offensive end, opponents are forcing Irving to live and die—mostly live—by his jumper. More than 63 percent of his shot attempts have come from outside eight feet, and he's been plenty reliant on LeBron James' dribble drives creating space for him.
Sustaining that same perimeter-dependent approach will be difficult, if not impossible, against Golden State. As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explains:
When set, the Warriors defense is as good as it gets. The Cavaliers will rely on Irving to scramble things a bit.
That will entail attacking as often as possible in transition, but Irving's penetration in the half court will also be key. He must be decisive when James' drives produce kick-outs, and he'll have to turn the corner with purpose when the Warriors don't switch pick-and-roll coverage.
Few players collapse defenses as well as Irving. His uncanny ability to get into the lane is what allowed him to be so effective before the Cavaliers put superstar talent around him, and he ranked seventh in points per game on drives during the regular season.
That on-the-move potency has plummeted through the postseason in the face of injuries. His drives per game have gone from 9.4 to 7.2, and he's shooting just 43.1 percent compared to 48.6 percent.
If the Cavaliers are going to crack the Warriors' top-tier defense, they'll need everything Irving is supposed to bring—a necessity that, as of now, isn't one Cleveland knows it will have.
Obvious Adjustment Golden State Must Make: Journeying Back to the Past
Let's make one thing clear: The Cavaliers are not the Grizzlies. They do not pack the paint or pound the ball down low. They are not adverse to shooting three-pointers, nor do they lack a sufficient number of jump-shooters.
Like the Grizzlies, however, they are pace-slayers.
LeBron James and Friends can get out on the break when the situation calls for it. Doing so is difficult without Kevin Love throwing full-court touchdowns, but they have the individual speed to snare long rebounds and run the floor.
Controlling the ebb and flow is their first impulse, though. They rank dead last in possessions used per 48 minutes for the playoffs, meaning they're even slower than the Grizzlies.
De-warped speeds, meanwhile, are the Warriors' enemy. Their offense sputtered against the Grizzlies in Games 2 and 3 (both losses) as they struggled to not only will more possessions into existence, but fire up enough transition threes.
Identical issues will follow them into the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers aren't stocked with proven perimeter stiflers such as Tony Allen and Courtney Lee, but their penchant for forcing half-court sets allows them to cut off quick-release long balls.
Only the Dallas Mavericks—who lasted all of five games—have a better postseason fast-break defense than the Cavaliers. And while the Warriors beat the Grizzlies into submission by running super-small lineups that featured Draymond Green (6'7", 230 lbs) at center and displacing Memphis' bigs from their comfort zone, the Cavaliers have the requisite personnel to hang with those combinations.
Tristan Thompson and James are more than equipped to chase around Harrison Barnes and Green when they play the 4 and 5, respectively.
The Cavaliers are not the Grizzlies. Or the Rockets. More than positional mismatches and overall speed, the Warriors will have to rely on ball movement and off-action screens to create their usual space.
Obvious Adjustment Cleveland Must Make: Shooting More Contested Jumpers
Wide-open shots are in no uncertain terms the primary reason why Cleveland is humming amid injuries and LeBron James' career-low shooting percentages.
Merely the threat of James scoring is a boon for the offense. When he attacks the paint, two or three—sometimes four—defenders converge, and he's free to hit one of Cleveland's orbiting shooters.
Around 28 percent of the Cavaliers' total shot attempts have been open or wide-open threes to this point. Those looks won't be as readily available against a Warriors squad that switches on everything and sends help only as a last resort, not an every-possession tactic.
Indeed, James is good enough to draw two defenders or force players such as Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green to rotate off their defensive assignments and protect the rim. But the Warriors are still more likely to send minimal help and let either Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson or Green himself try to keep pace with James.
That's what they did against the Rockets. They were more content to let James Harden get his and ensure the supporting cast wasn't hoisting uncontested threes at will.
Not surprisingly, just 24.6 percent of Houston's shot attempts were open or wide-open treys. Against a slower team like the Grizzlies, the Warriors fared even better. With more time to enter their stances, just 15.8 percent of Memphis' attempts were open or wide-open long balls.
Yes, the Cavaliers are more like the Rockets than Grizzlies in that they shoot a ton of threes. But the Warriors will have them exploring second, third and fourth options more than the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks ever did.
Adapting to that downtick in space will inevitably define whether the Cavaliers are able to stay golden.
What the Cavaliers have done to date despite an influx of misfortune is truly incredible.
Never mind that their first three opponents came from a clearly inferior Eastern Conference. They dethroned two perceived title contenders in the Bulls and Hawks and are on a seven-game winning streak entering the Finals.
And they're doing all this without Kevin Love and with a half-hobbled Kyrie Irving. LeBron James is bearing an astounding workload and doing so effectively. His usage rate hasn't been this high since his last go-round with the Cavaliers in 2008-09, and he has afterthoughts such as J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and even Tristan Thompson playing pivotal roles in an NBA Finals run.
Nothing can take away from all they've accomplished. Not even the conference equivalent of a pushover.
Yet, on paper and in practice, the Warriors are just better.
They are not overly reliant on one player. Their star rotation can run four players deep on any given night, from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. The Cavaliers don't have that kind of depth, nor do they have the defensive tools to slow more than two of Golden State's core four.
Where the Cavaliers are playing above their heads—especially on the defensive end—the Warriors, while still impressive, have underachieved. Their playoff run is but a partial taste of what they can do.
To be sure, a certain number of wins must still be allotted for the Cavaliers. They have James after all. And so long as they have James, they have a chance.
But, just like in years past, their well-being is too dependent upon his cross-carrying ability.
Any chance he gives them just won't be enough against a deeper, more well-rounded Warriors team for the ages.
Prediction: Warriors in six
Series MVP: Stephen Curry
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.