Who Ya Got? B/R Staff's Bold Predictions for 2017 NBA Finals
We did it, everybody! It's been over 9,000 days since the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated the Boston Celtics en route to a rematch with the Golden State Warriors (OK...maybe more like a week), but we finally made it to the 2017 NBA Finals.
Game 1 kicks off Thursday in Oakland, California, at 9 p.m. ET, and here at Bleacher Report, we know you're thirsty for answers to the most important questions. What must the Cavs do to defend their title? Who's going to win Finals MVP? What do Iman Shumpert and David West have in common? (Be honest: Now you're curious.)
Luckily for you, we're here to quench your thirst. We've rallied our finest hoops hotshots and compiled predictions ahead of Cavs-Warriors, Round 3.
So put away the fortune-tellers and rip up that phone number for your favorite NBA medium.
We've got you covered.
Who'll Have the Better Finals: Klay Thompson or Kevin Love?
Klay Thompson is posting career playoff lows in just about every category that matters, and he's been especially off since Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. He's shooting just 30.8 percent from long range over his last six outings, and his wide-open triples no longer feel like automatic makes upon leaving his fingertips.
It seems tactless to say he'll bust out of his rut simply because he's Klay Thompson, but at the same time...he's Klay Thompson. Historically deadeye shooters don't fizzle out indefinitely, and he figures to be one of the players Cleveland abandons ad nauseam in an attempt to neutralize Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
If nothing else, Thompson is set up to succeed more than Kevin Love. The Cavaliers don't even know if they'll be able to keep him on the floor. Can he play power forward next to Tristan Thompson when the Warriors roll out Draymond Green at the 5? Can he survive at center without Cleveland's defense imploding?
Love has been phenomenal thus far, but it's harder for his 47.5 percent three-point clip and dominant defensive rebounding to matter if he's not guaranteed as much playing time.
Stats Predictions for Key Players
If 2017 was the season of triple-doubles, the 2017 NBA Finals will be a natural extension. Draymond Green (five during the regular season) and LeBron James (13) are two of the biggest threats for that statistical achievement, so don't be surprised when extended roles and excessive minutes allow both stars to rack up at least one.
James, one year after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers in all five major box-score categories, might even average the coveted trip-dub.
But they won't be the only statistical standouts. Not during a series in which Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will all explode for at least 30 points once. Yes, even Love, thanks to his spot-up prowess and willingness to take advantage of the Dubs' small-ball proclivities by playing bully ball in the post.
Still, the stat story of this series has to revolve around James. The Warriors must split their touches between more players than the Cavs, and James' responsibilities will ensure he's throwing up big numbers and threatening for Finals MVP even if his team loses the rubber match.
David West Is More Important Than Ever to the Warriors
From the start of the season, David West's role was well-defined. As the backup power forward and a second-unit stalwart, the 14-year veteran would be counted upon for defensive help during those second- and fourth-quarter minutes when Kevin Durant and/or Draymond Green needed a breather. West matched up well against bigs, could set high screens, passed to all sides and even knocked down a mid-range jumper or two to keep defenses honest.
Back in those waning days of October, West resembled little more than a Mo Speights fill-in that didn't have the three-point range of his predecessor, yet he grew steadily more accustomed to head coach Steve Kerr's schemes with every ensuing month. Now, with several months of seasoning, when he palms the ball near the top of the key—swinging it around in anticipation of finding the open man in the corner, on a cut to the rim or somewhere in between—West has become an integral linchpin to how the Warriors have finished off such complete, dominant wins in the playoffs.
The Warriors' "defense lineup"—West alongside Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Ian Clark—has been their second-most-used quintet in the playoffs (68 minutes), yet it is being outscored by nearly two points per 100 possessions. That's likely more a result of Thompson scuffling on the offensive end, as the defense (102.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) has been good enough. Acting head coach Mike Brown will need that combo to play well so he can spell Stephen Curry as needed and not risk letting games get out of hand versus LeBron and Co.
But more than just hoping Thompson finds his stroke, Golden State needs West to continue his high level of passing, defense and jump-shooting. If the 36-year-old doesn't fall a step behind, he'll have done his part in (finally!) snagging a long-awaited championship ring.
Most Critical Coaching Element: Cavs Offense vs. Warriors Defense
How does head coach Tyronn Lue maintain the high level of execution and efficiency in Cleveland's offense when Golden State's Klay Thompson quite accurately says, "We'll be the best defensive team they've faced"?
Although the Warriors switch assignments often, Thompson is keyed up to an uncharacteristic level to control Kyrie Irving ("Probably going to be my biggest challenge, and I'm ready for it"), and you know Draymond Green can't wait to get his words and hands into Kevin Love. But all of the threats around LeBron James have been so good that the game has come even easier than usual to him.
Lue has been tinkering more to his defense than he's been worrying about his offense, and that's either going to be fantastic laissez-faire management, or it's going to leave him working hard next week in the lull before Game 3 in Cleveland.
For now, Lue is trying to keep the offense simple and clean, with full license for Irving to go one-on-one: "Our best defense is going to be our offense: We can't turn the ball over."
Don't be like so many who underestimate the Warriors defense, Ty.
Most Outstanding Defensive Player: Draymond Green
I could make a case that LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and Klay Thompson's defensive work in these playoffs has been largely overlooked. But let's be honest: No defender in the league is more indispensable than Draymond Green, and there is no chance the Warriors win another title if he is either ineffective or in foul trouble.
The Warriors are at their best when the other four on the floor are doing their jobs well enough that Green can play as sort of a free safety and jump passing lanes or strip an unsuspecting opponent as he goes into a spin move against one of the other Warriors. Steph Curry and Thompson will get the first shot at slowing down Kyrie Irving, the Cavs' most dangerous scorer, but if they're not up to the job, Mike Brown is sure to turn to Green to disrupt him. Otherwise, expect him to take on the task of slowing down LeBron James with minimal help.
The challenge for Green will be to play inspired without going over the line, as he did in last year's Finals. So far, so good. There is no question he wants to erase anyone's perception that his kick to Steven Adams' groin and swing at LeBron's crotch are an essential part of his defensive prowess.
Win or lose, I say he gets that done.
Under-the-Radar Instigators: Iman Shumpert, David West
Basketball games, especially Finals contests, are won both on the court and between those floppy, oddly shaped skin protrusions we call ears. Trash talk is often as valuable as a crisp chest pass or, in the Warriors' case, a stiff kick to the groin.
Players on both sides of this series possess an almost preternatural ability to get under their opponent's skin.
The mind games began in earnest days ago, when Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com said an unnamed Cavs player (my money is on a sleep-deprived Kay Felder) told him that JaVale McGee is not "smart enough" to play in the NBA Finals. Since McGee has been struggling with a reputation for absent-mindedness for most of his career, this is next-level trolling, especially because it could have come from anyone (even Felder). Last year, the Cavs successfully goaded Draymond Green into getting himself suspended for a crucial Game 5 at Oracle Arena. This year, you'd have to assume Dray is going to keep himself under control.
So, who's going to be the instigator, and who is the one to slip up and accidentally deliver a Stone Cold Stunner to an opposing player, costing his team a victory?
The Warriors have Matt Barnes for a reason, folks. If only ABC could mic him up for the whole game. Kevin Durant's trash-talk game is grossly underrated, and he has proved himself adept at telling mascots to get off the court, which might come in handy this year. McGee is an excellent candidate to blow his top, but my eyes are on Iman Shumpert and David West.
Shumpert is stuck guarding at least one of Golden State's elite backcourt players every game, which is like asking someone to keep score by hand at Coors Field. He's bound to snap at some point.
West can do all the things Draymond wants to do—but can't—because he's too valuable. If the Warriors could put Dray's brain in West's body for a few quarters each game, Get Out-style, they probably would.
Cavs Have a Chance If: Kyrie Irving Outplays Stephen Curry
We know that LeBron James is the best player in this series, but who's No. 2? Consider this a three-man race between Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
While Curry is a two-time MVP, Irving had the better Finals in 2016. Putting up 27.1 points on 46.8 percent shooting to Curry's 22.6 on 40.3, Irving's clutch three-pointer at the end of Game 7 sealed the Cavaliers' first-ever championship.
With Kevin Love struggling in previous matchups against the Warriors, the pressure is on Irving to be a second superstar next to James for Cleveland to have a chance. The Cavs are a perfect 10-0 this year when Irving collects 10 assists or more, including a 25-point, 10-assist, seven-steal performance in a 109-108 victory over the Warriors on Christmas Day.
If James and Irving can both outplay their counterparts, the Cavaliers should repeat.
Finals MVP: Kevin Durant
I feel comfortable enough predicting a Warriors championship.
But guessing which Warrior will win Finals MVP is sort of like trying to devise a defense to stop the Warriors: It seems utterly futile.
The MVP could easily be Steph Curry, who is having his finest postseason, averaging 28.6 points and shooting 50.2 percent from the field (43.1 percent on threes). It could easily be Draymond Green, whose scoring, playmaking and defense (likely versus LeBron James) will be critical factors. It could reasonably be Klay Thompson, who might get a zillion wide-open shots while the defense tilts elsewhere.
But I'm going with Kevin Durant—the most versatile scorer alive, and by far the toughest matchup for the Cavaliers.
LeBron is the only defender with the size and speed to counter Durant, but that assignment could wear him out, leaving him less effective on offense, where Cleveland needs him most. The Cavs' bigs, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, aren't quick enough to stick with Durant. Send JR Smith or Iman Shumpert, and Durant will simply shoot over them.
Durant was an MVP contender this season before a knee injury derailed him. Everything he's done in his first Warriors' playoff run—25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks, a 61.9 effective field-goal percentage—suggests he's primed to lead them to the title and ready to pose for that double-fisted trophy shot.
NBA Champions: Golden State Warriors
It may not be a conclusion by consensus, but the results still speak for themselves.
- Warriors' Championship Predictions: 8
- Cavaliers' Championship Predictions: 2
To better understand how B/R's roundball scribes see this series playing out, here's a closer look at their series predictions.
- Warriors in 5: 4
- Warriors in 6: 4
- Cavaliers in 7: 2
That's it. No other series results were forecast.
Seeing LeBron James play out of his mind wouldn't be surprising. Watching Playoff Kyrie outduel Stephen Curry shouldn't shock the world at this point. But as made clear by the tallies above, Golden State remains the favorite by a relative mile.
Anything can happen. But if our experts are right, the Warriors will walk away with bragging rights and their second Larry O'Brien Trophy in three seasons.