Cleveland Cavaliers' Blueprint to Upsetting Warriors in 2018 NBA Finals
For the first time in major professional sports history, two teams will meet each other in the championship round for the fourth consecutive year.
Like 2015, when it was without Kevin Love and lost Kyrie Irving to a knee injury in Game 1, Cleveland will be in a severe underdog role. Love missed Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics with a concussion and isn't sure whether he will return in time for Game 1. With no Irving in this series for the first time, LeBron James will be fighting his biggest challenge against a Warriors team that had four representatives at the All-Star Game this year.
There is still some hope, however.
Golden State has appeared mortal at times this postseason after going a perfect 12-0 on its way to the Finals a year ago. This spring, the Warriors dropped five contests in the first three rounds, including three to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. Veteran forward and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala will miss at least Game 1 with a leg contusion, and Stephen Curry missed the first six games of the postseason with an MCL injury.
The Cavs still have four major pieces from their 2016 championship team and a number of other veterans with playoff experience. With James enjoying perhaps his finest postseason ever, don't count out Cleveland just yet.
Here's how the Cavaliers can do what many believe to be impossible and upset the Warriors for their second title in three years.
New Additions Playing High-Efficiency Minutes
In tight situations this postseason, head coach Tyronn Lue has gone back to the players he knows and trusts, even if their ceiling is lower than some of their younger, less experienced teammates.
It's why JR Smith remains Cleveland's starting shooting guard despite his measly average of 8.5 points on 35.6 percent shooting this postseason. It's why Tristan Thompson has been plugged back into the starting five and why Jeff Green continues to play heavy minutes round after round.
During this time, we've seen midseason acquisitions like Rodney Hood bumped from the rotation, Larry Nance Jr.'s playing time dictated by Thompson's minutes and Jordan Clarkson's court time decrease every series. For the most part, there's been good reason. Hood and Clarkson have been awful in their limited minutes and have done nothing to convince Lue they should be playing over veterans.
Still, Lue can't expect a core of Green, Thompson and Smith to take down the Warriors, no matter how well James and Love play. This is where the new additions step in.
That doesn't mean Hood needs to start, play 30 minutes and score 25 points for Cleveland to win. It means if Lue gives him a chance, he needs to knock down open shots and give him more than the 4.9 points per game and 15.8 percent three-point shooting he's averaging this postseason. Hood did drop 26 against Golden State on Dec. 27 as a member of the Utah Jazz, for what it's worth.
Clarkson has been a black hole offensively, and convincing him to pass the ball to another player so they can take a shot (a concept known as an assist) should be wired into his brain.
Nance brings a defensive motor and plays hard all the time. However, his minutes could be severely reduced if the Cavs start Green and Love in the post, as Thompson would eat up the backup center time. Lue has to find a way to get Nance and his 20.0 postseason PER on the court.
Slow the Game Down as Much as Possible
There are many reasons for Cleveland to slow the pace down and muddy up this series.
Primarily, they need to preserve James, who has played 100 games since October and leads all postseason players with 743 total minutes. That's nearly the same total as he played during last year's playoff run (744), NBA Finals included.
A running match with Golden State isn't going to work in Cleveland's favor, not with James (age 33), JR Smith (32), George Hill (32), Jeff Green (31), and Kyle Korver (37) getting big minutes.
The Cavaliers' best bet is to try to take the Warriors out of their transition game and make them work in a half-court offense where they can get iso-heavy.
Golden State is running at a pace of 100.68 possessions per 48 minutes in wins this postseason and 97.94 in losses. Cleveland is the opposite, shrinking to 93.57 in victories and speeding up to 94.43 in their six defeats.
It should come as no surprise that the Cavaliers' lone win in the Finals last season (a 137-116 Game 4 beatdown) was also the slowest-played game of the series (96.1 pace).
Cleveland doesn't have the horses to run with Golden State, so it needs to make these Finals as low-scoring as possible.
George Hill's Play on Stephen Curry
You can debate the greater player between Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, but it's clear which one is the most valuable to Golden State.
Curry has a plus-9.1 rating this postseason, the highest of any Warrior. Golden State was also 11.8 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the floor during the regular season, compared to only 2.0 points better with Durant.
While Cleveland can throw multiple bodies at Durant (James, Green and Nance), no Cavalier can hang with Curry other than Hill.
When Hill was a member of the Utah Jazz last season, he seemed to have an effect on Curry. In the time they shared the floor, Curry shot 3-of-8 (37.5 percent) and was a minus-3. When Curry was on and Hill was off, Curry shot 21-of-42 (50.0 percent) and was plus-49 overall.
Hill's 6'9" wingspan should help to contest Curry's three-point attempts and help cut down on his driving and passing lanes as well.
Offensively, Hill has to put pressure on Curry by being aggressive, getting into the paint and running him off high screens and pindowns. Look for Cleveland to run a lot of 1-3 pick-and-roll with James, forcing Curry to switch on to James so he can initiate the offense that way as well.
Win the Bench Minutes
With no Iguodala (at least for Game 1), Golden State's bench is the weakest it's been since this Finals rivalry began. Cleveland's may be at its strongest.
The Warriors will likely use a heavy dose of Shaun Livingston, Nick Young and Jordan Bell off their bench, while the Cavs can counter with Korver, Thompson, Nance, Clarkson and Hood.
Korver is the Cavaliers' third-leading scorer this postseason with nearly 10 points per game, and he is knocking down a team-high 44.9 percent of his three-point attempts. Nance and Thompson have the second- and third-highest PERs on the team (20.0 and 16.2, respectively), and Clarkson and Hood can be microwave scorers if they rein in their shot selection.
In these playoffs, the lineup of Korver, Nance, Clarkson, Green and James has a net rating of plus-37.3. That's the highest rating of any five-man Cavaliers unit that has played at least than 10 minutes together all postseason.
Since James won't get much rest this series—he averaged nearly 44 minutes during the final four games against the Boston Celtics—he'll often play alongside reserves. Cleveland needs to scrap and claw for a few points when some combination of Golden State's four All-Stars and two MVPs are getting some rest.
LeBron James Playing Point Guard
Hill will be Cleveland's nominal starting point guard , but we all know who needs to be handling the ball.
No one in the NBA has a more diverse and powerful passing game than James, who uses his 6'8" frame and incredible vision to pick apart defenses.
Cleveland will undoubtedly need his scoring, but James' passing and assist potential may be even more important. The Cavaliers went 26-7 during the regular season when James recorded 10 assists or more compared to 11-19 when he registered no more than seven.
While others on the team can score 20 or more points on any given night (Love, Korver, Hill and Clarkson), no one is likely to come up with 10 assists. Outside of James, the highest assist total from any Cavalier this season was Smith's eight in a Dec. 12 win over the Atlanta Hawks. Hill's highest is five. Clarkson's? Only four.
The Cavaliers are at their toughest to defend when James is handling the ball, shooters are spacing the floor knocking down shots and a big man is setting screens and grabbing offensive rebounds.
James likely still needs to score 35 to 40 points per night for Cleveland to win the series, but he will also have to tally double-digit assists.