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Warriors / Cavs Finals Preview - 5 Things to Watch For

1. How will the Cavs defend Steph Curry?
I was astounded by how the Rockets initially defended Curry -- using Jason Terry as his primary defender and switching seemingly 100% of the time on pick and rolls. The problem with Terry as a defender is multi-fold.
1. He's roughly the same size as Curry -- which is deadly because an offensive savant like Curry needs so little room to get a shot off (i.e. Curry doesn't even need to be open per se against a defender his own size to get his shot off.)
2. Terry's concentration on defense is so so. Remember in the first few games how Curry often got completely wide open? That was often a result of Terry simply losing Curry. Sometimes it was him peeking to see if he could help  on D, and sometimes it's just Curry being super crafty in how he uses screens and just his overall offensive activity level without the ball. Terry needed to play a different level of D with Curry and he didn't.
3. His effort on defense is average to below average. Look -- some people put a lot of effort on D (Draymond, Tony Allen, etc.) Terry just isn't one of those guys.

The Rockets also switched seemingly 100% of their pick and rolls which often left Curry with a big on him (Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, even Clint Capela, etc.) This often looked quite comical but frankly, I didn't feel like this strategy really burned the Rockets. Curry often didn't launch with the bigger man on him (probably because the length bothered him) and while he could get past his man, it often took some effort from him and there was help D behind the Rocket defender (most likely because they were particularly aware when that mismatch occurred). 

Look at Curry's stats the first 3 games of the series vs. the final 2 [link]. In the first 3 games, he's roughly shooting 60% from the field (!) and in the last 2, he's roughly shooting 35% from the field. I don't remember exactly when the switch occurred, but I'm pretty sure that coincided with when Ariza/Brewer became the primary defender on Curry. It's pretty simple. Ariza/Brewer are taller, longer defenders who
a) are good defenders
b) work hard at defense
c) have good defensive instincts

They're basically the opposite of Jason Terry. I'm not saying this cost the Rockets the series -- but I definitely think this was a horrendous (and obvious) coaching mistake on the part of McHale. I actually suspected that McHale would stick with Terry too long on Curry because McHale early on was praising Terry for his playoff pedigree (I can't remember the exact words he used). Look -- I'm not trying to crush Terry -- there are a lot of great things about his game. But D (especially against the greatest shooter in NBA history) is not one of them. This was a mistake.

The Cavs won't make this mistake. I have to believe the Cavs will put Iman Shumpert on Curry who is a terrific defender. He's not as tall as Arzia (6'5" vs. 6'8") -- but he's just a maniac on defense. Great instincts. Works really hard. Physical. I know his game really well because I followed him since the Knicks drafted him and he was a player the Knicks could play right away even though his offensive game was raw just because his defensive game was so well defined.

If the Cavs don't put Shumpert on Curry and instead opt for Kyrie/Dellavedova -- look for Curry to annihilate that combination.

2. Streaky Klay Thompson
Thompson has been incredible for the Ws and I was dead wrong on the ceiling of his value (I was in favor of trading him for Kevin Love.) He's a terrific two-way player, one of the best shooters in the league, and has just a solid all-around game. Here's my problem. He can be very streaky shooting the ball. The streakiness isn't usually in-game streakiness. At least my feel for it -- it's not like he hits 4 shots, then misses 3, etc. It's more like... he just sometimes goes ice cold. When Curry goes cold, Curry is the type of player that's able to either get good assists or he's able to find creative ways to score (drives, floaters, getting to the free-throw line, even mid-range game.) Thompson has some of this, but not as much. Thompson had a good game 5, but before that, he was shooting <40% for the series.

I can't really explain it or why Thompson goes into these funks (I'm not even sure if it's the defender) -- but presumably if the Cavs use Shumpert on Curry, they'll have to defend Thompson with Kyrie/Dellavedova. If they played Shumpert and J.R. Smith together, I guess they could put J.R. Smith on Thompson, but who does Kyrie/Dellavedova guard then? Harrison Barnes? Barnes would eviscerate either defender in the post (he's 6'8" and has a post game.) 

It's possible the Cavs will try a more conventional defensive package with Kyrie/Dellavedova on Curry + Shumpert on Thompson -- but I think that's a similar situation the Rockets faced early on in their series and when Curry is MAKING over 6 3s per game and hitting >50% of them -- that's a completely untenable situation. 

But we'll see -- but how the Cavs choose to defend the Curry/Thompson package will be critical. Personally, I'd put my best defender (Shumpert) on Curry and take my chances that Thompson continues to be streaky. Also, I'd look to get minutes with both Shumpert and J.R. Smith together. But some of that is dependent on Kyrie's health.

3. "Caveman Basketball"
Zach Lowe + Brian Windhorst talked about this a lot -- but the Cavs have been running incredibly simplistic offensive sets or "caveman basketball" as they put it. LeBron has been incredible and they've gotten really nice contributions from a variety of players -- from Tristan Thompson to J.R. Smith. However, Kyrie has looked really hurt. And when Kyrie is hurt, he sort of disappears. When Kyrie is on though, he's a scoring savant. The Cavs' look is very different when they have one player (either Kyrie or J.R. Smith) who simply is shooting lights out. It completely changes the tenor of the Cavs' offense and lifts so much of a burden off of LeBron.

However, if their players are having simply conventional games and LeBron is forced to carry the load -- look for their simplistic offensive sets and lack of overall firepower to doom them. Don't forget, LeBron, as great as he is -- will still have to work against Draymond Green (runner up for defensive player of the year) and Bogut/Ezeli anchoring the middle. LeBron will get his -- no doubt. But the way the Cavs play offense doesn't really make things easier for them to get buckets. 

4. Depth
The Warriors are super deep and have multiple players at every position. They can play big, they can play small. If one guy gets in foul trouble, they can either directly replace him or modify their sets to get solid coverage. 

The Cavs are much more problematic. It's their starters + J.R. Smith + Dellavedova. Maybe James Jones. That's it. If Kyrie is hurt, then they only have 2 subs. There's a long litany of problems with having no depth including:
--degraded performance because you're tired
--inflexibility in adjusting matchups because of fewer options
--inflexibility in benching players who are not playing well because of fewer options
--no buffer for injuries

I don't know what to say. The Warriors are one of the deepest, most versatile teams that I can remember. At this point, David Lee might be their 10th man. The Cavs' depth is probably not as bad as the Clippers' -- but it's bad.

5. the unknowableness of LeBron
I've completely underestimated this Cavs team. At this point, this Cavs team is winning without BOTH Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Against a Hawks team that won 60 games and was a #1 seed. This was a good Hawks team -- even without Korver (though Krover was shut down by Shumpert.) As I mentioned earlier, the Cavs have gotten really good contributions from other players -- but not mentioned was LeBron is having monster triple-double type games where he simply does it all. It seems like their offense, as simplistic as it is, finds a way to be more than good enough and they've handled their opponents with ease.

Don't get me wrong -- everything intellectually tells me the Warriors can handle the Cavs in every which way. But there's something about LeBron -- and I think this is a maturity thing. He's become so good at getting his teammates buckets first. Because he knows he can always can get his own. But he also knows that if he primarily gets the buckets, the expected win percentage of his team goes down. In other words, if everyone else gets going + he fills in, they almost always win. However, if everyone else never gets going, he needs to deliver a Herculean effort for the Cavs to win. I think the Warriors have so much firepower that they should be able to beat the Cavs in either scenario -- but so far, I've seen no proof that these Cavs can be stopped. 

Despite all that, I still heavily favor the Warriors. I think the safer pick would be Warriors in 6, but I'll say Warriors in 5.