Golden State enters the Finals with the confidence that comes with dismantling Cleveland in the latter stages of the 2015 Finals, with major momentum from their West finals comeback against the Thunder, and with a bunch of relevant experience matching up with players who are at least somewhat similar to the Cavaliers’ stars.
What better way to prepare for defending Irving’s quick, attack-minded game than dealing with Russell Westbrook for seven games? What better way to prepare for Love’s combination of floor-spacing and board-crashing than battling with Serge Ibaka? And what better way to prepare for James’s all-around brilliance, and the many problems he creates, than by surviving Kevin Durant?
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On the flip side, Cleveland’s postseason run hasn’t yielded similar preparatory steps. Kyle Lowry, Jeff Teague and Reggie Jackson can't hold a candle to the Curry who showed up in Games 6 and 7. DeMar DeRozan, Kent Bazemore and Kentavious-Caldwell-Pope are all a far cry from Thompson, who has been consistently sensational this postseason. And while Paul Millsap might be the closest thing the NBA has to Draymond Green, he’s not quite as dynamic and influential as the man himself.
The Warriors should also be fairly well-equipped to take away James’s primary source of offense. During the postseason, James has attempted nearly half of his shots from within three feet, making nearly 75% of those attempts. It will be virtually impossible for James to duplicate that success with Iguodala shadowing him and with the Bogut/Green combination providing sturdy back-line help. The fewer opportunities James gets near the rim, the more he will need to turn to his shaky outside shot (he’s hitting just 32.2% from deep in the playoffs) and the harder it will be for him to generate clean looks for his teammates.
Green, who struggled with Durant’s length for much of the West finals, should be in for a big series, whether directly or indirectly, as he’s a nightmare matchup for Cleveland. Love and Thompson will struggle to keep up with Green when the Warriors get out in transition, and Love is especially ripe for exploitation in pick-and-roll scenarios in the half-court. That could force Lue to put James on Green, a matchup that could help wear down James on the defensive end given Green’s major role in Golden State’s attack.
Indeed, much of the attention early in this series should be on Cleveland’s defense. In general, Golden State should enjoy an easier time than it did against Oklahoma City, given that it no longer needs to contend with the absurd length and athleticism could bring, even in its smaller lineups. The Cavaliers will likely find it difficult to defend both the rim (on Curry’s drives, on pick-and-roll lobs, and on the Warriors’ many cuts) and the three-point line (as the Warriors’ best lineups include four and sometimes five perimeter threats), and that could spell serious trouble.
The Warriors prevailed in the 2015 Finals by winning a clash of styles against a slow, bruising, simplistic Cavaliers team that was beset by injuries. If the 2016 Finals winds up being a fire versus fire, smallball versus smallball shootout, as many expect, Golden State would seemingly be fully comfortable in its own element. Can the 73-win defending champions really be beaten at their own game?