Warriors, Cavs circle back for third-straight Finals

Now that the extended preseason known as the NBA regular season is over, NBA fans can get ready for the main course: Cavs vs. Warriors, Part Three.

Instead of bemoaning how boring or forgone this matchup has become, let’s think about how crazy it is that we are here.

Never in the history of the NBA have two teams met in three straight Finals. Not the Lakers and Celtics dynasties of the 60s, when they met in the finals six times in a span of eight seasons, not in the 80s when the same two franchises met three times in four seasons.

It’s so rare that it’s happened only a combined three times across the four major sports, and all of them before 1950. We are witnessing history here, so instead of complaining about it, let’s look at how the teams match up in their third installment.

Championship defense?

When LeBron was pleading for a playmaker to help the Cavs, he probably should have specified that he needed a defensive playmaker. Cleveland has been quietly one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA during the regular season.

Their 108 defensive rating in the regular season was good for 22nd in the NBA — tied with the defensive powerhouses of the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets. Cleveland has been better in the playoffs, bumping their defensive rating to 105 — still not great, but an improvement.

By contrast, the Warriors 99.1 rating is far and away the best in the playoffs, and would have been first in the regular season too.

What’s even worse for the Cavs is one area they really struggle with guarding is the pick-and-roll, which just so happens to be the deadliest weapon for the Warriors. The Cavs are allowing a score 42.7 percent of the time a pick-and-roll happens, something that might be happening a lot more thanks to Mike Brown.

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Minutes load

Even though both teams enter the Finals with just one playoff loss between them and mostly blowout wins, the Warriors come in with far fewer miles on them.

No player for Golden State averages more than 35 minutes a game, with Draymond Green being tops at 34.7 per contest, 31st-most in the 2017 playoffs.

But the Cavs are a different story, with James averaging 41.4 minutes per game, the second highest in the playoffs, and Kyrie Irving hovering around 35 a game. The Warriors’ motto of strength in numbers really shows here and how closely they’ve monitored minutes could pay off in a big way in the Finals.

Any additional strain put on James’ body matters, even though he sure isn’t showing it yet, averaging 32 points on 55 percent shooting in the playoffs.

Battle of the benches

In order to limit their stars’ minutes, the Warriors routinely go 10-plus deep in their rotation, something that’s fine in these unchallenging matchups. But with the Larry O’Brien trophy on the line, it’s reasonable to think that number will probably shrink.

Steve Kerr has been reluctant to stray from his normal rotations, even in the Finals, though Brown has seemed more open to the idea. He’s not afraid to throw Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant in ahead of their normal rest patterns if things aren’t going well.

But the bench unit that has been so consistently deployed of David WestIan Clark and Andre Iguodala along with Green and Thompson may be Golden State’s greatest weakness in this series.

The Cavs roll out a unit in that same time slot that’s an all-offense, no-defense juggernaut, with James surrounded by four shooters. If the Warriors match up with that lineup and struggle even slightly defensively, there’s no way they can score enough to keep it close.

Expect Brown to tinker with the group, maybe throwing Durant in that lineup instead of Klay, or not playing Clark at all.

Matchup to watch

Klay Thompson vs Kyrie Irving

This is the crossmatch the Warriors will almost assuredly employ during this series. Thompson has struggled his way through the playoffs with averages of just 14 points per game on 38 percent shooting.

But while he’s been a non-factor offensively, he’s been a monster on D. None of his matchups in the past three series shot better than 50 percent from the field, C.J. McCollum was held to 40 percent, Joe Ingles shot 45 percent and Patty Mills was absolutely shut down, and shot a nauseating 24 percent during last series.

It’s probably too optimistic to think Irving would be even half as bad, but if Thompson can hold him to a reasonable shooting percentage and not let him go off like he did in Game 4 against Boston, that’s a win for the Warriors.

Important role player

Zaza Pachulia

It’d be easy to pick Iguodala here, as he’s probably going to guard James the entire series. So let’s go with someone a little less obvious.

Pachulia has taken a lot of abuse from Spurs fans recently, but even before that, Warriors fans had also been unkind to the 33-year-old center.

But this is the series for him.

The Cavs’bread and butter against the Warriors in the past was to just bound the offensive glass and they have the perfect player for that in Tristan Thompson. Thompson is averaging over four offensive rebounds per game these playoffs, and in Cleveland’s 109-108 Christmas Day win over the Warriors, picked up six of them. Pachulia played just 13 minutes in that game, partially because of foul trouble.

But in the Warriors’ blowout win, Pachulia logged 21 minutes and grabbed 13 rebounds himself, and held Thompson to just two offensive rebounds and five total. It’s not a coincidence that the Warriors crushed the Cavs in that game. If they can limit Cleveland’s second chance points, that takes away a lot of the Cavs offense.

And while JaVale McGee has been playing out of his mind, the best player to do that is Pachulia. As a shot blocker, McGee’s one weakness is keeping opponents off the offensive glass, since he’s usually jumping at finishers. Pachulia doesn’t have that problem, he doesn’t go for blocks, so he can focus on boxing out.

Prediction: Warriors in five

Everyone knows how much this Warriors team loves chasing history, and an undefeated postseason would be something no one has seen before. We’ve also seen how rusty they can be with long layoffs during these playoffs.

Game 1 against the Jazz and Spurs both showed that they can start a series absolutely flat. If they can avoid that in Game 1 of the Finals, we could very well see them go 16-0 in the playoffs.

More likely though, they win in five games after dropping the first game at home.


Curtis Uemura is SFBay’s Golden State Warriors beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @CUemura on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Warriors basketball.