The long and winding road of the NBA Playoffs took numerous twists and turns — and yet we ended up in the exact same spot we always do, Cavs vs. Warriors. The four straight matchups is an unprecedented feat but this iteration may be the most tedious.
While the Warriors are an overwhelming favorite this time, that doesn’t mean there still isn’t some type of intrigue to be found.
What does LeBron have left?
LeBron James has had a superhuman postseason so far, averaging 34 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists and has gone for over 40 seven times. He’s dragged the lifeless bodies of the Cavaliers to this NBA Finals, shouldering a substantial load. According to NBA.com, he’s averaged 41.3 minutes, by far the most in the playoffs, while having a usage percentage of 36.2, behind only James Harden’s 36.7.
So not only is he playing the most in the NBA, but he has to do the most with the ball in his hands. Barring any injury at this current pace he’ll break the 900-minute mark for the playoffs, which according to basketball reference, hasn’t happened since 2013 when James did it for the Miami Heat.
And of the 48 people who have gone over that minute’s mark, James would rank 14th in points and fifth in field goal percentage if the playoffs ended today. To put it simply, he’s having a historic postseason.
But the minutes are starting to stack up, and while the Warriors just came off a grueling series their minute totals are noticeably lower. Draymond Green leads the team with 653 minutes (38.4 per game), then Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant with 646 and 642 respectively, and finally Stephen Curry with 393 (35.7 per game).
The discrepancy only grows larger over the whole season; James is now at 3769 minutes played. The closest Warrior is Thompson with 3152, that’s 600 less minutes on the legs of Golden State’s most used player and the 33-year-old James..
That’s a lot of mileage on James, but might not make any difference as he’s shown he’s not exactly a normal human.
Iguodala’s knee issues
Andre Iguodala‘s injured left knee seemed like no big deal when it happened, maybe one game missed worst case scenario. Well now he’s guaranteed to miss his fifth straight game and looking to get second opinions on his injury, which makes the outlook a lot dimmer.
Iguodala won a Finals MVP in 2015 based heavily on his individual defense against James, so his presence will definitely be missed by the Warriors. And as we saw against the Rockets, his absence amplifies the Warriors already short bench.
The Cavaliers roster is similar to that of the Rockets and, depending on the health of Kevin Love, could play a little bigger than Houston. That’s good news for the Warriors as their glut of centers could finally come in handy.
But they’ll miss Iguodala on the defensive end as well as his calming influence should the game become scattered. Durant will have to repeat his performance of last year when he took up the mantle of guarding James mostly one-on-one.
While he just set a record for points in the Western Conference Finals, his defense was below-average and at times bordered on embarrassing. But we saw last postseason that he has the ability to at least bother James and he’s going to need to do the same with or without Iguodala.
It’s not just defensively, Iguodala leads the Warriors in net rating (team’s point differential per 100 possessions) this postseason at 13.6. Despite averaging just 7.9 points per game he’s just as important on offense, initiating actions and spacing the floor. He’s going to be missed regardless of how many games it’s going to be.
To say the Warriors struggled on offense last series would be unfair to the Rockets defense, they absolutely wrecked the schemes the Warriors employ and left them confused and panicked. Golden State still got its points but had to work exponentially harder to get them.
After averaging 28.8 assists per game in the first two rounds, they averaged just 21.3 in the Conference Finals. They went from assisting on 68.5 percent of the teams field goals in the regular season, to just 53.2 percent against the Rockets.
Houston’s strategy was to switch every screen and then deny any off ball actions. It took away all the Warriors options and forced them to rely on iso ball, which gnawed at Steve Kerr every possession.
It would be surprising to see the Cavs employ the same strategy, it’s just not their game and they don’t have the personnel to do it. It’s one thing to have defensive specialists like P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza grinding on that end of the floor for 48 minutes, but guys like Love, J.R. Smith and Jeff Green aren’t those types of players.
To that, Tyronn Lue’s strategy against the Warriors has been to speed up the game and this could be the perfect recipe for the Warriors to get back to their dominating offensive selves.
But the Cavs have been playing at a snail’s pace in these playoffs, having the second slowest pace of play in the postseason, according to NBA.com.
The Warriors have already had to endure two other series with teams trying to slow the pace as both the Rockets and Spurs rank in the bottom-half of pace during the playoffs. Only the Pelicans tried to run with the Warriors and that pace energized and unlocked the Warriors offense into what Steve Kerr refers to as “the beautiful game.”
It could be the same story in the Finals if Lue goes back to the same strategy.
Matchup to watch
J.R. Smith vs. Klay Thompson
These two probably won’t be matched up with each other as both teams love to cross-match, but their production is going to be measured against each other.
Smith is going to be counted on as Cleveland’s secondary scorer but he has struggled so far this postseason. He’s averaging just 8.5 points per game on just 35.6 percent shooting.
But when he gets going the Cavs lackluster offense actually has some threats not named LeBron. In the eight games Smith has scored in double-figures this playoffs the Cavs are 7-1, with their only loss coming in the very first game in the first round.
Thompson is going to be counted on to do a little more, he’s averaging over 20 a game and when he’s reached that number the Warriors are 7-2. He’s been the only player to look unafraid of the moment this entire postseason and needs to continue to be the catalyst for the Warriors offense.
It’ll be a test of whose spot up shooter can contribute just what their team needs, but the odds are definitely in the Warriors favor.
Most Important Warriors’ Role Player(s)
Zaza Pachulia and David West
Zaza Pachulia is a shocking name to see here but it would not be shocking at all to see him on the court in a Finals. But there’s actually a tangible reason that he may get minutes and that’s his success against Tristan Thompson.
Thompson’s embarrassing Finals performance last year had a lot to do with Pachulia’s box-outs and physical play. This is not to say that he should be getting regular minutes but there’s a good chance he will and it’ll be important that he can nullify Thompson in those minutes.
West, on the other hand, will probably get his regular second and fourth quarter minutes after being benched against the Rockets. He’ll have the same role as Pachulia, banging bodies with Thompson on the block.
The old vet has looked slower as of late and his jumper has been failing him but if he can just keep Thompson from creating second chance opportunities his minutes would be productive.
James is borderline unstoppable right now and the Warriors just got done with a taxing seven-game series — so, Warriors in five.