NBA Finals: What to Watch For

Kyle Terada – USA TODAY Sports

With all but two NBA teams eliminated, the inevitable rubber match between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors has finally materialized, and the best player in the world will have yet another opportunity to slay the NBA’s best team.

A Golden State win would give the Warriors two titles in three years and a chance at a modern dynasty; a loss would represent multiple missed opportunities in a very long and potentially fruitful championship window. Cleveland is searching for its second consecutive NBA title after years of sports suffering and starvation, while its best player has a chance to inch closer toward potentially becoming the Greatest of All Time. Not to mention the fact that this series decides who gets to troll whom in the two teams’ first matchup of next season.

Now, let’s look at some thoughts and questions that will loom large over, and potentially decide, this series.

How much pick-and-roll will the Warriors use?

In a league that is becoming more and more reliant on the spread pick-and-roll, the NBA’s best team still doesn’t use it very often. Golden State ranked dead last in the NBA in pick-and-rolls per game by a wide margin despite having two excellent pick-and-roll players in Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, who averaged 0.92 and 0.97 points per possession, respectively, as the pick-and-roll ball-handler this season.

Both Curry and Durant instill fear in defenses when they have the ball in their hands, especially with Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia, or JaVale McGee setting a screen and an arsenal of shooters spacing the floor.

That particular set has been a favorite of Golden State’s; they could practically run it in their sleep at this point. By hitting Green near the elbow, the Warriors “short” the pick and roll by passing out of the trap before it gets there and McGee catches a lob from Green instead of Curry, the initial ball-handler. They’ll run the same set with Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston in Green’s position as well.

The Cavs will be ready for this. They will have seen it on film and in person enough times to concoct a sound defensive strategy for it, and this specific pick-and-roll isn’t as dependent on Golden State’s personnel advantages as some of their other two-man dances.

The most devastating pick-and-roll combo of the 73-win Warriors a year ago involved Green screening for Curry, whose gravity as a shooter nearly always drew an automatic double-team on screens. Curry is clever enough to pass out of those double-teams, and Golden State got 4-on-3 opportunities with Green, an outstanding passer, running the show.

Those numbers advantages allow Green to make a simple read based on how the defense reacts, and he either kicks to a shooter, tosses a lob to the man in the short corner, or takes it himself for the jam. That play becomes even more threatening when Golden State has maximum shooting on the floor and either Livingston or Iguodala in the dunker role. Wide-open threes for Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant are backbreakers, but giving up high-percentage dunks at the rim isn’t a much better option.

Those 4-on-3 opportunities have been slightly more scarce this year, either because the league has caught on, teams aren’t as paranoid about Curry pulling from 35 feet, or the Warriors have just chosen not to run that action as much. I would bet they break that play out more often in this series. The Cavs struggled against the Curry/Green high pick-and-roll in the first three games of last year’s Finals; they might just switch Tristan Thompson onto Curry this time around and rely on help defense at the rim.

But the Warriors have another pick-and-roll combination they didn’t last year, and it might be their most dangerous. The Curry-and-Durant combo was a relatively rare sight this season, but it’s as potent as any two-man attack in basketball. Neither Curry nor Durant can be left open for long in any area of the floor, and the small amount of time it takes for the defense to negotiate the play gives at least one lethal scorer all the separation he needs to get a good look off.

Go under on that play, and you get torched from three. Switch, and risk Durant popping easy jumpers over your smallest dude. They can swap roles, too. Curry is an excellent screener and nearly as threatening in that role as he is off the dribble; Durant is obviously a skilled ball-handler and passer.

The Warriors don’t run this set as often as they could. Durant isn’t a great screener yet, and he’s far more comfortable using a pick or going off the dribble to get his looks. The Warriors could also be saving it as a potential ace up the sleeve if they face adversity, though it’s uncommon for teams to drastically increase a certain play’s usage for one playoff series after going to it so rarely in the months prior.

It’s also not how the Warriors like to play. They ranked last in pick-and-rolls per game for a reason; Steve Kerr prefers a more egalitarian, improvised, motion-centric offense to the predicable, individual-reliant nature of the pick-and-roll. Golden State can produce high-quality looks for any player on its roster, due in part to the attention Curry, Durant, and Thompson command even without the ball in their hands.

If Cleveland has LeBron guard Durant and slots J.R. Smith on Curry, as they did in the regular season, they should be relatively well suited to handle this maneuver. Smith actually guards stars pretty well, and James might be the best switching forward in the league. Given the scarcity with which Golden State goes to the Curry/Durant combo, maybe they just shelf it if Cleveland shows they can neutralize it early.

But sometimes, you need to put the ball in the hands of your best players and let them take over. If Cleveland finds a way to bog down the Warriors’ joyous, free-flowing offense, Curry and Durant are Golden State’s best shot at manufacturing buckets.

Andre Iguodala’s health

The Warriors thumped an undermanned Spurs team in the Conference Finals, but Iguodala’s play was a concerning sign as he labored his way through just 51 total minutes in the series and was obviously limited on both ends of the floor.

Iguodala has been cold all playoffs. He’s down to just 3-of-27 from three over the first 12 games. His playmaking and explosiveness was clearly hampered, and he struggled to keep up defensively with the likes of Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes. If Iguodala can’t be a threat off the dribble or as a spot-up shooter, it makes him an easy defensive hiding spot for Kevin Love or Kyle Korver and hinders the Warriors’ ability to exploit Cleveland’s weak links.

There’s also the matter of slowing down James. Iguodala’s defense was crucial to the Warriors’ ability to slow down the world’s best player in 2015 and 2016; he was arguably the Warriors’ most important defensive piece against the Cavs.

This isn’t the first time Iguodala has been limited in the playoffs due to injury. His tight back, and therefore restricted strength and mobility, played a major role in the Warriors’ Finals collapse last season. But unlike the last two Finals, in which the Warriors needed Iguodala to play a major role, it may not matter this time around. Golden State has two world-class replacements in Kevin Durant and Draymond Green to cover Iggy’s role.

Golden State’s small lineups put a ton of defensive versatility and switchability on the floor, and the drop-off in on-ball defense between Iguodala, Durant, and Green is minimal. The Warriors feel comfortable switching screens across three or four positions with Green at center.

Durant will start each game on LeBron, and those minutes will help determine how often Mike Brown/Steve Kerr uses him against James beyond the first few minutes of each half. When fully engaged, Durant is a lockdown defender; he has incredible length, he slides his feet well, takes away passing lanes, and contests shots better than most wings in the NBA.

But slotting Durant on James has its downsides, including the amount of energy it takes to run, pound, and jump with LeBron. Can Durant be himself on offense if he’s expending all of his energy on James?

Another option would be using Green, the likely Defensive Player of the Year, as James’ main defender. Green is the NBA’s most versatile defender and, in many ways, a poor man’s LeBron. He isn’t nearly as quick as James, but he’s better suited to take the physical punishment that accompanies guarding LeBron.

Both Green and Durant are among the league’s best rim-protecting forwards, and the Warriors love to use them as such. Making Green the primary defender on James takes away his ability to play free safety and anchor the defense from the weak side.

Golden State will throw a variety of looks and a variety of guys—including Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston, or Patrick McCaw—at LeBron, just as the Spurs did to James Harden in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Warriors switch a ton, especially in small lineups, and they have a wealth of credible defenders.

The Warriors will have had nine days off before the Finals. There’s a good chance Iguodala looks like a different, rejuvenated player. But when LeBron has the ball with the game on the line, Golden State wants a healthy Iguodala out there. If he isn’t at 100 percent, maybe that swings a decisive possession in Cleveland’s favor.

How effective can Cleveland’s small lineups be against Golden State’s?

I discussed the potency of positionless, shooting-heavy lineups with James at the five in March (after mentioning it during last year’s Finals), and while the personnel of those lineups has changed since then, playing James a center has remained one of the Cavs’ best offensive options.

The five-man unit of James, Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert, and Deron Williams is plus-35.5 points per 100 possessions in 13 minutes played this postseason. While that number is inflated by the tiny sample size, the effectiveness of that group has been apparent in the playoffs.

(J.R. Smith and Channing Frye have also been effective as spot-up shooters with James as the sole playmaker on the floor, though Frye has been excised from the rotation at this point and might not play in the Finals.)

James’ ability to get to the basket at will against any defender puts defenses in an unenviable predicament: send help to cut off his drive, leaving a shooter open, or cede an easy basket in the paint.

Tyronn Lue might be more conservative with those units if they can’t hold up defensively. Lue has also rolled out units with Love at the five, keeping the floor spaced while giving the Cavaliers more of a presence inside and on the glass. Those lineups have walloped teams as well, and they take some responsibility of off LeBron’s shoulders. (The five of James, Love, Korver, Shumpert, and Williams is plus-47.6 points per 100 possessions in the postseason.)

If Love, Thompson, and James are the only guys Lue trusts at the five, wings like Jefferson, Korver, and Shumpert will have to play major roles off the bench. Jefferson’s ability to play either forward spot and defend multiple positions will be crucial when Golden State plays small. Korver opens up the floor for James and Kyrie Irving with his shooting. Shumpert will get key defensive assignments, and could be a big factor if he’s more than a hiding spot on offense.

Thompson’s offensive game, while efficient, is limited, and Cleveland might not be able to stay afloat for very long with both Love and Irving on the bench. Lue will probably have to choose between Love and Thompson in crunch time. The Cavs have gotten by all season on their elite offense and ability to outgun every opponent. Sacrificing defense might be a worthwhile gamble in this series for the offensive payoff.

How playable is Kevin Love?

If Golden State’s pace and shooting forces the Cavs to downsize and only play one big man at a time, the Cavs can do it without shaking up their rotation too much. Lineups with either Thompson or Love at center and James at the four have been major net positives, and both Cleveland big men are so good on the boards that Cleveland doesn’t lose much rebounding when it goes small.

Love remains a major question mark on defense, and Golden State will put him through a gauntlet of pick-and-rolls until it stops working or Tyronn Lue takes him off the floor. The Cavs might try hiding Love on Iguodala when the Warriors go small, depending on how Iguodala looks physically. Thompson is by far the better defender, both as a rim protector and switching onto quicker players, and about as good a rebounder, making him better equipped to handle the Warriors’ offensive pace and motion.

Love might be playing well enough offensively for his defense not to matter. He is playing his best basketball as a Cavalier, and Cleveland has pummeled teams with him on the floor. He’s canning threes at 47.5 percent in the playoffs and averaging 1.26 points per possession in transition. If Love is enough of a threat on offense that Golden State has to adjust for him, he becomes much less of a liability on defense.

He’ll start games on Zaza Pachulia, while Thompson checks Draymond Green. But when the Warriors play a more skilled or athletic center on the floor, slow-footed bigs struggle. That’s when Tyronn Lue will have to make the major rotational decisions.

Steph and KD on the bench

Cleveland needs to win these minutes to have a shot. Mike Brown has been sitting both Curry and Durant to start second quarters and playing the lineup of Ian Clark, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and David West. That group has logged the second-most minutes of any Warriors lineup this postseason, but has a minus-4.7 net rating. It’s a nasty and sturdy defensive unit with good passers along the front line, but it struggles to manufacture points or pace without an elite all-around scorer on the court.

This will be Cleveland’s best chance to make big runs. Expect the Cavs to play some of their best lineups to start the second quarters of this series, even if it means tinkering with the normal substitution routine. Irving normally rests at the start of the second quarter, when Cleveland usually plays its “LeBron + shooting” lineups with James at the five. It will be worth monitoring whether Lue sticks to that pattern or puts Irving back in earlier in the second quarter.

Golden State might just abandon its superstar-less lineups altogether and leave one Curry and Durant on the floor at all times. The Finals are not the time to give away chunks of games, and the Warriors are minus-5.8 points per 100 possessions when both their linchpins sit. Brown could stagger their minutes to avoid stretches with both on the bench, which would probably mean less Clark, less West, and more Draymond at center.

Small pockets of time can swing entire games, and it will be fascinating to see if, when, and how these teams adjust to the minutes when Golden State is most vulnerable.

 

Stats current as of the start of the Finals.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and NBAwowy! 

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