I was a sophomore in high school when I first picked up J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings.
The Game of Thrones before the Game of Thrones, LOTR was and remains the perfect mixture of fantasy, suspense, color, and imagination. In fact, it was so well-written that I had dreamt up an entire world in my head, dozing off during and between classes, imagining how Aragorn, son of Arathorn II, would topple entire armies of pitifully grotesque orcs fighting off adrenaline, pride, and courage. Several years later, the much-hyped movie arrived, directed by Peter Jackson, and somehow fulfilling every expectation imaginable. The dialogue popped, the vision perfectly aligned, and the overall storytelling as crisp as the read itself despite the page length. But it was different.
The Shire wasn't as rugged and scraggly as I expected; the helmets less regal than in my Saturday afternoon dream immersions; the ring much more stale; Sauron way more pulsing and threatening; and the landscape much more breathtaking. The difference between the imagined and expected hype did not make a bad viewing per se, merely setting up the permanent chasm between reality and fantasy.
How does any of that fit into an NBA Finals clash between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors?
LeBron James is Gandalf th--no, we're not going there. Instead, what I expect from this series relative to what we actually know and do not know might prove to be the greatest determinants in who actually comes out on top. I neither really know nor can even predict what's going to happen in what is going to become the biggest series in Golden State Warriors history. But everything that you're envisioning - whether it be Stephen Curry dropping bombs in Matthew Dellavedova's face or Draymond Green yapping at LeBron James up 10 with 20 seconds left - will likely not happen in that manner. I just get the feeling that the end result, like those movies, will garner the aligned emotions.
And with that, I'm going to try something different beyond the Xs and Os stuff I've been doing all season. Other websites and writers, of course Zach Lowe, will surely outclass me in that aspect so bear with me as I break down what we know, what we don't, and what we should expect.
What We Know
LeBron James is playing in his fifth straight NBA Finals. The Cavs have been made out as the team with loads of experience but other than James, the rest of the crew, Kendrick Perkins, James Jones, and Mike Miller, are all unplayable. Other than a weird end to the Dallas Mavericks series, James has carried his team to and through the Finals playing the scorer, distributor, defender, and every aspect of the game possible. We might worry about Klay Thompson or Kyrie Irving showing up but we know that LeBron James will have another Finals performance for the ages.
The Oracle Arena effect is real. One series is flukey. Two is still a small sample size. Turning the ball over repeatedly while taking awful shots throughout the first two games of the third series? We have an issue here. How big it is remains to be seen. The Warriors are still winning nearly every game, with only one loss coming in eight games. The results are overwhelming success. The Warriors hope that the process improves by the time it finally bites them back.
The Cleveland Cavaliers posted the third-best defensive rating in the postseason. The sentence in itself is impressive. But context is reality and reality doesn't necessarily work in the Cavs' favor when making this argument. First, the two teams in front of them by percentage points are the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls. Second, the Cavs played the under .500 Boston Celtics, a Thibs-led Chicago Bulls offense that insisted on Nikola Mirotic riding the pine instead of as a stretch-4, and an Atlanta Hawks team that missed open jumpers left and right and fielded a myriad of injuries. The Cavs defense has surprised due to the Dellavedova improvement over Irving, Tristan Thompson over Kevin Love, and a better PNR scheme but it remains to be seen whether it can remain effective against a top-level offense.
What We Don't Know
Remember when James Harden struggled in the 2012 Finals after blowing up alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook throughout the postseason? The old adage goes that role players play better at home and less so on the road. I have no data to prove that the variance is similar between postseason play and Finals play but here's where the extraordinary bright lights will have an impact. Klay Thompson coming off a concussion and a disappearing act in the Western Conference Finals is one such role player. A hobbled and healing Kyrie Irving fighting knee tendinitis will try and stay with Curry in his first Finals appearance. And J.R. Smith on Sunday's Game 2 after a night in the Bay Area? Andre Bogut's health after looking exhausted against a spry Dwight Howard? Andre Iguodala's up-and-down shooting when it counts more than ever? All these things will matter just as much as the LeBron James matchup against whoever the Warriors throw at him.
If I had to guess, I'd think that Steve Kerr throws Harrison Barnes on LeBron to start games and if he gets hot, switches Andre iguodala on him, and finally ends games with Draymond Green marking him up. Of course, this could all change if James sparks up to start but Kerr might guard James the same way he did against James Harden, trying to funnel him into midrange shots and stopping him at the rim with Andrew Bogut. James has been much less efficient than normal, mainly because his teammates aren't as good as those Miami Heat squads but he's a better passer and finisher than Harden. That mitigates part of the gameplan so expect to see the wings play a step off on the perimeter, allowing the 3, where James is shooting 15 percent. James should regress back to normal shooting splits but we can also argue Green will do the same on the other hand as he's shooting sub-30 percent beyond the arc.
What We Know to Watch
The rebounding battle is going to be epic. The Warriors held their own against the Memphis Grizzles, Anthony Davis, and dominated the Houston Rockets on the boards. Now they get Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. One is set in the mold of Bogut, a plodding but smart and strong defender at the rim. The other is set in the Draymond Green mold in that there's a never-ending amount of energy and length that can overwhelm anyone. Bogut and Mozgov and Thompson and Green will be nothing less than entertaining throughout the series.
J.R. Smith makes shots that you want him to take. He misses shots that you don't want him to take. J.R. Smith is a hilarious basketball player and when on the mark, can totally demoralize a team and change the entire complexity of a game. Klay Thompson is not nearly the same amount of absurdity but holds the same amount of cache in terms of confidence. He will take, and make, just about anything. We've seen it all. Here's hoping they each throw up a 30-point quarter, with jumpers from halfcourt, upside-down, and eyes closed.
A basketball game is 48 minutes but often the narratives are written in the last five minutes of the game. Crunchtime matchups in this series feature perhaps one of the most exciting aesthetically pleasing contest in terms of style, grace, and poise. Klay Thompson will put his footwork to the test against Kyrie Irving, a superb ball-handler and finisher at the rim with a bag of tricks in his arsenal even bigger than Curry's. Then there's Draymond Green's First Team All Defense credentials going right up against the greatest player of his generation and the next. After Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Dwight Howard, Green is set up for an even bigger challenge.
And finally, lest we forget, the Finals is built upon the publicity of its two superstars, transcendent among actual stars and moons. Basketball is a team game but what we're watching for is the penultimate and inevitable face-off between Stephen Curry on offense and a hellbent LeBron James ready to pounce the way he did to poor Derrick Rose in his MVP campaign. Basketball does not get better than that, folks.
Is there any actual analysis coming? I think the Golden State Warriors force too many matchup disadvantages for the Cavs to adjust. The Cavs' offense has been stuck in one mode all season and it doesn't appear to get into some type of movement or option-based motion that can hurt the Warriors' switching style. The Cavs will need LeBron James at his greatest to win games, and even then, it might not be enough. Everyone has focused so much on who will guard LeBron James that we forget that the Cavs, despite defensive improvement against lesser teams, have no one to take on Curry, Thompson, Green, and even Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, and Leandro Barbosa.
NBA Finals Prediction: Golden State Warriors in 5.