The Warriors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers again in a rematch of last year's Finals, which Golden State won in six games. The matchup will be vastly different, however, as Cleveland fields a truly healthy team. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love injured last year, the burden of scoring, distributing, and leading fell completely onto LeBron James' mighty shoulders. Though he raged against the night -- putting up unheard of numbers -- in the end, it was not enough to bring the elusive championship home to Cleveland. Steve Kerr and co. made a destructive adjustment by inserting Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup and then moving Draymond Green to the center position, signaling the birth of the Warriors' famed "Death Lineup." So, what will we see this year? How will the matchups play out?
I'm here to help break it down with y'all.
Strap on those boxing gloves and tin-foil hats, things are about to get real.
Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving
Stephen Curry, albeit playing with an undisclosed amount of injured-knee-ness, is still the most exhilarating and unpredictable player in the Association. When he gets it going, no one -- and I mean no one -- can stay with him. After returning from injury, he seemed off at times. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what was wrong, but basically he just didn't look like "STEPH CURRY WORLD ENDER," aka, "I'M HERE FOR YOUR SOUL AND YOUR FIRST BORN." He looked more like, you know, Stephen Curry. 6'4" guard out of Davidson. He lacked the bounce and swagger that had carried him to the NBA's first ever unanimous MVP award. However, in Game 7 against the Thunder, we started to see a bit more of that. As Apricot showed, Curry finally rediscovered his ability to step-back and shimmy against the Thunder bigs out on the perimeter. He hit a series of ridonkulous threes against Thunder bigs, including two beauties over Steven Adams and one over the outstretched hands of 7'0" (depending on who he's talking to) Kevin Durant.
Kyrie Irving possesses the second best (or first best, depending on who you ask) handle behind Steph. His ability to break down a defense is uncanny. He can drive, he can kick, he can hit the three pointer. He can explode for a bunch of points reeeeal quick. When he is engaged, he is capable of putting up some extremely efficient offensive numbers. Our friends (frenemies?) at Fear the Sword are quite adamant about pointing this out.
We at that point in Finals prep yet where everyone just forgets that Kyrie is a killer putting up 24 a night on 48/46 shooting splits?— FearTheSword (@FearTheSword) May 31, 2016
However (and this is the "ye-olde-refrain" I'm sure you're sick of hearing), his defense is not always completely, um, rock solid. Will Curry torch him? Especially if playing off ball and coming around a variety of screens? Will Draymond Green stick out his rear end and send Irving sprawled onto the floor? How will he react to a Draymond Green/Curry pick and roll? Etc, etc, I'm gonna stop talking because this has been written about ad nauseam since Kyrie joined the league.
Klay Thompson vs. J.R. Smith
Klay Thompson sort of saved the Warriors season with his rock solid, consistent play in the later games of the Western Conference Finals. He set an NBA record for most three pointers made in a playoff game, and provided solid perimeter defense throughout the series. He is the unheralded, under appreciated (even still) third of the Warriors' superstar trifecta. If anything sums up his life, it's this hilarious tweet from Shea Serrano:
STEPH: wow we're really on the precipice of greatness we can do something no one h..— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) May 31, 2016
KLAY, texting: game's over u up pic.twitter.com/lMUYqfujfH
No matter that he is intensely driven and competitive, the world will always love Klay for his steady demeanor and his chill outlook on the NBA.
J.R. Smith has found a home for himself in Cleveland. Long the butt of many (pipe-laying) jokes, he has finally found a team that embraces him, but puts him in a position to truly succeed. For whatever reason, it never panned out in New York with the Knicks, nor in Denver with the Nuggets. But in Cleveland, and under the supposedly-watchful eye of LeBron James, J.R. has recommitted himself to basketball, and has used his red hot shooting to help the Cavaliers become one of the most dangerous perimeter shooting teams in the league. The other being, duh, the Warriors. But, again, he draws the unenviable task of guarding Klay. He's not quite as big, and he is not as committed defensively as his counter part. It'll be an interesting battle, but one I ultimately expect to see won by the Warriors' All Star shooting guard.
Andre Iguodala vs. LeBron James
I am just gonna go ahead and assume the Warriors start Andre Iguodala in Game 1. Harrison Barnes makes sense in the regular season, but we've seen that you can't keep Iguodala's defensive presence on the bench in important (read: THIS IS THE G'DAMN FINALS) games. Inserting Andre into the starting lineup last year proved to be the critcal adjustment of the series. While I don't think we'll see Draymond starting at center, I do think Steve Kerr will tab Andre to be Game 1's starting small forward. Question is, though, will he be able to have the same amount of success against LeBron? The Cavaliers are now playing with much more spacing and offensive movement. Last year, LeBron was forced to basically take over 99.999% of all ball handling, assisting, and scoring duties for the Cavs. Iguodala was able to (try and) lock onto him, as he was so obviously the focal point of their offense.
However, LeBron James is still arguably the most unstoppable force of nature in professional sports. When he wants to get to the basket, he gets to the basket. When he decides to empower his teammates, his rising tide lifts ALL ships. LeBron may no longer be the league's guaranteed, every year MVP (what up Steph?), but when he goes into death commando mode, the world around him shakes and trembles.
Draymond Green vs. Kevin Love
Last year, in an attempt to go Grit and Grind, the Cavaliers played a whole lot of Tristan Thompson at the power forward spot, with Timofey Mozgov catching starter's minutes at the 5. However, the Cavaliers are healthy, and have reinvented themselves as a free moving, offensive juggernaut. Kevin Love has finally found a true home in the offense, and has been playing really well all throughout the playoffs, averaging 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds, while shooting 44.6% from beyond the arc and playing 32.5 minutes per game. To contrast: Draymond Green has averaged 15.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.1 blocks in 37.6 minutes per game so far through the 2016 postseason.
Green has the heft and leverage in the matchup, but Love is legitimately five inches taller (but when has that ever really mattered with Draymond?). After missing last year's series, Kevin finally gets a chance to show the Warriors what they missed out on when they decided not to trade for him.
This one is a lot closer than the other matchups, but I'm going
Advantage: Warriors (if Draymond plays like he did in Game 7, and NOT how he did in Games 3 and 4 in the WCF)
Andrew Bogut vs. Tristan Thompson
After seeing most of his minutes either in small ball settings, or at the power forward position, Tristan Thompson has carved out a home for himself as the Cavalier's starting center. His grit, hustle, and tenacity almost doomed the Warriors in last year's finals. There were innumerable possessions where I found myself yelling at the TV, shaking my head, screaming, "Get the ball! Rebound the ball!!!" because Thompson had simply outworked the Warriors' big men on the offensive and defensive glass. Seriously, it was just a matter of will power and go-get-it. (Those are both extremely technical, analytical terms). Andrew Bogut has showed flashes of his dominant self, but he's playing hobbled right now. I thought he was the true hero in Game 5, as the Warriors staved off elimination at home and regained their mojo. Can he play with that same level of consistency? Or will the Warriors be tempted to put Draymond Green in the center position for long stretches of time? Last year, Tristan kinda beasted on him too, so we'll see.
Hmm, this is close, but I'm going with youth and health.
Harrison Barnes (assuming I'm right), Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao (getting a ring either way), Leandro Barbosa, MO BUX vs. Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones
I don't think there's a deeper team in the league than the Warriors (I am not alone in this opinion), so they are always going to win a bench vs. bench competition. However, the Cavaliers bench has been playing really well throughout this run. The addition of Channing Frye opened up the floor for LeBron to work his magic (and thrust Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup as Mozgov was banished to the pine). Dellavedova is, well...you know. Richard Jefferson is playing surprisingly meaningful minutes. Which, just...how is that possible? When he was on the Warriors some years back he seemed 100% washed, even then. Surprisingly, the Cav's BEST LINEUP is LeBron, plus Shumpert, Frye, Jefferson, and Delly. This seems entirely illogical, but there are stats to back it up.
Shumpert is an athletic, defensive wizard, Frye can shoot, Delly will hurt someone, somehow. I'm low key terrified of some of the matchups. This Cavaliers team is MUCH deeper than the Thunder. Plus, they are more rested after breezing through the first two rounds, and then dispatching the Raptors in six games.
However, I will never vote against the pure, serene joy of MO BUX's smile.
Advantage: Warriors (by a slim margin)
Steve Kerr vs. Tyronne Lue
Tyronne Lue has gotten this team to play with space, timing, and joy. As great as David Blatt was in his first season and a half, he was never able to unlock that sort of offensive freedom from his players. Though Lue has coached admirably so far, when compared to Kerr, you have to defer to the coach that has actually been there and done that. As in, won a championship. Tyronne doesn't even have a full season under his belt. But, the players love him. I think what he's done with that team has been remarkable. However...
Summation of all parts
So, damn, what are to make of all that? I think the Cavaliers are very deep, very talented, and could -- at any point in any game -- have the best player on the floor in the form of Mr. James. However, the Warriors just showed some insane resiliency in coming back from 3-1 to win the Western Conference Finals. The Cavaliers, with 6'9" Tristan manning the center, are nowhere near as long or athletic as the Thunder. They don't have the defensive athletes to contest the Warriors' shots on the perimeter (especially with Irving and Love in the game), and they haven't faced a true test yet. Conversely, the Warriors can and will defend the Cavs' threes, they have size down low, should they choose to stick big with Bogut for long stretches of time, and they are coming off of one of the most impressive Conference Finals victories of all time. They have the momentum, they have the courage, and they know what it takes to win a championship.