In NBA Finals, when push comes to shove, Golden State Warriors might just have a little more

Jonathan Raymond analyses the match-ups that will determine the NBA Finals and comes away thinking that, despite the excellence of LeBron James, Golden State are just better.

Stephen Curry has scored 29.2 points per game for the Golden State Warriors in the NBA play-offs. Ben Margot / AP / May 27, 2015
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The 2015 NBA Finals, starting Thursday between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, will be decided – at the risk of sounding obvious – on match-ups.

During the play-offs, the Warriors and Cavs have done almost all of the same things well to reach this point: They emphasised the three, attempting 30.3 and 29.1 per game, ranking first and second in the post-season; the Warriors have made 38.0 per cent and the Cavaliers have hit at a 35.9 per cent clip; they have rebounded roughly similarly, snaring about four and six more boards per game than opponents; they defended well from long range, Cleveland holding opponents to 28.1 per cent from outside and the Warriors allowing just 31.0 per cent from three; they defended well inside, Golden State opponents converting at 53.0 per cent from less than five feet with Cleveland keeping opponents in check at that distance to a 56.3 per cent mark.

They have been nearly mirror images offensively, both taking 35.6 per cent of all their shot attempts from three. And while the Cavs have shot 39.2 per cent of their attempts right around the hoop, the Warriors have taken 39.3 per cent of their shots right at the basket.

Read more: Jonathan Raymond on the stakes in the 2015 NBA Finals for Stephen Curry and LeBron James

Cleveland are 12-2 to this point, outscoring opponents by 8.8 points per game in the play-offs. The Warriors are 12-3, outscoring the opposition by 8.1 points per contest.

These teams value the same things, their strengths are similar and this is all, roughly speaking, not too surprising considering they reached the finals in the first place.

So what will separate two teams that, so far in the play-offs at least, don’t have much separating them? Match-ups. Personnel and execution.

Here’s what the 2015 NBA Finals hinge on:

Defensive fluidity

The Warriors are in motion, always. That stems from Stephen Curry’s creativity, playmaking and general pace-setting. Cleveland need to match this.

The Memphis Grizzlies were able to surprise Golden State and swipe a pair of wins in the second round by stymieing Golden State’s flow with constant switching.

When the Warriors run their typical offence from outside, heavy on off-ball screens and on-ball picks to keep defenders chasing after them, one solution is to simply not chase. Generally, that cuts off the initial openings Golden State thrive on outside, but more often than not gives them advantageous one-on-one match-ups (since the optimal defender has held back on a screen and switched) which they use to just as easily create openings.

This Catch-22 is what gave the Warriors the second-most efficient offence in the NBA this season. But with the right personnel, like Memphis’ Tony Allen and Mike Conley, it can be defended. In the first three games against the Grizzlies, Golden State shot just 31.3 per cent from three and found themselves in a 2-1 hole.

Cleveland’s James and Iman Shumpert can mimic this on Golden State’s two ball-dominant outside shooters, Curry and Klay Thompson. LeBron is the best pound-for-pound defender of the last decade, agile and and swift enough to make anyone’s life miserable. Shumpert is quick and long-armed, and, while he’ll have a little more trouble keeping up, it won’t be debilitating. Neither is the offensive liability that Allen was and that the Warriors exploited.

Golden State will still be able to target Kyrie Irving, battling a bad knee, with some of these plays. Even when the Cavs are able to hide Irving on Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes, that will be a mismatch – though one Cleveland undoubtedly prefer to getting killed by the “Splash Brothers”.

Irving’s vulnerability could put the switching scheme in danger of breaking down without a capable third wing. The Cavs fortunately have one in Matthew Dellavedova, who has been excellent defensively in the play-offs (95.0 points per 100 possessions allowed when he’s been on the floor). We might even see Cleveland lean harder on a James-Shumpert-Dellavedova wing rotation, though they’d be sacrificing quite a bit in the way of offence to do so.

The question is how long this can all work. There’s a reason bigger guys just don’t always guard littler players – it’s tiring, and LeBron in particular will already be asked to go full-stop carrying most of the offence.

Still, the Cavaliers will have to try it – it’s the best of the options they’ve got.

Unstoppable force and immovable object

LeBron has been a bully inside through the first three rounds of the play-offs, scoring 27.6 points per game with the overwhelming bulk of that coming from getting inside and getting to the free-throw line.

He’s always a forced to be reckoned with in the post, but in the play-offs that’s been even more true, as he’s taken 48.3 per cent of his attempts right around the hoop (compared to 42.5 per cent in the regular season). So far, none of Boston, Chicago or Atlanta have really been able to stop LeBron from getting the looks he wants.

As Warriors forward Draymond Green put it, “Some have been successful. Many have failed.”

Still, he can be slowed. He’s only shooting 42.8 per cent overall, his percentage inside is well off his regular-season number (though still quite good, 59.5 per cent from 65.7) and he’s not going to hurt you from three, shooting a ghastly 17.6 per cent outside.

Green, one of the best defenders in the league this year, can stand up with him one-on-one. Thompson or Barnes can provide help, and when LeBron does get to the rim he’s going to have to contend with Andrew Bogut, a dominant defensive force inside holding opponents to a ridiculous 39.5 field goal percentage at the rim this post-season (and just 41.4 in the regular season). Green hasn’t been too bad himself, sporting a 45.6 per cent figure that compares favourably with, say, Dwight Howard’s regular-season number (45.7).

Where LeBron makes his living offensively, the Warriors do the best work in basketball defensively. If he’s running into walls, it’s going to be up to the rest of the Cavaliers to make points happen.

Which brings us to perhaps Cleveland’s biggest problem.

Depth

The Warriors simply have more good players than the Cavaliers.

Cleveland are functionally running out a seven-man team, with the occasional James Jones cameo to make eight. And that’s with Irving at less than 100 per cent. The Warriors can credibly call on nine players before they even need to think about reincorporating David Lee or Marreese Speights. The Cavs are not going to think about incorporating Shawn Marion or Mike Miller or Kendrick Perkins.

Kevin Love was at 14.3 points per game before he separated his shoulder, incapacitating him for the rest of the play-offs. Irving is scoring 18.7 points per contest, but that was just 13.0 per in the two games he was able to get on the floor in the last series against Atlanta.

If Irving isn’t factoring in, that leaves JR Smith to pick up the scoring load, and it’s not clear he can do that against a defence like the Warriors. Smith shot 41.7 per cent overall during the regular season; he’s kicking in at 45.7 per cent in the play-offs along with a slight uptick from three (38.3 to 39.6). The Hawks, Bulls and Celtics are all good defensive teams, but they’re not the Warriors, and it’s simply hard to envision Smith having the kind of 28-point explosion against Golden State he had against Atlanta in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Beyond him Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson are all chipping in around nine or ten points a game. But Thompson (90.1 per cent of attempts) and Mozgov (72.7 per cent of attempts) live almost exclusively down low, where Bogut (or the able Festus Ezeli, in spurts) awaits.

Shumpert, and James Jones, can hit a three but neither is the same kind of dead-eyed threat that creates spacing in the way that Kevin Love could or that Shane Battier did for LeBron’s first title team in Miami.

Basically, the Cavs are going to be squeezed for points. Compare that to the Warriors, who have gotten more points from Green (14.0 per game) and Barnes (11.3 per) despite both struggling from three in the post-season.

And, all things being equal among starting fives, Golden State has a deep bench – Leandro Barbosa (109.0 points per 100 when on the court in the play-offs), Andre Iguodala (106.8), Shaun Livingston (110.9) and even Ezeli (111.5) – putting up strong on/off court offensive efficiency figures primarily thanks to being able to feast on the weaker second units of opponents.

Health

None of that is to say the Warriors are so good in their depth that if Curry or Thompson or one of their defensive stalwarts is off or out that they’ll still maintain an advantage over Cleveland. Golden State need their whole team to win in the way they have. That can be said about pretty much any team.

The Warriors got through the West so easily in part because they did have their entire team – while Houston missed Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, Memphis went without Tony Allen and Mike Conley at times, and other teams like Portland fell by the wayside with injuries, Golden State have been totally healthy.

That’s part of the luck it takes to win a title. Cleveland have made it to this point without that kind of luck, thanks in part to the overall weakness of the East and their prime competition – Atlanta – succumbing to ailments of their own. But this is the point where Cleveland’s bumps and bruises will probably be made noticeable. No Love and a less-than-100-per cent Irving leaves them with precious little margin for error. The Warriors are much better positioned in this regard.

The verdict

LeBron James is capable of taking his game to heights other players aren’t – he’s the best of his generation. But there’s a reason he didn’t win the MVP this year: He couldn’t sustain it across 82 games. He came out slow, missed a handful of games in the middle of the year, and then went back to being LeBron again.

The weight he must bear in this series is huge. If anyone can maintain full-throttle excellence over five or six or seven games, it just might be him, but it’s a lot to ask of any human.

If he has an off night or two, the Warriors will pounce on it. If he’s on, they’re still capable of gunning out a win. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are going to make their threes.

The Warriors and Cavs do so many things similarly, are strong in so many of the same ways, and it’s a shame to not be able to see this series with Love involved – because right now Golden State do all of those things just a little bit stronger.

They space the floor a little further. They move the ball a little faster. They shoot a little bit sweeter. They rotate defensively a little bit crisper.

They have a little bit more.

Warriors in six

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