After an 82-game regular season and three 7-game playoff series, the NBA Finals will start on Friday. The match-up: the Golden State Warriors versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It may not come as a surprise that the Warriors have made it all the way to the Finals. They have been the best team all season, winning a League-high and franchise-record 67 games during the regular season, and finishing with the best defensive rating and second-best offensive rating in the League. On their way to the finals, the Dubs beat the Pelicans in four, the Grizzlies in six and the Rockets in five. Interestingly, Stephen Curry will have played against all other NBA first-team players in this year’s playoffs: Harden (Houston), Davis (New Orleans), Gasol (Memphis) and now LeBron James (Cleveland) in the finals.
Their opponents, the Cleveland Cavaliers, made it to the finals after a slow start and mid-season roster changes, finishing second in the East (53-29). The addition of Mozgov, Shumpert and JR Smith brought depth to their team and they have been playing great ever since. The Cavaliers had surprisingly little trouble reaching the Finals, considering they played almost entirely without all-star Kevin Love and with an injured Irving. They swept the Bucks, finished off a tough Bulls team in six in the second round, and completed another sweep against the No.1 seed Hawks in the conference finals. Lebron James will play in his fifth consecutive NBA Finals, the first player to make it to five straight since the 1960 Celtics legends.
For the Warriors, it will be the first trip back to the Finals since 1975, the year the franchise won its only title. The Cavaliers have famously never won an NBA title and the city hasn’t won any major sports title in over 50 years. It will be their second trip to the Finals in franchise history after getting swept by the Spurs in ’07 – a painful remainder for James and the entire region. A lot of pressure will be on both teams to take advantage of the opportunity to bring home a long-awaited title.
The pressure will be on their rookie head coaches as well. It will be the first time since the introduction of the League in 1947 that two rookie head coaches have faced off in the NBA Finals. Steve Kerr has done an amazing job taking over Marc Jackson’s team and building the Warriors into a real championship contender. The Finals are not exactly uncharted territory for Kerr, winning five championships as a player. Cavaliers head coach David Blatt might not boast the same credentials as a player, but he has won more than a dozen titles, European championships and Olympic medals as a coach overseas, so he can hardly be considered a rookie coach.
Looking at the numbers, it is clear that the two best teams are still in the running to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this season. They are the only teams to rank in the top four in both offensive and defensive efficiency and their average margin over their opponents of +10.1 (Cleveland) and +8.4 (Golden State) are the two best margins in this year’s playoffs.
Cleveland has the best defense of all playoff teams and is the only side that has held its opponents under 30% from behind the arc. It they can continue to defend the three-point line that efficiently, they’ll have a very good change against the Warriors, who shoot more long balls than any other team in the league: almost 36% of their shots come from behind the arc. The Warriors have been the best shooting team of the playoffs, but they have not been able to take care of the ball, committing almost 16 turnovers per game – more than any other team. It will be crucial to limit these turnovers against Cleveland, as the Cavaliers are the most efficient team in transition.
Another aspect that will be highlighted on the Warriors’ blackboard in the dressing room will be defensive rebounds. Cleveland has been destroying their opponents on the offensive glass, grabbing 28.5% of the available offensive rebounds. Thompson and Mosgov rank first and third respectively in this category and it will be up to Bogut and Green to keep them out of the paint as much as possible.
On offense, both teams offer an array of shooters. The Warriors have the best three-point shooter in the game in Curry and it is very likely that Klay Thompson will start hitting the long ball, after he started heating up in the last game against the Rockets. The Cavaliers will have to pick their poison, and most probably Green will be the man that will be left open. A remarkable 93% of Green’s jump shots in the playoffs have been uncontested, but he has not been able to make them (only 26%). On the other end, the Warriors will be wise to keep a body on Irving. Although he is battling with injuries, Irving has been lethal when left open, shooting an astonishing 61.2% from behind the arc when left open.
All things considered, this year’s NBA Finals will be the battle between two of the best players in the league: Curry, who might already be the best shooter the game has ever seen, against Lebron James, arguably the best small forward in the history of the game, the leader of his generation and the face of the League. In that sense, the outcome of these finals might be about more than just the championship, but also about passing the torch.