While not exactly close in final scores, the six games of these NBA Finals have been some of the more competitive in recent memory. The two teams have scored identical points, 641 apiece, for the series, and currently sit locked at 3-3. This series has seen its share of turns and momentum swings, with Golden State drawing first blood by dominating Games 1 and 2. Cleveland was able to come back swinging in Game 3, but dropped another rout in Game 4 to send the potential decider back to Oakland where the despondent Cavs were to meet there ends at the hands of the Warriors again. Unceremonious and painful.
Writers across the globe, myself included, left Cleveland for dead, and criticized LeBron James and his self-built team for the failures of this season and how dreadfully they matched up with Golden State. While some of the criticism may have been deserved, LeBron James proved most of us wrong. The King has rattled off two straight wins behind herculean efforts and dominant play. And it hasn’t even been close.
The Warriors have not been able to find an answer for James in the last two games. It doesn’t help that Andre Iguodala, who had been the answer the previous four games, has been hurt and limited in the last couple of outings. James has run roughshod over the Golden State defense, obliterating smaller matchups and even stretching his range out to the three-point line.
The Cavaliers have seen big outputs from Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson in their wins, but disappearances in losses. The party has been on for Cleveland, who has played with their backs against the wall and nothing to lose for the last two games. The defense has been outstanding, and the offense looking a lot like the Warriors’.
But Game 7 will be a much greater challenge for James and Cleveland. The emotions of the city poured out in Game 6, a testament to a town desperate for their first NBA championship. The pressure is on now, with the entire city excited and resting on the chances of the Cavs, who stand one win away – closer than ever before – from that elusive title.
On the other side is the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Warriors, after tearing through the regular season and first two rounds, have hit a wall in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals. The Thunder exposed the Warriors to long and athletic defense, and pushed them to become more dynamic and physical. The Warriors used their bruising play style to take the first two games. But since then, the Warriors haven’t looked the same.
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) June 19, 2016
The offense isn’t as potent, with Steph Curry off his game and Klay Thompson playing streaky during long stretches of games. The defense has been a larger missing cog, however, seeing a loss of intensity and physicality, first without Draymond Green, and then even in his return. Game 6 was a return to the Warriors of last season: not quite physical enough and just a ‘shooting team’.
The biggest missing link, however, has been the absolute disappearance of Harrison Barnes. Barnes was bad in Games 5 and 6, sitting long stretches and hitting nothing of meaning. Game 6 saw Barnes go an abysmal 0-8. When Barnes is struggling, Golden State’s patented ‘Death Lineup’ doesn’t pack the same punch, and Barnes has been far from normal.
And now the Warriors are faced with mounting pressure. Curry has been scrutinized from every angle over the last two games, as even his wife has faced criticism for her handling of Game 6’s loss.
Head coach Steve Kerr even addressed the change in the Warriors, saying, “We aren’t the same. You look at Steph and Klay and our guys, they aren’t fighting like they were. The intensity isn’t there. I hope they’re mad, they should be at least.”
In danger of blowing a 3-1 series lead, and a chance for a repeat, Golden State can ill afford to no-show at another game.
For both teams, Game 7 is all about getting back to what works. For Golden State, it’s been physicality. The Warriors are at their best when they are setting screens and running baseline on offense and blitzing on defense. The larger lineups the Warriors have used have surprisingly produced benefits on offense, with the presence of Ezeli and Green on the floor together providing space on the perimeter for Iggy, Thompson and Curry.
High-ball screens on offense have been key all year for Golden State, and using them with Green and Curry has confused and stretched a susceptible Cleveland defense. When the Warriors are standing around on offense, Cleveland’s defense has set in. But pace on offense forces the Cavs into more one-on-one matchups that will greatly benefit Golden State.
Cleveland, on the other hand, is going to have to rely on what has worked in Games 5 and 6: traps on defense and rotations on offense. Traps on Curry and Thompson has been a recipe for success for Cleveland, as Golden State’s supporting cast hasn’t been shooting at near the efficiency of the first four games. Forcing the rest of the Warriors into shooting, and living with the shooting of Thompson and Curry, has worked wonders for the Cavs. The struggles of players like Barnes and Livingston has created a do-or-die approach for the Warriors, forcing contested shots from the Splash Brothers.
On offense, the approach has to be switches for James and Irving. LeBron has been deadly when matched on smaller opponents. He’s abused Curry and any guard on him in the last two games, and has lowered his shoulder and gone to the rim. But the spacing LeBron has provided has also been key, as his midrange and three-point threat has brought defenders closer to the line to guard him.
There’s no shortage of pressure for Game 7. Golden State is feeling the pinch from blowing a 3-1 series lead, something that hasn’t happened ever before in the Finals. Meanwhile, James and the Cavs are carrying a whole city on their backs. The pressure won’t get greater than this, the most anticipated Game 7 in years.
I’m sure there will be plenty of fireworks.
— NBA (@NBA) June 19, 2016