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NBA Finals: Who Has the Edge?

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As the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are set to square off in their third straight NBA Finals matchup, there are several elements of the game that could affect the outcome of the series. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are searching for their first championship repeat in team history, while Stephen Curry and the Warriors aim to reclaim the title that the Cavs tore from their grip in last year’s Finals.

The Cavs and Warriors are both playing at an extremely high level this postseason. Offensively, both teams have been off the charts, and on the defensive end both teams are holding the opposition to under 45 percent from the field. Besides the offensive and defensive ends, there are several other areas of the game that could be determining factors in deciding which team will come away with their second NBA championship in three years. Determining which of these teams has the upper hand in several different elements of the game may provide an indication of which team holds the overall edge in the series.

*All statistics are courtesy of Synergy and Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of May 26, 2017.

Offensive Firepower – The Warriors’ breadth of offensive weapons continually creates havoc for opposing teams, as it is near impossible to cover all of their threats at once. Combining Kevin Durant joining the roster this season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and throwing in fellow all-star Draymond Green, the Cavs are going to have their hands full trying to shut down this quartet. Cleveland, on the other hand, despite a couple games versus Boston, has been equally good, if not better this postseason on the offensive end. Led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who have seemingly taken turns spurring the team offensively, the Cavs have played some of their best basketball of the season. At first glance, the Warriors may seem to be the better offensive team. However, the Cavs have actually ranked as the slightly more efficient team this post season, averaging 1.1 points per possession while shooting 51 percent from the field. The Warriors have averaged 1.08 points per possession while averaging more points per game, 118 versus Cleveland’s 116.8. There is no clear edge here.

Edge: Tied

Defensive Effectiveness– The Cavs have been stellar on defense, especially in transition. It helps to have a 6-foot-8 freight train tracking down and pinning balls against the glass versus opposing guards, like LeBron James did to Avery Bradley during the Boston series. Collectively, the Cavs have also been strong in the half court, holding teams to 45 percent from the field shooting. As strong as the Cavs have been, the Warriors have been even better, as they have ranked as the most efficient team on the defensive end this postseason. Kevin Durant has given the Warriors an added dynamic, as his length often bothers smaller perimeter players. Combine this with Draymond Green , Klay Thompson and reserve Shaun Livingston’s ability to guard, and the Warriors perimeter defense has several ubiquitous pieces who have been stellar. Zaza Pachulia, and JaVale McGee have done their part down low as well. Even Stephen Curry, who the Warriors often try to hide on defense, has been solid, limiting opposing players to 32 percent from the field on guarded shots. For these reasons, the Warriors have registered the most efficient defense this post season. Applying their defensive ubiquity in the finals may help to slow down the Cavs in the finals.

Edge: Warriors

Leadership – Despite the several All-Star caliber players that the Warriors possess, none seem to have the magnetizing leadership effect on teammates and the organization quite like the Cavs’ James does.  James has seemed to catalyze the Cavs this post-season, not only with his play but also his alpha mentality. The respect and deference by teammates and staff for James is clear. James’ fierce mentality aimed at securing a repeat for his city and his fourth title has most definitely rubbed off on his team, with Cleveland more focused than ever. Even opposing players and coaches are recognizing the type of impact that James has on the Cavs. Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan said after the Cavs dispatched  the Raptors,  “If we had LeBron on our team, too, we would have won.” Boston head coach, Brad Stevens told reporters after the Celtics’ game three come from behind win, “He’s the best player in the world. I’m not going to criticize him one bit.” In the Finals, expect James’ leadership ability to shine through, not only with his high level of play but also with the way he maintains focus for himself and for his teammates.

Edge: Cavs

Peaking at The Right Time – Another interesting piece to this puzzle is that the Warriors have not been challenged this postseason, remaining perfect by dispatching Portland, Utah, and San Antonio without losing a game, going 12-0. However, the Cavs have experienced a misstep. They were punched in the mouth by the Celtics, embarrassingly losing Game 3 after blowing a 21-point lead, but James and the crew bounced back with two resounding wins to close out the Boston series in five games. The loss may have helped the Cavs re-focus and come to the realization that even the best can waver when they don’t take care of business. Because of the vast wealth of experience and the many stars who understand what it takes to raise their level of play when it counts, there is likely no clear cut advantage for either team in this department.

Edge: Tied

Rebounding / Toughness – The edge in rebounding goes to Cleveland, but not by much. The Cavs are averaging a +3.9 rebounding differential, while the Warriors are just behind them at +2.7 per game. For the Cavs, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and James bring the grit and muscle down low, while for the Warriors, Green and Durant have been cleaning up the boards. As these two teams clash, it will be interesting to see if rebounding becomes a differentiating factor in the series. Also, considering that the Warriors will likely try to impose a faster pace of play on the series, (Golden State is averaging 5 more offensive possessions per game than the Cavs) theoretically there should be more total rebounds to be had. If Cleveland can force the Warriors into contested shots while securing the boards, they maybe able to edge out their counterparts in this department.

Edge: Cavs

Finals Experience – Both teams are driven by stars who are chasing history. Durant is looking for his first championship, while Curry, Thompson, and Green are trying to secure their second. James and the Cavs, on the other hand, are chasing a repeat. With the exception of a few players, namely Durant for the Warriors and Kyle Korver for the Cavs, both teams have the experience of both wining and losing a finals series. Does the team who most recently won the championship have the edge in this year’s finals? Or do the Warriors, who were so close that they could have tasted their second straight championship last year only to let it slip away by squandering a 3-1 series lead, have the advantage in this department? It is hard to say, but what is clear is that both teams have a wealth of finals experience knowledge to tap into when the pressure is on.

Edge: Tied

Overall Championship Edge: Cavaliers

Jake Rauchbach is the founder of The MindRight Pro Program and has coached numerous professional and collegiate basketball players. Rauchbach serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University’s men’s basketball team and provides high-performance analysis on the NBA and college basketball.

Twitter: @mindrightpro

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About Jake Rauchbach

Jake Rauchbach

After playing four years of college basketball at Drexel University, Jake Rauchbach coached at the collegiate level, founded The MindRight Pro Program and trained numerous professional and Olympic athletes. Now, Rauchbach writes about the NBA and college basketball for Basketball Insiders and serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University's men's basketball team.