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NBA Finals: Who Has the Edge?

Jake Rauchbach examines several relevant areas ahead of a Finals rematch.

Jake Rauchbach

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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

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.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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