The Western and Eastern Conference Finals are underway, but each series is suffering from a lack of suspense and intrigue. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker sidelined and Isaiah Thomas sidelined, and with the dominant play of superstar players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, it seems like the next few playoff games will only serve as warm-up sessions for the NBA Finals rematch between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics are very good teams and can compete with any team on any given night when healthy. And while each team might win a few games in their respective series, it’s hard to imagine how either could make it to the NBA Finals at this point, especially now that Thomas has been ruled out for the remainder of the postseason.
When Durant signed with the Warriors last offseason, the vast majority of people in and around the NBA predicted that the Warriors and Cavaliers would meet each other in the NBA Finals for the third season in a row. Fortunately, the regular season provided a nice supply of storylines, plot twists and other unexpected events.
Russell Westbrook did the unthinkable and broke the regular season triple-double record. James Harden became the de facto point guard of the Houston Rockets and revamped the team into one of the league’s best overall squads under the guidance of head coach Mike D’Antoni. Isaiah Thomas blossomed into a fringe MVP candidate. Joel Embiid proved himself to be a dominant force when healthy. Devin Booker scored 70 points against the Boston Celtics. DeMarcus Cousins was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans to team up with Anthony Davis. These are just a few things that have made this NBA season interesting and worth tuning in for despite the lingering knowledge that everything would eventually lead to a rematch of the Warriors and Cavaliers.
For those who wanted to see a new matchup in the Finals, these latest injuries are a tough pill to swallow. However, everyone should be excited for the matchup between Cleveland and Golden State. The Warriors arguably feature more talent than any other team in NBA history while the Cavaliers are led by James, who is playing at an elite level. In addition, both teams are highly motivated after the last two Finals matchups.
The Warriors are benefiting from a rejuvenated Curry, who found his stride in the weeks leading up to the postseason when Durant was sidelined with a knee injury. Now the Warriors are winning even on nights where they aren’t playing particularly well. When Curry and Thompson are off, Durant can score in isolation. When Durant isn’t feeling it, Curry is orchestrating the Warriors’ high-octane offense. The Utah Jazz learned first-hand last series that even on an off night, the Warriors are nearly unbeatable.
That is why this inevitable rematch is so interesting. Yes, the postseason up to this point hasn’t been particularly exciting. But with the Warriors playing at an elite level and with James orchestrating a high-powered Cleveland squad, the NBA Finals is primed to be must watch television. Many are not giving the Cavaliers much of a chance in this potential matchup, but not many gave them much of a chance last year either. The Warriors may be favored but we can’t dismiss Cleveland completely – not when James is playing at this level.
To say that James is an incredible player and is playing well in this year’s playoffs is beyond obvious. However, it is notable how James is dominating this postseason.
For years, James has been one of the league’s best players when it comes to attacking the rim off the dribble. In his younger days, James wasn’t just stronger than his opponents, he was usually quicker as well, and had the stamina to attack relentlessly. James isn’t quite as quick with his first step as he used to be (though he hasn’t slowed down all that much either), and he preserves his energy more than he used to, but he’s as effective as ever at shedding his opponents, getting around help defenders and finishing at the rim as effectively as ever.
James’ drives to the rim leave defenses with a few bad options to choose from. Defenses can send help, which leaves shooters wide open, foul James and force him to make free throws, contest him one-on-one, or attempt to take a charge. James has always been lethal in this sense, but with a deep squad of three-point shooters, James’ drives to the rim are one of the most lethal plays in the NBA.
Kyle Wagner and Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight broke down and explained this topic in this very informative article, noting that the Cavaliers have 13 players that played in at least 20 games and shot at least 35 percent from three-point range. That puts them ahead of elite teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Wagner and Herring further explained that, by the numbers, James’ drives out of the pick-and-roll are even more deadly than a Stephen Curry spot-up jumper.
With this context, we can better understand how the Cavaliers have sliced through their Eastern Conference foes and why it is so difficult to make adjustments. With James as the driving force, surrounded by several three-point threats, Cleveland’s offense leaves defenses with few options, and even top-level coaches like Brad Stevens will struggle to adjust because of how cerebral James is at this point in his career.
“I can read the game no matter how the game is played,” James said. “If I’m being single covered or if I’m being doubled or blitzed off my pick-and-rolls or doubled when I’m in the post, I know how to read the game. Our guys are ready to attack it no matter what happens.”
Keeping James out of the lane has been an impossible challenge and that doesn’t seem to be changing for Boston. The Celtics have some strong perimeter defenders, including Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, but none of them can keep James out of the paint consistently. Furthermore, the Celtics don’t have a top-tier shot blocker on the back line who can meet James at the rim effectively or consistently. Despite this, James has dominated the Celtics through their first two games. The Warriors are more equipped but they are going to have really focus their defense on James to slow him down based on how well he has played so far this postseason.
Again, Golden State will be favored in the Finals and the Cavaliers will have to be even better than last season now that Durant is wearing a Warriors jersey. However, if James and the Cavaliers can push the Finals to a six or seven games series, the suspense and drama may cure what has been a less than stellar postseason.
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