Breaking down the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals: WFNY Preview

Reviewing the Golden State Warriors' dominance and prescribing what the Cleveland Cavaliers need to do to make this a series.

On June 16, 2015 the Larry O’Brien Trophy made an appearance in Quicken Loans Arena. For the second time, the most coveted hardware in professional basketball went to the visiting team. The Cleveland Cavaliers left the court that day worn, weary, injured, and exhausted. The Cavs won the East, overcoming injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but it was not enough as LeBron James dragged four bags of flour up and down the court in a hard fought six game series. Now, a year later, the Cavaliers will play those same Golden State Warriors again with a title on the line. While the stakes remain the same, the stories have widely diverged.

Familiar Faces

No doubt some Cavs fans will have mixed feelings about seeing long-time favorite Anderson Varejão on the opposing bench. At the trade deadline Cleveland GM David Griffin dealt Varejãto the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a three-team trade. Cleveland acquired shooting guard Channing Frye from Orlando. While it was difficult to see Varejãgo, Frye has been a key contributor during the playoffs, averaging 8.6 points per game and hitting an electric 57.8% from three-point range. Andy has taken advantage of the minutes he has received (52) and has even managed a few points (13). With Golden State’s depth, Varejãmostly receives minutes during a blowout or if a player hits foul trouble. Doubtless he will receive a warm welcome in Cleveland if he checks into a game.

Road to the Finals

The 2015-16  are the greatest regular season team in NBA history. Period. The Dubs started the season by winning 24 straight games, setting the record for best start to a season in North American professional sports history. The accolades came early and often for Golden State. They sent three players – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green – to the All-Star Game. Head coach Steve Kerr won the Coach of the Year award. Curry was named the unanimous NBA MVP, his second straight receipt of the award. Number 30 made 402 three pointers (previous season record was 286), won the scoring title (30.1 ppg), led the league in steals, and hit the best free throw percentage (91%) in the league. Oh, and lest we forget, the club won 73 games, the most in NBA history and one better than the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls of 1995-96. So when I tell you that the Golden State Warriors are the most well-balanced and formidable opponent the Cavaliers have ever faced I know that you believe me. Golden State opened up the postseason against the eight-seeded Houston Rockets. Houston managed to win Game 3 at home, but could not take advantage of a Steph Curry knee injury. The Warriors dispatched the Rockets in five games winning by 26, 9, 27, and 33 points. In the conference semi-finals the Portland Trail Blazers came calling. Golden State won the first two games of the series before Portland stole game 3 at home. In a pivotal Game 4, the Blazers pushed to even the series. With the game tied at the end of regulation, Curry scored 17 points in overtime and finished with 40 on the game. After that it was simply semantics for the Dubs to polish off a five game series win. The only team remaining in the west was the Oklahoma City Thunder. For the first time all season, the Warriors finally appeared mortal. OKC stole home court by winning Game 1 in Oakland. GS managed a Game 2 win, but the Thunder took two at home to take a 3-1 series lead. Could the Thunder actually upset the Warriors? Obviously the answer is no. Golden State did what they do best – shoot three’s and lock down on defense. The Warriors rattled off three straight wins to bounce the Thunder and return to the Finals.

Playoff History

2015: Warriors def. Cavaliers 4-2 in NBA Finals

For the second consecutive season the NBA season ends with Golden State and Cleveland in the Finals. The Warriors won the 2015 Finals in six games. The Dubs won Game 1 at home in overtime. Cleveland leveled the series with an overtime Game 2 victory. When the series swung back to Ohio the Cavaliers, fed by sparkplug Matthew Dellavedova, won to claim a 2-1 series lead. Sadly, that would be their last win of the season. Golden State reclaimed home court with a sound 103-82 win in Game 4. Game 5 went to the Californians 104-91 and the sword fell in Game 6 to the tune of a 105-97 Golden State triumph. The clubs played twice during the 2015-16 regular season and neither contest was particularly close. The Warriors delivered a gigantic lump of coal on Christmas Day, defeating the Cavs 89-83. When the teams met again the following month in Cleveland, the home team laid an egg on national television 132-98. They will see each other again Thursday night.

Plan of Attack

The first priority for the Cavs is to steal home court advantage, but it will prove treacherous. One does not simply walk into Oracle Arena. The Golden Gates are guarded by more than just fans. There is defense there that does not sleep. And the great Curry is ever watchful. Tis a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and last year’s confetti. The very smog you breathe is a poisonous fume. Cleveland’s best chance to make a statement on the road will be in Game 1. The Wine and Gold have been resting since Friday compared to the Warriors who finished an exhausting series on Monday. Both coaches will be experimenting with different lineups and rotations to take advantage of mismatches and assignments. A Cavs win in Game 1 would take the pressure off for Game 2 and with a 1-1 split heading back to the Midwest, Cleveland would only need to defend home court the rest of the way. Naturally, easier said than done. The biggest challenge facing rookie head coach Ty Lue may be prescribing matchups. If I could bend his ear, I would recommend the following: Kyrie Irving may be overmatched against Curry, but his best will be to jam the MVP at the three-point line, and force him into either ridiculous shots (of which he will make a few) or drives to the cup. JR Smith will need to go full speed on defense all series to keep up with Klay Thompson. Kevin Love is not known for his defense and will be forced to match up with either Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguadala. Tristan Thompson gives up some height to Andrew Bogut, but will need to battle down low and create second chance opportunities off offensive rebounds. Last season the series shifted when Kerr benched Bogut to go small versus the Cavs. Thompson will need versatility to handle anyone he is assigned to. Lastly I hope to see LeBron James on Draymond Green. Green is a physical force down low who loves to talk during the game. James can take any verbal barrage Green dishes out and LBJ can either burn him off the dribble or pull him to perimeter which creates space inside for Irving to work. Don’t forget, Green is one flagrant foul away from a one-game suspension. Regardless of assignments, execution will win the day. As the saying goes, “It’s a make or miss league.”   

Leading up to Game 1 you will read all about Golden State’s assorted records, their playoff resilience, and embarrassment of riches. They have earned every accolade over a very long season. They are a harrowing matchup and present problems for the Cavs in almost every phase of the game. The difference is, now they get Cleveland’s best punch. Last year even the die-hardiest fan could give the Cavs some credit for playing into the Finals minus two of their best players. Ohioans spent a summer wondering what might have happened if the Cavs could have answered the bell at full strength. Wonder no more. Cleveland is completely healthy and sports a stronger bench than last year. LeBron is still doing LeBron things, and the team is playing the best basketball of the year. There are no excuses – not for a rookie head coach, veteran superstar, or a city trying to shake a 52-year-old anchor off its back. Cleveland is four wins away from a parade. If not there’s always next ye-…well, you know.

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