For the third season in a row, the Cavaliers and Warriors will meet in the NBA Finals. The two teams have split the series to this point with the Warriors taking advantage of the broken down Cavaliers in 2015. The Cavaliers then responded with a historic comeback in 2016 when they faced a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 deficit. With both teams entering the 2017 NBA Finals at full strength — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are good to go unlike in 2015 and Stephen Curry isn’t dealing with a nagging knee injury — it’ll make for a star-studded matchup like we’ve never seen before.
When compared to the 2016 NBA Finals, the 2017 NBA Finals has several key differences. Kevin Durant moving from Oklahoma City to Golden State is obviously the biggest factor, but Kevin Love has never looked better in a Cavaliers uniform and the Warriors have another newcomer on their roster who has made a noticeable impact this season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at four strategic differences in this year’s NBA Finals that could shape the series.
The 7-foot Stephen Curry
Durant is basically a 7-foot version of Curry. He doesn’t rely on 3-pointers quite as much — 30.4 percent of his shots came from the perimeter this season compared to 54.7 percent for Curry — but he’s one of the best in the NBA at scoring off of screens and he’s as reliable as they come at creating his own shot out of the pick-and-roll and isolation. That gives the Warriors two players who can create for themselves or others in times of need, which should come especially in handy against the Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals.
Just think back to the 2016 NBA Finals when the Warriors gave up their 3-1 lead. Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 148 points on an uncharacteristic 118 shot attempts in the final three games of the series while Draymond Green was suspended in Game 5 and then went on to score only eight points in Game 6. The Warriors also had to deal with a couple of injuries to important players: Andre Iguodala’s back limited him on both ends of the floor in the final two games and Andrew Bogut was sidelined with a knee injury from Game 5 onwards.
While they all appear to be at full strength heading into Game 1 — minus Bogut, of course, who is a free agent after suffering another injury this season — adding someone who can do this…
…gives the Warriors a versatile playmaker who can carry them offensively.
It’s worth noting that the Warriors aren’t an isolation or pick-and-roll-heavy team. They prefer to move the ball around the perimeter to create openings for cutters and shooters in the half court. But with the amount of attention the Cavaliers have paid to Curry and Thompson in the past, having someone who can take advantage of those situation as easily as Durant can could be the difference in the series. Don’t forget the Warriors barely lost last season even though Harrison Barnes, who the Cavaliers totally ignored on offense, averaged 5.0 points on 15.6 percent shooting in the final three games. Slide Durant into his spot alongside the same core and the odds of them suffering a similar collapse are slim-to-none.
A greater emphasis on 3-pointers
The Cavaliers are at their best when they can force a switch and attack the most noticeable mismatch with one of their three stars. Each of them go about those possessions in their own way — Irving is a deadly isolation scorer from inside and out, whereas LeBron James prefers to attack the basket and Love likes to get the ball on the block — but the shooting around them is what makes them practically unstoppable in those scenarios. Whether it’s J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams or Iman Shumpert, they can always surround the ball-handler with at least three knockdown shooters, giving them a tremendous amount of space to work with.
If teams focus on limiting their 3-point attempts, James, Irving and Love will have plenty of room to operate in isolation.
However, double team them and it has a snowball effect of biblical proportions.
The Cavaliers have shot a lot more 3-pointers this season compared to last season as a result of this strategy. According to ESPN, the Cavaliers made 1,067 3-pointers this season on 2,779 attempts. That’s a noticeable increase from last season when they made 880 3-pointers on 2,428 attempts.
The same goes for the postseason. The Cavaliers made 258 3-pointers on 635 attempts in 21 games during last season’s playoffs compared to 190 on 437 attempts in 13 games during this season’s playoffs. Their makes and attempts per game have risen considerably — as has their success rate — which is terrifying when combined with James averaging a league-high 16.0 points per game in the paint.
As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted, 3-pointers surprisingly made up less of the Cavaliers’ offense in the 2016 NBA Finals (29.0 percent of their total shots) than it did in the first three rounds (41.0 percent). It’ll be interesting to see if the Warriors can achieve similar success keeping them off the 3-point line in the upcoming NBA Finals even though the Cavaliers have more shooters on their roster.
JaVale McGee’s vertical spacing
Durant isn’t the only newcomer for the Warriors this season. JaVale McGee, who signed a one-year deal worth less than $1 million, has made a big impact in limited minutes off the bench. McGee isn’t necessarily someone who can play 30 minutes per game for the Warriors and he certainly isn’t a go-to option, but his vertical spacing gives them a dimension they haven’t had in the past. With Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and McGee in the lineup, the Warriors outscored opponents by 32.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and 22.7 points per 100 possessions in the first three rounds of these playoffs.
Because they can all pass, dribble and shoot, it’s no wonder teams haven’t had an answer for an athletic 7-footer like McGee when he’s surrounded by Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green. Stick to him to avoid giving up a layup or dunk and one of them will find a way to get an open shot, but leave him for a split second and he’ll cut to the basket for an explosive finish following a simple read.
In theory, the Cavaliers have the personnel to give McGee some problems in the Finals. Not known as a strong defensive rebounder, McGee could struggle to keep Tristan Thompson off the offensive glass if/when they are matched up together. Defending pick-and-rolls isn’t his greatest strength, either. He had success slowing Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum down in the opening round, but Irving and James are a different beast. When paired with Love’s ability to convert 47.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, it makes them a nightmare for opposing bigs to match up with.
For those reasons, time will tell if McGee has a place in this series.
A healthy Kevin Love
Speaking of Love, he’s currently playing some of the best basketball of his career. Not only is he averaging a double-double with 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, he’s shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from the 3-point line in these playoffs. Considering the latter is on 6.2 attempts per game, it’s no wonder the Cavaliers have a better offensive rating (120.7) than the Warriors (115.8) in the lead-up to the NBA Finals.
Love didn’t have a big role in the 2016 NBA Finals. Other than making 44.6 percent of his 3-pointers in the other rounds, he struggled to establish any sort of rhythm to the tune of 17.3 points per game on 39.1 percent shooting from the field. He then suffered a concussion in Game 2 against the Warriors, forcing him to miss Game 3 and come off the bench in Game 4. He played the rest of the way, but scored only a total of 18 points in the final three games on 5-for-21 shooting from the field.
While Love did have an impact on Game 7 — there was the 14 rebounds as well as “The Stop” on Curry — he’s been much more involved in their success this season and he enters the 2017 NBA Finals with a different set of expectations. On one hand, he continues to knock down spot-up opportunities at a high rate, which forces opponents to defend Irving and James more honestly than they’d like to.
On the other, Love is more than capable of exploiting his own mismatches in the post against smaller guards and forwards.
Feeding Love the ball in the post against Green and Durant won’t be the answer for the Cavaliers in this series, but he will have opportunities the post-up other players. The Warriors switch a lot on defense, leaving them vulnerable to mismatches somewhere. It’s why the Cavaliers involved Curry in more screens than any other player in the 2016 NBA Finals. While James will often act as the orchestrator when those switches occur, Love can’t be ignored anymore.
Like McGee, though, Love’s defense will probably get more attention in this series than his offense because the Warriors will attack him as much as possible in pick-and-rolls. He’s been an improved defender this season, but the Warriors are the only team in the NBA that can really expose him. Depending on how he fares offensively and whether or not he can hurt the Warriors again on the boards, it could force Tyronn Lue to make some tough decisions.