The Warriors can be beaten. This was the notice that was put up for the entire league to see during the Western Conference finals. While the Thunder didn’t close the deal, they gave Golden State the toughest playoff series of its two-year run under Steve Kerr, a seven-game bloodbath that saw the Warriors come back from a 3–1 deficit and narrowly escape. Ideally, the Cavaliers would hope to push the Warriors to that same limit by replicating Oklahoma City’s formula against the defending champs. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic.
Cleveland doesn’t have the personnel to roll out the type of versatile, defensive-minded players around LeBron James that the Thunder surrounded Kevin Durant with. The margin for error against the Warriors is always slim, but the Cavs won’t be able to harness all of the advantages that the Thunder had created in the previous round. Seven-game series are about exploring and exploiting inefficiencies, so the Cavs’ supporting cast will have its chances to shine and find new ways to swing the outcome — but it starts with LeBron, as it always has.
Here are three questions the Cavaliers need to ask themselves:
1. If LeBron is the best player in the series, will that be enough?
It can be, as long as he imposes himself on both sides of the court. Tyronn Lue could use Durant’s defensive performance against Draymond Green as a blueprint for LeBron. Establishing that defensive matchup would not only negate one of the Warriors’ best playmakers, it would allow the Cavs to switch screens and have LeBron guard Steph Curry on the 1–4 pick-and-roll, the centerpiece of the Warriors’ offense. There is a good chance Lue puts James on Klay Thompson for stretches, too. For the Cavs to survive long enough to pull off the upset, LeBron will have to wear as many hats as possible on defense, utilizing his length and athleticism just as Durant did.
On offense, James will look nothing like he did the last time around. He put up big numbers in the 2015 Finals — 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists a game — but shot only 39.8 percent from the field, playing an isolation-heavy game to make up for a supporting cast that couldn’t create for themselves. Andre Iguodala was named Finals MVP that year in large part due to the way he forced LeBron into taking inefficient shots, and he’s going to spend most of the series reprising the role of LeBron stopper. LeBron should be better equipped to handle that challenge this time, not only because the presence of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving should lessen his load on offense, but because he’s playing more as a traditional big man than at any previous time in his career. There’s no reason for a 6-foot-8, 250-pound player to try to take a smaller defender off the dribble from the 3-point line. LeBron will be more dangerous as the roll man than the ball handler in this series, and if he can pin Iguodala in the paint and score with a diet of jump hooks and step-throughs, he will force the Warriors into a tough position on defense — and open up the floor for his ready-and-willing snipers on the perimeter. But LeBron isn’t the only star the Warriors have to account for.
2. Are Love and Irving ready for their Finals close-up?
The biggest difference between this year’s Finals and last? The presence of the other two players in Cleveland’s ostensible Big Three. Love and Irving will put more pressure on the Warriors defense than Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson did in the same roles during the 2015 Finals, but they could hemorrhage just as many points guarding their men. Golden State will hunt down Love in the pick-and-roll and try to force him to defend Curry and Thompson in space. Irving will either have to guard Steph or hold up in the post against much bigger wing players like Thompson, Harrison Barnes, or Andre Iguodala.
Having Love guard Green could be an invitation for disaster. He’s not quick enough to extend out 25-plus feet on defense, or long enough to prevent the simple dump-off pass to Green rolling to the basket for a 4-on-3. Lue could either put Love on Andrew Bogut, which would be less of a challenge for his individual defense, or Barnes, which would mean involving him in fewer pick-and-rolls.
That decision, though, will be easy compared to who Love guards when the Warriors move away from their traditional starting lineup and opt for their Lineup of Death. Golden State took control of last year’s Finals when it benched Bogut for Iguodala, putting five perimeter players on the floor and spreading the Cavs defense out to the point of fissure. The Warriors played Timofey Mozgov off the floor in the series-shifting Game 5, and Cleveland could face the uncomfortable reality of the same thing happening to Love. The Thunder played the Lineup of Death to a draw by assembling an even longer, more athletic lineup on the floor, an option that won’t be available to the Cavs.
Cleveland could try to pound Love in the box and take advantage of his size, but Lue has already said he won’t try to slow the game down if Golden State goes small. He wants to beat the Warriors by matching their style, which wasn’t an option for the Cavs a season before, when he was an associate head coach watching David Blatt go up against Kerr with one hand tied behind his back.
3. Do we have a wild card in our midst?
Lue has more options in his toolbox than Blatt did, and the most important may be Channing Frye, an integral cog in the Cavs’ version of the Lineup of Death. The combination of LeBron, Frye, Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, and Richard Jefferson has a net rating of 46.6 in 70 minutes in these playoffs. Frye is a lights-out 3-point shooter (57.8 percent on 3.5 attempts per game in the playoffs) who forces opposing centers to guard him 25-plus feet from the basket, opening up a ton of space in the paint.
Lue typically plays LeBron and Frye together at the start of the second and fourth quarters. Frye is the prototypical stretch 5; his perimeter play off the bench will likely force an early rotation adjustment from Steve Kerr, as there is no way that frontcourt reserves Festus Ezeli or Marreese Speights will be able to stick with Frye so far away from the paint. Even though the Cavs have way more starpower in their starting unit, they will be hoping to play the Warriors to a draw until they can dip into their reserves. Dellavedova and Shumpert are better two-way players than Irving and J.R. Smith, and they could see their roles increase as the series goes on.
James will have to bring the Cavs to the offensive heights they reached during their second-round matchup with the Hawks, because a Cavs defense that struggled with the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in the Eastern Conference finals won’t get any breaks guarding the Splash Brothers. But the Cavaliers’ offense is potent, and it can be enough to make this a series. The 3-pointer is the great equalizer in today’s game, and Cleveland, on a good night, is one of the few teams capable of outshooting the Warriors from behind the arc. Plus, the Cavs still have enough size upfront to take notes from the OKC playbook and generate extra possessions by crashing the glass.
The Cavaliers need to win those battles to keep afloat, and they’ll need to do it quickly. Time is of the essence for the Cavs — if they want the series, they’ll have to take it in six games or less, because, as the Thunder have shown us, winning a Game 7 at Oracle might be impossible. The reason you win 73 games in the regular season is so you can close teams out at home in the playoffs; it’s just one of the many inherent advantages the Warriors have over the Cavs heading into the series. But if Lue manages the matchups correctly, Cleveland has the pieces to push Golden State all the way.