The storyline coming into the Finals was about a battle of two titans, facing off against each other for the third time in a row for a legendary rematch. Everyone knew the Warriors were the favorites, but the “never count out LeBron James“ mantra was repeated enough for most fans to convince themselves we would see a real series.
And mostly, this series is what we could have expected. Both teams have amazing offenses that went off at times, but the road to stops for the Warriors was always much closer than for the Cavaliers. Through the first two games, Golden State held Cleveland to a pretty low offensive rating despite the high scoring due to pace. After that, winning four out of five times was an impossibility.
But it’s also true that the Cavs were the better team through Game 3 and 4, and were unfortunate to come back to Oakland in a 3-1 series. The Cavs made just 12 of their 44 three-pointers, including 3-for-18 on corner three-pointers and it took big shots from Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant at the end of Game 3 while the Cavs stumbled. Game 4, apart from being utter insanity, was a dominant performance from Cleveland, and the team showed they can be just as unstoppable as the Warriors at their best.
Shooting well was a prerequisite coming into the series for the Cavs to compete, and despite Irving playing some incredible games to end the series, and JR Smith and others starting to make shots, the Cavs needed to get hot immediately to have a shot.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how Golden State became a class above the rest of the league. Take a 73-win team, already one of the best groups in NBA history, and swap out Harrison Barnes for Durant and that tends to be the observed effect.
The Warriors are the most talented team in the league and anything short of a championship would have been an abject failure. Still, it’s important not to short-change Golden State and to give them all the credit in the world for achieving something we are unlikely to see again for a while – losing just one game in the playoffs.
Golden State’s key players all have high basketball IQs, are excellent both on- and off-the-ball, and do it on both ends of the court. Durant has the skills of a guard but is a great rim protector and defender. Thompson is one of the best shooters ever, and did a great job on both Irving one-on-one and in the post against Kevin Love. Draymond Green is probably still underappreciated, and his impact on both ends makes him one of the most valuable players in the NBA when it comes to winning. Stephen Curry breaks modern defenses designed to contain the ball and limit help. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston bring skills on both ends that the Cavaliers could have desperately used in the series.
With all the passing, shooting, defensive versatility, and cool and complex schemes at both ends of the floor, the Warriors represent the best of modern basketball. We even got to see Durant at center for a short stint.
One interesting detail is how Golden State reworked the defense with Curry over the season so that he wouldn’t be forced into bad switches against the Cavaliers. Most of the time, Curry would hedge hard and with active hands the Warriors were able to stymie Cleveland’s offense at the start of the series, and every player on the backside was ready to execute quick switches to get Curry out of trouble. Cleveland, and in particular James, adjusted to many things throughout the series, but having to react to the Warriors isn’t a great position to be in.
Coming into the series, the Cavs’ recipe for success was to match the Warriors offensive output, and the question of whether or not it would be a close series would be hanging close in high-scoring games. Cleveland’s defense ranked 22nd in the regular season, and getting stops was at no point a realistic goal. The best they could have hoped for was to limit transition, but missed corner jumpers and problems matching up in transition led to allowing over 20.0 fast break points per game – and that’s just not good enough to win against the juggernaut of the Warriors.
Cross-matches with Thompson guarding Irving, moving James onto non-shooters and other moves created nightmares trying to pick up the correct assignments in transition. Even when the Cavs ran back down and matched up to stop the initial break, suddenly Love was guarding Durant in isolation and would proceed to get blown by.
One of the key differences between the two teams is that Golden State always had at least six players who are good enough to play in any situation, and Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee pass that mark when they get to play with four stars around them. On the Cavs’ side, Irving and Love aren’t good defenders and going down the roster the lack of two-way skills was a severe problem. Smith had a few bad performances on both ends of the floor. Kyle Korver isn’t the best defender in the world. Iman Shumpert’s decision making offensively torpedoed the Cavs’ offense at times, while Deron Williams was about as bad offensively as anyone playing real minutes has ever been in a Finals series.
The Cavaliers needed an advantage on the boards, particularly from Tristan Thompson, who grabbed just 11 total rebounds in the first three games of the Finals. Partly, this is due to the nice job Pachulia did boxing out, and one clear point of focus for the Warriors was to face-guard Thompson on switches when the ball went up on the shot. In those situations, the goal of the player guarding Thompson wasn’t to care about grabbing the rebound at all, but making sure Klay would never receive it. Again, another situation where coming alive in the fourth game just wasn’t early enough.
There’s going to be some noises made about how a losing the Finals effects James’ legacy, particularly in the “greatest player of all-time” discussion, but it’s hard to see what actions James could have made to change the outcome. In the decisive Game 3, James was +7 in 46 minutes of play, and the team lost by 12 points in the two minutes he wasn’t on the floor. Over the series, James averaged a triple-double scoring 33.6 points per game with amazing efficiency. Defensively, you could pick out a ton of plays from the video where James got back-cut or didn’t make the effort in transition, but the pressure Golden State puts on defenses play after play is unrivaled by any other team. The Cavaliers didn’t have the defensive infrastructure to deal with all the advantages the Warriors create on every single possession, and James wasn’t a main reason for it.
It’s damn near impossible to guard a team with Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green on the floor. Every pick-and-roll or set play has 10 opportunities for a small mistake, and even one-on-one matchups don’t favor the Cavaliers, especially on switches. If you can’t help off shooters on the wing and have to trap Curry on the pick-and-roll, that’s an automatic two-on-one at the basket with Green as the short roll passer making the decision. A split second late on chasing Thompson, or screwing up a communication on the switch and someone is cutting for the backdoor lay-up or is open a few steps later in the possession.
The Warriors look like they belong in a different league at times, and it’s exhilarating for a fan to watch their brand of basketball. However, even more fun would have been to see greatness pushed, and going forward it’s hard to see how teams will be able to challenge this team. At no point was Steve Kerr forced to make an uncomfortable choice, whether it be to make a change in the starting lineup or changes to the rotation. The Warriors’ machine just hummed along and similar to the regular season Curry and Durant would be out at the start of the second and fourth quarters with Green and Thompson with bench units. No changes needed.
Eventually, the Warriors will get hit with age-related decline, a massive luxury tax bill or some of the unfortunate injury randomness teams tend to experience. It’s safe to say the Spurs would have gotten at least one game from Golden State had Pachulia not ended Kawhi Leonard’s season on a dirty play, but even so it’s hard to argue the Spurs would have had enough for a serious scare.
We’ll just have to wait and see when that happens.