The last time LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Finals appearance, they were completely outmanned and were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
This year, LeBron and the Cavs are facing a similarly daunting challenge, or perhaps an even greater one, as this year’s Golden State Warriors team statistically represents the toughest challenge any of LeBron’s teams––in Cleveland or Miami––have ever faced in the Finals, per this remarkable chart from Tom Ziller at SB Nation. He points out that the Dubs have the highest net rating and scoring out of all of those teams, against whom James’s record in the Finals has been 2-3.
Still, the same article points out that the Cavs had a comparable point differential to the Warriors during the final 41 games of the regular season, and James himself has openly mocked the suggestion that he or his team are underdogs in this Finals.
Here’s a look at what we’ve seen from Cleveland so far, and what they might do to try to bring home the city’s first NBA championship.
How the Cavs Got Here – Swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals
In their relatively easy four-game defeat of the Hawks, the Cavs had a much easier final step to the Finals than teams typically have, even in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta didn’t play like the 60-win, three-point-launching hydra that they were during the regular season, and despite Kyrie Irving still being hobbled and LeBron still being jump-shot-challenged, Cleveland was able to take full advantage of Atlanta’s struggles.
Of course, the Hawks barely had the team defense, let alone the perimeter one-on-one guys, to contain James, especially with DeMarre Carroll nursing a knee injury and Thabo Sefolosha still suffering from a broken leg courtesy of the NYPD.
The Warriors, on the other hand, have defenders and then some, with Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes, so James is going to need to be more creative if he wants to bend the defense with one of those guys on him versus Kent Bazemore, bless him. Upping his 18 percent clip from three-point range during the postseason would be a great place to start.
X-factor – Kyrie Irving
Fortunately for the Cavs, they barely needed Irving against Atlanta, so the point guard’s obvious physical limitations didn’t extend his hurt onto his team. Against the Warriors, that level of play could get his team run off the court.
It’s hard to tell how healthy Irving really is––coach David Blatt says he still looks to be struggling, but that smells like a smokescreen. If he’s fully healthy and effective, he’d greatly increase Cleveland chances of pulling off an upset, as he’d give the Cavs another catalyst and creator to support James and carry the offense when he needs a breather. Not only is he good with the ball in his hands, but Irving is a capable spot-up shooter and cutter as well, so increased mobility helps his effectiveness off the ball as well.
The other, scarier area where Irving and his health come into play is on defense. Not a great defensive player to begin with, Irving’s knee injury has rendered him statue-esque on defense, and against a great offensive team like Golden State, there will be nowhere to hide him, especially with the Splash Bros in the backcourt. Irving will have to chase around Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson for large parts of games, and he’ll have to be up to the challenge for Cleveland to hope to sustain its great playoff defense.
How the Cavs Can Win – Offensive rebounds, great defense
In the absence of Kevin Love, a superior offensive power forward, one of the ways Cleveland has manufactured offense is via the offensive rebounding of Tristan Thompson, Love’s replacement. Thompson has been a one-man wrecking crew cleaning up the boards for the Cavs, and his rebounding has helped them lead playoff teams with nearly 16 second-chance points per game.
Defensive rebounding is one area where Golden State has shown itself to be susceptible, so if Thompson can continue the kind of ungodly work he’s been doing, he could prove to be an integral part in determining this series, since LeBron is typically the last guy you want to be giving second chances to.
Aside from finding ways to score points, obviously, the Cavs have to find a way to slow down a Golden State offense that continues to light up opponents. As mentioned, Cleveland has had a defensive resurgence during the postseason, dropping its defensive rating to a playoff-best 98.5, according to NBA.com. They must continue the sharp rotations and constant mindfulness at that end, as the Dubs are another level of offense than the trio from Boston, Chicago and Atlanta that the Cavs have stopped so far.
Prediction – Warriors in 6
LeBron’s jumper has been missing for too long to think that his offense won’t fully return in time to make this an interesting series, but the Warriors just seem to have too much firepower on both offense and defense for an injured Cavaliers team to pull off four wins in seven games.