If you read my Conference Finals previews, you know that my predictions were pretty damn accurate (not to toot my own horn, whatever the hell that means). I predicted the Warriors in seven, when many NBA experts thought they would beat the Thunder in five or six games. I predicted the Cavaliers would beat the Raptors in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals. It actually took six games for Cleveland to beat Toronto, but the Raptors’ two wins at home were largely due to the Cavs getting Bismack’d, which I also predicted (sort of). My NBA credibility is pretty solid right now. I could just sit back and rest on my laurels, but instead, I’m putting that credibility on the line!
The Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors. This is the NBA Finals series that the people wanted to see. We were somewhat robbed of it last year, when the Cavs came in shorthanded with no Kevin Love, then lost Kyrie Irving in game one. But this year, both teams are fully healthy and coming in hot. The stakes are huge, as LeBron James and the Cavs have a chance to break Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought. Steph Curry and the Warriors have a chance to cement their place in NBA history with an unbelievable two year run that pays off with back-to-back Larry O’Brien Trophies.
In the NBA world, fans and the media like to advertise the finals as superstar vs. superstar (in this case LeBron vs. Curry). But as we’ve seen recently, these guys rise to the occasion in pretty much every game. We know LeBron will dominate in a variety of ways. We know Steph Curry will score a ton of points, as he’s proven that his knee injury is no longer a concern. We know Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson will be great, as they both consistently have been throughout the playoffs. These are knowns. I’m looking at the unknowns. There are three guys who have been very unpredictable lately who need to step it up for their team to win the championship.
Kevin Love hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency in his first two seasons with Cleveland. We’ve seen moments of greatness; scoring in the post, stepping out to the baseline and hitting threes, grabbing rebounds, and making amazing outlet passes to LeBron for easy dunks. But at times he lacks confidence and aggression; passing up open shots, failing to get into post scoring position, and shying away from physical battles with intimidating bigs. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, Love did what the Cavs needed him to do, averaging 18.9 points and 12.5 rebounds.
In the conference finals, those numbers dropped to 15.2 points and 5.7 rebounds. Love took the bulk of the blame for the Cavs losses in Toronto, shooting 5-23 from the field, for a combined 13 points and 11 rebounds in those two games. Clearly Love was one of the biggest victims of the vicious Bismacking that occurred in the Air Canada Centre. Love has often been the scapegoat when the Cavs struggle, but this could be his chance to get that monkey off his back once and for all. Cleveland can live with mediocre defense from Love, but he can’t be afraid to take open shots and assert himself into the game. If the Cavs are going to win a title, Love needs to be aggressive and be willing to fight Draymond Green for rebounds. Speaking of Draymond Green…
While Green has typically been a great all-around player that Golden State can rely on, he’s coming off a very rough series against Oklahoma City. Green was brilliant in the second round against Portland, boasting 22.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. But his numbers plummeted to 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game against the Thunder.
Like Love, Green was at his worst in the first two road games of the conference finals, shooting an atrocious 2-16 from the field. He also failed to be his disruptive self, as he seemed to let the Thunder bigs get in his head, particularly Steven Adams. Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love aren’t nearly as physically intimidating as Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, but we did see that Green’s confidence can be broken and he can be taken out of games. The margin for error is very small for both teams in this series, and the Warriors won’t be able to win many games if Draymond isn’t playing up to his potential. Golden State is going to need more just bodyslams and kicks to the groin from Green in order to win another championship.
J.R. Smith has never found a shot he didn’t like. In fact, I’m guessing right now, J.R. is somewhere in America taking a contested three with a hand in his face. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, only like the shots that go in. Smith is the epitome of a streaky shooter. When he’s hot, he’s on fire. We’re talking NBA Jam-style on fire. But when he’s cold, he can’t buy a bucket.
When these teams met in the finals last year, Smith was coming in hot, averaging 18.0 points and shooting 47.1% from beyond the arc in the conference finals against the Hawks. He then went ice cold (and not the good kind) against the Warriors, averaging 11.5 points and shooting 31.2% from the field. With no Irving or Love, the Cavs were asking way too much out of J.R. Smith. This time around, there won’t be nearly as much pressure on him. Smith’s job is simple, make the good shots, and cut down on the bad ones. When Smith gets in an offensive rhythm, he gives the Cavs one more guy that can handle the ball and create his own shot, taking some pressure off LeBron, Irving and Love. He has a chance to make up for last year’s awful finals performance, and a few big games from J.R. Smith could turn this series heavily in the Cavs favor.
When I watched the Finals last year, I felt like the Cavs could’ve beaten the Warriors if they had a full deck. Even as I watched the Cavs meander through this season, at times looking mediocre and firing their head coach midseason, all while the Warriors were putting together the best regular season in NBA history, I still thought Cleveland would eventually figure it out and win a championship. With all due respect to everything Golden State has accomplished over the last two years, I think the Cavaliers are built to beat any team in the NBA in a seven game series, but they are going to need Kevin Love and J.R. Smith to step up in order for that to happen.
Cavs in 6.