The Cavaliers are more than 2-to-1 underdogs in the NBA Finals, which begin tonight at 9 p.m. on 1057 The Zone.
But are the Cavs really that much worse than Golden State, which it defeated in the Finals last season?
The Warriors’ 12-0 record against the Western Conference in the playoffs would suggest so.
But the Cavs’ 12-1 record, while advancing through the East, would suggest not.
There has to be a way for the Cavs to win this, right?
Glad you asked.
Here are my five keys to the Cavaliers defending their title and making Kevin Durant search elsewhere for an add-water-get-championship solution to his impending free agency.
Klay Thompson must continue to struggle, as he has throughout the playoffs, shooting just 38% from the field and 36% from three-point range. Last season, the Cavaliers tilted their defense away from Harrison Barnes to allow LeBron James to float in the lane and selectively double team.
Durant’s arrival was supposed to prevent that, but no one figured on Thompson regressing as a stand-still shooter. If he continues to struggle, it will give the Cavs the same defensive breather Barnes offered, only with more of an emotional impact on Golden State.
The Warriors expect Thompson to score. They didn’t lean on Barnes the same way. The worst scenario for the Cavs is a Golden State win tonight in a game Thompson shoots well, restoring his confidence for the rest of the series.
The Cavaliers have some big shoulders, and Steph Curry needs to meet at least a pair of them on every defensive possession. By the end of the Finals, if Curry’s chin and chest are on a first-name basis with the deltoids of Kevin Love, LeBron James and Tristan Thompson, Curry’s legs will be jelly and his jump shot may suddenly come up short.
The best way to neutralize a shooter is to take his legs away. The Cavs can do that by running Curry through a gauntlet at the defensive end. Make him a pinball and the Cavs increase their chances of winning.
Falling behind 3-1 in this series won’t work this time around. The Cavaliers changed their offensive philosophy at that point a year ago, scrapping their plans to move the ball on offense and instead reverting to the Hero Ball approach that often caused them to become stagnant in previous games.
It worked against the Warriors because LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were fantastic and because the Cavaliers’ defense tightened up on Curry and Thompson. This time, Durant gives the Warriors a much-harder-to-stop weapon. But Durant has never handled playoff pressure well in the biggest moments. No moment is bigger than the Finals.
If the Cavs can be even after two games, take a 2-1 lead entering Game 4, or have the Warriors in a hole even deeper, Durant will feel the heat of leaving Oklahoma City for an instant title in Golden State and do his familiar disappearing act.
The Cavaliers’ bench not only much be better than Golden State’s, it must be more balanced than it’s been all season. The Cavs have a defensive specialist, Iman Shumpert, and offensive specialists like Channing Frye and Kyle Korver.
But this is not a series for anyone to hide their deficiencies. Golden State took advantage of Frye’s defense so much early in the series last year that he virtually vanished from the floor thereafter. The Warriors will attempt to do the same to him and to Korver, who’s even more of an offensive specialist than Frye.
Likewise, Golden State felt little need to guard Shumpert last season. He has the capacity to make them pay this year, as evidenced by his 48% shooting in the playoffs, including 47% from three-point range.
Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson are the Cavs’ best two-way players off the bench. The ponderous pace of the Finals, unfolding over two weeks, needs to work to keep them fresh and at their best for the Cavs to win.
Kyrie Irving must outplay Steph Curry so badly people say, “How did that guy ever win two MVPs?”
For all the talk about Durant’s addition, Curry is the backbone of the Warriors. His long-range shooting is debilitating, because the distance from which he strikes has an emotionally-crushing effect a triple just behind the line doesn’t carry.
Curry also excels at pulling up in transition. When he strikes, the Warriors often embark on one of their patented 9-0 or 12-0 runs in 30-60 seconds. The Cavs will have to work too hard on offense to overcome those.
The best way to combat them is to not let Curry get started. Irving will have him at least part of the time on defense, but it’s not enough for Irving to be great at that end alone.
He must also be fantastic on offense, where he will likely draw coverage from Thompson. That’s another way Irving’s success can help the Cavs, by scoring so much Thompson’s offense suffers under the duress of defending the guy who hit the biggest shot in Cleveland sports history at the end of Game 7 last June.