So it looks like history DOES repeat itself as we have the same NBA Finals matchup for the second year running. Both the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers were in the same position last year and will do battle one more time. But things are different from last year. Both teams got better. The Warriors became the best regular season team in NBA history and the Cavaliers are walking into the championship all healthy for once. It will be a battle of the best of the West versus the best of the East. Here are five things to watch for in the Finals.
5. Battle of the bench players
The Warriors had one of the best benches in the regular season and that trend has continued in the playoffs. When the Warriors need to rest the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They just swap in Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Leandro Barbosa to help maintain the lead. But the Warriors bench actually ends up increasing the lead, which is more than they are expected to do. Golden State's bench is the top scoring bench in the playoffs so far, averaging 35.9 points per game (stat via RealGM). You can't take a minute off against Golden State, even when their bench is out on the court.
In terms of points scored Cleveland's bench doesn't do much on their own. They only score 23.9 points per game, third worst in the playoffs. Which makes even more strange that the best shooting lineup (in terms of percentages) for Cleveland, is actually LeBron James and four bench players. They shot a little over 60% from the field. Although the sample size is very small (lineup plays around 5-6 minutes per game), it is a crucial lineup as it helps the Cavs keep or extend leads when both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are on the bench.
If you pitted these benches straight up against each other, Golden State's would likely prove to be victorious. But we all know that scenario is very unlikely to take place. Instead, you will have to see how the bench players play mixed in with some starters. That is where the likes of Livingston and Iguodala for the Warriors and Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye prove to be key in the series. Can they make enough plays when the starters are resting to help win games for their team?
4. Impact of Andre Iguodala
It is no secret that Andre Iguodala is one of the best players on the Warriors. In fact, he is the 4th best player on the team, right behind the big trio of Curry, Thompson, Green. He was the NBA Finals MVP last year when he averaged 16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4 assists in the game. He has been Mr. Do-it-all for Golden State and is called upon to make the big plays and is also viewed as a sparkplug for the team. Down double digits in Game 6, Golden State relied on Iguodala to step up and make some key defensive plays in the 4th quarter. The three-pointers by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to tie the game and take the lead in the 4th all stemmed from steals by Iguodala.
Iggy will have a big part in the Warriors success if they win the title this year, especially when it comes to him hitting shots. In losses for the Warriors, Iguodala's True Shooting percentage (TS%) is around 50.8% respectively. But in wins, it jumps up to around 60%. If Iguodala shoots well, the Warriors chances of winning this series skyrocket.
3. Will Kyrie Irving be able to slow down Steph Curry?
It looks like Steph Curry's MCL injury looks all but healed. The MVP has returned to his normal form, especially in Game 7 when he scored 36 points on 13-24 shooting. He broke the Thunder down late in the game as he took advantage of OKC's defensive plan to switch on every pick and roll or screen the Warriors ran. He made shots over the likes of Steven Adams, Kevin Durant, and even sealed the game late when he threw a three-shot foul on Serge Ibaka.
The Cavaliers will likely run a different defensive system than the Thunder and won't exactly switch on everything. That will likely leave Kyrie Irving defending Steph 1 on 1 a lot of the times. Shumpert will try and help guard Curry on some possessions but when Curry and Thompson are both on the court, Shumpert will likely cover the shooting guard.
With Steph likely back to full strength, Kyrie will have to do his best when it comes to guarding the MVP. Steph looks like he is back and that spells bad news for the Cavaliers.
2. Is Kevin Love the X-Factor for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
One of the big differences in the series this year will be the health of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love who both are expected to have a big impact on this series. Love injured his shoulder in the first round last year and missed the remaining games of the Cavs run to the NBA finals. This year he is healthy and has been playing brilliantly for Cleveland.
Love creates a number of matchup problems on the offensive end. He spreads the floor with his three-point shooting but can also play on the inside depending on the player guarding him. The Cavaliers have Love as the roll man on 18.5% of their total P&R plays, most out of any player on the tea, and with good reason. His pick and roll with LeBron James are scary good as it forces defenses to make a tough choice. Either double James and leave Love wide open in the corner or live with the consequences of having one of your big men guard LBJ. It showed against the Atlanta Hawks as the Cavs took advantage of the fact that Atlanta loves to trap the ball handler on the sidelines on the pick and roll. Due to this tendency, Atlanta gave up the most three-point attempts in the regular season and it played right into the Cavaliers' hands.
The Warriors will likely offer a much tougher matchup with Love with Draymond Green being the primary defender on him. He will have to hit his shots if Cleveland wants to walk away as champions.
1. How will the Cavaliers play against the Warriors "Death Lineup"?
Last year it was the Warriors small-ball or "Death Lineup" that killed off the Cavaliers. Timofey Mozgov and Cleveland's big men could not guard Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes on the wings and the Warriors hit the Cavs with a three-point barrage. This time, it will be different as Kevin Love will offer as a better option to be out there when the death lineup is on the court. Although Love's defense will be heavily tested in this series and he may be exposed because of it.
The one thing that the Cavaliers can hope for is the fact that "Death Lineup" hasn't been at its best. According to Basketball Reference.com, the lineup has been very bad. (The lineup is ranked 3rd in the picture below)
The Warriors are barely outscoring their opponents when it is on the court and the Cavs have to hope that it continues. But the Warriors are sticking with the lineup and Steve Kerr will be hoping that it catches fire like it did in the finals last year. It killed off the Cavs last year and it has the potential to be the same thing that gets Cleveland again.