NBA Playoffs Preview: Warriors vs Cavaliers Finals Breakdown

Warriors vs Cavaliers NBA Finals Breakdown

They’re baaaaack. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers rematch is officially set.

When the ball tips on Thursday night it will be history in the making, the first time in the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL that the same two teams have squared off four years in a row. And while some may complain about an element of fatigue in seeing the same matchup year after year, the fact is LeBron vs. the once-in-a-lifetime Warriors is a gift for basketball fans new and old.

The 2018 NBA Finals will once again feature the greatest player of an era versus its greatest team, with multiple legacies at stake. Here are some of the most compelling storylines ahead of Thursday’s Game 1:

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LeBron vs. the World

The undermanned Cavaliers enter the Finals as major underdogs — the Warriors are 12-point favourites to win Game 1 on their homecourt.

With a supporting cast that would struggle to see the court if they played for the other team, Cleveland will again need a superhuman performance from LeBron James in order to have a fighting chance.

In last year’s Finals, on a Cavs team that featured Kyrie Irving and a healthy Kevin Love, James averaged a triple-double with 33 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists per game — and Cleveland still lost the series in five games.

This post-season James has done the unthinkable and taken his game to another level.

James has already become the only player to ever post over 600 total points, 160 rebounds, and 150 assists, and 30 made-threes in a single playoffs— and the Finals haven’t even begun!

He’s carried a major load throughout the first three rounds, but that’s nothing new for James. He already owns three of the top-nine usage rates in playoff history (2009, 2015, and this year). The only other player in that top nine is Michael Jordan.

But in the process he’s logged a staggering amount of playing time. He’s played 14 per cent more minutes than anybody else in the NBA this season and, in his 15th campaign, has already appeared in 100 games. James was pushed to the brink of exhaustion in beating the Warriors back in 2016, and he’s relied on even more now.

Can James keep it up?

Injuries to key players

Two of the most important supporting cast members will likely be sidelined for at least the start of the series — and potentially the entire Finals.

Kevin Love suffered a concussion in Game 6 of the East Finals and is taking part in the NBA’s concussion protocol with no clear timetable for his return set.

While his consistency isn’t always there, Love is a legitimate all-star and difference-maker for the Cavs. His shooting stroke and shot-making ability from all over the court helps spread the floor and create space for James while forcing defences to adjust their game plans.

He’s also a clear number two in the Cavs’ pecking order, and with him out of the lineup Cleveland is forced to roll the dice and hope one of their role players like Jeff Green, Smith, or George Hill comes through with a big performance — which is, um, not ideal.

For the Warriors, they are without glue-guy team captain Andre Iguodala, who is out with a frustrating left leg/knee injury and is reportedly obtaining a second-opinion from medical experts in order to properly diagnose and treat his ailment in order to return for the Cavs series.

Having missed the Warriors’ last four games, his status for the Finals is unclear at the moment, but it sounds like he’ll be out of the lineup again.

The impact of Iguodala’s absence can’t be overstated. He’s Golden State’s best individual LeBron defender the Warriors have – and one of the best in the league at that valued specialty.

Durant gunning for the throne

Last year Durant got the best of James and the Cavs.

The reigning Finals MVP torched Cleveland for over 35 points per game while shooting 56 per cent from the floor and just under 48 per cent from deep.

This season on the whole, Durant has been just as effective in his second year with Golden State. He leads the team at 29 points per game this post-season, although his shooting numbers are down slightly.

The Warriors comparative struggles have brought Durant’s iso-ball style under question at times. Still, there is no questioning his ability to swing a game or a series singlehandedly.

Down the stretch in Game 7, Golden State went to Durant in isolation, who hit jumper after jumper with a single defender on him, quelling any chance Houston had to make a comeback (…the Rockets missing 27 straight three-pointers didn’t exactly help their chances).

Durant seems to relish his matchups with James, eager to enter an arms race over who is the game’s most lethal scorer, and you can expect no different this time around.

Splash Bros

After missing the first six games of the playoffs, Steph Curry has come up big when Golden State needed him most. With his team facing elimination against the Rockets, he made 12 threes in his last two games (along with 16 assists, 14 rebounds and four steals).

The Warriors are undefeated this post-season when Curry makes more than three three-pointers.

Curry and Klay Thompson — who sunk nine threes to keep the Warriors’ season alive in Game 6 — remain the biggest difference-makers, and virtually unstoppable. The duo nailed 24 three-pointers combined over their last two games. For context: Cavaliers’ shooters J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver didn’t reach that total during the entire Cavs-Celtics series.

Golden State’s depth of talent in their starting five gives them a clear edge, and it starts with their backcourt stars — something the Cavs simply don’t have an answer for.

Pace of play

Both the Cavs and Warriors have been in the top ten in scoring and three-pointers made during each season of their now four-year Finals runs. Each club is at its best when overwhelming opponents on offence, but during these playoffs they’ve both had to adjust their styles at times and slog it out.

Golden State were slowed down in the second and third games against Houston, matchups in which both teams were held below 100 points. Taken out of their comfort zone, the Warriors lost both games.

That might be a formula the Cavaliers try to replicate, slowing down the game with a plodding, deliberate offence built around James. Love’s injury forced their hand, but the Cavs found success in Game 7 against Boston playing a defensive-oriented lineup with Green starting in his place. They held the Celtics to under 80 points in the game and are 6-1 when opponents score under 100 in the post-season.

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