2017 NBA Finals Preview
Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors
If it feels like we’ve been waiting for Warriors-Cavaliers III all season, you’re right. One of the most anticipated clashes in NBA history is almost here and FanPicks.com will provide the NBA finals daily fantasy basketball contests all week. After trading championships the last two years, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet again to settle their difference in the NBA Finals. The Dubs have run through the postseason undefeated, while the Cavs have only dropped one game.
Where LeBron James might have been able to take breaks in the past against Harrison Barnes, he now has to stay locked and loaded at all times opposite Kevin Durant. The big guy setting screens and going goon for Golden State is no longer a leaping Australian (Andrew Bogut) but rather a ground-bound Georgian (Zaza Pachulia). The scrappy Cavs second unit of old has been supercharged with aging All-Stars in Kyle Korver and Deron Williams.
Starting Point Guard: Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving
This is what you’re likely thinking:
Stephen Curry is the two-time defending MVP. He’s probably the greatest shooter of all time. He might be one of the best ball-handlers and passers the NBA has ever seen. This is no contest!
That may be true for most point guards opposite Curry, but not for Kyrie Irving. To whatever extent the former has dominated during the regular season, the latter has been more reliable (if not more impactful) in the postseason matchups. Over their eight previous Finals games against one another, Irving has scored more points, shot better from the field, made more defensive plays—including eight blocks at Curry’s expense—and turned the ball over far less frequently while notching nearly as many rebounds and assists as Curry has.
For all that Steph has done to separate himself from the competition through the bulk of the last three seasons, his signature explosiveness has yet to truly translate to the sport’s grandest stage. They’ve each scored 30 points or more three times in the Finals, but only Irving has topped 40—and hit a game-winner, at that. Keep in mind, too, that Curry has scored fewer than 20 points in a Finals game five times to Irving’s one. Granted, the Cavs don’t lean nearly as heavily on Irving as the Dubs have on Curry. Both have also been beset by injuries; Irving’s busted kneecap in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals knocked him out of the rest of that showdown, while Curry’s leg and ankle issues appeared to limit him throughout last year’s series.
Starting Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson vs. J.R. Smith
In broad strokes, Klay Thompson and J.R. Smith aren’t all that different on the court. They both stand in the 6’6″, 6’7″ range, carrying between 215 and 225 pounds on their expansive frames. They’re both streaky shooters who can turn a quarter, a half or a game with a few flicks of the wrist. Smith, to his credit, has in recent years shown both an ability and a desire to lock down his opponents the way Thompson has throughout his own rise to stardom.
Thompson is a more consistent defender than Smith, and though he’s been cold throughout these playoffs (14.4 points on 38.3 percent shooting, 36.4 percent from three), Thompson’s track record of explosive success suggests he’s the better bet of the two to be a bona fide game-breaker. But if there’s any area in which Smith may prevail, it’s in taking (and making) difficult shots—the sort that, with proper timing and placement, can swing a series.
Starting Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
It’s been five years since Kevin Durant, then with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and LeBron James, then with the Miami Heat, faced off in the Finals. Back then, Durant outshot and outscored James, but lost the series in five while LeBron dominated in rebounds, assists and supporting cast. Much has changed for these two all-timers since their last championship showdown. No longer need Durant work so hard to create shots in isolation, now that he’s a cog in the Warriors’ finely tuned scoring machine. As was the case during the regular season, his playoff scoring is down from his OKC days, but his shooting percentages are through the roof.
James, too, has been a picture of efficiency during Cleveland’s postseason run. His 32.5 points per game are the second-highest mark of his career, and his attendant field-goal percentages (56.6 percent overall, 42.1 percent from three) would both be personal bests. He has done just that, with 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks to boot. Durant is no slouch beyond scoring (7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.9 combined steals and blocks), but for all his otherworldly ability, his command of the court still pales in comparison to James’ iron-fisted jurisdiction.
Starting Power Forward: Draymond Green vs. Kevin Love
Kevin Love isn’t exactly Superman for the Cavaliers, but Draymond Green may be his Kryptonite. Last year, Love nearly averaged a double-double while shooting 44.6 percent from three during Cleveland’s romp through the East. This time around, his numbers were remarkably similar across the board.
Against the Warriors, though, Love may be the closest thing Cleveland has to an Achilles heel. During the 2016 Finals, Golden State, with Green at power forward, held the Cavaliers’ stretch 4 to 8.5 points on 36.2 percent shooting (26.3 percent from three) and 6.8 rebounds while picking on him for his poor pick-and-roll defense. If not for Cleveland’s squeaker-of-a-win in Game 7—and the importance of Love’s 14 rebounds and late-game defense on Curry therein—we might be talking about a different third wheel playing with James and Irving right now.
Once upon a time, Green could’ve been trade bait for Love. Now, he’s not only one of the NBA’s premier defenders, but also arguably the most irreplaceable Warrior. He’s continued his run as Golden State’s primary playmaker (7.2 assists), rebounder (8.7 boards), shot-blocker (2.1 blocks) and thief (1.9 steals) while stunningly emerging from a season-long shooting slumber to lead his team—which also employs Curry, Thompson and Durant, in case you’ve forgotten—in three-point accuracy (47.2 percent). This time around, Green won’t be saddled with the sort of baggage (i.e., technical fouls) that dragged down him and the Dubs during the previous Finals. Then again, neither is Love guaranteed to miss a game (and be at all limited thereafter) by a concussion the same way he was last June.
Starting Center: Zaza Pachulia vs. Tristan Thompson
Salaries and national origins aside, Zaza Pachulia and Tristan Thompson aren’t so different. They’re both screen setters and rebounders, finishers and mixer-uppers, bigs who do the dirty work so their superstar teammates can thrive on the strength of their skills.
Both have also drawn unwanted attention in these playoffs for seemingly unsavory play—Pachulia for his hard closeout on San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Thompson for his Olynyk-esque yank on the arm and shoulder of Boston’s Amir Johnson. Pachulia, though, is more interchangeable than indispensible. The 33-year-old, who missed Games 3 and 4 against the Spurs with a right heel contusion, has averaged 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game while splitting duties at center with David West, JaVale McGee and Draymond Green.
In the East, Thompson has been nothing short of beastly. With Khloe Kardashian reportedly out of the picture, the 26-year-old has terrorized opposing frontcourts to the tune of 9.2 points on 60.0 percent shooting with 9.3 rebounds (4.2 on the offensive end)—not including the countless other loose balls he’s gotten his hands on in some capacity. Size-wise, Pachulia has about two inches and 30 pounds on his Cleveland counterpart. But what Thompson lacks in height and bulk, he more than makes up for in superior speed, agility, hops and, above all, durability.
Wild Card: Ian Clark vs. Channing Frye
At some point in this series, at least one of the head coaches—be he Tyronn Lue in Cleveland or Steve Kerr’s interim replacement Mike Brown in Golden State—will have to dig deep into his bench for reinforcements. In Golden State’s case, Ian Clark has been that secret weapon. The Belmont University grad has shot at a 50/40/90 clip—52.4 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from three and 93.3 percent from the free-throw line, to be exact. He’s played in each of the Warriors’ 12 games, scoring 7.5 points in 14.6 minutes, but hasn’t played any high-leverage minutes.
Neither has Channing Frye, who’s contributed 7.8 points in 13.0 minutes by draining 52.6 percent of his 3.5 three-point attempts per game. But Frye didn’t appear in Games 3 and 4 against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and probably wouldn’t have set foot in Game 5 had it not been a blowout from the beginning. Nor is he likely to feature much in the Finals against the Warriors. He certainly didn’t last June, when he earned three straight DNPs in Games 5 through 7 after getting gouged across the board by Golden State in the first four meetings.
Odds are, the Dubs haven’t forgotten how to exploit the 34-year-old Frye, even if Steve Kerr isn’t the one pulling strings from the sideline. The Cavs can take their chances with him if they so choose. The Warriors, on the other hand, won’t have to sweat it if they need Clark to sop up minutes, say, when Steph Curry encounters foul trouble.