Jun 04 2015

2015 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers (The 1SKILLZ Gameplan)

The NBA Finals are here – and the San Antonio Spurs aren’t in it. Neither are my predicted champion, the Chicago Bulls; in fact, they went ahead and changed head coaches. The Houston Rockets didn’t get it done after coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the semifinals. And the Atlanta Hawks followed up a 60-win season by getting swept in the Conference Finals.

So we have an NBA Finals matchup that, quite frankly, was far from anyone’s thoughts as recently as three years ago: the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

(PC: Twitter/NBA)

(PC: Twitter/NBA)

The Warriors have already won as many playoff series this year than in the previous 25 seasons combined. Golden State swept the New Orleans Pelicans, leading to Warriors Associate Head Coach Alvin Gentry replacing New Orleans head coach Monty Williams. Golden State fell behind the Memphis Grizzlies 2-1 in the Semifinals, but then 2015 MVP Stephen Curry averaged 32.5 points in the last two games in Memphis, allowing Golden State to close things out in six. The Warriors then took care of the Rockets in five despite the Splash Brothers’ concussion scares. The Warriors never had to face the Spurs or the Los Angeles Clippers, the last two teams to knock them out of the playoffs, while the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks both went quietly in five games in the first round.

The @warriors beat the @houstonrockets 104-90 to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in 40 years!

A video posted by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

While the Warriors won 67 games (and didn’t choke like the 06-07 Mavericks), the Cavaliers won a relatively modest 53 games. But while none of LeBron James’ Miami Heat teams lost as many regular season games, none of those Heat teams smoked through the Eastern Conference playoffs like this Cavaliers team did. I mean … damn. So much for Cleveland missing the playoffs the previous four years. The Cavaliers swept the Boston Celtics, the team that ended James’ previous postseason as a member of the Cavs, in round one. Those 2009-2010 Celtics took only 50 regular season wins into the postseason, but wound up winning the East. The 2014-2015 Celtics couldn’t beat the Cavs, but Kelly Olynyk did end Kevin Love’s postseason prematurely (shoulder). The Cavaliers also found themselves down 2-1 after Derrick Rose’s buzzer-beater in Chicago. Unfortunately, that would be the Bulls’ last win of the postseason, while the Cavs rolled right through Atlanta and swept them despite Kyrie Irving (knee) missing two games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Elsewhere in the East: The Washington Wizards and elite-level troll Paul Pierce was unable to keep Washington’s impressive postseason going; the Toronto Raptors jumped the shark; the Milwaukee Bucks extended their first-round series against Chicago long enough to get slaughtered by 54 points in Game 6; while the Brooklyn Nets should probably take consolation in the fact that they exceeded everyone’s expectations just by winning a couple of games against Atlanta.

Bring out the brooms! The @cavs beat the @atlhawks 118-88 in Game 4 and they’re headed to the #NBAFinals! ???????????? A video posted by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

There’s so much going into this Finals matchup. The MVP vs. a two-time Finals MVP. Two rookie head coaches. More threes than a Finals has ever seen, which I have mixed feelings about. A beaucoup of relatively recent lottery picks since 2004.

The Warriors had the best defense in the NBA during the regular season, and since the first-round, the Cavaliers are right behind them in terms of efficiency. Mark Jackson. Australia. The Warriors and Cavaliers split the regular season series, with both teams winning at home. The Warriors won in January by 18 points, led by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combining for 47 points and seven made threes 1. But LeBron James only played one game against the Warriors this past season, and he gave them a season-high 42 points in a 110-99 win in February.

Let’s look at the breakdown:



The Cavaliers offense starts with SF LeBron James – sometimes as far as bringing the ball up and initiating the offense – and it ends with James often. James is averaging 24.5 field goal attempts per game in this postseason, a career-high. He’s also averaging a career-low 7.1 free throw attempts per game, while shooting only 43 percent from the field. Then you have to mention James’ shooting slump from three: 12-of-68 this postseason (18 percent). While James’ efficiency is lower now than it ever was in Miami, he’s still been effective, averaging 27.6 points per game. And he’s still an explosive 6’8″, 250 pounds.  And including this season’s season-best performance, James has averaged 32 points per game in his last five games against Golden State. The Warriors will give him plenty of different looks, starting with SF Harrison Barnes, and supported by PF Draymond Green, SG Klay Thompson, and Sixth Man SF Andre Iguodala. But James will get his, especially with the Warriors unlikely to double team much. James will have plenty of help on the perimeter as well. PG Kyrie Irving may be banged up with a slightly broken midrange game, but he’s still capable of hot streaks, and there hasn’t been anything wrong with his long-ball. Irving has shot 48 percent from three in the playoffs, so even if he is off the ball more often, Warriors PG Stephen Curry will need to not lose track of Irving. Cleveland’s bench (SG J.R. Smith, PF James Jones, PG Matthew Dellavedova) is also shooting the three reasonably well, while SG Iman Shumpert is hitting 37 percent from downtown in the playoffs. Even a slumping James and hobbled Irving are difficult to stop when surrounded by all of that shooting.     Advantage: Cavaliers


It would have been nice for Cleveland to have PF Kevin Love available, but he’s out with a shoulder injury. In Love’s place has been PF Tristan Thompson, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. Thompson doesn’t take many shots, and is arguably the least involved Cavalier offensively. His value will come in the fact that he is averaging an offensive rebound per quarter in the NBA Playoffs (4.0 per game). Thompson’s frontcourt mate, C Timofey Mozgov, has struggled with his jump shot a little and is averaging only nine points per game in the postseason. But Mozgov is another heat seeking missile on the offensive glass, averaging 2.8 per game in the postseason, and he destroyed the Warriors for 23 points and 29 rebounds in April 2014 while a member of the Denver Nuggets. The key for the Warriors is for C Andrew Bogut to be on his game, and he has been all season. Bogut is averaging 8.6 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game in the playoffs, and he was a major reason for Golden State leading the NBA in opponent’s field goal percentage during the regular season. In the playoffs, opponents are shooting less than 40 percent at the rim with Bogut present. If Bogut and leading rebounder Green can get some support on the glass from the bench, then the Warriors should be fine defending the paint. Of course, James will be living in there. Advantage: Draw/Warriors


One of Golden State’s best abilities defensively is ending possessions prematurely. The Warriors forced the fifth-most turnovers in the NBA during the regular season, with Curry leading the league in total steals with 163 (2.0 per game). That has mostly translated to the playoffs, as Curry has seven multi-steal games. Green and Iguodala will also be the ones in on forcing the turnovers. James has carried a huge load on the ball in the postseason, and a consequence of the extra ball-handling comes in the form of 4.4 turnovers per game, his highest since the 2006 NBA Playoffs. No other Cavalier has averaged even two turnovers per game, but Irving and Dellavedova have combined to average only 6.3 assists per game in the playoffs. The pressure on James to take care of the ball will be significant. Advantage: Warriors


The Cavaliers’ defense has improved significantly in the postseason. But they simply don’t force many turnovers. Cleveland doesn’t have a double-digit steal game this postseason, while they have failed to force more than 12 turnovers in each of their last ten games. The Warriors are about average when it comes to taking care of the ball, but they led the NBA in assists as well. Curry isn’t a great playmaker, and his assist-turnover ratio of 1.8 is mediocre. But he is supported by strong passers at their positions like Green and Iguodala. The Warriors will have to be aware of James in the passing lanes, but overall, the Warriors won the turnover battle against opponents all season. The Cavaliers lost the turnover battle, in large part because they rarely get steals, especially when Dellavedova is in 2Advantage: Warriors


As mentioned earlier, the Cavaliers have improved defensively. Opponents shot 49.7 percent from two-point range against Cleveland during the regular season, but that number has fallen to 46.3 percent in the playoffs. By comparison, Golden State has allowed opponents to make 47 percent of two-point shots in the playoffs after leading the league in the regular season by allowing only 45.8 percent of two-point field goals to be made. Mozgov has really stepped it up in the playoffs, averaging 1.9 blocks per game in the postseason, while James and Thompson have combined to average more than 20 rebounds per game. Green is the only Warrior outside of the Splash Brothers who averages at least ten shots per game in the playoffs, but he attempts nearly five threes a game (at a woeful 26 percent) as part of that package. By contrast, Bogut only averages 4.4 shots per game total. Thompson will be drawn away from the basket more often, but he got a taste of that life against Atlanta in the Eastern Finals. The Warriors big men don’t get to the free throw line very often either, and Bogut is terrible from there in the rare times he must shoot free throws – another plus for Cleveland. Advantage: Cavaliers


It’s not a stretch to say that this particular matchup will define, and ultimately decide, the 2015 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers come in averaging 29.1 attempted threes per game, fifth in postseason history. The Warriors are fourth all-time, averaging 30.3 attempted threes per game. The Warriors and Cavaliers are two of 12 teams in NBA history to average at least ten made threes per game during the regular season. Whoever wins this series will be the first of those teams ever to win a championship. The first team to ever average ten made threes a game in NBA history were the 2005-2006 Phoenix Suns; Kerr was a consultant for Suns management and a future general manager for that team. The game has changed in the last ten years, from free throws to threes. The NBA has seen the four lowest free throws attempted per game figures across the league in the last four seasons, while the three-pointers were at an all-time high in 2014-2015. While the league still shoots more free throws than threes, that’s not the case for either Cleveland or Golden State. The ways of the 1980s will be irrelevant to basketball going forward after these NBA Finals. But it’s not all about shooting (and making, not missing) threes. It’s about defending them. And Cleveland has done a masterful job of it in these playoffs. Teams are shooting only 28 percent from three against the Cavaliers, and since Rose’s May 8th buzzer beater at the United Center, Cavaliers opponents have made only 46-of-177 threes against them – 26 percent. The only way Memphis was able to get two wins against the Warriors in the postseason was to hold them to 6-of-26 (23 percent) in both Games 2 and 3. If the Cavaliers can stay on the Splash Brothers, who are averaging nearly eight made threes a game combined and shooting them well above 40 percent, than they’ll have more than a fighting chance here. No other Warrior is shooting better than 33 percent from three in the playoffs 3. The problem for Cleveland, though, is that Curry IS getting to the free throw line. After getting to the stripe an underwhelming 4.2 times per game during the regular season, Curry has gotten there 5.9 times per game in the postseason. Add in Irving’s questionable defensive ability, and you can see where things get more challenging for the Cavaliers than at any point against Boston, Chicago, or Atlanta. Shumpert will be a busy man, as he’ll have to see Curry, Thompson, and Barnes at times in this series, while James will be the seldom-used, 4th quarter crunch time option if necessary. Advantage: Warriors


Last year’s Lightweight Report introduced the concept of “Basketball Special Teams“. The Cavaliers (76 percent) have been a better free throw shooting team in the playoffs than the Warriors (70 percent), although both teams have brutal free throw shooters (Tristan Thompson, Bogut, Iguodala, and C Festus Ezeli are all well under 60 percent). The Warriors average nearly three times as many fastbreak points per game in the playoffs (NBA-high 21.6) as the Cavaliers (7.4 – only Brooklyn was worse in the playoffs). Of course, there’s no transition defense like that of the predator, LeBron James. The Cavs have played at the slowest pace of all playoff teams, and while the Warriors will want to play faster, it must be noted that they are well off their league-leading pace in the playoffs.  The Warriors are vying to become the first team since the 1971-1972 Lakers to win the NBA championship after leading the league in pace during the regular season. Their ability to play more uptempo will go back to their depth, which has more options than Cleveland’s. While Iguodala, PG Shaun Livingston, and SG Leandro Barbosa aren’t always effective, they have been trusted upon for 20 minutes before. And the Warriors have three viable big men off the bench to choose from between Ezeli and PFs Marreese Speights and David Lee. The only “big man” who plays off of Cleveland’s bench is James Jones, as Love and C Anderson Varejao’s injuries still keep players like Kendrick Perkins and Brendan Haywood in warmups. Advantage: Warriors


I wasn’t a fan of either Kerr or Blatt when the season started, but you can’t argue with results. Kerr has achieved the most, being a rookie head coach who won over the entire team after Mark Jackson was fired. Relationships are everything, and while Jackson had it with most of his players, he didn’t have it with Bogut, management, and some of his assistant coaches. I feel bad for Jackson, but Kerr did the expected (turn the offense into an elite unit) and the unexpected (help deliver the league’s best defense, building off of Jackson’s initial turnaround). Blatt came over to the United States with more hype than I could handle, and while his job may have been threatened with the Cavaliers hovering around .500 in January, he now sees himself in a position to win a title in his first NBA season. He knew adversity from his time coaching in Israel, and despite nearly blowing Game 4, Blatt has been a steadying presence while James leads on the court. Blatt was able to sweep the NBA Coach of the Year’s team out the playoffs, but Kerr’s team presents more challenges than Mike Budenholzer’s. The Warriors haven’t lost three straight games all season, and they never lost four games out of any seven. Once again, Blatt has his work cut out for him. Advantage: Warriors


Everyone’s favorite conversation, injuries, is something to start with. The Cavaliers are dealing with it more than Golden State. Irving had to miss games in the Conference Finals, Love/Varejao aren’t available, and the minutes are creeping up on 30-year-old James. The Splash Brothers had concussion concerns, but both Curry and Thompson are cleared, as well as Speights, who has missed the last few weeks with a calf strain. Speaking of Speights, he and Livingston were members of the 2012-2013 Cavaliers who went 24-58, while Kerr played for the Cavaliers from 1989-1992. Kerr is the first head coach in 13 seasons to face a team in the NBA Finals that he once played for; those coaches are 1-6 in Finals history. Fortunately, Kerr gets to coach at Oracle Arena, a place the Warriors have lost only three times all year. The Warriors are attempting to become the first Western Conference team outside of Texas and the Lakers to win the NBA title since 1979, when there were SuperSonics, Bullets, and no three-pointers. Must be nice to draw Cleveland, one of the most tortured sports cities in the last 50 years. The biggest upset in NBA Finals history, by regular season win differential, belongs to the 1975 Warriors, a 48-win team that swept the 60-win Washington Bullets. 40 years later, the 53-win Cavaliers will attempt to beat the 67-win Warriors. It helps to have the King, and none of the Warriors have played in an NBA Finals, but there’s a lot of history in Cleveland’s way.  Advantage: Draw/Warriors


I think I’ve made it pretty clear. It’s great that James will be playing in his fifth straight NBA Finals, along with James Jones, but the Cavs have a lot of Finals experience on the bench that won’t help them in this series: Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Perkins, Haywood. James is a marked man, just like he was in 2014. The Cavaliers, for all of their defensive improvement over the last 14 games, didn’t face a Western Conference team in that span. The Warriors were the best defense across the entire season; Cleveland wasn’t even league-average. And that’s where this comes down to: James defines this decade. Every team since 2010 has had to go through him to win a title. James will have to do more than ever to get this team over the hump. He’s certainly capable. But this Warriors team will be the best James has ever faced in the postseason. While the Warriors are relatively inexperienced, Finals experience didn’t stop the 1991 Bulls from upending Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games. The same fate awaits these Warriors in 2015, while Curry becomes the first PG to be the regular season and Finals MVP in the same season since Magic in 1987. Prediction: Warriors in 5.

The only head coach to defeat a team he once played for is Phil Jackson, when he beat former Laker Byron Scott's New Jersey Nets in the 2002 NBA Finals. Kerr, a former Cavalier, will be the second ... unless his former team pulls the biggest upset in NBA Finals history. (PC: ComC)

The only head coach to defeat a team he once played for in the NBA Finals is Phil Jackson, when he beat former Laker Byron Scott’s New Jersey Nets in the 2002 NBA Finals. Kerr, a former Cavalier, will be the second … unless his former team pulls the biggest upset in NBA Finals history. (PC: ComC)


Show 3 footnotes

  1. It was C Timofey Mozgov’s first game as a Cavalier and SG J.R. Smith’s second … SG Iman Shumpert was on the roster, but didn’t debut in Cleveland until later that month.
  2. I’m not saying Dellavedova is a poor defender. Just that he rarely comes up with live ball turnovers. Only two steals in 306 minutes.
  3. Brandon Rush and Justin Holiday obviously don’t count, as they have played a combined 16 minutes this postseason.

1 ping

  1. 2015 NBA Offseason Maintenance Report »

    […] predictions, 1 but once the 2015 NBA Finals were matched up, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. It took six games instead of five, but you all knew the Golden State Warriors would defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their […]

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