Let’s check in on who ESPN thinks will win the 2018 NBA Finals:
Seemingly since July of 2017, the consensus pick for who will win the NBA Finals has been the Warriors. They are the team of the decade, made better by the addition of Kevin Durant two summers ago and really only deterred by the self-inflicted lack of interest in their opponents. We know they’re good. They know they’re good. The Cavaliers know they’re good. Possibly the best.
But the best doesn’t always mean the winner. Would we be talking about Warriors vs. Cavaliers IV if Chris Paul were healthy? If one of Kyrie or Hayward weren’t out for the season? By all accounts, LeBron matches up with KD as the best player on each team, but after that the drop off is quite significant. Curry, Klay, Draymond are much better than Love, Korver and [insert random Cavalier]. Kevin Love may not even make it into the series given the NBA’s concussion protocol.
So everyone picks the Warriors, in 5 (giving their due respect to the greatness that is LeBron), or 6 (because the Warriors tend to fall asleep when going against opponents they don’t deem worthy), or 7 (wishful thinking for a fun and exciting series. But that’s easy to say Warriors take the series. Let’s talk about how the Cavaliers can win it.
How to defeat the Warriors for the Championship in ____ easy steps:
Step One: The Cavs need to slow the pace down and make the Warriors play ISO ball
Here’s a fun infographic from ESPN Stats Twitter:
The key to the Cavs winning the championship in 2016 was due to the idea that if they slowed the pace down, lowered the number of possessions, that they could hold off the Warriors offense and keep them within range for the last two minutes, where anything can happen. The Rockets successfully took the Warriors out of their beautiful passing game, where the Warriors almost tripled their ISO possessions from the season and previous playoff games. It’s hard to get away from that when you have Durant, who an literally shoot over anyone at anytime. But those ISO possessions take the Warriors out of rhythm, and even Durant can’t hit every shot.
Conversely, for the Cavs to win, they’ll need ISO heavy minutes from LeBron, and energy plays from the rest of the team. If they can keep the number of possessions down, and make the Warriors play a more selfish brand of basketball, then they might have a shot.
Step Two: The Cavs need to crash the boards
The Warriors love to play small. Their Lineup of Death is built on the premise that they can sacrifice height for speed and versatility. On offense, the Warriors send out five guys who can shoot and take you off the dribble, and no big man can keep up.
But this isn’t always the case and this isn’t your grandad’s warriors (if your grandad happens to like the Warriors from the last three years). Draymond hasn’t hit an open three in about 5 months (exaggeration but is it?), Iguodala is still out with a bad back, and you have Kevin Looney and Quinn Cook in crunch time minutes. The Warriors are top heavy – maybe the most top heavy we’ve ever seen, but beyond that they are an average at best bench unit – that doesn’t rebound all that well.
This will be a series decided by the Larry Nance Jr.’s and Tristan Thompson’s of the world. If and when Love comes back, he’ll be an invaluable source of offensive rebounds. This is the one area the Cavs can exploit – rebounds and energy. If the entire team can make a concerted effort to rebound effectively, they can make up for poor shot selections (looking at you JR Smith) and keep the Warriors from fast breaking.
Step Three: The Warriors need to believe they are the better team and forget to try.
Sometimes when you know you are better, you just don’t try as hard. You forget what motivates you in the first place, and rely on pure talent to coast by. This is the detriment to the Warriors, who seemingly are different teams quarter to quarter within the same game. The Rockets came out in game seven with energy, excitement and ferocity. The Warriors forgot they were even playing a game seven until the second half. The third quarter is when they like to step on the gas, because they are basically like Seabiscuit. They do better when they are pushed and have to come from behind.
If the Cavs can just withstand the onslaught in the second half of games, and keep the Warriors just far enough away that they can’t quite turn the corner (as they did to the baby Celtics), they might be able to steal a game or three.
But in the end, no matter what the Cavs do, it’s really up to the Warriors to defeat themselves. To not play the way they’re built to play. To not try. To get punched in the mouth and not come back.
With all that said, Warriors in six.