There will be an abundance of star power in the NBA Finals, although most of it will be concentrated on one side.
The Golden State Warriors will not only have four of the five best players in the series, but their four pillars are arguably among the top 20 players in the entire league.
However, the best player in the world still resides in Cleveland and as long as LeBron James is around, the Cavaliers have a shot at taking down the Warriors’ uber-talented group.
Here are the four key match-ups that will decide the Finals.
LeBron James v Kevin Durant
What more is there left to say about LeBron and his singular impact? His presence alone gives Cleveland a chance and until he’s dead and buried, it’s foolish to count him out. That said, James is up against a mountain of a challenge in the Finals, even more so than he was back in 2015 with an undermanned Cavaliers side. He’s been doing it all for Cleveland in these playoffs, but he’ll have to somehow go to another level to beat Golden State. That starts on the defensive end where he can’t take plays off and has to slow down Durant.
LeBron is the best player in the world, but Durant was arguably the best player on the floor in last year’s Finals. James was matched up on him for much of the series and even he had no answer for the Warriors’ forward, who averaged 35.2 points on 55.6 per cent shooting, including 47.4 per cent from deep. Golden State have been using Durant in isolations more than ever in the playoffs, but that may play into LeBron’s hands instead of running him off screens and making James exert defensive energy.
Stephen Curry v George Hill
If it wasn’t obvious before, it certainly is now after the Warriors’ run to the Finals: the offence is at its best and retains its identity most when Curry is heavily involved. That means running the guard off both ball and off-ball screens to get the defence over-committing to his ability to launch from distance. The gravity he commands on the perimeter is second to none and that in turn opens up opportunities for the rest of the team. And fortunately for Golden State, the Cavaliers have no lock-down perimeter defenders.
Hill is capable of making life difficult for opposing guards, but he’s been hit-or-miss on the defensive end during his stint in Cleveland. For the Cavaliers to have a legitimate chance of winning the series, Hill will be crucial on both ends – he’ll have to neutralise Curry as best as he can, while also having an aggressive mindset as a ball-handler. With LeBron hunting Curry and Golden State preferring not to get caught on that mismatch, Hill should have plenty of space to operate with the defence going under the screen when he has the ball.
Klay Thompson v J.R. Smith
Like Curry, Thompson is essential to the Warriors’ signature style and his success is even more tied to their fluid attack because he’s so deadly without the ball. The Houston Rockets decided to switch everything last round and they still struggled to contain Thompson at times, who needs just a sliver of space to catch and release. He’ll put extreme pressure on the Cavaliers to defend with discipline, focus and communication, otherwise they’ll be picked apart.
There are few players in the NBA more head-scratching than Smith, who on one night can look like a 3-and-D stud, and on the next be a total disaster. Needless to say, the Cavaliers need the good J.R. Smith to show up in the Finals and defend with purpose, while shooting a good percentage on the other end. His shooting is incredibly streaky, so it’s possible he could win Cleveland a game or shoot them out of the series.
Draymond Green v Kevin Love
His numbers don’t jump off the page like the Warriors’ other stars, but Green is necessary to what Golden State want to do on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he’s the quarterback and directs rotations, while on the other end he’s a primary playmaker and distributor. Cleveland will almost surely leave him wide open and dare him to shoot – Green is hitting just 27.7 per cent from 3 in the playoffs – but he won’t need to force it for the Warriors to put up points.
Love’s status for the opener is up in the air as he continues to recover from a concussion, but he’ll likely return at some point in the series. When he does, he won’t have much time to reintegrate as he’ll be needed to help alleviate the offensive load on LeBron. Love will have to be more efficient than in past two Finals though, when he shot under 40 per cent.
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