Finally the Finals: While We’re Waiting…


Here we are again, at long last: the irresistible force versus the immovable object. Or maybe the irresistible force versus the other irresistible force. Or maybe the irresistible force versus the irresistible dark horse. Whatever illustrative paradox you want to use to express it, it’s here: Cavs-Warriors III! The eve of the great battle has elapsed and the day of another potentially thrilling NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors is upon us. Some disassembled thoughts for you to chew on and disregard that I had – while we were waiting…

  • Much has been made of the “Michael Jordan” was never an underdog narrative. But Michael Jordan never vanquished a 73-win team (there’s only been one of those) only to have that team come back with the second or third best player in the NBA. Memes aside, the Cavs overcame tremendous odds to win the 2016 Finals with a spectacular individual performance from LeBron James in every facet of the game and major statistical category. If James is somehow able to orchestrate another Finals victory against this team — it would be arguably the most impressive two-year playoff stretch in any major American sport, and one of the most impressive basketball feats ever.
  • Seven straight Finals? SevenMost second-graders have never been alive when LeBron James wasn’t a conference champion. James has so consistently overcome the odds against him, that Nate Silver had to write what amounted to an apology that FiveThirtyEight’s model doesn’t account enough for James and his team’s ability to demolish statistical parameters, even suggesting he’d bet against his site’s own model in the Finals.1 To go back to illustrative paradoxes: “Could LeBron James create a narrative so compelling that even he could not fulfill it?”
  • The Warriors ought to be favored, but do we know they know what they’re doing against a team in the same talent universe as them? They were down 21 points in the third quarter in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs when Jonathon Simmons entered the game for an injured Kawhi Leonard. Film of those 29 minutes of basketball exists. I think most historically great teams would have thrived well facing an opponent deprived of its best player.2
  • The Cavaliers seemingly have to transmute tin into gold to win the Finals, but there is a clear and obvious recipe to win the Finals that’s nearly too self-evident to warrant discussion: LeBron James takes over a game, Kyrie Irving takes over a game, and the Cavs shooters explode in two games. If the Cavs can extend the series to six or seven games, it seems likely that both of the first two will happen in at least one game. As for the latter, consider the next bullet point.
  • David Griffin & Co. have obsessively assembled a historically great shooting team.3 The Cavaliers have seven shooters shooting over 40.0 percent on three-pointers in the playoffs,4 and that list still excludes Kyrie Irving. The Warriors have four such shooters. The Cavaliers had six games this season in which they made over 18 threes on 50.0 percent or greater, the most ever,5, and four such games in the last two playoffs (three more than Golden State). This season’s Cavaliers team joined last season’s 73-win Warriors team as the only squad to make 1000 threes while shooting 38.0 percent or better. How farfetched is it that a team with Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and a plus-40.0 three-point percentage LeBron James turn into Daenerys’ dragons in a two-to-three games? Not very.
  • Kyrie Irving might not be an All-NBA player or even a top-15 player (position-agnostic). Blah blah RPM etc. etc. not elite gobbledygook overrated yada yada yada. But Kyrie Irving may be the league’s the NBA’s jefe grande shot-maker, its shot-maker extraordinaire. Kyrie Irving was the most efficient guard in the league this season in situations with “very tight” defenders, with an effective field goal percentage of 47.8.6 His 42-point performance in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals was no less than an offensive masterpiece. Irving also has a track record against the Warriors, such as the 41-point performance in Game 5 of last season’s Finals, his 14-point fourth quarter and game-winning turnaround on Christmas Day this season, and in Game 7 of last Finals when he was seen “ripping Stephen Curry’s still-beating heart out of his chest and icily holding it up for the world to see like the cold-blooded conqueror he is.” Stephen Curry is nearly impossible to defend, but Kyrie Irving is impossible to defend because he is undaunted by defense — he’s emboldened by it. Defense is an illusion to Kyrie Irving. Reminder:

  • With our newly engineered basketball war machines like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, isolation basketball has earned a reputation as lesser basketball that can’t be elegant or sexy. Granted, it can often be dull and unartful. But it’s often necessary in playoff basketball as competition muddies the gears of the war machines. Isolation is the trench warfare of basketball: and the Cavaliers are the best at it. In regular season isolation possessions: Kyrie Irving eFG 53.2%; LeBron James eFG 49.5% (first and second in the NBA).7 In playoff isolation possessions: Kyrie Irving eFG 63.3%; LeBron James eFG 61.0% (second and third in the NBA).8 If you don’t think you isolation basketball can be beautiful, then you didn’t watch LeBron James devour Kelly Olynyk and Al Horford every time the Boston Celtics inexplicably allowed one of them to switch onto James in the Eastern Conference Finals.
  • Scowling! So much playoff scowling! The Kyrie Irving scowl is my personal favorite.

  • Zach Lowe wrote a great piece on Tristan Thompson and how he’s become a demoralizing basketball demon. “Everything he does is so deflating,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, presumably before sobbing into his bowl of Froot Loops. Seven games in the cage with Tristan Thompson may drive anyone mad, and even 30 minutes may make someone want to kick inanimate objects. Can Thompson make Zaza Pachulia unplayable (yes he can), neutralize any upside to JaVale McGee (probably), and tire or instigate Draymond Green into doing something stupid (possibly)?
  • LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron Effing James.
  • Draymond Green could do anything from give Kevin Love a titty twister to grab and punt a baby and I would be unsurprised. Given the choice between a “pro” or “con” for the Warriors, I have that marked as a “con.”
  • Does the absence of Andrew Bogut mean anything?9 Bogut was the Warriors’ second-best rim protector in the Finals last season,10 and though I don’t have any reliable data that Bogut deterred the Cavaliers from attacking the rim, it certainly appeared like he did on film. Meanwhile, Curry seemed traumatized by James blocking him several times throughout the series, including the famous vicious Game 6 rebuke. Opponents’ field goal percentage compared to expected with James as the primary defender near the rim over the last three playoffs: -5.9 (2015), -23.5 (2016), and -26.9 (2017). Someone made a Youtube collection of all James’ blocks on Curry last Finals, because the internet is wonderful sometimes.

  • Are we sure that Kevin Love is as much a defensive liability as he’s been against the Warriors in the past? Love’s defensive rating in the 2016 playoffs was 105.8 — second worst on the team — 106.2 against the Warriors. It’s down to 102.3 these playoffs — a 3.5 point improvement over 100 possessions and fifth best on the team. If Love can just hang in pick-and-roll situations — by showing on Curry while recovering to interfere with Green —11 while continuing to be dynamite on the offensive end, the Cavaliers may be able to match up with the Warriors much better than anyone anticipated.
  • What do the Cavaliers do with LeBron James on defense? Can they play him 45 minutes while having him shadow Kevin Durant? Do they have him guard Draymond Green or whoever’s at the five?12 Curry? This may be the most interesting coaching wrinkle all series, closely behind how each team counters big-small lineups, what the Cavs do with Curry-Green pick-and-rolls, how the Cavs use shooters to create open space in the lane, and what Mike Brown will do if forced to do if actually asked to coach for a game.
  • There is one thing that I can’t mentally surmount, and that I keep coming back to. Harrison Barnes had the most “wide open” field goal attempts of any player in the Finals last year (23), and he made seven of them (30.4 percent).13 Kevin Durant has made 10-of-14 (71.4 percent) wide open shots in the 2017 playoffs. What if all the shots Harrison Barnes was taking last season (by scheme) are now being taken by Kevin Durant? That’s the one mental hurdle I keep tripping over when advocating for the Cavs.
  • Forced to make a pick, here’s how I’d have picked the last two Finals and this series: 2015-Warriors in six; 2016-Warriors in six; 2017-Warriors in six.
  • But what if? That’s all the Cavs had last year entering a series against an apparently superior team — and defied all reason with an amazing performance. I keep coming back to the recipe explained above: LeBron James takes over a game, Kyrie Irving takes over a game, and the shooters go ballistic in two games. It seems conceivable. Why not again? What if… 
  • Have fun, Cleveland. Watch, cheer, imbibe — very few bases are as fortunate to experience what Cavs fans have over the last three seasons. Savor every microsecond.

Your Calvin and Hobbes strip of the day. All Cavs fans on the day of Game 1. (Replace “the teacher” with “my boss,” “the client,” “the doctor,” “my boyfriend,” or “this report I’m pretending to read” as needed.)

And now for the random 90s song of the day. Much has been written the last several weeks about Chris Cornell. Here are fine examples from WFNY’s Andrew and Craig. I can’t add to those thoughtful pieces at this time. But I will share one of the favorite tributes to Cornell I saw, this one from Norah Jones in Detroit (of all places). It’s beautiful, and as … musically sparse and emotionally forlorn as I wanted it to be. Anyway, enjoy your lives people and go Cavs.

  1. “While there are occasional exceptions, I’d usually defer to Vegas in the event of a major disagreement.” Well, there is a major disagreement between FiveThirtyEight (10 percent chance the Cavs win) and Vegas (about 25 to 35 percent). I’d also like to point out that I tweeted this the day before Silver’s explanation, because slotting the Cavs as having three percent odds at any point over the last three seasons is absurd. []
  2. And, possibly, second best player too, depending on how you feel about an ancient Tony Parker. []
  3. Griffin once vowed earlier in his tenure that the Cavaliers will “get bigger, get smarter, shoot better, and be tougher.” He also suggested to Fear the Sword’s David Zavac that “you could never have too many shooters.” []
  4. With double-digit attempts. []
  5. In Basketball-Reference’s database. []
  6. With over 250 field goal attempts and defenders within 0-2 feet. []
  7. With 200 or more field goal attempts. Curry and Durant are admittedly also highly ranked if you lower the cutoff to 100 field goal attempts. []
  8. With 25 or more field goal attempts. []
  9. For the Warriors. His tenure with the Cavaliers was regrettably brief. []
  10. Based on field goal percentage below expected on similar shots within six feet of the hoop. []
  11. Or even just switching or trapping. []
  12. I think this might be the cleverest move, actually. I would exclude JaVale McGee from this strategy of course. []
  13. Kyrie Irving shot 57.1 percent on such field goals. []