By Tyler Urke in Sports
The 2015 NBA finals matchup would have made any basketball fan do a double take 20 years ago.
The Golden State Warriors went 36-46 in 1995 and started a decade-long run of missing the playoffs. The Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in the first round of the playoffs in ‘95 and didn’t win a playoff series for 10 years. The Warriors haven’t won the finals since 1975 and the city of Cleveland hasn’t had a team win a championship in over 50 years.
Yet in 2015, both teams being in the finals doesn’t shock any basketball fans. In fact, the team’s journeys to Game 1 on June 4 have been extremely predictable. What this series doesn’t lack are story lines to follow.
First are the Warriors, also known as “The Dubs,” who had the most dubs in the NBA, finishing 67-15 and clinching home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Golden State steamrolled through the regular season leading the league in field goals, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, assists and points.
Those stats make it sound like the Warriors are an offensive juggernaut, and they are, but they also play amazing team defense.
Not only did they hold opposing teams to just 43 percent shooting (a league low), but they were top 10 in all major defensive categories excluding turnovers (15th). In an article on ESPN website Feb. 5, ESPN staff writer Ethan Sherwood Strauss breaks down how the Warriors were able to maintain the top defensive efficiency rating the whole year.
“For the Warriors, positions mean so little on defense because they’ve built a roster comprised of guys the same size,” Strauss said. “Golden State has a half-dozen long, defensively talented players who stand between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8. That height range is perfect for navigating between marking little guys and grappling with big men.”
The main cog in the Warriors’ defense is 6-foot-7 Draymond Green. Green, 25, is the emotional leader of the team and leaves his heart out on the floor each time he steps on it. He finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year vote despite receiving more first place votes than the winner, Kawhi Leonard.
The vote for the league’s Most Valuable Player was almost unanimous, however it went to Warriors’ point guard Stephen Curry. Curry, 27, has been magnificent to watch all season as he hits clutch shot after clutch shot. He broke his own NBA record of most three-pointers made in the regular season and is arguably the best pure shooter to ever play the game. The duo of Curry and guard Klay Thompson, nicknamed the “Splash Bros,” light it up from beyond the arc and force teams to spread out their defense, leaving players like Green and forwards Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala open for easy buckets.
While Golden State may have the best player in the NBA this year in Curry, the Cavaliers have one of the best players the game has ever seen in LeBron James. James, 30, brought his talents from South Beach in the offseason to the state he was born in and drafted by. He’s had one thing on his mind since he returned.
“I got a goal, and it’s a huge goal, and that’s to bring an NBA championship here to Cleveland,” James said. “And I won’t stop until I get it.”
Upon his return, Cleveland’s chances of winning the title drastically improved, but its roster still wasn’t ready to compete in the playoffs after going 33-49 the season before. This led to the Cavs trading for All-Star Kevin Love and it looked as if the they might have a shot at the title. Love gave Cleveland a “big three” with he, James and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving; a core he knew he needed from his two championships in Miami. The Cavs big three is no more since Kevin Love dislocated his shoulder in round one of the playoffs, but it seemed Cleveland was preparing to fight the injury bug.
The Cavs’ biggest move of the season didn’t happen until midway through. With new stars on the roster, the Cavs weren’t gelling and many questioned whether this team could win the title.
Andrew Sharp from grantland.com wrote on Nov. 5, “There’s time for this to settle, and talent usually wins out, and we all remember the Heat, etc. But just for the record, all that rationale was also used when Dwight Howard joined the Lakers. Everyone predicted 60 wins and a spot in the finals, but a slow start eventually turned into the season from hell.”
The Cavs were struggling playing defense on the wings and had lost rim-protector Anderson Varejao to a torn Achilles. They also needed more three-point shooters because James is best when he’s penetrating and finishing strong or kicking it out for a jumper. In early January, Cleveland filled both holes with trades for a shooter in J.R. Smith, a wing defender in Iman Shumpert and a rim protector in Timofey Mozgov. The Cavs had finally built their dream roster.
Before the 2014-15 season began, the Warriors had their dream roster. What they didn’t have was a man to coach them to the promise land. They fired head coach Mark Jackson despite going 51-31 and almost beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs the year before. Jackson and the Warriors’ front office had a poor relationship according to owner Joe Lacob.
While Jackson went back to doing NBA analysis on ESPN, the Warriors looked to another analyst and former player to fill his shoes. Enter five-time NBA champion, Steve Kerr.
Kerr was the perfect hire for Golden State as he brought knowledge of what a championship team is supposed to look like. He wasn’t going to allow the team to be distracted by anything and kept their focus on winning the championship. Kerr was also best known for his sweet stroke during his playing days so it made sense for him to go to the team with the best sharp-shooting duo.
The Cavs also hired a new coach in the offseason with a championship pedigree. David Blatt coached in Israel, Russia and Europe between 1996 and 2014 and won the Euroleague championship before joining the Cavs. This is the first time since the NBA’s inaugural season in 1946-47 that two rookie coaches will face each other in the finals.
Despite Blatt acting as the figurehead for Cleveland, everyone knows that this is James’ team. Before hitting his buzzer-beater in game four of the Eastern Conference semifinals James changed the inbounding play so that he would catch the ball rather than throw it in.
“To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it,” James said after the game. “I just told coach, ‘Give me the ball.’ We’re either going to go to overtime or I’m going to win it for us. It was that simple.”
This series has the potential to be the best the NBA has seen in a long time. The best team pitted against the best player, two coaches who know how to win and systems that counter each other almost perfectly.
The Warriors play an up-tempo style and are always looking to get a cheap transition bucket. Nineteen percent of the Warriors possessions end in transition hoops, a league high. Their transition game is so strong because not only can they get to the rim but they aren’t afraid to shoot pull-up threes in transition, because the majority of the time Curry and Thompson are draining them.
The Cavs’ strength is on the offensive glass. Cleveland finished third in the league in offensive rebounding thanks to Mozgov and center Tristan Thompson. Thompson is a monster whose one goal is to scoop up any missed shots and score second-chance points. He’s increased Cleveland’s offensive rebounding percentage by two points since the playoffs started and the Warriors will have a tough time containing him. That is, if they even have to. The Cavs will have to control the offensive boards to slow Golden State’s fast break, or else the Warriors will turn this series into a marathon Cleveland doesn’t want to run.
The difference in this series is whether or not Golden State can hit their shots. The old adage is “Live by the jumper, die by the jumper,” and the Warriors have lived comfortably off the jumper this year. The only team that really tested them defensively was the Memphis Grizzlies in round two of the playoffs and yet the Warriors won that series 4-2. The Cavs have studied them and know that in order to win they’ll have to shut down the Splash Bros.
And they have just the men to do it. Matthew Dellavedova is the perfect point guard to guard Curry in this matchup and I never thought I would type those words. Dellavedova is scrappy and annoying and if anyone is going to get in Curry’s head, it will be him. Shumpert is best known for his perimeter defense and he’ll have his hands full with Klay but should be able to ruffle his feathers.
Finally it comes down to what the Warriors have as an answer to James. And their answer is frightening to me considering who I’m picking to win this series. The Warriors can’t possibly stop James. Even though Curry won the MVP, James is the best player on the planet and will get his no matter what they throw at him. But the man can’t play every minute of every game and Golden State just has to weather the storm. After all, basketball is a team game and the Warriors are clearly the better team.
As for who wins it all I’ll say Warriors in 6. Basketball fans from 20 years ago would do a double take at this matchup; but basketball fans 20 years from now will look back at this matchup as one of the best ever.