A lot of you aren’t going to get past that headline. That’s a shame, too. This is a formal look at the NBA Finals, but it doubles as the rationale for telling everyone in our orbit over last 24 hours that the Warriors are about to break out the brooms.
That should sound crazy after the Warriors almost lost in the Conference Finals, almost lost their MVP to an injury and almost lost their brio in the process. And the madness of that proclamation is augmented further after LeBron and the Cavs stopped messing around in Toronto and walloped their Conference Final foe in Canada to close that series out.
It’s tempting to make this Finals matchup a close call because that’s what all the fans want, too, including us.
It’s tempting, but not accurate. The Thunder vs. the Cavs might’ve been a close call. The Thunder, who most of us were rooting for before Golden State promptly sealed the their fate with a Game 6 shocker in Oklahoma City, aren’t the Warriors, though — despite how close Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Company came to knocking off the defending champs.
Before we get into why this Finals will be a sweep, Cavs fans should keep a couple things in mind as they’re firing off that missive about how bad this piece might look.
One, I predicted a Warriors sweep in the Finals last season, and told a coworker the Spurs would sweep the Thunder after they annihilated them in Game 1 of the Conference Semifinals. So, you know, I’m already well aware of my own predictive limitations.
Two, LeBron could conceivably team with Kyrie to steal Game 3 in Cleveland, thus rendering a sweep impossible. It’s actually better than conceivable, the Cavs just play better at home, like most NBA teams, but I hate wishy-washy prognostications, and auguring a sweep just feels right. Plus, y’all are here now, aren’t you, and now I get to explain why it’s not all that hard to arrive at a similar assessment yourselves.
Here’s a pithy statement explaining why the Cavs are going to get swept: their defense isn’t great and Golden State’s offense is historic. That’s a bad combo for the Cavs, don’t you think?
In the playoffs, Cleveland is ranked No. 8 in points allowed per possession (102.9 defensive rating) out of 16 teams; They were No. 10 overall (102.3) in the regular season. That’s a long way of saying they were decent on defense during the season, but not elite, and that things have actually gotten a little worse as they stormed through the Eastern Conference with just those two Toronto losses as the only blemishes on an otherwise spotless postseason record.
Except, they were knocking down so many three-pointers against Detroit and Atlanta in the first two rounds, no one really noticed or cared how poorly they’d been defending. Against Toronto, that weakness showed itself more clearly, at least when the Raptors were at home and Kyle Lowry remembered he was an All-NBA player this year.
Buttressing this bad defense angle is the fact Cleveland’s two primary players who struggle the most on the defensive side of the ball, Kevin Love and Channing Frye, also double as their most effective floor spacers. You gotta knock down some triples if you wanna compete against this all-time Warriors team, and both Love and Frye — the latter of whom is shooting at historic levels so far in the playoffs — are the key to that scoring punch from beyond the arc.
So that means Tyronn Lue will have to play Love and Frye on the floor more than Cavs fans might want when you see how these two play pick-and-roll defense.
During the regular season, Synergy ranked Frye’s defense as “excellent,” but when you drilled down, his pick-and-roll defense as the big defender was “below average.” That’s because he doesn’t really bend his knees much, and that stand-up-straight positioning is awful when you’re trying to move laterally.
Look at him completely fall apart on this high ball screen for Kyle Lowry. He hedges high and bumps him, and then falls to the court, giving Lowry some easy access into the paint. If LeBron weren’t LeBron — he fakes like he’s defending Patrick Patterson, then drops back to take Lowry — that’s an easy bucket, or an easy three-point look for Patterson.
On this one, Frye just gets lost in the lane as Richard Jefferson slides under the Bismack Biyombo screen, and DeMar DeRozan takes advantage of the opening with a hesitation before driving to the iron. The defense wasn’t horrible, but even Frye’s sorta decent defense is a glaring problem against the Warriors.
In this last clip we’re gonna look at, Channing does an okay job stopping DeMar’s initial opening, before retreating to try and cut off the passing lane to Biyombo.
Can you imagine this defense against Golden State’s sharpshooters? First, DeMar misses a wide-open Biyombo because LeBron let him leak into the paint without a nudge. Second, after Frye’s initial hedge, he drops back and LeBron is still funneling him to the sideline. That’s a Klay or Steph three if they’re in that position, instead of the forced drive that Frye bailed them out on by committing the foul.
Except, Frye is usually only in during these playoffs to back up Kevin Love, and the former Timberwolves star is the real problem facing Cleveland over these next couple of weeks.
Love’s defensive shortcomings have prompted Zach Lowe at ESPN to wonder if maybe the Cavs should start Tristan Thompson at the four in his place, and slot Timofey Mozgov or Frye at center to start the game. If Moz is the big, that move will clog the paint something fierce with two non-shooters on the floor, but Love’s defense is a serious problem — especially against Golden State’s first unit (Frye will be going against their second unit, usually).
During the regular season, Love was ranked “average” as a defender by Synergy, and he was even “good” as the big on the pick and roll. But in the playoffs, opponents are lighting him up at a horrendous rate, scoring over 1 point per possession on plays he’s defending that end in a shot, turnover or foul. And any time his man sets the ball screen in a half-court set, the Cavs are at a disadvantage that only multiplies when you factor in Golden State’s bevy of perimeter threats.
Here’s what we mean, using Corey Joseph as a bad stand-in for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Joseph cuts right by Kevin Love’s awful hedge on this ball screen to score.
Like Frye, Love just stands up way too straight and doesn’t move his feet. He doesn’t even slow Joseph up, which is why the backup Raptors point guard was able to get a little floater to fall. It gets worse, though, and we didn’t even need to watch that much film.
On this play, Love at least makes contact with Lowry as he comes around the screen, but it’s not enough, and Patterson was again open if Toronto’s All-Star PG had wanted to dish it over to him for a three instead of the more challenging triple he hit off the dribble with LeBron riding his hip.
That was a hard shot to connect on, but not for the two-time MVP, or his Splash Bro.
This last one again features Toronto’s backup point guard, but it’s also a case study in what Love just doesn’t have the physical makeup to do on the defensive end of the court.
He’s not quick enough to jump out on guards like Chris Bosh did in Miami’s old blitzing defense that won LeBron his only titles. After Corey turns the corner, he’s got a pretty decent lane to the rim despite the presence of LeBron angling him to the sideline. But Love also can’t even recover fast enough to cover Patterson. If Joseph had spotted the wide-open Toronto big beyond the arc after a secondary screen from Jonas Valanciunas tied up Love even further, that’s a three-pointer. Imagine Harrison Barnes in that position, or Draymond Green.
If you didn’t already know, the Warriors’ high ball screen between Draymond Green and Steph Curry is deadly effective, which is why we’ve only been looking at Love and Frye as the big defender on pick and rolls.
In the Finals, even if Love plays the high pick perfectly, Draymond could be dishing for wide-open three-pointers or taking it all the way to the rack. If Love gets confused or befuddled on the high pick, and — based on his track record — that’s a pretty good assumption to make, it’ll almost certainly lead to a Steph three-pointer, or one for Klay, if he’s handling the rock to start the action.
This is all sorts of bad for Cleveland. Yes, they could go super small with Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and LeBron in the frontcourt, with James doubling as the greatest small-ball five in NBA history. The Cavs could even go with Thompson at the five and have LeBron act as their stretch four, but that’s asking an awful lot of James to defend against Dray and Steph in their favorite action while also spearheading Cleveland’s offense.
That’s to say nothing of all the spacing issues on the other end of the floor if Love and Frye’s defensive shortcomings force them to the bench; any other option for the Cavs clogs the lane.
Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
The Warriors are gonna sweep the Cavs. We hope they don’t, for the sake of NBA fans around the world, but don’t say we didn’t warn you if they do.