In continuing our NBA Finals Preview, we find ourselves looking to a position with a lot of uncertainty. The Warriors have a guy that’s proven to be fearless, and probably should have won Defensive Player of the Year, while the Cavaliers have a guy who’s just recently been inserted into the starting lineup because of the injury to Kevin Love, but has proven to be effective in that role. Which side will expose the other and push their team over the hump? Let’s take a look at each.
The runner-up for DPOY, and the one who probably should have won, has shown us throughout the year that he doesn’t care who you are, you’re getting his best shot. Whether it’s sticking his tongue in Blake Griffin’s face or giving Dahntay Jones the death stare after a post-game bump, he’s quick to prove that he’s not afraid of you.
He jumped from a 21 mpg kind of guy to averaging over 31 minutes this year, improving in all statistical categories except for free throw percentage. He averaged 1.6 steals (up from 1.2 the year before) and 1.3 blocks (up from 0.9) during the regular season, and has maintained those numbers during the postseason. Like Harrison Barnes, he’s a guy making the leap at the right time, and it only spells trouble for Cleveland. Though he’s undersized at 6’7, he has enough bulk and strength at 230 pounds to hold his own in the post. Thompson is taller, but not as strong, and though there are moments when he’ll have to take LeBron duty, I trust Green to hold his own.
Draymond is obviously a skilled defender and can do damage on the block, but I haven’t seen much of him on the perimeter. This is partly because Golden State is incredibly efficient when it comes to rotating and helping when needed, but when Cleveland goes small – and they most certainly will – that’ll put LeBron at the four and Tristan Thompson at center, and the King is smart enough that he’s going to stay outside and pull Draymond away. I mentioned in my previous post that LeBron is only shooting 17% from three, so maybe Green won’t be baited, but I also mentioned that number is an outlier, and I don’t know that you can leave LeBron James wide open, or give him that much space to get a running start to the rim. Chances are, Green will have to venture to the perimeter, where he is capable of doing, leaving only Bogut to guard someone like Kyrie or Shumpert as they cut to the paint. Coach Kerr knows this, I’m sure, so I’m interested to see what sort of schemes he develops to counter this move by Cleveland.
The lefty who now shoots righty fell into the starting lineup after Kelly Olynyk ripped Kevin Love’s arm out of his socket and sidelined him for the playoffs. During the regular season he averaged 10.1 points and 8.4 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench, and since his minutes have now jumped to 34 in the playoffs, his rebounding numbers have improved to 10 while his points have dropped a little to 9.4. There are certainly cases to make that he’s been worse in extended minutes, but if you watch, you’ll find that Thompson has to fight for those nine points, whether it’s tipping in a missed shot and going right back up on an offensive rebound. The LeBron-isolation offense doesn’t really allow Tristan to do anything other than rebound, which he’s proven to he’s capable of doing.
I’m most curious to see how Tristan fairs on defense, especially in situations where he has to cover someone like Klay off a switch. Will he be baited by pump fakes or will stay on his feet and force Klay to shoot a contested shot or get rid of the ball? I think he’ll be able to hold his own against Draymond, but when the Cavaliers go small – and I stress that they most definitely will- he’ll be left to guard the opposing center, and if that’s Bogut, how eager will he be to help on Curry penetration? Steph is too good and the moment Tristan takes one step away from Bogut, Curry will dump the ball off for a wide open Bogut dunk/layup. I almost want to see Thompson try and bait Curry into that dump pass, and then steal the ball for an outlet pass to Kyrie, who was probably the one who let Steph go by him in the first place.
Because of Cleveland’s lack of depth, Thompson’s free throw shooting proves to be a serious liability. He’s a career 63% shooter from the line, but during these playoffs he’s only shooting 58%. We’ve seen plenty of hack-a situations, and even though coaches hate it, don’t be surprised if Tristan is hacked early and taken out of the game. If that happens? Well let’s look at the benches.
Marreese Speights, nursing a calf injury, is said to be available for Thursday night’s Game 1, which would be a huge advantage for Golden State. Coming off the bench, Speights is as efficient as they come. In 16 mpg this year, he’s averaging 10.4 points per game! That’s good for 23 when stretched out over 36 minutes and really solid output for a bench player. At 6’10 and 245, he’s not someone you can knock around, which means the Cavs will have to take him out with a small line, which I assume will include James Jones at the four… eek.
I don’t know what happened to David Lee, but had you asked me two years ago, I would have argued he was the best player on Golden State. So… yeah… there goes my credibility. But whatever Steve Kerr saw was correct because David Lee went from 31 minutes per game in last year’s post season to only 7 this year. I still believe in his ability, but I don’t imagine we’ll see him this series. I only brought him up as an example of deep this Golden State bench is.
Cleveland has Shawn Marion and Kevin Love on their list of power forwards, but with the injury to Kevin Love and the very few Matrix sightings (he’s only averaging four minutes a game in the playoffs), neither of them will be touching the court. This means LeBron, the starting small forward, will have to operate as the back up power forward. Hopefully Coach Blatt will find a way to get Mike Miller in their because LeBron is already averaging 40 minutes a game this postseason… which means he only has 8 minutes available to him, and in a seven game series, you’d like to see those used for rest. Maybe LeBron will find another gear, or maybe this will prove to be Cleveland’s downfall.
I can’t even argue that LeBron’s versatility gives the Cavs any edge in this situation. It’s dreadful. Golden State is going to dominate at this position.