Warriors Bench vs. Cavs Bench – Omar Hernandez

The dominant narrative surrounding the 2017 NBA Finals so far has been the inevitable collision of superstars who will dictate the end of this season. While it is intriguing to look at how Stephen Curry can bounce back from last year’s performance or see if Lebron will continue his dominance over Kevin Durant, one of the most decisive factors for both the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in this championship matchup is going to be their bench play.

The 2016 Finals showcased the role that bench players play for both of these teams. The player that led the Warriors to their victory in Game 1 was not Curry, Klay or even Draymond, but Shaun Livingston, who led the team in scoring with 20 points. The Cavs didn’t have a breakout game from any of their bench players and certainly were more top-heavy than Golden State.

However, as the series progressed, the scoring margin between the benches got slimmer. The scoring differential was around 17 points per game in favor of the Warriors’ bench in Games 1-4, during which they won three games, but that differential shrank to just a nine-point advantage for Golden State in the last three games of the series, which all resulted in losses.

The rosters for both of these teams have shifted this year, with the most drastic change being Golden State’s acquisition of Kevin Durant. However, Durant’s acquisition also cost the Warriors many of the bench players they relied on last years, such as Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights. Still, Golden State did add a hardened veteran power forward David West, center JaVale McGee, and small forward Matt Barnes, and such a great starting cast takes pressure off the supporting players. The bench put together a 63-point performance against San Antonio in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, showing off their prowess in scoring the basketball when needed.

The Cavs responded by adding some offensive firepower of their own, trading for sharpshooter Kyle Korver and signing savvy point guard Deron Williams and bringing their complementary skill sets to the Cleveland bench. In their two regular-season matchups this year, the team with the best bench output has won, which shows how valuable the second unit still is for both of these squads.

On the TNT post-game show which follows many nationally televised basketball games, Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal always speaks of “the others”. “The others” are the role players and bench players who as Shaq explains it don’t necessarily get the glory or accolades but are essential to any championship team’s run. 

These are players like Robert Horry or Steve Kerr, who might not have been the most skilled or talented on their team but who were at the right place at right time to make big plays in helping their respective team ultimately getting a ring. The Warriors and the Cavaliers have the two best rosters in the NBA, they are so talented that the margin of error for each team is going to be minuscule going into the Finals. The bench will play a big part in deciding which stars can get rest, which team maintains momentum, and as shown by the last few matchups between these teams, who the eventual champion will be.

Prediction: Warriors in 4.

Warriors Defense vs. Cavs Defense – Austin Cole

Enough with the 3-1 jokes — the long, anticipated Finals matchup, we have all been waiting for between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors is finally here. This marks the third consecutive meeting between the two teams, but as we all probably know, this will be the first time Golden State will have the help of Kevin Durant. Although Golden State’s addition of one of the game’s top-three scorers presents a new dynamic this time around, defense remains the No. 1 factor to focus on for both teams.

Throughout the regular season, the Cavs were average at best defensively, but they have demonstrated that they really know how to “flip the switch” come playoff time. Whether you agreed or disagreed with the NBA teams resting star players for the playoffs, the numbers don’t lie that the Cavs and Warriors were able to hit another gear.

During the season the Cavs allowed 108 points per 100 possessions, whereas in the first three rounds they made a significant improvement by averaging a defensive rating of 104.6 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs have managed to do this by trapping and blitzing often in the playoffs; however, they won’t be able to do much against the Warriors, considering they arguably stretch the floor better than any other team in NBA history. So, the Cavaliers will have to rely heavily on one-on-one defense and timely switching and communication, as well as the ability to defend the three-point line. Tristan Thompson’s versatility provides the ability to not just cover various Warriors’ threats but also to play aggressive defense. I believe the key thing to pay attention to is the point differential when the Cavaliers’ high-scoring second unit is on the floor and their ability to limit the Warriors’ offense.

On the other end of the court, LeBron James has played out of his mind in the playoffs: 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game, not to mention a 30.4 player efficiency and a 126 offensive rating. So, what does that all mean? Well, LeBron is really good at basketball. Especially this time of year.

But he has a formidable foe in the Golden State defense in what most people neglected to notice was the top-ranked defense throughout the regular season. For the Warriors, everything starts and ends with the versatility and competitiveness of Draymond Green. He has shown that he’s been one of the few to slow down LeBron James, and his absence in last year’s Finals due to suspension directly affected the outcome. Even with Curry in form and the addition of Durant, Green needs to be revved up and aggressive, but he also needs to be under control to prevent a repeat of last year. The Warriors play a switch-heavy defensive scheme dependent on flawless communication that they execute to near perfection. This often forces teams into an isolation approach to their offense, which can play to the Cavs’ advantage if the ball ends up in either James’s or Irving’s hands.

I personally love everything about the player LeBron has become, and there is no question that he is hands-down the best player in the league. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Warriors posted the best season in NBA history last year and then added one of the top-three scorers in the league. Without the suspension of Green last year, it’s hard to argue that the Warriors wouldn’t have closed that thing out.

Prediction: Warriors in 6.

Warriors Three-Point Shooting vs. Cavs Three-Point Shooting – Quinn Moslander

When it comes to three-pointers, Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry is hands-down the best in shooting the long ball in the NBA, but as this is the third installment between the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the Cavs are well aware of Curry and his playstyle.

Looking at numbers alone, the Cavs are currently shooting 43.5 percent from beyond the arc, while the Warriors are only at 38.9 percent when shooting threes. With Curry attempting 10.3 three-pointers per game, this puts him in place to put more points on the board than any other player on the court.

Behind Curry, Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson averages 5.5 attempted three-pointers per game, but with significantly fewer finding the bottom of the net in comparison to Curry. Teammates Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are not far behind Thompson on shots attempted, but they maintain percentages closer to Curry’s with Green averaging more success at 47.2 percent.

The Cleveland three-point shooter to look out for would-be forward Kevin Love, who shoots an average of 6.2 per game with a 47.5 percent average success rate, and LeBron James, who has added a deadly three-point shot into his arsenal this year compared to last, shooting 42 percent this year from long range — an 8 percent improvement. In fact, James last year made 32 three-pointers in 21 postseason games (including finals), while this year, he has made the same amount of three-pointers in just 13 games.

Although the Cavs have Lebron James as their powerhouse as well as great shooters in Love and Kyrie Irving, the Warriors are also stacked with talent in just as many areas if not more, from Durant and Thompson’s shooting to Green’s defense to Curry’s unreal range.

Warriors Bigs vs. Cavs Bigs – DJ Ruvalcaba

NBA Finals Round 3 —   this is what the NBA has come to. Two dominant super teams destroying their respective conferences and advancing to the all-exclusive NBA Finals. The Warriors emerged victorious two years ago, with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving out with injuries, while the Cavaliers avenged their loss with a stunning Game 7 victory last year.

Many are wondering how this year is going to play out and who has the advantage. Despite a 4-3 series loss, the Warriors still had the best regular-season record in history, and they also added a top-five caliber player in Kevin Durant this offseason. Although this seems like a recipe for success — and it has been, with the Warriors having swept the postseason so far — the Cavaliers are not just going to roll over and hand the Warriors the title.

The Cavs still are the defending champions, and although they had a shaky regular season, their team, and LeBron James individually has flipped a switch. But this article isn’t about the dominance of the Cavaliers or Warriors (okay, maybe it is a little); it is about the frontcourt of both teams and their individual matchups, respectively.

Although star players on both teams such as Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have received most of the attention, each may not be the only key factor to this series. Up front, the starting and backup power forwards and centers of this series may be the deciding factors in wins and losses.

Beginning the list of notable big players is the Warriors’ Draymond Green. On the brink of being a superstar, Green is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year every year, and with good reason. He is currently averaging 2.1 blocks and 1.9 assists (via Bleacherreport.com) per game in the playoffs, but this is not all that he does. He is Golden State’s most important playmaker and is averaging 7.2 assists and 8.7 rebounds. Green truly does it all for the Warriors, and they are going to need him to keep this up throughout the Finals against Kevin Love.

Speaking of Kevin Love, he is a force as well, averaging a double-double in the playoffs while also shooting a solid 44.6 percent from downtown. Love will need to rely on his three-point stroke against Green. Love likes to have his back to the basket, but this is where Green is at his best. As long as Love understands that he doesn’t have to do too much for the Cavs to be successful, he will be fine; however, I still have to give the advantage to the Warriors in this situation.

Center is a different story with these two teams. Tristan Thompson has become a stud, and he is amongst one of the best rebounders in the game. Zaza Pachulia has been efficient for the Warriors, but he is averaging a playoff career-low 14.5 minutes per game, which leads one to only imagine how terrifying the Warriors would be with a solid five. Overall, in this matchup, look for Thompson’s physical prowess and quickness to get the best of Zaza, and I have to give the edge to the Cavs at the center position.

The benches are also an important part of this matchup, and one of these matchups include David West vs. Richard Jefferson. The West vs. Jefferson argument stems from these veterans taking low-pay deals in search for a championship. They both bring their own savviness to their respective teams, and this is what is valuable. West can play down low and hit clutch shots when needed, and Jefferson is known for his 3-and-D characteristics, even at this point in his career. West is a valuable piece, no doubt, but with Jefferson being known to step up for the Cavs in clutch situations, he gets my nod in this matchup.

The last matchup is Channing Frye vs. JaVale McGee. A couple of years ago, this argument would have been laughable, with JaVale McGee constantly making ESPN’s “Not Top Ten” or “Shaqtin A Fool” lists. However, McGee’s role with Golden State has been dumbed down to him doing what he does best, catching lobs and rebounding, and he is doing a superb job with this Warriors squad. He is playing his best basketball as of late, and although Channing Frye can heat up quickly and hit threes, McGee is more important to the Warriors and plays a larger role, and he will be more significant in this series.

The NBA Finals will definitely be exciting, and the battle of the bigs will be intriguing, no doubt. And while I have them tied as far as matchups go, I think that the Cavs will pull it out and hand this talented Warriors team their first (four) losses of the playoffs.

Prediction: Cavs in 7.

A version of these stories appeared on p. 8-9 of the June 1, 2017, edition of the Daily Nexus.

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