Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors: Lineups, preview & prediction 5/31/18

Their paths were more difficult than expected, but the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are back for a fourth chapter to determine the NBA Finals champion.


Thursday’s Game 1 will mark the first time in North American sports history the same two teams will contest a title for four consecutive seasons. Golden State (58-24) have won two of the previous three finals, winning in six games in 2015 and in five last year to bookend Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in 2016.

Both teams had to dig deep to make this meeting happen as they each overcame 3-2 series deficits and won a decisive Game 7 on the road. Once more, the best player of this generation, LeBron James, will lead the Cavaliers (50-32) against the best team of this generation and arguably one of the best all-time in the Golden State Warriors.

James has been unstoppable this postseason in becoming just the fifth player in league history and the first not associated with the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s to make eight consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Of the nine overall finals appearances James has made, this supporting cast may be the least talented of the nine since his first appearance in 2007 during his first go-round with Cleveland, and that ended with a four-game sweep at the hands of San Antonio.

He has averaged a staggering 34.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists while shooting 54.2 percent this postseason. And hidden in those eye-popping numbers are seven 40-point games, 13 double-doubles and three triple-doubles. The seven 40-point games are tied with Michael Jordan (1989) for the second-most in a single postseason and one off the standard set by Jerry West in 1965.

James capped Cleveland’s run back to the finals with a 35-point, 15-rebounds, nine-assist masterpiece in Cleveland’s 87-79 victory at Boston on Sunday night in which he played all 48 minutes. James has also logged 40 or more minutes in 11 of Cleveland’s 18 playoff games.

While Golden State used most of the regular season as one long tuneup for the postseason and did not finish with the league’s best record for the first time in their magnificent four-year run, they still had enough to fight past the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference. The Warriors rallied from double-digit deficits in both Game 6 and Game 7, using huge momentum-swinging third quarters while also benefitting from the absence of injured Rockets point guard Chris Paul.

Yet for all the talk of the Warriors’ high-powered offense, this conference finals win was predicated on their defense. They held Houston below 100 points in the final five games of the series and limited a team whose core identity is built on the 3-point shot to seven of 44 from beyond the arc in Monday night’s 101-92 victory. Offensively, Kevin Durant had 34 points and Stephen Curry finished one rebound shy of a triple-double with 27 points and ten assists while going seven of 15 from deep.

Curry appears to be hitting his groove after missing Golden State’s first six playoff games due to a sprained left knee. He averaged 28.2 points in the final five games against the Rockets and has averaged 24.8 overall in 11 postseason games. Durant, who shredded Cleveland last year and averaged 35.2 points while shooting 55.6 percent to claim the NBA Finals MVP, has scored 22 points in all 17 postseason games this season and is averaging a team-high 29.0 points.

Five keys to this game and series

Injury update - Both teams could be without a starter for the series opener. Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who suffered a concussion in Game 6 against Boston after colliding with Jayson Tatum and missed Game 7, was still in the league's concussion protocol as of Monday afternoon and his status is uncertain for Thursday night. 

Also uncertain to play but with a less promising prognosis is Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala, who missed the final four games against the Rockets with a lateral leg contusion suffered after colliding with James Harden late in Game 3. While Iguodala does not factor into the offense scoring-wise as heavily as Love, who averages 13.9 points, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP acts as the grease that keeps the ball moving in Golden State's half-court sets.

Fatigue will not be a factor - Let's get this out of the way. The Cavaliers have played 100 games over this whole season, and the Warriors have played exactly one less. Everyone, to a degree, is tired entering the NBA Finals both short and long-term. Since the start of this rivalry in 2014/15, Cleveland have logged 407 games, Golden State 405. 

And since the league wants to showcase its two best teams at their best (and continue to get high television ratings), the NBA Finals schedule allows both teams opportunities to rest and recuperate. There are two days of rest between every set of games except Games 3 and 4 in Cleveland where there is one day off. So while each team's rotations may be shortened due to the aforementioned injuries to Love and Iguodala, everyone who can play will play maximum minutes.

Warriors winning the third quarter - Golden State has been overpowering in the third quarter throughout the postseason, similar to how Ivan Drago would turn into a Russian tank after hearing the code word from his trainer in Rocky IV. In the final five games against Houston, the Warriors averaged 32.2 points while outscoring the Rockets by 12.6 per game in those 12 minutes. In Games 6 and 7, the gap was more pronounced by a staggering 66-31 margin.

Overall, the Warriors are a plus-130 in the third quarter this postseason, a record for any playoff in the shot-clock era, and have outscored opponents by double-digit margins in seven of their 17 playoff games. If Cleveland are to have any chance of extending this series, let alone pulling off the monumental upset of winning the title, they will have to somehow either weather these flurries from Golden State or defuse them.

No love lost between these teams - Though they meet only twice in the regular season, the fact the Warriors and Cavaliers are meeting for the fourth straight summer has definitely proven the adage that "familiarity breeds contempt." To bolster this feeling is Exhibit A courtesy Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who told the San Jose Mercury News, "We just want to kick each other's ass. There's no sort of love lost. That's how it should be. We should be trying to beat each other."

And finally, your statistical reminders LeBron James is REALLY good in the playoffs - James has 1,247 points in the NBA Finals and needs 71 to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,317) for second on the all-time list. West, a.k.a "The Logo," holds the all-time mark with 1,679, which means this is one record James cannot claim for himself. Unless he averages 61.7 points in a seven-game series. 

He also is 21 3-pointers shy of matching Ray Allen's all-time playoff mark of 385, though there is a possibility Curry will pass him and Allen in this series. The Warriors guard enters the NBA Finals in third with 356, eight behind James. Already the all-time leading playoff scorer, James has an outside chance of reaching 7,000 points and needs 225. 

James also entered the NBA Finals having set the record for most points in a postseason before the finals with 612, bettering the mark established by Hakeem Olajuwon (594) in 1995.

Matchup to watch

LeBron James vs Draymond Green - For this specific instance, this is being examined from the perspective of Cleveland playing defense because James will get his offensively

The overriding defensive tenet of the Cavaliers is to cut the head off the snake of opposing teams, and in this postseason, they have done that for most their games in holding opponents to 99.9 points per contest.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue made many positive adjustments against Boston after allowing 107.5 points per game in losing Games 1 and 2. They held the Celtics under 40 percent in three of the final five games of the conference finals and 92.4 points per game in that stretch. 

Much of that came by switching defensively and contesting shots because the Cavaliers forced only 11.0 turnovers per contest in Games 3 through 7, and James was a large part of that because of his quickness in challenging whoever had the ball on either side of the pick-and-roll.

While Indiana, Toronto and Boston all had one standout scorer, the problem for James and the Cavaliers is the Warriors have three in Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson. Cleveland can continue their philosophy of switching through screens, but eventually, Golden State's motion offense will find the matchup they want similar to how they ran screens to get Durant on the wing against Rockets guard Eric Gordon. Using that eight-inch height advantage, Durant drilled three jumpers midway through the fourth quarter to keep Houston at bay.

That means James may have to stick with Green through the screens, or at least pick him up high to prevent Green from making what amounts to a free entry pass to start Golden State's offense. The other concern is if the Warriors keep James in space on the weak side if the Cavaliers do switch on screens and overload the ball side with Curry, Thompson and Durant running pick-and-pops for one another to create open looks from 3-point range.

Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup

PG - George Hill | SG - J. R. Smith | C - Tristan Thompson | SF - LeBron James | PF - Jeff Green OR Kevin Love

Golden State Warriors projected starting lineup

PG - Stephen Curry | SG - Klay Thompson | C - Kevon Looney | SF - Kevin Durant | PF - Draymond Green

Fantasy tip

James has averaged 27.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists in 45 career NBA Finals games. In the 18 games against Golden State in the last three years, those numbers climb to 32.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game while shooting 35.2 percent from 3-point range and 47.2 percent overall.

Breaking down his numbers further versus the Warriors, James has averaged 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 9.8 assists in the last nine matchups while shooting 53.9 percent. He has three triple-doubles in that stretch and recorded double-doubles in the other six and has recorded at least eight rebounds and seven assists in all nine games. And oh yes, James has also averaged 2.0 steals and 1.9 blocks in those contests.

Tristan Thompson has averaged 8.9 points and 9.9 rebounds in the three previous NBA Finals between the teams, but had just 28 points and 29 rebounds in last year's five games. The undersized Cavaliers center has seven double-doubles in those 18 games.

This will be Durant's third NBA Finals and has averaged 32.9 points in ten previous games, shooting 43.7 percent from beyond the arc and 55.2 percent overall. Perhaps more impressive is he has shot 50 percent or better in eight of those contests while taking at least 18 shots in every game.

Durant also has eight 30-point games in the NBA Finals, including six in a row dating back to his Game 5 loss to James and the Miami Heat in 2012. But what gave the Warriors separation in last year's romp past the Cavaliers was his 3-point shooting; Durant made 18 of 38, and that 47.4 percent accuracy is far better than his 2018 postseason marksmanship of 32.8 percent (38 for 116).

Curry has averaged 24.9 points in the last three NBA Finals while hitting 39.2 percent (76 for 194) of his 3-point shots. That is slightly off his overall postseason numbers since 2014/15 in which he has averaged 26.8 points while connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts. Curry has also averaged 5.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds in those 67 postseason games over the past three-plus seasons.

Betting tip

The Warriors are 12-point favorites to win the opening game of the series, and the line has ticked one-half point in their favor since it opened after they beat Houston on Monday night.

Golden State have covered in four of the last five games between the teams at Oracle Arena and six of their last eight versus the Cavaliers overall, but they also have failed to cover in their last four games versus Central Division opponents and are 1-6 against the spread in their last seven against Eastern Conference teams.

While Cleveland covered in four of their last five games against the Celtics, they are also 4-1 versus the number in their last five matchups with Western Conference teams. The Cavaliers, however, are 2-8 against the spread in their last ten against Pacific Division rivals and 1-6 in their last seven when getting three or more days of rest.

The over/under is 215.5 points, down one-half point from its open. This is tricky because the over hit in the final four games of last year's NBA Finals, but both teams have been trending with the under. The under has hit in Cleveland's last four road games, in their last four versus Western Conference teams and posted a 5-2 mark in their last seven games overall.

The under has hit in Golden State's last four at Oracle Arena and in their last five overall. The under is also 14-5 in their last 19 games against Eastern Conference teams and has a strong 8-2-2 record in the last 12 matchups between the teams at Golden State.

Prediction

Well, well, well, here we are once more, Cavaliers and Warriors, Warriors and Cavaliers.

While James deserves every accolade afforded him for dragging the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals and making his eighth consecutive finals appearance, the harsh truth awaiting him in this edition is this Cavaliers edition is inferior to last year's team while the Warriors still have higher gears they can hit despite being pushed hard by the Rockets.

But if there is one game the Cavaliers can steal, even without Love should he not clear the league's concussion protocol, it is this one. With Draymond Green likely to guard Love or Thompson, the next option to cover James if Iguodala cannot play is Durant. That is because Kerr's options beyond Durant are Kevon Looney and rookie Jordan Bell, neither of whom showed any consistency in guarding high-scoring options throughout the postseason, especially when isolated one-on-one after switching on screens.

It also means veteran forward David West should see spot minutes in this series to let Draymond Green guard James because Cleveland likely will try to slow this game down. Since Thompson does not run a high pick-and-roll with James often in half-court sets, Golden State's smaller lineups should not be a liability on the boards.

If there is an issue for the Warriors, it is the fact there are times they have been disinterested. Third-quarter dominance aside, Golden State has often seemed to flip the switch and turn it on. The hedge here is this will not be an issue this time because this is where the Warriors have wanted and expected to be and there is nothing left for this team to look forward to.

If the Warriors run their offense as opposed to settling in the half-court set, something that has vexed Kerr in this postseason as recently as the first half of Game 7 against the Rockets, there will be little to stop them from their third title in four years. Golden State have too much firepower compared to Cleveland and they still have a hold on the Cavaliers from last year's finals.

That was a gentlemen's sweep which prevented Golden State from an unprecedented 16-0 postseason. The fact the Warriors cannot do that this time around is actually a positive, they can merely concentrate on powering through this series. Getting here likely will unburden the Warriors to a degree, and look for that to begin with a contested 107-97 victory in Game 1.

TV info

The game will be televised nationally on ABC and nationally in Canada on TSNN. Tip-off time is 9 pm EDT.

  1. POLL: Who will win the opening game of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena?

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    2. Warriors
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Chris Altruda

Chicago-based sportswriter and Brooklyn native who has no stomach lining left since his rooting interests are Marquette basketball, N.Y. Jets football and Ottawa Senators hockey. Also enjoys Premier League/Champions League/international soccer and the bloodletting known as playoff overtime hockey.

 

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