Loveless: Cleveland’s Downfall

Let’s get one thing straight from the jump, I am terrible at predicting games. When I say that tonight’s game has the feeling of a season finale, it’s probably a good sign that you should bet the house on Cleveland. I can’t shake this feeling though. It feels like all of the great stories that were going to be told in these Finals have been told and now there is nothing left except the Warriors getting this last win and putting the cherry on top of the single greatest season in NBA History.

It was so much fun watching LeBron and Kyrie turn back the clock and play 48 minutes of pure, unadulterated Hero Ball in Game Five. To see LeBron James get their one last time in a Finals game was a real treat, and watching Irving ice the game with an incredible scoring binge felt like watching a young Kobe. Those two performances were enabled by Draymond Green’s suspension, and will almost definitely not be replicated tonight. The illegal screens that Tristan Thompson was setting on a regular basis on Andre Iguodala will not matter as much when Green is their to switch on to James. The impossibly difficult shots that Irving was hitting in Game Five will still be impossibly hard to hit tonight.

The Splash Brothers will probably be better tonight with Green back on the court. Curry is a not nearly as good without Dray, the Warriors main playmaker, on the court. Harrison Barnes is not the same kind of payer that Green is, he can not be relied upon to keep the offense moving when Klay and Steph are tied up. This has been my main argument against Barnes being a max contract kind of player. Barnes can hit open three’s and occasional go to the rim for a big dunk, but he does have the offensive tool box to orchestrate an offense. With Green back in the lineup the Warriors go back to being nigh impossible to defend.

Maybe I’d feel differently about tonight’s game if the Cavs had a third player that they could reliably count on to get baskets down the stretch. I don’t want to poor any more dirt of Kevin Love’s grave, but the fact is he has been horrible in these Finals. For a player of Loves ability to only shoot one of five in a Finals game is insane. Is there any chance that Love is still on this team come next May? There have now been two head coaches that could not find a way to get optimal efficiency out of Love in Cleveland. His defense has improved, but he will always be a target against teams that run a lot of pick and roll, which is most of the league at this point. Kevin only has one game in which he’s grabbed more than five rebounds in this series, which takes away about half of his value as someone who can spark fast breaks out of his outlet passes. He spends more of the Cavs possessions standing in one of the corners waiting for a pass that is not coming. He has only had 18 field goal attempts in the last three games he’s played. There’s a real argument that can be made that Love should not play if Cleveland is not going to make a concerted effort to get him shots.

I feel bad for Love. No kid grows up dreaming of being the scapegoat for a team losing in the NBA Finals. If the Cavs go down tonight or in Game Seven, Kevin Love will be the subject of hundreds of takedown pieces. I’m hoping that Love has a great game tonight and pushes the series to a seventh game. There’s no way that the Cavs are going to be able to get by with LeBron and Kyrie hitting over 60% of their shots tonight, and there is no other player on this roster capable of scoring on the same level as Love (no offense to you Richard Jefferson). This means getting Love looks in the post, and actually running plays through him. I’m not sure that Coach Lue has it in his playbook to do more than runs high screens for LeBron and Irving, which, to be fair, is a really strong play.

Against most of the teams in the league you can rely on the greatness of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to win a seven game series, but when you are playing one of the best teams in the history of the league you have to find ways to get your other players more involved. I tip my hat to Tristan Thompson for being such a monster on the glass throughout the playoffs. He has proven himself a max level player as a 6’9″ player who can play as a Center in small lineups. His offensive rebounding and screening ability has singlehandedly kept Cleveland in some of these Finals games. It feels like the Cavs have three pieces of a championship team, but is one short. That fourth piece should have been Love, but in a world where the Warriors exist you just can’t have two defensive liabilities on the court at the same time. Kyrie and Love are both defensive liabilities. Irving has proven that he can get hot enough on offense to compensate for his decencies on the other end, Love has not. This Cleveland organization tried to jam Love into their lineup like it was a fantasy sports team. It didn’t work. As they watch the Warriors celebrate their second title they will no doubt be thinking about how important it is to make sure that all the pieces fit.

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LeBron and Kyrie dazzle in Cleveland’s Game Five win

2016 NBA Finals - Game Five
OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 13: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with teammate Kyrie Irving #2 after defeating the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals with a score of 112 to 97 at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Dual Tsunamis hit the Bay Area last night in the forms of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The duo combined for 82 points in what was one of the greatest spectacles in NBA Finals history. Cleveland rode the wave of their two Super Stars to a 112–97 victory, sending the series back to Cleveland for Game Six.

It turns out when the Warriors have to play without their best defender, who is probably the best defender in the league, their defense goes to shit. Cleveland shot 53 percent from the field in Game Five, and Kyrie Irving decimated Golden State’s defense shooting 74% from the field and 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. Kyrie carried the Cavs down the stretch, at one point scoring seven straight points. This game will be the crown jewel in a Finals in which Curry already has games of 34 and 30 points. It seems like he is gaining more confidence with each game, and has been nothing less than formidable playing against one of the best defenders in the league in Klay Thompson.

LeBron was magnificent in this game, his stat line (41 PTS, 16 REBS, 7 ASTS) will go down as one of the most impressive in Finals history. This game was a reminder that you really shouldn’t talk smack to one of the greatest players in NBA History. This was the most aggressive James has been in these playoffs. Without Draymond Green on the court to switch on to LeBron off of screens, The King was hellbent on taking the ball to the rim against the likes of Maurice Speights and James McAdoo. What’s more, James found his range in Game Five, hitting four of his eight three shots from deep.

It wasn’t just on offense that James was dominant last night, he was also a terror on defense. He rolled back the clock on this chase down block of Steph Curry, leaving the Oracle in a state of shock and awe. James played 42 minutes, and if felt like he was all over the court the entire time. I’m beginning to think that James is actually some kind of basketball playing cyborg, because no one with as many minutes as this guy should be able to play impeccable basketball for this long of a stretch. He’s played over 40 minutes in his last three games, and will probably play over 40 in Game Six. LeBron and I are about the same age, and there are days when I can’t even bring myself to walk out of my place to get groceries. Meanwhile this guy is chasing down players ten years younger than him and sending their layup into the third row. He’s carrying the torch all of us 31 year olds who are trying to hang in their against the oncoming scourge twentysomethings.

This game became the worst case scenario the Warriors must have considered when Draymond Green got suspended. Not only did they not close out the series, but they also lost one their starters, Andrew Bogut, to injury. Bogut fell down awkwardly in the third quarter and was later ruled out with a left knee sprain. He is scheduled to undergo an MRI sometime later today, and status is unknown for Game Six.

Stephen Curry had another lackluster game, shooting just 8-for-21 from the field and had just four assists to go along with four turnovers. The Warriors offense was out of sorts against the Cavs. The only player who had a decent night shooting was Klay Thompson, but that offense was negated by how great Irving played for the Cleveland. The Warriors role players did not show up lat night, Marreese Speights was 0-for-6 from the field, Shaun Livingston 3-for-7, and no other bench player made more than one field goal attempt.

This was not a good close out game from the champs, but they can take solace in the fact that they only have to win one of the next two to lock up their second ring. With Draymond back in the lineup there will not be nearly as many open lanes for James and Irving to exploit. For as fun as it was to watch LeBron hit step back threes, I doubt that he will be able to replicate that kind of shooting in Game Six. It should also be noted that Irving was hitting a lot of contested shots in last night’s win, the same kinds of shots that cost the Cavs in Game Four. The way these playoffs have gone it would be no surprise if the Warriors blew the doors off of the Cavs in Game Six, leaving the cursed Cleveland fans to once again have to watch an opposing team’s trophy ceremony on their home court.

It was a pleasure to James and Irving turn last night into their own personal “Where Amazing Happens” commercial. There have not been that many definitive moments from these playoffs, and not only did they provide career defining performances, but they also gave all of us basketball fans at least one more night to celebrate the game we love. Let’s hope that Game Six has the same kind of energy as Game Five. The gauntlet has been thrown down, let’s see how Steph, Klay, and especially the returning Draymond Green responds.

Dray Day:Why the Cavs can’t emulate the Warriors championship style

dray day

Playing the Golden State Warriors means making tough choices. Last night Tyronn Lue and the Cavs decided to leave Draymond Green open coming off of pick and rolls. It didn’t work out so well. Green played like an MVP, scoring 28 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including five 3s to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. Green led all scorers in the Warriors 110-77 win. We’ve been waiting for this kind of performance from Draymond for awhile now, and Cleveland basically rolled him the ball and said, “go for it.”

Kevin Love exited the game in the third quarter due to showing concussion like symptoms after taking an elbow to the head from Harrison Barnes late in the first half. Love was not having a particularly good night up to that point, his 2-for-7 shooting and lackluster defense was big part of Golden State’s big, second quarter run which swung the game from the Cavs having a six point lead to the Warriors going up by as much as 15 before the half. Love will be looked at by the league and a decision about his playing status will be made later today.

 

It’s not just Love that continues to struggle in this series, Kyrie Irving had another subpar game Sunday, shooting just 5-for-14, and generally looking lost against the Warriors defense. How many times in these Finals do you think LeBron must have thought about having Love traded in the offseason, a hundred? A thousand? How valuable would having another dependable wing that could play D and hit threes be for this Cleveland roster, especially given the way the league is moving. I’m not saying that Andrew Wiggins is definitely that guy, but he’s much closer to that guy than Kevin Love is. I’m not saying this series would be any different if you took out Kevin Love for almost any player in the NBA (except maybe Kawhi), I’m just wondering how the King is feeling right now about his decision to come back to Cleveland.

 

It is easy to forget just how dominate Golden State has been all year. The Thunder made this team look human because they had a roster full of seven footers who could cramp the Warriors open court style. The Cavaliers have been trying to combat the champs small ball style by playing small themselves, the problem being they do not have a team filled with utility players like the Warriors do. When Cleveland tries to switch every screen Golden State throws at them, their players eventually get lost in the shuffle, creating wide open threes for the deadliest shooting team the league has ever seen. This is not a recipe for success. The Warriors hit 15 of the 33 threes they attempted in game two, compared to just five threes for the Cavs. If you are going to play small against the Warriors you have to be able to maintain defensive integrity along the perimeter or you are going to get killed by the three ball. This is a lesson Cleveland is learning the hard way.

 

The right way for the Cavs to play this series is to drag out possessions on offense, pound the offensive glass, and try to keep the ball away from Steph, Klay and Dray as much as possible. This is the strategy that got Cleveland wins last year in the Finals, and as much as Tyronn Lue wants to play with pace and space, it’s what they are going to have to revert to if they want to stand any chance of a comeback this year. Cleveland does not really have the option of going big against the Warriors, Channing Frye may be a seven footer put he is not nearly quick enough to be effective defensively, and Timofey Mozgov has not seen the court a whole lot this year, to ask him to play starter minutes this far into the Finals seems kind of crazy.

 

This series is obviously not over yet, and there’s a very good chance that the Cavs could find a way to win both games at home. Role players tend to be a lot better at home than on the road, and the Cavs are going to need their bench to step up in a huge way if they want to even sniff a win from here on out. You can make an argument that Richard Jefferson was the best player on the court for Cleveland last night, his 12 points on six shots, with five rebounds, a block and a steal were incredible, but the rest of the Cavs bench scored just 18 points compared to the Warriors 33. If those numbers don’t get flipped when the series moves to Cleveland then we can all start making our summer plans now.
The Cavs are a team that tried to retrofit their roster and play style to match the champions. Against the weaker Eastern Conference teams this paid off in a big way, but now that they are walloped by their muse it’s time for some real soul searching. There is a reason why Draymond Green can play center even though he is barely 6-7”. The Warriors go small because their guards are all tall dudes with huge wingspans and incredible basketball IQ’s. Draymond Green is one of the smartest players in the league, who has a nose for where the ball is going and can also play point guard. The champs play small because they have a roster that is built to play that way, the Cavs are merely a decent forgery of a great work of art. It’s time for them to start playing ugly, slow the game down, and pray that LeBron has a couple of All Time great performances left. The Warriors are putting the finishing touches on one of the greatest seasons in the history of the game of basketball, and I’m not sure there is much the Cavaliers can do but stand by like the rest of us and enjoy the show.

Quick Game Two Thoughts

If Game One proved that the Warriors are indeed a complete championship level team, Game Two is going to test the coaching and depth of the Cavaliers. For so much of the playoffs Cleveland’s second unit has been a class above its competition but they were dominated by Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Mr. Finals MVP, Andre Iguodola.  In a game where Steph and Klay only combined for 20 points the Warriors still won by 15. This is a huge problem for Tyronn Lue to try to solve in Game Two. The Splash Brothers are going to start hitting shots sooner than later, and if the Cavs bench can’t hold their own against the defending champs then this series is going to be a short one.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Cleveland’s bench is the lack of a size when it comes to defending Shaun Livingston. Matthew Dellavedova is an incredible pest, and nut shot sniper, but Delly stands at just 6-4″ and stands no chance of being able to man-up Livingston, who is 6-7″ on a bad day. This series has to feel like a cakewalk compared to the gauntlet of big-physical defenders that the Thunder through at Livingston. LeBron James and Tristan Thompson are the Cavaliers most physical players, and neither one of them will ever match up on Livingston. When the Warriors bench lineup consists of Iggy, Livingston, and Thompson, you know that the defense is going to be there. This is not a lineup that will allow Jefferson, Delly and others like Channing Frye to fire up three pointers like they have been throughout the playoffs.

The pressure is definitely on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to up their games tonight, Irving scored 26 points in Game One, but only hit seven of his 22 shots. He played way too much one-on-one in order to get his shot, and the Warriors are more than happy to let Irving try to win the game by himself. The more Iso possessions Cleveland plays, the less their role players get a chance to participate. I thought that Irving and Love had a great two-man game going in the Toronto series, and I’d like to see them work the pick and roll a little more in Game Two. Love played decently in Game One, but he really struggled to take advantage of mismatches in the post. The Warriors are only going to allow you to do so many different things on offense, and when you get a chance to post-up Love against the likes of Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson, you have to take advantage. This is what the Thunder were able to do so well against Golden State in the WCF, they would find mismatches down low and get easy points. Love has to step his game up from here on out, he is the only other player on the team outside of LeBron that can consistently get into favorable positions in the post.

Speaking of LeBron, who was one assist away from a triple-double in Game One, the King has to be every bit as dominate in this series as he was in last years Finals. Big series like this are usually won by the team who has the best player on the court, and right now there is this moment in which Curry and James are both at the peak of the NBA mountain when it comes to skill. Curry has been steadily climbing it for a couple of years now, and can see the summit. LeBron has been to the peak and is now trying to hold on for dear life. For all the match-ups and X’s and O’s that this series presents, it really boils down to how much dominance does the King have left in his tank. Can he reach deep down and come up with four, ultra-efficient, dominating performances against the one guy in the league that can seemingly shut him down?

I don’t like calling early games in a series a “must win” game, but there if the Warriors come away with a win tonight I’m not sure if Cleveland can come back in this series. For those who want to a see a championship for the Land, this game means a whole lot. I think we are going to see LeBron James play as hard as  he ever has tonight, it’s up to Love, Irving and the rest of the Cavs roster to follow his lead. For Golden State this game is a matter of staying the course, keeping up the discipline on defense and working to get Steph and Klay clean looks. They know how big a win tonight will be, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a special performance out of the Splash Brothers. It should be a fun one.

An NBA Finals more dessert than main course

After a seven game war between Golden State and Oklahoma City, we finally have the matchup that everyone predicted at the beginning of the year. The Golden State Warriors will host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. The teams got here by incredibly different paths. You know, the smartest decision LeBron has made in his career was never playing for a Western Conference team. He’s been able to dominate the Eastern Conference for the vast majority of his career, only facing real competition from the Big Three Celtics of the late 2000’s. If I was Kevin Durant, especially after this hellish series, I would be taking a long look at some of the Eastern Conference squads as a new place to call home.

When you look at the disparity of talent between the conferences you could almost make the argument that whichever team makes it out of the West should be allotted an automatic win in the Finals, at least until they eliminate conferences for playoff purposes. I’m kidding here, but not entirely. When you look at the teams that Cleveland had to play to get to this point, let’s just take Toronto as an example, it’s clear that they have a huge advantage over the top teams in the West. The Raptors have two very good players in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but they would not be a top two player on six of the eight teams that made the playoffs in the Western Conference. Would you rather have those two than Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, or Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? I wouldn’t. I won’t even get into how much better the Warriors, Thunder and Spurs are compared to teams in the Eastern Conference.

I want to make this clear, I’m not trying to diminish how impressive it is that LeBron James has made six NBA Finals appearances in a row. That is one of the most impressive feats I’ve seen in professional sports, but even James would have to admit that such a feat would not have been remotely possible playing in the West. Just look at the series we just watched. Both the Warriors and Thunder were playing historically great basketball. It took one of the most impressive three point binges of all time to eliminate OKC, and last night most of 17 threes that Golden State hit were contested shots that literally only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or maybe Damian Lillard would even think about shooting.

Meanwhile the Cavs have been lying in wait. I like to imagine LeBron James chilling on a beach somewhere sipping pina coladas and watching the Western Conference Finals on his iPad. He knows what’s coming, last year James carried an undermanned Cavs squad to a couple of improbable wins over the would-be champs. Now he has the team he constructed, led by the coach he handpicked, ready to take on a team that just scraped and clawed their way back from a 3–1 deficit against the most physical team in the league.

That said, I don’t think the Cavs are ready for what is coming. They have not had to deal with even a fraction of the adversity that the champs have been through in these playoffs. There have only been a couple of moments in which Cleveland has been caught off guard by an opponent in the playoffs and when that has happened Ty Lue has not seemed to have quick answers. What happens when the Warriors go small against a lineup including Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, how do you hide their defensive deficiencies? A major reason the Thunder were able to push the Warriors to the brink was that they had the size and athleticism to counter the champs small lineup, especially against Draymond Green.

Golden State has the right answers for Cleveland, they have Andre Iguodala, who just proved once again that he is one of the league’s premier defenders against Kevin Durant. LeBron James no doubt remembers what happened when the two matched up against each other last year, when Iggy won Finals MVP mostly for his otherworldly defense against the King. Klay Thompson just spent half of a series defending Russell Westbrook, it’s safe to say that he is ready to take on the challenge of Kyrie Irving. Draymond Green is going to love not having to deal with Steven Adams anymore. For as talented as Kevin Love is, he has not shown the ability to dominate in the post this year, and Green will be ready to take on a different kind of challenge, whether it be from Love or Tristan Thompson.

The Warriors will not have to make any lineup adjustments to defend the Cavaliers, but Cleveland is going to have to twist itself into a pretzel to defend Golden State. There is no way that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving can defend the Steph/Draymond pick and roll. The Raptors abused the two Cavs stars in the pick game in their series and they were doing it with Bismack Byombo, a one dimensional player who is not nearly as dangerous of a shooter or passer as Green. There are going to be times in this series when Lue is going to have to pull one or two of his stars just to be able to properly defend Golden State’s offense, and it’s going to cause a lot of friction within the team. Are we going to see Matthew Dellavedova play big minutes with the starting team and Kyrie Irving coming off the bench where he can be more effective as a scorer and not have to agonize over trying to defend Steph or Klay? It seems like a smart move, but I’m not sure Coach Lue has the kind of sway to be able to make that decision.

I was a huge fan of how the Cavaliers played with their rotations in such a way that LeBron would start every second and fourth quarter playing with four bench players. These lineups were among the best in league during the playoffs, and with shooters like Richard Jefferson, Delly and Channing Frye around the perimeter you can see why. This is a lineup that makes it really hard on an opposing team’s bench to effectively guard LeBron one-on-one without giving up wide open threes. Just look at the Cavs three point binge against the Hawks if you need proof of how nasty this lineup can be. The problem that Cleveland is going to face here is that the league’s best answer to guarding James just so happens to come off of Golden State’s bench. If the Warriors decide to play Thompson and Iggy together in the second unit I don’t see the Cavs getting the same kind of scoring boost they have gotten in past series with their reserves. I also don’t see guys like Shaun Livingston and Mo Speights playing as poorly as they did against the Thunder.

You guys can probably see where I’m going with all of this. We’ve been waiting all year to for this rematch, and now here we are. But part of me feels like the Finals already happened. The two best teams in the league just played each other and the Warriors came out on top. Now we have a matchup with a lot of star power but nearly as competitive a pairing as the one we just got to enjoy. That’s not to say that the Cavs are helpless in this series. They have built a team as capable as the Warriors of blowing their opponent out of the water with three point shooting. They are a talented, well rested squad who have been waiting for a year to get their hands on Steph Curry and Co. Also, Cleveland has LeBron James, and that counts for a lot.

We’ll see how much Golden State has left in the tank in Game One. The Thunder may have lost the series, but they took a good piece of the Warriors with them on their way out. If I’m LeBron James I throw everything I have into Game One and hope for the best. Will it be enough to send the champs reeling? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that once the Warriors find their groove in this series there will not be a whole lot that the Cavs will be able to do to answer. The Thunder were a worthy adversary to the champs, they played a style that directly countered a lot of what Golden State tries to do. Cleveland has built a team in the image of the Warriors, but the parts do not fit together nearly as well. They have a team that can hit a multitude of threes or defend really well, but they can’t do both at the same time. Golden State can do what Cleveland can not, and I think they will expose the Cavs for being an incomplete team in time. Perhaps five years ago the greatness of LeBron James would be enough to overcome any deficiencies the Cavs have, but this is 2016 and the best player in the series resides in Golden State.

LeBron has spent years trying to calculate the easiest way to win titles, and I really respect his foresight in doing so, but no one in the league has been able to solve the equation of stopping Steph Curry and the Warriors. If winning the Eastern Conference was passing Algebra 1, beating the 73 win defending champs is taking the Calculus Final. I hope the Cavs have used all that free time they’ve had lately to start cramming.

LeBron dunks Raptors, again

Do not adjust your internet. This is not a rerun of LeBron James assaulting a rim from two days ago. This is yet another ferocious dunk delivered by LeBron the Destroyer that can pretty accurately sum up how Cleveland once again thrashed Toronto 108-89 last night.

James finished the night with a triple double, scoring 23 points on a devastatingly efficient 13 shots, while also grabbing 11 rebounds and doling out 11 assists. Kyrie Irving added 26 points. He continues to be unstoppable off the pick and roll, and there is not a single player on the Raptors roster who has shown an ability to match-up with him one-on-one.

It’s not just the stars that are killing it for Cleveland, guys like Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye are also getting in on the beatdown. Jefferson, who has been in this league for 14 (going on 50) years scored 9 in game one, and Frye, who has come into his own as a stretch five for the Cavs, had 10 last night. This is a team whose role players are gelling perfectly with its stars and the results have been explosive.

Things are getting pretty desperate for Kyle Lowry, who shot 4-14 in game two and had five turnovers to only three assists. He is shooting 1-15 in the series from range, and has a deer in the headlights look whenever he has the ball. I really thought that Lowry had figured things out in game seven of the Heat series, but his play was so bad in game two that Lowry walked back to his team’s locker room before the half. This is a guy who is in need of some serious soul searching right now.

I’ve advocated for Corey Joseph getting a look at starting point guard before, but he has not been nearly as good in this series as he was against the Heat. He finished with a -17 point differential, and while he is much more active that Lowry that activity has not led to much success for the Raptors. Toronto needs to put out some kind of tip line to try to find an answer what Cleveland is throwing at them, because I certainly can’t think of anything, and it’s clear that Dwane Casey has run out of cliche’s to try to get his players to work harder.

There was a lot of talk during the regular season that the Eastern Conference had finally started to catch up with the West in terms of talent, but that theory has been completely blown out of the water in these playoffs. The Cavaliers have still not been tested by their competition in the postseason, and seem capable of blowing their opponents out of the water whenever they want. To watch Toronto fight as hard as they can to keep these games close in the first two periods, only to get completely steamrolled in the third is disheartening. You can’t knock the Cavs for being destroying weaker competition, it is the mark of a great team, but it has not made of very compelling basketball.

There are no games tonight, so I suggest all of us basketball fiends go out and enjoy ourselves. Perhaps we should all go light a candle for the Kyle Lowry, so he might find his lost soul.

NBA Conference Finals Preview

Let’s start this thing off with some real talk. These have not been a particularly great playoffs. That Heat/Raptors series has left even the most loyal hoopheads with a bit of a hangover. The Cavaliers have hit the “easy” button in the past couple of weeks, making the Eastern Conference seem like a insignificant stepping stone on the way to their second straight finals appearance. In the west we have had to constantly worry about the health of the game’s biggest star, but at least there have been a couple of entertaining series. The Spurs were everybody’s contrarian pick to knock the Warriors off their pedestal, but OKC played spoiler to the would-be spoilers. We also got a glimpse of what could be wonderful future rivalry in Golden State and Portland. These playoffs haven’t been as bad as say, Batman vs Superman. There have been some redeemable moments, but a lot of it has been forgettable, so maybe a better comparison would be The Dark Knight Rises.

Now here we are, ready and raring to see a couple of knock-down, drag-out fights in the Conference Finals. Unfortunately we are more than likely going to see at least one of these series end in either a sweep or gentleman’s sweep, and there is plenty of potential for both of these series landing on the shorter end. This is price we pay for having two historically great teams in different conferences. The Warriors just proved through the last 93 games that no one in the league can matchup with them when they are healthy, and the Cavs have been hitting three’s at rate we’ve never seen in the league before. Both teams have the feel of two trains heading towards each other at full speed, we know they are going to eventually collide, the question is when.

So, can either the Thunder or Raptors play spoiler? Let’s get the Raptors out of the way first. It’s great to see Kyle Lowry work his way out of that nasty slump before this series. He scored 35 points in the Raptors game seven win over the Heat and 36 in game six. He is taking threes with confidence, making 8-12 from range in the last two games.  Toronto desperately needs their All-Stars to play well in this series. They have to find a way to punish Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in pick and rolls to the point where Cleveland is left with no other option than to bench either of them for a better defender. The best the Raptors can do is create enough chaos that Cleveland makes some mistakes in their rotations. Tyronn Lue has shown in the past couple of weeks that he clearly knows what he is doing, but he is still a rookie coach with only a couple of months of experience.

Here’s the thing about this series that can’t be ignored, LeBron James has yet to break much of a sweat in these playoffs. He’s only averaging 38 minutes a game, which is good for second fewest in his career. When he is on the court he has been more than happy to be a facilitator, letting Kyrie and Kevin carry much of the load on offense. I’ve talked before about how effective James has been when he starts the second and fourth quarters with the second unit. The Raptors simply do not have the depth to keep up with a Cleveland team that always has one All NBA caliber player on the court. DeMarre Carroll is the one player on Toronto’s roster that is capable of defending LeBron effectively. If I’m Dwane Casey I put him on the floor whenever James is out there. The more you play Carroll however, the less minutes DeMar DeRozan sees, and the Raptors are going to need DeRozan points to even stand a chance of keeping up with the Cavs.

The only spot in which Toronto has a positional advantage is at point guard. The combination of Kyle Lowry and Corey Joseph will go a long way towards bottling up Kyrie Irving. I can see both players getting minutes together with CoJo getting defensive duties on Irving, leaving Lowry free to do as much damage as he can on offense. With Jonas Valanciunas missing at least one game with a sprained ankle the Drakes will have to play small ball, which unfortunately plays right into the hands of Cleveland, who are lethal when they are able to play Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love together. Toronto is going to have a hard time keeping Cleveland off of the offensive glass as well as protecting the rim. The Raptors have two not-so-great options in playing this Cavs team. They can either lean heavy into their defensive lineup that features Joseph and Carroll to the exclusion of DeRozan and hope that they can somehow makeup for the lost points, or they can try to score enough with their two All Stars to force Cleveland to break up their big three. I don’t think either strategy is going to be effective, and this series probably ends in five games or less.


Ok. Let’s get to the more interesting series in these Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder gritted and rebounded there way past the San Antonio Spurs to get here. There best chance to win this series is to play Adams, Kanter and Ibaka heavy minutes and hope to bully the champs in the post whenever possible. Both Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green are nursing injuries, expect to see a lot of Festus Ezeli in this series. Ezeli has had some good moments in these playoffs, but he lacks the passing ability of Bogut and the versatility of Green.

The problem with the Thunder playing big is that they are left with a mismatch on any pick and roll. The question is whether or not they can hold it together on defense enough to exploit their advantage on the offensive glass. Enes Kanter has been one of the worst defenders in the league when it comes to the pick and roll, and the Warriors will ruthlessly exploit that. The marquee matchup of this series is Steph Curry against Russell Westbrook, but the real match-ups to watch out for are the Thunder’s bigs against the Warrior’s guards coming off of switches. If the bigs for OKC can hang in there against the small lineups of Golden State then we may have ourselves a series. If they can not, and Coach Donovan is forced to play smaller lineups, they lose the one (pardon the pun) big advantage they have.

There’s no doubt that Kevin Durant will get his in this series. He’s had monster numbers against the Warriors all year (36 points, 53% shooting, 48% three point shooting). His play against the Spurs was enough to completely throw off the best defense in the league, and there are not many players in the league who can guard KD as well as Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio gambled on putting their best defender on Westbrook in hopes that Durant alone would not be enough to win the series – it didn’t work out so well. If the Warriors chose to play their death lineup it will be Andre Iguodala tasked with slowing down Durant. This makes me wonder how much we’ll see out of Harrison Barnes in the series, and if Iguodala can contribute enough on offense to counter what they are giving up in size.

Golden State has the luxury of playing Klay Thomspon on Westbrook throughout the series, freeing up Steph to roam around on defense. If the Thunder chose to play Andre Robertson big minutes it allows the Warriors to basically play 4-on-5 on defense. If they play Ibaka with Robertson it turns into 3-on-5. When OKC plays Dion Waiters they risk getting torched by whoever he is forced to guard. This is the conumdrum the Thunder find themselves in. They have answers to some of problems the Warriors pose, but not for all the problems at all times. Beating the champs is like solving a algebraic equation when all you know is long division.

The Thunder are going to try to play big, rough up Steph as much as possible and hope that Kevin Durant’s offense along with a onslaught of offensive rebounds will be just enough to knock off the Warriors. Golden State will counter by making the Thunder’s bigs navigate a maze of pick and rolls, forcing them to have to guard Klay, Steph, and the rest of their three point shooting death squad in open space. For all of the punches that I think Westbrook and Durant will land in this series, the Warriors are a younger, more adaptable team than the Spurs. This is a title fight that Golden Sate can win in the early or late rounds, but damn if it won’t be fun to watch all of these stars throwing haymakers.