NBA Finals Preview
*Photo via AP
After three exciting rounds of NBA playoff basketball, the matchup for the NBA finals is now set. This season’s MVP, Stephen Curry, will lead the Golden State Warriors against the world’s best player, LeBron James, and his Cleveland Cavaliers. The NBA has set the finals back to a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the second time after a 29-year stint with the 2-3-2 format. Since Golden State had the league’s best regular season record, they will host Games 1 and 2 as well as 5 and 7, should they be necessary. Games 3 and 4 will be in Cleveland, as will Game 6 should it be necessary.
As expected for two teams that have played nearly 100 games this season, both squads are facing injury issues that could greatly affect the outcome of the series. Both Curry and James had injury scares in their respective conference finals matchups, but fortunately both star players appear to be healthy for the upcoming series.
Key Golden State reserve Marreese Speights has missed Golden State’s last eight playoff games with a calf sprain and his status for the finals is still uncertain. Speights will likely suit up at some point in the finals, but it is unclear if he will be ready for Game 1. In addition, when Speights returns it is also doubtful that he will be as effective as usual. Speight’s health will not make or break the series for Golden State, but it will certainly have an affect. Many fans may not realize that during the regular season Speights was fourth in PPG, tied for fifth in RPG, and third in PER (player efficiency rating) for Golden State. Before his injury Speights was not playing as many minutes in the playoffs as the regular season for Golden State due to Coach Steve Kerr shortening his playoff rotation. This fact makes Speights’ availability less of a concern than it may have been in the regular season, but nonetheless his presence on the bench would be a major boost for Golden State.
Now that Stephen Curry appears to be fine after taking a scary fall in the first half of Game 4 against the Houston Rockets, the Warriors main health concerns should be on the second Splash Brother. During the Warriors’ conference clinching win, Klay Thompson took a knee to the head from Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza. Thompson was forced to leave the game with blood dripping from his right ear. After passing concussions tests, Thompson’s injury was labeled a contusion by the Warriors. (Then later a concussion) Similar to teammate Marreese Speights, Thompson is likely to take part of the finals at some point of the series. At this time however it is unknown whether Thompson will be ready to play in Game 1 of the finals on June 4. It is also unclear if Thompson will be playing at 100% whenever he does return. As Golden State’s second best player, Thompson’s status for the finals is obviously one of the keys to the outcome of the series.
Cleveland is dealing with major injury concerns themselves with Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao, and Kyrie Irving. As we have known for the majority of the playoffs both Varejao and Love will not be suiting up again until next season. That leaves the injury to star point guard Kyrie Irving as the main concern for the Cavs heading into the finals. Irving was able to play 22 minutes in the Cavs final game of their sweep of the Hawks after missing the previous two games with a right knee injury. Irving has been suffering from tendinitis in his right knee that has been noticeably affecting his play throughout the playoffs. Irving has made a name for himself in the league with his killer handles that often leave defenders trailing behind as he makes his move towards the hoop. With the knee injury Irving has lost some of his speed, making him a much easier matchup for opposing players. Irving has not been able to embarrass opponents in the postseason in the fashion he did in the regular season because he has lost a step from his injury.
On the other end of the court Irving has become even more of a liability. Irving has never been known as a strong defender, but his knee injury has derailed his defense to the point that the Cavs have tried to hide him against the opposing teams weakest offensive player. A healthy Irving would have trouble guarding Stephen Curry, and this version of Irving may get downright embarrassed by the MVP. Unfortunately for Irving, the Warriors are such a strong team there is no one to hide Irving on. Irving cannot chase Thompson around screens, and he will get destroyed in the post if they matchup him up on either Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes. Some people may point to putting Irving on Andrew Bogut just as he guarded Joakim Noah in parts of the Chicago series, but this strategy would seriously backfire. Bogut has massive size (he is much bigger than Noah) and would destroy Irving on both the offensive glass and in the post. To have a realistic shot against the Warriors, the Cavs need Irving as close to full strength as possible.
It is unfortunate that injuries must play such a large factor in the outcome of these finals, but injuries are part of the game that no one can control. This series would be far more interesting, competitive, and exciting, if Golden State had Thompson and Speights healthy and Cleveland had Varejao, Irving, and Love at full strength. If both teams were full strength I would still pick the Warriors to win the series (although it would be very close), and the injuries to Cleveland will have a far bigger impact than those to Golden State. As has been evident all season, the Warriors are the far superior team and have been the best team in the league. It is never smart to pick a team led by Lebron James to get swept, but I believe that Golden State sweeping the Cavs is more likely than the Cavs winning this series. Oracle arena provides the Warriors with one of the best home court advantages in the league. It is unlikely that the Cavs will be able to steal a game in the bay area. That would mean the Warriors would need to win just one of either Game 3 or 4 in Cleveland to close out the series in five games. If the 2014-15 Golden Warriors manage to win the finals in 5 games they would finish the postseason with a record of 16-4. That postseason record combined with their 67-15 regular season would put this team down in history as one of the best NBA teams ever assembled.