A collision course 12 months in the making has finally brought us to a rematch of the 2015 NBA Finals. The Warriors made their way back in record fashion while the Cavaliers stumbled around, fired a coach, got healthy, and turned it up a notch in the playoffs. There are plenty of story-lines surrounding these teams and this matchup: Steph won his MVP, LeBron quietly finished in the top 3 again, Anderson Varejao wore both jerseys, the health of both teams, the Iguodala vs. James matchup, and much much more. But there's one I haven't seen much of.
Can Golden State stop the Cavaliers?
Golden State deserves to be the favorite in this series thanks to their unprecedented regular season. They have the MVP, they have a surreal offense, and they have a defense that manages to switch everything and frustrate the hell out of opponents. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, muddled through the season and often appeared disinterested. But in the playoffs? Slightly different.
For as great as the Warriors regular season was (and it was - I can't stress that enough), the Cavs have beaten that GSW regular season efficiency on both ends of the floor in the playoffs. The Cavaliers are averaging a staggering 116.2 points per 100 possessions, according to nba.com/stats. That's 6.4 points better than Golden State in these playoffs and 2 points better than GSW's regular season.
I know, Cleveland's path to the Finals hasn't been as hard as the Warriors', but it's still the playoffs and the Cavs have simply decimated their opponents. Against the Raptors - who were a decidedly good team - the Cavs outscored them by more than 17 points per 100 possessions despite an entire game (game 3) where Cleveland basically watched the Raptors practice for three hours. In the Raptors series, Cleveland's crazy-hot shooting slumped all the way down to 43% for the entire playoffs. From three.
The craziest part to this efficiency and offensive explosion is that the Cavaliers didn't play every game perfectly. Oftentimes they played two or three great quarters and put the game far enough away that the 4th quarter didn't matter. That won't be the case against Golden State, as we all know the Ws can score in unbelievable ways and in unbelievable spurts - a 20 point lead against the Warriors can disappear in a heartbeat.
However, the Cavs can get hot, too. In the conference finals, the Cavs scored 95 in game 1, 86 in game 2, 100 in game 5, and 85 in game 6. Those point totals are only counting the first 3 quarters. Even in game 4, Cleveland scored 58 in the 2nd half of a slow-moving game. The offense has been outrageously efficient in spite of games where no one can make a 2-point shot.
Another aspect of the Cavaliers that needs to be accounted for: Golden State is clearly at its most dangerous when they have a running start. Transition threes are sought out (and found) more by the Warriors than anyone we've seen in our basketball-watching lives. However, the Cavaliers have done a good job of protecting the ball and preventing those easy breaks. Cleveland heads into the Finals with a 1.96:1 assist to turnover ratio - 2nd best in the playoffs behind the Pistons. Golden State will surely get some transition looks, but the Cavs can do it too.
Cleveland has been hustling. They're working hard, they're attacking the glass, they're making shots, they're making passes, and they're not just settling for jumpers. After the Atlanta series it looked like the Cavs would just keep shooting their way into the record books. When Toronto committed to running them off the arc, the Cavs responded by dominating inside. When Toronto tried to stop the inside game, the Cavs responded by burying threes. It's not easy to stop, even if you have a great defense. Golden State is still the favorites in this series, but what can they do to stop second chances? Tristan Thomspon was huge in the Finals last year. Just imagine if he could kick out his rebounds to Kevin Love, Channing Frye (who deserves a statue if the Cavs win the title), and Kyrie Irving this time around. Offensive rebounds open up shots like this.
Fun stat to end with: The Cavaliers beat Toronto so badly that despite winning two series before facing the Cavs, Toronto ended the playoffs with a -6.6 NetRtg.