Based on the evolution in NBA style to focus more than ever on three-point attempts, the Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers that opens Thursday night figures to be a festival of long-range shooting.
Purists might be uncomfortable with the change, but it is difficult to argue with the logic and math of the strategy, according to ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
“I think a little bit more balance would be actually better for the game,” Van Gundy said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, “but as the rules are now, when you have this type of shooting on both teams, it’s the appropriate use of the three-point shot.”
Van Gundy’s announcing partner, Mark Jackson, agreed that the series figures to feature two teams letting fly.
“I think we are going to see a lot of three-point shooting in the Finals, obviously because of the Warriors, that’s their strength and that’s what has gotten them to be the team with a legitimate chance to go back-to-back,” he said.
“Cleveland has the ability to read a defense and either attack the paint area or be a three-point shooting team. I think the consistent thing with both teams, which makes them three-point shooting teams, is neither team outside of LeBron James has in my opinion a legitimate guy that you’ve got to worry about on the block.
“Kevin Love had success in his past and there’s been times where he’s been successful, but if you’re matching him up with Draymond Green, I think it’s an interesting battle and I think Draymond Green can hold his own defending Kevin Love on the block.
“Both teams, neither one of them have a strength, outside of James’ ability in posting up, so I expect to see a lot of driving kicks and spot-up shots and play-making alone at the three-point line.”
Said Van Gundy, “The defense dictates often what shots you end up taking. From Cleveland’s standpoint, they are going to try to attack the basket. When Toronto didn’t in Game 1 or 2 choose to protect the paint and they chose to stay at home with the three-point shooters, they took less threes because it was dunks and layups.
“When teams attack the basket and help is created, that second defender comes to the ball and the ball is sprayed out to the perimeter, both teams have the shooting to make 20 threes in a game, as we’ve seen.
“And so this is why individual defense is so important, to try to keep the ball out of the paint and not have to give too much help. But both teams create those opportunities.”
Van Gundy and Jackson talked about a wide range of other basketball-related matters in previewing the Finals. Some highlights:
On the similarities and differences to the teams that met in the Finals last year:
Jackson: “I think the similarities, obviously, to me, Golden State, still a great basketball team. Similar as far as talent is concerned. But . . . last year they did not come in as champs. That’s a huge difference. That’s a difference in mentality. That’s a team that has gotten it done.
“The difference with Cleveland, obviously, to me, a new coach. And a huge difference is, healthy and whole. I expect it to be an incredible Finals.”
Van Gundy: “Golden State, to me, is very similar to what they were last year, other than the fact that as Mark said, they have won it already. They are coming off a great series win against Oklahoma City.
“And then I think Cleveland is playing smaller. Obviously they have a different coach, but (Timofey) Mozgov, who started last year, is not even in the rotation. So their center position is different in that they are starting (Tristan) Thompson, coming back in with (Channing) Frye, Love there obviously now, and both the good and the bad with him as far as the shooting, the offense, but maybe the pick-and-roll defense. That will be the question mark.
“And then Kyrie Irving obviously in a great head-to-head matchup with Steph Curry.”
On whether they are surprised by the Finals rematch, or expected it:
Jackson: “I think all along, you knew that they were two of the best, if not the two best, teams in basketball. Clearly you felt that Golden State coming in was the best in the West and that Cleveland was the best in the East.
“A lot of people called it, rightfully so. I didn’t think it would be easy for either one of them because of the challenges that were presented in each conference. I thought that it would be an easier route for Cleveland because the gap between them and the second-best team in the East was much larger.
“But both teams deserve a lot of credit, and I think it’s going to be, like I said, an incredible NBA Finals. I think it’s a great match-up with interesting match-ups within the team match-ups. So I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Van Gundy: “Cleveland, certainly, I think was expected to sort of cruise through, and even though they only had a one-game lead over Toronto at the end of the regular season, I think everybody understood that there was a large gap between Cleveland and everybody else.
“I think the coaching change maybe gave some people the idea that there was something amiss or wrong or whatever it may be that caused Cleveland to change, but I don’t think people studying the Eastern Conference ever wavered on Cleveland being the best team.
“I think Golden State clearly showed that they were the best team in the NBA this year. San Antonio and Oklahoma City were great teams, but here we are again. I think it’s going to be an interesting and competitive series, but I think Golden State’s the prohibitive favorite.”
On whether Draymond Green has been a fiery and intense player from the start of his career:
Jackson (a former Warriors coach): “I will say this: Draymond Green had the same mentality the first day he walked through the door— great competitor, great competitive spirit. He was sold on doing all the intangibles that not only make him successful, but to make the team successful. He was a guy that you quickly found out made you a better basketball team when he was on the floor.
“Obviously he’s been in different altercations throughout the playoffs. But I will say this, listening to him (Monday) night, the respect that he has for (the Thunder’s) Steven Adams, who also has been in altercations, because of the appreciation for how hard he plays and how fierce he competes.
“The respect level was, I believe at the end of the day, when you look at him as a competitor, you want Draymond Green on your team, and you probably fear when you have to face him because he constantly keeps his foot on the gas and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win ballgames as far as a competitive spirit is concerned.”
On whether by winning the Warriors can become part of debate about all-time great teams:
Van Gundy: “I stay away from that because I’ve found that — and I used this on Mark a few weeks ago — comparison is the thief of joy. If you start getting into who is better between teams that never had a chance to compete against each other, ultimately your praise of one is interpreted as the diminishing of somebody else.
“So I know what I feel, but what I say, it doesn’t do anybody any good. One thing that’s factual is the (Warriors are the) most successful regular-season team in the history of basketball. They worked hard for that and they deserve all sort of credit.
“Now, who is better? I’ll leave that up to other people to decide.”
Jackson: “I agree with what Coach just said.”
On whether the Cavaliers could be in trouble defensively with Irving and Love in the Finals this year:
Jackson: “I think there were times in that Eastern Conference final against Toronto, watching Cleveland, where they were a far better basketball team defensively than they have been at any point that I’ve seen them. You’ve got to give them credit. They bought in.
“I thought J.R. Smith was unbelievable at times. Obviously LeBron is an elite defender, and Tristan Thompson, an elite defender with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll.
“I think Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, even though they are not elite defenders, they bought in and they competed on the defensive end, and that’s all you can ask for — a guy that probably their strength is not defending.
“But collectively I think they played the best defense I’ve seen them play since they have been a unit. And if they play that way, obviously they are tough to beat, but they are going to be up for some tremendous challenges because those are the types of challenges that Golden State presents offensively.”
Van Gundy: “I thought particularly in Games 5 and 6 (against Toronto), they were terrific defensively, and they are going to have to be if they are going to push the Warriors in the Finals, because the challenges are much different because of great backcourt shooting and the terrific passing throughout the Golden State roster.
“Whatever plan they come up with, they are going to have to execute it. And the hard thing against the Warriors is to sustain your concentration. You watch (Monday) night with Golden State clinging to a four-point lead, jump ball, 1:20, it’s anybody’s game, and (Serge) Ibaka commits a foul that will resonate with Oklahoma City, maybe forever, that basically gives them that cushion that they needed to close out the game.
“So you have to be able to concentrate. You can’t do dumb stuff, and if you do, Golden State makes you pay.”
On whether this is the best the Cavaliers have played collectively since James returned to Cleveland:
Van Gundy: “I actually thought last year when they beat Chicago after being down 2-1 was the best I had seen them play, because I think the competition level was at its highest in the Eastern Conference in that series.
“And then I thought last year, James will never have a finer moment than what he put forth in that Finals series. To me, he was clearly the MVP of that series. I thought it should have been unanimous. I can’t even imagine somebody else voting for someone other than James after watching that.
“But they are going to have to be even better this year. I know people are taking a lot with them being whole, but there are going to be challenges defensively. Where I think they had offensive question marks last year due to their injuries, this year being whole I think presents defensive challenges for them as they go up to compete against Golden State.
“But they have had a terrific year, and they should be so proud of them getting back to the Finals. It’s very difficult to do.”
Jackson: “To me, this is the best that they have played being whole. I think they have done a very good job of picking and choosing when LeBron will be aggressive as a scorer, when Kyrie Irving will be aggressive as a scorer taking over the offense, getting Kevin Love involved offensively, whether it being pick-and-rolls or post-ups. The role players are playing exceptional. This is the best to me that they have played.
“But like Jeff said, the challenges are still going to be there. They are playing a great basketball team that creates a lot of problems for you to have to defend against. And to me, the wild card to look for is J.R. Smith. I think his ability to not only take, but make, tough shots and big shots, is going to be on display.
“Last year, looking at the Finals, he did not play up to par but he’s a guy that you’re going to have to defend because of his shot-making ability.”
On whether Tyronn Lue will be at a coaching disadvantage against Steve Kerr:
Van Gundy: “I think when they say coaching match-ups, I couldn’t disagree more. You’re not coaching against the other coach. You’re coaching your team to try to put that team in the best possible position to win.
“And so when I see inevitable comparison, I don’t get it. I don’t think there’s one thing that Ty Lue is unprepared for. I think he worked under and played under some obviously great coaches like Phil Jackson. He coached under Doc Rivers. David Blatt showed the blueprint last year for how the Cavaliers could get to the Finals and he was a major part of that, Ty was.
“I don’t think there’s anything he’s going to be unprepared for. It’s going to come down to whether his players play well enough. But I don’t think it comes down to him being in any way at any type of disadvantage.”
Jackson: “I totally agree. I think both coaches have done an outstanding job. Both coaches are surrounded by outstanding staff and incredible talent. I don’t see any disadvantage at all, and that’s with respect to Steve Kerr. That’s just giving credit to Tyronn Lue and to the job that he’s done from Day One.”
On specifically what the Cavaliers’ defensive challenges will be:
Van Gundy: “Can I say that the ‘death lineup’ is maybe the most overused phrase in sports now? That would be No. 1. When you’re 73-9, most of your lineups are death lineups.
“Curry and (Klay) Thompson should be called the ‘death tandem,’ is what they should be called.
“But to get back to the question about last year, they played a huge front line in Thompson and Mozgov, and Mozgov has great feet. And so they were longer at the rim. I’m interested to see how they match up with the front court of Golden State. Who does Love guard and how do they play the pick-and-roll? Love against Toronto, he showed a lot; so he extended his defense out. I will be interested to see if they continue that.
“And Toronto, by the end of the series, Thompson was trapping every pick-and-roll, and I don’t think you can do that against Golden State very often because of their shooting and passing. They would be in too many four-on-three situations.
“And last year, to get to your second part, Golden State played small. Cleveland I think rightfully tried to stay big, and what you’re trying to do is impose your will on somebody else to make them change versus you having to change and match up in a way that may not put your best team on the floor.
Jackson: “I expect both teams to play a lot of small ball because of the challenges that they will create at the point guard position in Curry and Irving, and also just defending shooters around the perimeter, it’s just a tough tall task to play big against.
“And I thought at times, Golden State exposed that in last year’s Finals and I think both teams are more equipped to go small. So I expect to see a steady diet of it.”
On Jackson saying he expected great individual matchups within the team matchup:
“I look at the Warriors going small. They were successful last year at times defending Kevin Love with small guys. Will they get away with that? How will they defend Kyrie Irving? Who matches up against him?
“LeBron James at times, last year, no secret, Andre Iguodala was their best defender that gave them the best chance to defend LeBron James, that chess match within the game. The matchup of not giving the Warriors open shots, whether it’s Klay Thompson or Steph Curry, that can kill you quickly. All of those things will play a huge part. The matchup of keeping Tristan Thompson off the offensive boards.
“I look at not just the matchup team-wise, but how do you stop the other team at being so successful at what they have done to put them in position to be on the brink of winning a championship?
Van Gundy: “For me, the one I’m really interested in is, do the Warriors continue to start Iguodala and bring (Harrison) Barnes off the bench? To me, I am so interested in what Steve Kerr ultimately decides.
“You can tell who a coach trusts the most by who he puts out there in must-win situations. And the trust that Kerr has in Iguodala defensively, I believe, similar to what Mark did, was off the charts.”
On importance of ownership in assembling a top team:
Van Gundy: “What you can’t underestimate in all of this is ownership spending the money necessary. Because a lot of people talk about wanting to win, but there’s not many owners like Dan Gilbert who will go so far over the luxury tax to try to give you the best chance to win.
“Oklahoma City had a very high payroll, as do Golden State and Toronto. That doesn’t mean you’re going to use every dollar the best or you won’t make mistakes, but those owners who give you the chance to overcome your mistakes, as a management team, to still add pieces, that’s what gives you a great opportunity.
“Dan Gilbert, to me, is not getting nearly enough credit for what he’s been willing to do financially to try to put Cleveland in the best possible chance — give them the best possible chance to win.”
On the most important statistic to watch in the series:
Jackson: “I think when you look at the success of both of these teams, the thing that would jump out to me is: How are they taking care of the basketball? Turnovers against either one of these teams is a recipe for disaster.
“If you look at the Warriors, if you turn the ball over against them, they are pushing the ball down the floor and the three-point line is wide open for Curry or Thompson or any of the other shooters. They make plays in transition.
“If you’re turning it over against the Cavaliers, they are going downhill and James gets it going, attacking the rim, and now all of a sudden the floor is open and it creates a lot of problems.
“The thing I would look at, if I was either one of these teams, is: How are we taking care of the basketball?”
Van Gundy: “I agree with Mark totally. To me it always comes down to turnover rate, both what you force and how you’re able to protect the ball, free throws made, effective field goal percentage, which incorporates the three-point shot into your percentage, and then defensive rebounding rate. It always comes down to those four things. Everything else is like a subplot to those four areas.”