NBA Finals Preview: Pace and Space in the Championship Chase

Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.

Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.

Buckle up folks, straight from the mutha (bleepin) slums of Shaolin, the Zen Master is about to drop some knowledge on your collective domes.

These past few years NBA fans have witnessed the increasing importance of the three-point shot in today’s NBA. We have seen teams figure out that the key to winning in today’s league is spreading out the defense and bending it in any way possible to create a high percentage shot.

It is why offensive-minded coaches are en vogue, and it is precisely why Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr actually had David Blatt agree to be a Warriors assistant coach before Cleveland offered him the Cavs job.

Some teams create these valuable scoring opportunities by trotting out incredible shooters, like Golden State. Some teams, such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, do it by posting-up an unguardable force. They have shown that by having an excellent post-scorer who is a willing passer, you can still break defense the old-fashioned way. Other teams do it by being hell-bent on launching irresponsible bombs from deep, while also hurling themselves towards the rim to create contact and draw fouls (thanks for almost ruining basketball Houston)!

So as the playoffs progressed I was not shocked to see the most prolific outside scoring teams continue to flourish in the postseason. What was really incredible to see was teams who rarely shot the three-ball — like Washington — go crazy, launching 24-footers left and right.

In the end, the final four teams in the NBA playoffs ranked amongst the top ten in three-point attempts during the regular season. And when it came down to our final two teams, it is no coincidence that Golden State and Cleveland are one and two respectively in postseason three-point attempts.

This series will be a long one no doubt, and injuries will surely play a huge factor. But what got both these teams to this point is great offenses that pick apart defenses and opens up the most valuable shot in basketball: the 3-pointer. However, both teams use different methods to score, and a key difference is what serves as the main factor in my prediction.

Can James keep pace?

David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

LeBron and Co. have a tall task ahead of it in defending the Golden State attack.

What I found to be the most interesting nugget in my research for this post was the pace factor between these two teams. Pace factor is a simple statistic that measure the number of possessions a team uses during a game. This basically tells you the tempo that the team plays at.

The Golden State Warriors had the highest pace factor during the regular season, using a little over 100 possessions per game. Cleveland was 25th, with just under 95 possessions per game. In the postseason the Warriors are sixth in pace, and the Cavs are dead last.

This isn’t necessarily an advantage either way, but it gives you a decent picture of what this series will be about.

The Cleveland Cavaliers found their groove after some mid-season deals to shore up their rotation. They started to play better defense (during the playoffs specifically) and they found their identity. This team is based around the talents of LeBron James.

They play at a reasonable pace due to their lack of springy, athletic types outside of James, Shumpert, and Smith. James dares you to stop him in the post, and when you send the double he will burn you repeatedly by finding the open man. If you don’t send a double team he will drop 42 on your head.

However, the Cavs polished offense isn’t a factor if they aren’t engaged on defense. The first half of the season showed that. To win this series the Cavs will either need to play up to the Dubs break-neck speed, or force them to play at their grind-it-out tempo.

The main factor in this battle will be transition defense. The Cavs aren’t a fast-break heavy team. They prefer to prevent other teams from getting out in transition. On the other end of the spectrum the Warriors blitz teams with their fast break attack, but this eagerness to get out in transition often leads the Warriors to give up quite a few fastbreak buckets themselves.

These two teams split their regular season matchups, but the one constant was the Golden State Warriors ball movement (30+ assists in both games) and transition offense (41-point advantage in fast break points over the two games).

If the Cleveland wants to win this series, they will have to tip the scales in their advantage in the transition game. Golden State has a prolific offense that produces easy buckets. Giving them an opportunity to score in transition is like waving the white flag.

The Small Ball Wars

Tristan Thompson’s intensity when it comes to rebounding could tilt the advantage in Cleveland’s favor.

A sign of the times is the number of teams that have super-specific “small-ball” lineups. This move was popularized by the LeBron-era Miami Heat, who used James often as a power forward. When these two teams in the NBA Finals go small it will be to both create more offense, and to simultaneously give the defense flexibility in guarding the pick-and-roll. How these teams fare during these “small-ball” stretches will go a long way in determining who raises the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Paul Beaty/AP lyfyhvghjgl

Paul Beaty/AP
Tristan Thompson could play a large factor when Cleveland tries to match Golden State’s smaller, athletic lineups.

The biggest X-factor in this series, besides Klay Thompson’s health, will be Tristan Thompson. Thompson hit his stride in the Atlanta series; he averaged 11 rebounds to go with 1.8 blocks over the four contests.

When Cleveland goes “small” he functions as the perfect center. He is an extremely low-usage player who is a beast on the offensive boards. But he also provides just enough rim-protection to not be a liability on defense.

It is no coincidence that the Cavaliers’ best five-man lineups this year contain Thompson as the small-ball center, or as the power forward next to Timofey Mozgov.

It will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Dubs defense if Draymond Green can’t minimize the damage Thompson does on the boards. Mozgov also feasted on this smallish lineups that do not feature Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli. If Steve Kerr can encourage the Warriors to box out consistently they could run away with this series.

The Star Wars

Some critics say James vs Curry is the best thing since Bird vs Magic, only time will tell.

We all know how big of a factor the play of LeBron James and Stephen Curry will be in this series. Curry was the regular season MVP. James continued his reign as the undisputed best player on the planet. This postseason Curry is putting up per game splits of 29 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, with close to 2 steals. James is putting up 28 points, 8 assists, 10 rebounds, near 2 steals, and over a block per game.

Both of these players are at the top of their game, and James may have entered the “apex-LeBron” stage (meaning we are currently watching the best version of James we will ever see).

Both coaches will need to devise schemes to minimize dramatic impact these two have on basketball contests.

Golden State has often chose to play LeBron straight-up in the post. This is smart because it minimizes his playmaking, but it also leaves Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and all other LeBron defenders on an island. And this year James is no joke in the post. Three dribbles and a jump hook by James basically sank the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, and Atlanta Hawks in short order. Fronting James with zone defense meant to shift the ball away from him will be Kerr’s best weapon in slowing James down.

When James is the pick-and-roll ball handler it is routine to go under screens, daring him to shoot. This year however, he has shown a mental toughness that previously separated him from the class of legends that includes Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.

This new found mental toughness means that giving James a shockingly wide-open jumper no longer results in him helplessly clanking the shot of the back of the rim. He now dares you to give him those looks. He is now smart enough to learn to take the three when it is there, but not to rely on it.

When he is in constant attack mode it is near impossible to stop him. I would count on the Warriors to switch up coverage of James often. I believe the best strategy would be to go over screens for James, and then double him right at the point of his attack. This wait-and-see double team strategy can be fatal against a gifted passer, but you have to pick your poison with LeBron.

But if James averages over 30 points a game in the Finals, Cleveland is most likely the champion. If the Warriors can’t force James to be a facilitator they will be in trouble quickly.

Curry is a similar talent in the sense that he is a scoring machine that prefers to get teammates involved. He is quick to go into heat-check mode, but at the same time he is prone to cold streaks that any shooter experiences. In the second matchup against Cleveland he was shutdown in the second-half, or at least it appeared that way. He shot 29 percent in that game, and he simply missed shots that he would usually make.

In the Warriors win over the Cavs even earlier in the season he only scored 23 points (five more than in the loss to CLE), but he dished out 10 assists. When Curry has it going teams are forced to try to trap him off of pick-and-rolls to simply get the ball out of his hands. But when you do that Curry uses the threat of shooting to set up the roll man for easy shots at the rim.

He also is excellent at getting the “hockey assist” (the pass that sets up someone else to get an assist). His playmaking excellence makes the Warriors offense work, and the only way you can take him out of the game is by forcing him into uncharacteristic turnovers.

This series will showcase what the next decade of basketball will look like in the NBA. And unfortunately for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the fast break is a gigantic component of modern offense in the league. With the Oracle Arena crowd playing a huge factor, I see the Golden State Warriors winning this series in seven games.

(PS, don’t sleep on Harrison Barnes as a dark-horse Finals MVP, as he will be guarding James quite a bit.)

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; follow Michael on Twitter @ZenMasterMike

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