The 2017 NBA Finals begin Thursday night, with Part III of the Warriors-Cavs trilogy tipping off in Oakland. In lieu of a fully-fledged preview, and cause I just wanted to jot down some thoughts, I'm identifying two unsung keys for Golden State I think could determine whether or not they're able to dictate this series. Both more or less hinge on Draymond Green.
1. Will Dray make his threes?
I know this seems like an ancillary concern, but in a contest as close as the Warriors and Cavs had had the past two Finals, it's these kinds of fringe elements that gain outsize importance.
The thing with Draymond Green is he's really not a good three-point shooter. He's made huge progress to become credible beyond the arc, but he's still not someone you'd call a threat. Since breaking in as a starter in 2014, he's shot as well as 38.8 percent from three (last year) and dipped as low as 30.8 percent (this season). Clearly, he's streaky, but his career mark of 33.4 percent is pretty fairly representative of his ability.
Point is, Cleveland will be comfortable giving him that shot. Last year in the Finals LeBron notably floated around a lot around the free-throw line in a 'free-safety' role, jumping out to challenge threes or falling back to help stuff the lane. The other key to their defense was smothering Steph Curry beyond the three-point line with aggressive double-teams.
The Cavs were able to deploy this two-pronged strategy largely by hanging off Green, Harrison Barnes and, when he was in, Andre Iguodala, around the perimeter. It mostly worked - Iguodala shot 30.4 percent from three in the series (7-23), Barnes was 31.0 percent (9-29) and Green, before Game 7, was under 30 percent (7-24).
Game 7 is telling, in fact: Green shot 6-of-8 from three and in the second half James began guarding him much tighter - in fact in one fourth quarter play, LeBron was hedging so high up on Dray he actually drove past for an easy layup.
Shaking LeBron out of his free-safety position at the top of the key allowed the Warriors their best access to the rim all game, and if they exploited it more or hadn't shot 2-of-14 from three and mid-range in the fourth quarter would have pulled out the win. Cleveland sold out the middle to hound Golden State's shooters at the arc, and the Warriors couldn't quite adjust or make them pay enough by attacking the rim.
Now that the Warriors have replaced Barnes with Kevin Durant, that obviously becomes a lot less tenable. I think a few things happen in order for the Cavs to preserve their defensive strategy:
• I think they'll put Tristan Thompson on KD, he's their most agile defender after LeBron, can challenge him at the three-point line and in the mid-range, and has the footwork to try and slow his attacks to the rim. The risk is that he repeatedly gets overwhelmed in isolation, but LeBron's job will be in part to spy Durant and cut off his rim access if he gets by Thompson.
• JR Smith stays on Curry, with Kyrie Irving again ready to jump into doubles out of screens to help snuff out his space. Otherwise Kyrie will be a body on Klay Thompson, with frequent switching between him and Smith on Curry and Klay.
• Kevin Love will help close out on Klay when the guards go for doubles, otherwise hanging around the low post to offer a little resistance against Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee, who will inevitably get some easy buckets the Cavs won't care about.
• That leaves Dray and, to a slightly lesser extent, Klay as the keys here. Technically he'll be LeBron's man but James will have so many responsibilities his focus with Green will mainly be making sure he doesn't get a free pass to the hoop.
There are a few ways for the Warriors to scramble this defense. The easiest and quickest is for Green to drain threes. With LeBron floating around the key, he's going to have open long-range looks early and often. He's shooting a fantastic 47.2 percent from three in the playoffs (on four and a half attempts per game) and if he can keep that up Cleveland will have to quickly reconsider their defensive structure.
Another way is for KD to exploit his man (in this theory Thompson, with Iman Shumpert or occasionally Kevin Love deputizing) to the point LeBron has to be shifted onto him, putting Thompson on Green (something the Cavs will probably try for periods anyway), probably in a similar free-safety role, but sacrificing quite a bit of the instinctual rim protection James brings to it.
Then there's Klay, who's been a shell of himself all playoffs but, with Irving on him, now has a chance to exploit a really bad matchup. He can use his size advantage to shoot over Irving off the catch and coming around screens and the ability to bully him into the mid-range for easy looks. If he can rediscover his confidence and do this, that forces Irving back over to Curry, who can spin him in circles with his playmaking.
2. Can Dray, or anybody else, actually protect the rim?
Last year in the Finals LeBron destroyed the Warriors in the middle. He averaged 11.3 points per game in the paint through the first three games on 44.7 percent shooting before finding his way for 14 points a game on 59.6 percent shooting the rest of the series. Once he hit his stride, Golden State didn't have an answer.
They missed Andrew Bogut dearly (overall, LeBron shot 11.2 percent worse inside 10 feet in the 2014-15 Finals than in the '15-16 Finals, according to NBA.com/stats), and the Warriors still haven't replaced what he gave them as an interior presence.
It's also important to consider what we really mean by protect the rim. In between no-fly-zone-establishing terrors (Rudy Gobert) and abnormally large pushovers (Greg Monroe) you have your guys like Bogut. He could block a shot or two, but what made him so good was his footwork and positioning to wall off paths to the rim entirely. It's not clear the Warriors have any of that.
Golden State has a bit of a misfit toy situation down low. McGee can block shots but is more of a block-chaser than true rim protector. He doesn't have the strength to keep a LeBron (or even Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson) from backing him down or muscling past him to the rim, but his length allows him cover if he gets beat by someone like Kyrie Irving or JR Smith. Kevin Durant, who will occasionally patrol the middle in small-ball lineups, had the 14th-most blocks in basketball this year, but he's largely in the same boat. He picks off his blocks but he's not a possession-to-possession deterrent.
Zaza Pachulia can body up bigger guys inside, but he's very much closer to the Greg Monroe end of the center-defense spectrum. His positioning is okay and he can bother a less explosive big guy like current-stage LaMarcus Aldridge. That'll be helpful with Love and Thompson, but he might not be able to be on the floor with LeBron, who eats bigs like him alive.
That leaves, again, Draymond. It'll probably be his job to go one-on-one with LeBron, an exhausting and impossible task. He has the strength and the length to do as well as anyone, but he's had this assignment before to minimal success. The best the Warriors can probably hope for is for Green to give LeBron as much trouble as is possible (which is to say, not much) with Durant or McGee providing shot-blocking reinforcement.
They run the risk of having to toss out that LeBron containment plan, though, and keep Zaza out there for more extended stints if, say, Thompson and Love are getting too many buckets inside. It will take some mixing and matching and coaching dexterity on Mike Brown's behalf (that to be honest he hasn't really historically shown) but the potential is there to manage, if not own, the middle.
If the Warriors can do these two things - deconstruct the Cavs' defensive structure which held up so solidly over the course of the latter part of last year's Finals, and mount a steady if not dominant defense of the interior where LeBron is so effective - they have a clear path to winning this series.
If they let the Cavs gum them up offensively and collapse inside defensively, they'll too often look like they did against San Antonio in the first half of Game 1, and may not even have a 3-1 lead to blow this time.