COMMENTARY | Expect a Tight NBA Finals

Reading previews of the upcoming NBA Finals, “Golden State in six games” appears to be one of the common predictions coming from experts, bloggers, fans and so on. But I see fewer analysts, websites and experts proposing “Cleveland in seven.” Despite the fact that the Golden State Warriors have been the favorite from early on in the 2015 NBA season, I believe an outcome favoring the Cavaliers is just as possible

It’s important to re-evaluate the popular conception that Golden State will continue its postseason success and glide to an NBA Finals victory. It’s even more crucial to recognize that although the Warriors have the tools and ability to break down the Cavs’ strengths, this does not mean that the Cavaliers cannot retaliate in the same exact way. This will be a tight series, no doubt about that. These are the two best teams in the league, and they are in their rightful places as champions of their respective conferences. So, we have to treat them as such, meaning that we also have to give Cleveland the credit they deserve and understand that they have a great chance to win the Finals.

The Cavaliers and the Warriors are on equal footing in three ways. First, a Finals victory for either franchise would be a monumental point in the team’s history. Unlike the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics, the Warriors and the Cavaliers have rarely reached the Finals stage. The Warriors’ last Finals appearance was in 1975, when they won their third championship in franchise history. For the Cavaliers, this is the team’s second Finals appearance. They have not yet won a championship.

Though Golden State leads Cleveland in championships 3-0, both teams head into the series with equal desire to transform their respective franchises from irrelevant outsiders to superior juggernauts.

Second, both franchises are led by some of the best players in the league. Third, the Cavaliers and the Warriors have each provided outstanding performances in their postseason campaigns.

In determining which team will walk away with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, it’s necessary to focus not on these similarities, but instead on the many differences that set these two elite franchises apart.

Finals Experience and Postseason Success

One of the obvious differences between these two teams is their Finals experience. While Cleveland has never won a championship, LeBron James has two rings and five total appearances. Veteran Kendrick Perkins also has a ring, which he won with the 2008 Boston Celtics alongside Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Perkins also found success with the Oklahoma City Thunder

Despite Steph Curry’s phenomenal performance thus far in his regular season and postseason campaign, he has never reached the Finals. While this may seem irrelevant considering how well Golden State has done in the playoffs, in reality, the Warriors managed to avoid some of the toughest playoff competition in the West. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks — franchises with the some of the most playoff experience — were on the opposite side of the bracket and thus were eliminated before a potential meeting with the Warriors in the conference finals.

While the Cavaliers easily swept the East’s first-seeded team in the Atlanta Hawks, the Warriors slipped by the Rockets courtesy of Houston’s abysmal play in Game 5. Houston committed 20 turnovers and was ice cold from the three-point line. Relying on poor performances in the Finals cannot become a strategy Golden State employs or expects to have the luxury of experiencing. Instead, it will have to withstand the overwhelmingly intense pressure of the NBA Finals, and while it likely has the capability to do so, its lack of experience is a concern.

James vs. Curry

One of the most anticipated match-ups in this series will be between LeBron James and Steph Curry. The players are quite different in their builds and style — James is 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds, while the 6-foot-3 Curry weighs 185 pounds — but their regular season statistics are very similar. James shot 48.8% from the floor for the season, while Curry shot 48.7%. Curry is superior from the three-point line with a 44.3% shooting percentage while James averages 35.4% behind the arc, but it’s well known that this is Curry’s strength.

In each player’s first series of the playoffs, both athletes dominated offensively. James scored 26.2% of his team’s points, while Curry recorded 30.8% of his team’s points. James has averaged 27.6 PPG in the postseason, and Curry has averaged 29.2 PPG. Curry and James are both understood to be the undisputed leaders of their respective teams, and each team will rely heavily on its superstar

Irving vs. Thompson

What I think will be more interesting is what happens between the players who are arguably second in command behind Curry and James: Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson. These two also have surprisingly similar regular-season statistics as well. Irving boasts a 46.8% field goal percentage, while Thompson is nearly identical with a 46.3% percentage. Thompson is just a couple percentage points higher than Irving from the three-point line, with 43.9% compared to Irving’s 41.5%.

At this point in time, Irving and Thompson are both struggling with minor injuries, and their capability and presence in the finals hangs in the balance. Irving will not be functioning at full capacity, and Thompson suffered a concussion after Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. He has since undergone the NBA’s concussion protocol and is cleared for play in Game 1. Still, a concussion is a serious injury and could affect Thompson’s play, regardless of his performance on the tests.

Thus, it looks like the Splash Brothers are back; despite Irving’s rollercoaster experience with his health, he will likely still be a presence on the court. This is crucial for the Cavaliers. It can be problematic when a team relies on a single player to carry it to success, as it helps the opposing team easily prioritize its defensive matchups and strategies. Throwing Irving into the mix — even if he’s not in perfect health — switches things up in Cleveland’s favor.

Each team will want to stifle the powerhouse player of the other, so seeing how other players step up as a result will be extremely significant. Both the Cavaliers and Warriors have depth at multiple positions, which they have proved over the course of the season. In Golden State’s most recent game, they scored 25 points off the bench. In Cleveland’s last game, they received 46 bench points.

This will be a tight series, and it’s impossible to say for sure which team will come out on top. Both teams are elite. They shoot well, defend effectively, use their benches and boast the top players in the league. But give Cleveland a little more credit. They have the Finals experience that Golden State lacks, they rely on more than astounding three-point shooting from a few players, and they have the resources to ensure that LeBron can perform to the best of his ability.

Yes, Steph Curry is the best three-point shooter in this postseason. But I don’t think he can dictate the course of an entire NBA Finals if Cleveland defends him well and delivers consistent offense. I am confident that each game will be close with multiple lead changes and suspenseful fourth quarters. But I am also confident that Cleveland has the ability to win these Finals, and going into Thursday’s game with the expectation of a one-sided contest in Golden State’s favor is misguided.

Madeline Auerbach is a rising junior in the College. She is a Deputy Sports Editor of The Hoya.

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