“The Three-Match” 2017 NBA Finals Preview

Photo Credit: NBA.com

Cavs: Eastern Conference Finals: Beat Boston 4-1
Warriors: Western Conference Finals: Beat San Antonio 4-0

Season Series: Split 1-1

Game 1: Cleveland at Golden State, Thursday June 1 at 9:00 p.m.
Game 2: Cleveland at Golden State, Sunday June 4 at 8:00 p.m.
Game 3: Golden State at Cleveland, Wednesday June 7 at 9:00 p.m.
Game 4: Golden State at Cleveland, Friday June 9 at 9:00 p.m.
Game 5: Cleveland at Golden State, Monday June 12 (If Necessary)
Game 6: Golden State at Cleveland, Thursday June 15 (If Necessary)
Game 7: Cleveland at Golden State, Sunday June 18 (If Necessary)

Cavaliers forward, LeBron James finishes an alley-oop from J.R. Smith during Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Photo Credit-Jeff Lansky

Tonight basketball fans finally receive the matchup they have been calling for since the Cavaliers historic comeback last June, the rubber match between the last two NBA Champions. “The Trilogy” marks the first time in NBA history that two teams have met in three consecutive NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors became the first team in NBA history to start the postseason with a 12-0 record after a sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals after two blowout wins. The defending champs would face some adversity as they blew a 21 point lead in Game 3 to drop their first contest of the postseason. After a slow start in Game 4, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James carried the Cavs to the Finals for the third straight year by taking Games 4 and 5. In Game 5, LeBron James passed Michael Jordan to become the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring leader and he also passed Manu Ginobli for third all-time in three pointers made in the playoffs. LeBron stated last summer that he would spend the rest of his career chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan and with the numbers he has posted so far this postseason it is clear that he is ready to lead his team towards another title. The King is having his most dominant postseason to date with averages of 32.5 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists per game. With the addition of Kevin Durant, this year’s Warriors team proves to be the toughest opponent LeBron has faced in The Finals. However, with the emergence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love playing arguably the best basketball of his career, the Cavaliers can make this an epic conclusion to a legendary trilogy.

Key Matchup

Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant (35) celebrates his basket against the Portland Trail Blazers in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of their NBA first round playoff series at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, April 16, 2017. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

The matchup to watch for in this series is between the two star forwards, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Kevin Durant sent shockwaves throughout the NBA  last July when he announced he would be joining the Golden State Warriors. Despite missing 19 games with a knee injury, Durant has fit nicely with the Warriors this season and he has turned them into a historically dangerous team. KD has had a stellar postseason as he is shooting 55.6 percent overall and 41.7 percent from three point territory. Last year the Cavaliers focussed defensively on Steph Curry, thus forcing the struggling Harrison Barnes to beat them. The Cavs won’t have that luxury this time especially since Durant has already had some success against them. In the two regular season meetings between these juggernauts, Durant averaged 28.5 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting. Tyronn Lue will have LeBron start off with guarding KD, but it would be asking too much of the King to use all of his defensive energy on the Warriors forward. I expect the Cavs to give Durant a variety of looks that include Kevin Love and Richard Jefferson. LeBron is 18-5 against Durant, including a 4-1 victory over KD’s Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals. This year’s Finals could finally see Durant best LeBron with the help of Golden State’s other three All-Stars. Both superstars have almost identical numbers when they face off against each other which should result in a classic Finals clash.

Lansky’s Crazy Stat

LeBron James is the only player to rank in the top ten in points (first), rebounds (seventh), and assists (third) in NBA playoff history.

Bonus Stat

The Warriors (12-0) and Cavaliers (12-1) enter the NBA Finals with the fewest combined losses of any two teams since the current playoff format began in 1984.

Prediction

Kevin Love soars for a dunk on a fast break during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals May 23. Photo Credit-Jeff Lansky

Never before have two teams met in three consecutive NBA Finals and this series promises to be the heavyweight bout that fans have been dreaming of. The key for the Cavaliers in this series is to get back on defense especially on the fast break. The Warriors lead the league this postseason in fast-break points with 20.7 per game. The Cavs have improved defensively on the fast-break so far these playoffs, giving up 10.2 points per game which ranks fifth in the league. Golden State’s bread and butter is to make you pay on the fast break so is it is crucial that Cleveland plays defense. The way this strategy could swing in the Cavs favor lies with two men: Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. Both Love and Thompson rank in the top ten for total rebounds this season with K-Love sitting third for defensive rebounds with 9 per game. TT is third for offensive rebounds with 4.2 per game. The rebounding from Cleveland’s big men will be vital in giving the Cavs second chances on offense and the potential to stops runs on defense during transitions. In addition to his rebounding skill, Kevin Love plays another crucial role in this series for the Cavs with his scoring. Last year, K-Love was seen as a weakness at times against the Warriors and his struggles showed. However this season, he has returned to the type of player he was in Minnesota. He caught fire in the Eastern Conference Finals averaging 22.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, and was a mind boggling 23 of 43 from beyond the arc. The Cavaliers do well when they can get Love going early and they will need to feed off of him during this series. You know what you will get from LeBron and Kyrie Irving, but if the Kevin Love from the Conference Finals shows up the Cavaliers will take this series. I believe the conclusion to this epic trilogy is going to be a hard-nosed, back and forth fight. Don’t expect any sweeps or 3-1 leads this time around as this is championship basketball at its finest. By sweeping through the West the Warriors have yet to face any true adversity and I think that will work in the Cavs favor.
Cavaliers in six.

Shipping Up to Boston: Cavs-Celtics Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Cavs Second Round: Swept Toronto 4-0
Celtics Second Round: Beat Washington 4-3

Season Series: Cleveland won 3-1

Game 1: Cleveland at Boston, Wednesday May 17 at 8:30 p.m.
Game 2: Cleveland at Boston, Friday May 19 at 8:30 p.m.
Game 3: Boston at Cleveland, Sunday May 21 at 8:30 p.m.
Game 4: Boston at Cleveland, Tuesday May 23 at 8:30 p.m.
Game 5: Cleveland at Boston, Thursday May 25 (If Necessary)
Game 6: Boston at Cleveland, Saturday May 27 (If Necessary)
Game 7: Cleveland at Boston, Monday May 29 (If Necessary)

Cavaliers guard, Kyrie Irving launches a three in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals on May 1 in Cleveland.
Photo Credit-Jeff Lansky

The defending NBA Champions return to the hardwood tonight for the first time in 9 days after a second round sweep of the Toronto Raptors. The Cavaliers Eastern Conference Finals opponent is a familiar foe in the number one seeded Boston Celtics. The Cavs once again put the question to rest about them “flipping the switch” with blowout wins against the Raptors in the first two games of the series. LeBron James has once again shown why he is the best player in the world by playing arguably the best postseason basketball in his career. King James became the first player in NBA history to tally 275 points, 70 rebounds, and 50 assists in the first eight games of the postseason. That type of dominance has Cleveland poised to earn their third straight trip as well as LeBron’s seventh consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. The Boston Celtics advanced to their first Conference Finals since 2012 after a Game 7 win at home against the Washington Wizards. The Celtics have faced some adversity so far this postseason overcoming a 0-2 deficit against the Chicago Bulls in the first round, while star point guard, Isaiah Thomas has been playing through the grief of losing his sister in a car accident the day before the postseason began. The Cavs and Celtics have met six times in the playoffs with Boston holding the edge 18-16. These two teams have had some classic postseason matchups, but if the Cavs continue to play at the level they have been this will be a short affair.

Key Matchup

Celtics guard, Isaiah Thomas drives to the basket in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals on May 7 in Washington D.C.
Photo Credit-Keith Allison

The matchup to watch for in this series is between Isaiah Thomas and the Cavalier’s defenders. It is no secret that Kyrie Irving is a weak defender and because of this Tyronn Lue will have to limit the times that Kyrie guards Thomas. “IT” is Boston’s go to scoring option with averages of 25.4 points on 44 percent shooting with 6.5 assists a game in these playoffs. Thomas is also shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc so far this postseason. Lue’s defensive game plan of double teams and traps gave both Paul George and DeMar DeRozan trouble during the first two rounds. Look for Lue to use this same strategy against Thomas to force his teammates to beat the Cavs. In the four regular season meetings against Cleveland, Thomas averaged 29.5 points, 6.5 assists, and he shot 21 percent from three point range. Because of Kyrie’s defensive weakness, I expect J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to guard Thomas during parts of this series. If Cleveland successfully slows down Thomas, Boston’s other players will have a daunting task. On April 5 in the season finale between these two teams, the Cavaliers came out firing and played great defense in Boston to win 114-91. Isaiah Thomas was held to 26 points after scoring 31 plus points in the previous three meetings. During that April 5 matchup the Celtics second leading scorer was Jae Crowder with 13 points, while both Horford and Kelly Olynk added 12 points. If the Cavs can turn in more defensive performances like this they will have make short work of the Celtics.

Lansky’s Crazy Stat

LeBron James is the first player in NBA history to score 35 plus points in every game of a four game sweep. He also completed his eleventh career sweep, which is the most by any player in NBA history.

Bonus Stat

With their sweep of the Raptors, the Cavaliers became the first team in NBA History to start 8-0 in consecutive playoffs.

Prediction

After sitting for nine days, the story of Game 1 will be if the Cavs have any issues with rust. The Cavaliers have stressed the importance of rest in between playoff series these last three years and have made sure to hit their conditioning hard during the extended break. This is a veteran team and they have shown that they have benefited from the rest and haven’t been too rusty at all. In order for the Celtics to have any chance in this series Isaiah Thomas will need help. Al Horford has finally evolved into the player the Celtics were hoping for all season on both sides of the floor. He is coming off a terrific series against the Wizards as he shot 67.6 percent from the field and 60.9 percent from three point range. As good as Horford has been for the Celtics this postseason it would be asking a lot for him to continue producing at the level he has been against the defending champs. Defensively, the C’s will rely on their lockdown wing defenders, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to give the Cavs some fits. The Cavs bread and butter all season long has been to bury teams with their shooting. Cleveland has a mind boggling effective field goal percentage of 70.7 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers this postseason, which is the best in the league. The Cavaliers front office built this team by surrounding LeBron James with shooters and it has proven to be very effective. Boston is a scrappy team and I expect the Cavs to face a little adversity in this series. In the end, the Cavaliers experience will reign supreme over a young Celtics team with a bright future ahead of them.
Cavaliers in five.

Cavs-Raptors Round 2 Preview

Cavs First Round: Swept Indiana 4-0
Raptors First Round: Beat Milwaukee 4-2

Season Series: Cleveland won 3-1

Game 1: Toronto at Cleveland, Monday May 1 at 7 p.m.
Game 2: Toronto at Cleveland, Wednesday May 3 at 7 p.m.
Game 3: Cleveland at Toronto, Friday May 5 at 7 p.m.
Game 4: Cleveland at Toronto, Sunday May 7 at 3:30 p.m.
Game 5: Toronto at Cleveland, Tuesday May 9 (If Necessary)
Game 6: Cleveland at Toronto, Thursday May 11 (If Necessary)
Game 7: Toronto at Cleveland, Sunday May 14 (If Necessary)

LeBron James reacts after a dunk in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quaterfinals against the Indiana Pacers. Photo Credit-Jeff Lansky

After a first round sweep of the Indiana Pacers, the Cleveland Cavaliers return to action for the first time in 8 days to play host to the Toronto Raptors tonight. This second round matchup will be a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, a series that the Cavs took in six games. This year’s matchup proves to be tougher for the defending NBA champs as the Raptors have some new pieces on their roster to challenge King James. Toronto’s acquisitions of big man, Serge Ibaka and the sharpshooting PJ Tucker should make for an interesting series. Cleveland jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first round against the Pacers. They quickly silenced any doubts about them “flipping the switch”, as the Cavs rallied from a 25-point halftime deficit to take Game 3 by a score of 119-114. Cleveland squandered fourth quarter leads in three of the four games against the Pacers, something that they can’t afford to do against a dangerous Raptors team. This matchup may arguably be the most difficult of any potential matchup the Cavs may face in the Eastern Conference playoffs this season. Shutting down Toronto’s superstar backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will be key for the Cavaliers.

Key Matchup

Photo Credit: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports

The matchup to watch for in this series is between point guards Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry. Lowry broke his wrist in late February causing him to miss 21 games. Toronto’s All-Star point guard is still trying to find his form again after averaging 14.3 points per game against the Bucks in the first round. He shot 43 percent from the floor and 28 percent from three point land. Lowry is most dangerous off the pick and roll and he can make you pay by drawing fouls on his way to the basket. Kyrie Irving has struggled on defense his entire career and it will be crucial to the Cavs success that he plays smart against Lowry. Irving played very well in three games against the Raptors this season. He averaged 24.7 points, 5.7 assists and shot 47 percent from three-point range. If that Kyrie shows up the Raptors will have their hands full.

Lansky’s Crazy Stat

The Cavaliers swept Pacers guard, Jeff Teague from the playoffs for the third year in a row. Cleveland also swept Teague when he was on the Atlanta Hawks in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals and the 2016 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. I can’t recall any other player being swept by a single team in three consecutive years in each round of the conference playoffs.

Prediction

This year’s Cavs-Raptors matchup is highlighted by new additions for both teams. For Toronto, it’s Ibaka and Tucker who will both be used in different looks against LeBron James. Ibaka has proven to be a threat as he scored in double figures in four of the six games in the first round and he has the second most blocks in the Eastern Conference so far this postseason. For Cleveland, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver will both look to provide instant offense from beyond the arc. As mentioned earlier the key to beating the Raptors is to shut down DeRozan and Lowry. The best way to do that is to force them to make tough shots and keep them away from the foul line. DeRozan ranked fifth in the NBA this season for free throw attempts with an average of 8.7 times per game. Cavs guard J.R. Smith touched on DeRozan’s foul shooting this week saying, “If you can get out of the game with probably a foul or two, him shooting five free throws or less, that’s pretty good.” DeRozan averaged just 5.5 free throw attempts in last year’s conference finals, which proved to be effective. As bad as the Cavs defense has been, they have managed to average the third lowest opponent free throw rate in both the regular season and postseason. If the Cavs can force both Lowry and DeRozan to take contested shots down the stretch and keep them away from the charity stripe they will be in good shape. The Cavs once again showed how dangerous their offense is against the Pacers, but their defensive effort is still lacking. Cleveland became the first team since the 1995 Houston Rockets to allow 100 points in every game of a series sweep. The Raptors are a dangerous scoring team so it will be crucial for the Cavs to make stops and not blow fourth quarter leads. Cleveland has shown that they can “flip the switch,” now can they keep the switch on during crucial parts of the game? That question may define the remainder of the Cavs quest to repeat as NBA Champions.
The Cavaliers will win this series in 6 games.

Cavs-Pacers Round 1 Preview

Season Series: Cleveland won 3-1
Game 1: Indiana at Cleveland, Saturday April 15 at 3 p.m.
Game 2: Indiana at Cleveland, Monday April 17 at 7 p.m.
Game 3: Cleveland at Indiana, Thursday April 20 at 7 p.m.
Game 4: Cleveland at Indiana, Sunday April 23 at 1 p.m.
Game 5: Indiana at Cleveland, Tuesday April 25 (If Necessary)
Game 6: Cleveland at Indiana, Thursday April 27 (If Necessary)
Game 7: Indiana at Cleveland, Saturday April 29 (If Necessary)

LeBron James brings the ball up the floor against the Indiana Pacers on February 15. Photo Credit-Jeff Lansky

After a drama filled season the Cleveland Cavaliers are ready to defend their NBA Championship in the playoffs. The Cavs are set to face their Central Division rival, the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Critics have been all over the defending champs as they went 10-14 after March 1. The criticism grew louder as the Cavs squandered a one game lead for the number one seed to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference this past week to finish as the number two seed. Despite their struggles over the past few months, the Cavs have maintained their confidence level and a desire for the playoffs to begin.

“We have a good chance to win it all. But it starts with baby steps first and we understand that.” LeBron James

LeBron James expressed his confidence in his teams chances to repeat as NBA Champions to the media after the team’s first playoff practice on Thursday. And if you needed any more evidence of The King’s lack of concern about the Cavs recent struggles look no further than his Instagram account. Cleveland had the second worst defensive rating in the NBA since the All-Star break. The Cavs defensive effort was head scratching at times and couldn’t be summed up better than when they blew a 26 point lead in the fourth quarter to the Atlanta Hawks last Sunday. LeBron’s playoff performances need no explaining as the history speaks for itself. The real question is can the Cavs flip the switch during the playoffs? The answer to me is yes as they have shown the past two years they can do it. This season is no different as the Cavs field arguably their deepest roster in franchise history. Cleveland has the perfect opportunity to make a statement against Paul George and the Pacers in the first round.

Key Matchup

The matchup to watch for in this series is a no brainer: LeBron James and Paul George. These two superstar small forwards have had classic playoff battles in the past during LeBron’s tenure with the Miami Heat. We got a preview of this matchup on April 2 as the Cavs outlasted the Pacers 135-130 in double overtime. James and George put on a show with The King tallying 41 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists while PG13 had 43 points, nine boards, and nine dishes. This series should give us more epic highlights between James and George. And who knows maybe we will see another “kodak moment” between King James and Pacers guard, Lance Stephenson.

Lansky’s Crazy Stat

LeBron James has not lost a first round playoff game since May 6, 2012 against the New York Knicks. The King is 44-7 all-time in first round playoff games and his teams have never gone to a Game 7 in the opening round.

Prediction

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – APRIL 04: Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers dribbles the ball against the Toronto Raptors at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 4, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The last few months the Cavaliers having been itching for the playoffs to begin and now they will get their wish. The Indiana Pacers may have clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season, but they are no slouch. When the question of slowing down the Pacers arises the obvious answer would be to stop Paul George. It’s not that simple as the Cavaliers will have to target Indiana’s backcourt to have success in the first round. The Pacers have multiple weapons at the guard position including Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, CJ Miles, and Lance Stephenson. Teague suffered an ankle injury in Wednesday’s season finale, but he is expected to be ready for Game 1 on Saturday. Ellis and Miles are both dangerous scorers that can get hot from beyond the arc at any moment. Stephenson is an excellent wing defender and as noted earlier he is a LeBron agitator.

The Cavs have proved all season long that they have no problem getting their offense going. The Pacers struggle at defending the three-point line, which is where Cleveland can hurt you the most. Kyle Korver punished the Pacers in two games this season by shooting 82.4% from three-point land. However, the key for the Cavs in this series and the entire playoffs is defensive effort. The defending champs have shown that they can play lockdown defense when it matters the most and they will have to prove it again against Indiana’s sharpshooting backcourt. The Cavaliers will win this series in 5 games.