The Warriors and Cavaliers face off next week in the NBA Finals for the third straight time. The two teams are separated by a single game over the past two seasons, regular season and playoffs. But there are crucial stats that will decide this series, and here are four among them.
I. Long-Range Volume
Pop quiz, hot shot: Which of the two Finals teams has a higher 3-point rate? That is, who takes more 3-pointers of their total possessions? Surely, it's the Splash Brothers, with Kevin Durant, that team that revolutionized where you could reasonably take 3-pointers from and in what situation, right? Wrong.
|3-point FGA per 100 possessions||34.7||30.4|
That's right, the Cavaliers made more 3-pointers and shot them at about the same percentage.
This says more about the Cavaliers than the Warriors. Two years ago, the Cavaliers' entire game plan was to go in and try and slow the game down, grind down Golden State, win with offensive rebounds and defense. That's not going to happen this year. The Cavaliers have evolved and while they will still hope their defense is good enough to generate consistent stops and frustrate Golden State's free-flowing ball movement, they have a slightly different approach.
They're going to try and match the Warriors in shooting. That's why they added Channing Frye last year, and it's why they added Kyle Korver this year. Had Andrew Bogut not gotten hurt, he would have added some center minutes, but because he did, now the Cavaliers have to double down on trying to win the "math problem" and get 3's to the Warriors' 2-point buckets.
Part of the reason Golden State is taking more 2's is because teams are overplaying their guards, always worried about those 3's and that leaves cutting lanes wide open. If the Cavaliers cut off those cutting lanes, the Warriors may revert to taking more contested 3's ... which would actually help them, because they can still hit those at a higher level than Cleveland. Then again, getting 2-pointers at unreal efficiency means you can still generate enough points per shot to overcome the math advantage Cleveland has.
If the Warriors lead in 3-point percentage, and are shooting in volume, the Cavaliers don't have enough firepower to hang. It should be noted that the Warriors trounced the Cavaliers in 3-point percentage in the playoffs, and actually improved their catch-and-shoot volume and percentage in the last three games of the series last year. The key is how different this Cavs team is. It's a gamble, but they're basically trying to evolve and stay ahead of the Warriors as opposed to beat them with what worked last year.
II. LeBron's Aggressiveness
These are from last year's Finals:
|LeBron James, 2016 Finals||Wins||Losses|
|FGA per 100 possessions||30.9||25.3|
|Assists per 100 possessions||10.1||11.6|
Now, this makes sense to a degree. He took fewer shots in losses, probably because of some of the early-series blowouts, and if the Cavs are struggling, he's having a hard time finding shots. Here's what's notable. LeBron averaged more assists in losses than in wins, while in wins he shot 5.6 more times per 100 possessions.
This is a really complicated way of saying "LeBron has to be aggressive," which, OK, yeah, brilliant, right? But it shows you the stark differential. A 4.1 usage percentage swing is pretty massive, even in a small sample. The Warriors know James is at his most dangerous when he's doing everything. Scoring, passing, etc. Most teams load up on James and try and take away his scoring, and the Warriors last year tried to stay home on shooters more and force James to dominate scoring. He did, and that's why the series wound up swinging (along with a lot of other factors.)
James has to be aggressive, not just with how he approaches the game, but specifically, scoring. If he gets to the rim and scores on the Warriors' defense, it bends and fractures their defensive principles and forces them to adjust. Once they start to adjust, there are more weaknesses. The Warriors want you swing the ball. They have the roational speed and awareness to anticipate and disrupt.
What they don't want is James, the best player on Earth, just attacking his man over and over again. It worked in 2015 when they could bring help. They can't with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor.
III. The Javale Minutes
When JaVale McGee is on the floor, the Warriors are a plus-26.3 per 100 possessions with a 99.1 defensive rating in the playoffs. He plays about 11 minutes per game, comes in, destroys everything, and that's it. The Warriors annihilate teams in those minutes. Teams in the past (specifically, Denver) struggled with finding ways to use McGee consistently over long minutes. His impact and energy would fade quickly, and the defensive mistakes would come. You're basically waiting for his athleticism and energy to tip and the defensive errors to catch up.
McGee's been better defensively this year than ever, and the defense has been the same (99.0 defensive rating) when he's been on the bench. But those minutes vs. the Cavs are going to matter in big ways. He's the only guy the Warriors have who can threaten Tristan Thompson with at-rim athleticism.
If the Cavaliers can manage, or exploit, those minutes with McGee on the floor, it takes away a big secret weapon of theirs. But if McGee is throwing down lobs, blocking shots, and getting putbacks, Cleveland's losing a battle they need to win, and the Warriors are in great shape.
IV. Transition Weirdness
Here's another bizarre one. The Warriors are 12th among playoff teams in points per possession in transition. They're have a 54.5 percent effective field-goal percentage. In the regular season, they were 2nd, with a 65.7 effective field-goal percentage mark. They could actually, despite sweeping the West, have been better in transition. Think about that.
The Warriors still lead the league in the playoffs this year in fast-break points, with 20.2, and lead the league in transition opportunities, with 21.2 per-game.
So basically, the Warriors are constantly running, and while they haven't been as efficient as they could be, they're just overwhelming teams with opportunities to do so.
In last year's Finals, the Cavs had a better points per possession mark in transition, 1.099 to the Warriors' 0.90. The Thunder found this same model, and it worked. They rammed the ball down Golden State's throat in transition, and it takes their strength, their fast-break style, and disrupts it. If the Warriors continue to not be sharp, that could bite them. If they revive and take over in that area, again, the Cavaliers may not have enough firepower to survive.
Cleveland has to win in all these weird Warriors-dominant margins, reversing the script. And if you don't think they need to, realize that much of that was how they pulled off the greatest upset in NBA history last year.