After bludgeoning the Boston Celtics on Thursday and advancing to the NBA Finals, LeBron James referred to the Golden State Warriors as a "juggernaut" multiple times. The Cleveland Cavaliers star had previously shied away from talking about the Warriors this season, downplaying that the two teams were obviously on a collision course. It's significant, then, that James voiced his respect for them this way, saying that Golden State has been "the best team in our league for the last three years, and then they added an MVP."
James also said that thinking about the Warriors is "stressful." That is an understatement. The Cavs enter the Finals as clear underdogs, and this challenge appears to be even greater than coming back from a 3-1 deficit last June.
If the defending champions are going to topple Golden State again, then a number of key things have to go their way. Here's a look at how they could get it done:
Defend better than they ever have
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said that Brad Stevens' Celtics were harder to game plan for than the Warriors because of their unpredictability, and this wasn't a totally insane statement. The Cavs know what Golden State generally wants to do, and in last year's Finals they were so focused and physical that they were able to take the best regular-season team of all-time out of its comfort zone.
They have to do that again, and it's much more difficult now. In terms of the sheer amount of weapons and ways the Warriors can beat you, they are a different animal than any team Cleveland has seen. If they are getting stops, running and moving the ball, they are just about impossible to slow down. The Cavs have to be locked in, force them into isolation play as much as possible and be physical without putting them on the free-throw line. If the ball is zipping around and Cleveland is scrambling, it can't afford many mistakes.
Even if the Cavs do everything right, they also might need some luck, like Klay Thompson continuing to miss more open jumpers than expected. If Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are accurate from deep, it's hard to imagine Cleveland keeping it close.
Make sure LeBron is the best player in the series by a healthy margin
Golden State has two MVPs, so this is a tall order. If the Cavs are going to pull this off, though, James has to give a Herculean effort on par with what he did in Games 5 to 7 of last season's series. That Warriors' switches can stop him from getting easy pathways to the basket, but when he is at the top of his game, he is the one dictating how they move.
Part of this formula is that James simply needs to fire away. If Golden State goes under screens, he has to shoot those open jumpers without hesitation. He has done that for most of this year's playoffs, and when he's making them, it can be demoralizing for defenses trying to take away his drives and everybody else's open shots.
The other part of this formula is all about defense. Cleveland has been excellent at limiting opposing stars in the playoffs, and while it hasn't dealt with anything quite like the Curry-Durant combo, it must do everything it can to keep them off balance and out of rhythm.
Win the transition game
Cleveland's offense has been even better than the Warriors' in the postseason, but Golden State has been superior in transition. While the Cavs' transition defense was horrendous for much of the regular season, that has not been the case in the playoffs. This isn't about "running with the Warriors," but Cleveland needs to push the ball when it can rather than going against Golden State's set defense every time.
James is a nightmare on the break, Kyrie Irving is one of the best finishers in the league and no one throws outlet passes better than Kevin Love. The Cavs have to take advantage of all of those things. They also need to force turnovers, limit their own and get back in transition after misses. That last part is tricky because they must also …
Dominate the glass
One easy-to-remember rule about upsets is that they're easier if the underdog has extra possessions. This seems entirely plausible here, as Love and Tristan Thompson are two of the league's most relentless rebounders. Defensive rebounding was Golden State's one real weakness in the regular season, and while this hasn't been an issue in the playoffs, the Cavs have an actual advantage in this area. If the Warriors go small and are not punished on the boards for it, then Cleveland is more or less screwed.
Get the most out of Love
This is a weird thing to ask about one of the best power forwards on the planet, but can the Cavs make Love a viable option? He has never been a great fit in this particular matchup, his amazing Game 7 stop against Curry notwithstanding. A large part of Cleveland's success this season has been because Love is more involved than ever, and the series against Boston was by far his most productive. If that can continue, the Cavaliers should have a chance.
The problems are that Love does not have an advantage against Green on the block and that Golden State attacks him in pick-and-rolls. The good news is that Love is in perhaps the best shape of his career, which could help him compete defensively. If the Warriors are able to exploit him on that end, then the Cavs will suffer on the other, where his floor spacing, screening, passing and offensive rebounding are crucial.