If you're a real basketball fan, you'll know the answer to this simple question:
When put together, what are the two greatest words in the English language?
Free money? World peace? Donald Trump?
Whenever the words 'game seven' are even said in the same sentence, a basketball nut such as myself has shivers sent down their spine. Every emotion that a human being has inside themselves comes out during a game seven. Pure happiness, awful anxiety and extreme passion are all at the forefront and these are just for a fan, imagine what goes racing through a players' mind!
This isn't just any game 7 either, this is game 7 of the freaking NBA Finals! The biggest stage basketball has to offer, the spotlight doesn't shine any brighter than it will on Sunday. Sunday's clash will be the 19th time an NBA Finals series has gone the distance and it rarely fails to deliver. The past two have been classics, in 2010, we had the Ron Artest game in an freakishly good Celtics/Lakers new-school battle. In 2013, we had the Duncan missed hook game and a nail-bitter in which LeBron stamped his claim as a top 10/5 player all-time.
Looking back at some of the greats, in 1988 the battle between the Pistons and Lakers was insanely competitive and finished as frantically as you'll ever see. In 1984, there was the culmination of one of the greatest Finals series ever, between Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers. And during the 60s, Bill Russell's Celtics encountered and won 5 game 7s during the Finals, including the ultimate underdog story in 1969, with Russell on his last legs, heading into the Forum for one last hurrah and walking off into the sunset with his 11th title, proving his greatness for the final time against one of the most talented Laker teams ever, with probably the worst Celtics team of that decade.
So will this game live up to the billing I've presented it with. On Sunday, we will have 48 minutes of basketball to decide an entire season, one of the most eventful in NBA history. LET'S BASKETBALL!
But anyhow, that's not for another day. Today, we are looking at the stuff that will decide the game. So here are 4 areas that will be of key importance:
How Golden State Defends Pick & Roll
Golden State killed the Cavs in games one and two, much of this was thru their brilliant pick and roll defense, a strategy in which they simply went under every LeBron James pick and roll. This gave him wide open jump shots which he didn't take and instead, it clogged up the Cleveland offense. By going under the screen, it means LeBron can't get as easy middle penetration and the Cavs can't get into their drive-and-kick heavy style of play that caused them to sprint by all opponents in the Eastern Conference.
But since game 3, the Cavs have adjusted. They have given Kyrie more control of the offense and involved him in more pick and roll, as with his lethal jump shot, you cannot go under the pick and leave that guy open. LeBron has also started to take a lot more jump shots. Just taking these, even if he isn't making them is important, it forces the defense to at least respect you from out there and think again. But LeBron has added to his deadly game by actually making these jump shots of late, meaning that any Cavs pick and roll has started to open up the lane for easy drives, as Steve Kerr doesn't really want to give Kyrie Irving and a jump shot hitting LeBron James open looks.
Now instead of the Cavs being murdered by their own pick and roll sets, the Warriors are being bludgeoned. They have been caught out time and time again by the suddenly lively Cavs. They have taken any jump shot the Warriors have given them after Kerr's squad go under the pick and roll (and made quite a few) and when the Dubs have changed their PnR defense to try and stop the barrage of jump shots, they just exploded to the rim. Then the Cavs started to pick on the Warriors switching strategy on the pick and roll, getting whoever Curry was guarding to set the screen and desperately going at Curry at every possible opportunity.
In game 6, they were absolutely blown out of the water in the first half with every pick and roll, before the second half rolled around and Steve Kerr decided to change up his defense. Instead of just going under or over every pick and roll, or switching, they threw the Cavs a bit off guard by starting to trap the pick and roll. Instead of dropping the screener's man (usually Draymond) back on the pick and roll closer to the basket, they used the Cavalier-esque strategy of bringing that same man up to quickly double team the ball-handler.
This is a type of defense constantly seen by Golden State, who have had just about every defensive strategy in the world approach their formerly unstoppable Curry-Green pick and roll. What the Warriors do, is they have the ball-handler float a pass almost immediately to the screener (again, usually Draymond) who gets to attack a 4-on-3 situation.
Cleveland, after being startled the first couple of times the trick was shown to them, went to that same strategy, using Tristan Thompson as the Draymond-type player. Golden State will usually take this, as Thompson is still a raw offensive player, with limited ball-skills. But in game 6, he thrived in this role, thriving as the roll man in space, attacking the rim better than I thought he would and even using the 4-on-3 to find open players for good looks.
The Cavs also went to the old fashioned Kyrie-LeBron pick and roll, a play in which it is pretty hard for a defense to trap one of those guys to leave the other one open.
Will Golden State continue to do this though, considering that Cleveland have already found ways around that? I personally would definitely stick with it, as I believe it is their best option at containing this pick and roll. Forcing guys like Tristan Thompson to make Draymond Green plays is much better for me than allowing LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to make LeBron and Kyrie plays.
Andre Iguodala's Health
Andre Iguodala is one of, if not the best LeBron James stopper in the entire league. He has the foot speed, athleticism, length, tenacity and intelligence to keep him in check on most nights. For a large majority of this series, he has been LeBron's only defender. Harrison Barnes has struggled, Klay Thompson, while being OK on him doesn't get much of a chance under Steve Kerr and they like Draymond closer to the rim, where he can contest every shot and gobble up rebounds.
Don't look at it in any other way, he is super important to this Warriors' teams chances of taking out another title.
So when Iguodala was lying on the floor, getting his back checked out in game 6, it should've been a worrisome sight for all Warrior fans. We got a first hand look at what a life without the reigning Finals MVP would look like for the Warriors throughout Iggy's injury riddled game 6.
It wasn't a pretty sight.
When Iggy was out of the game, the Warriors waffled between matchups on LeBron, never finding a clear answer. He overpowered weaker matchups, and ran past larger ones. Outside of Iggy, the Warriors really do not have a definitive answer for LeBron. But when the Warriors did have the below-par Iguodala on the floor in game 6, his lack of mobility was so evident it wasn't even funny. He struggled to stay in front of LeBron, to prevent switches and basically do anything of note in game 6, allowing LeBron to have his way with the entire Warriors team.
Without a healthy Iguodala, the Warriors will be clutching at straws finding away to guard James. Their best pound for pound matchup is probably Draymond Green. His size and defensive instincts are good enough to at least slow James down. But if Green is guarding James full-time, since they are now playing him at center almost exclusively with Andrew Bogut out, it could be a disaster, without a single big man at the rim to rebound or block shots.
How Much Does Kevin Love Play?
I'm just going to get straight to the point: Cleveland are monumentally better when LeBron James plays power forward. There, I said it. They are paying a rotation of big men over $50 million and it turns out that they only need like one of them, because their best player is better when playing in one of the two big man spots.
At the four, James can be the roll man on the pick and roll, guard Draymond Green full-time, patrol the rim to a point where the Warriors are scared of him and adjust all of their shots and create a lot more mis-matches, as generally, a bigger guy than normal is guarding him. Since the end of game 2, Tyronn Lue has realized this and has had James primarily play the position, so Lue can experience all of that goodness.
In game 6, they based their entire rotation around James at the four. They limited Love's minutes (yes, I realize he was in foul trouble for most of it) and didn't play Frye or Mozgov at all (the latter was used in garbage time, just so you know). More James at the four allowed the Cavs to evolve as a team and now that they are at that point, they shouldn't attempt to devolve.
It leaves them at an interesting crossroads of what to do with Kevin Love. As we all know, Love is extremely talented and could be the difference maker offensively for Cleveland, but is it worth using him and pushing LeBron down a position, rather than playing James more or less full-time at the four?
For me, playing Love against this Warriors team has proven to be murder. It's exactly why they got murdered in games one and two and why the Cavs have fared a lot better since he was ruled out of game 4. Plus, the Warriors without Andrew Bogut will be playing the death lineup a lot. Kevin Love against the death lineup for 48 minutes is not something Tyronn Lue should want to experience.
Can The Cavaliers Keep The Defensive Intensity Up?
Listen up, the Cavs have been terrible defensively all series. They have a strategy that isn't able to be executed to perfection with the personnel that they have and for most of the series, they have been disengaged. Hell, I could make a 20 minute YouTube highlight reel of their defensive lapses in this series alone. But somehow, in games five and six, the Cavs looked like a juggernaut. They made no defensive adjustments and kept exactly the same strategy, yet they stumped the Warriors over the course of 96 minutes.
The difference is, that the Cavs are now completely engaged. They actually looked like they give a shit out there and with their backs against the wall in back-to-back do-or-die NBA Finals games, it makes sense that this would be the time that they would actually focus, but it sure would've helped if they played like this in the first four games of the series.
Instead of allowing backcut after backcut and 7 or 8 open shots in a row, the Cavs were communicating as well as the Spurs, rotating brilliantly, switching with purpose and were all on a string together. As a team, they forced terrible Golden State shots and a considerably lower Warrior output than normal. Hell, even Kevin Love started to come right in games 5 and 6. He looked like he was twice as mobile as normal, he actually managed to stay afloat defensively and not get exploited. That in itself is a miracle and a cause for celebration.
But can they keep this miracle up? Or, as everyone in the world knows it could, will it go down the crapper? Without a high level of defense, the Cavs have no chance in game 7. So they will have to pray that they will all be on that same page they have been on, and not revert back to normal.
I can't decide everybody. I think this is a toss-up. Cleveland have the momentum and the injuries on their side, but Golden State have the MVP and home court. I literally don't know who to pick.
So you know what, I'm not going to make a pick, it's game 7, celebrate it rather than predict it. Enjoy the moment, soak it in, absorb it and never forget it. Game 7s are something to cherish. Have fun, basketball fans.
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