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Orbiting Cleveland: Defense and Kyrie Irving make the Cavaliers the favorites in the NBA Finals


(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
From the moment we saw the headline, “I’m Coming Home,” we knew the impact that LeBron James’ return would have on the Cleveland Cavaliers and the entire city of Cleveland.

One eloquently-written letter immediately made the impossible seem possible.

As we now sit just three days away from the start of the NBA Finals, could it be that the possible has now become probable? Should the Cavaliers be favored to bring the city of Cleveland its first major sports championship since 1964?

It’s a delicate question that can be answered any number of ways. Las Vegas will tell you that the Cavaliers are still the underdogs in this best-of-seven series against the Golden State Warriors. Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook currently favors reigning-league MVP Stephen Curry and the Warriors with 5-12 odds to edge James and the Cavaliers (2-1 odds). Most national pundits and commentators, Charles Barkley aside, also expect the Warriors to take care of business.

It’s easy to see why so many are enamored with the Warriors. Curry has arguably emerged as the best pure shooter in the NBA and is coming off an MVP season in which he averaged 23.8 points and 7.7 assists per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 44.3 percent from 3-point range.

In addition to the aforementioned Curry, Golden State also has the other Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, an impressive player in his own right. Thompson really came into his own during his fourth season as he averaged 21.7 points per game and shot 46.3 percent from the field and 43.9 percent from 3-point range. He also put on a bit of a spectacle this past January when he scored an NBA-record 37 points for a single quarter, going 13-for-13 from the field.

With a one-two punch like Curry and Thompson, no wonder the Warriors were able to win a NBA-best 67 games this season and claim the No. 1 seed in the difficult Western Conference. When you factor in the other pieces of the team’s starting five (Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes), it becomes even easier to understand why so many experts figure that this team should be favored to win the Finals.

It’s true that the Cavaliers have not faced a team this postseason with an offensive skill set like the one the Warriors possess. It’s going to be a challenge, but there’s one other thing to consider as well: The Warriors have not faced a defense this postseason remotely close to the level of the one they’ll see in Cleveland.

Throughout this postseason, especially after Tristan Thompson joined the team’s starting five, we’ve seen the Cavaliers take their defensive effort to a new level. Thanks to the strong defensive play of James, Thompson, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova, this team has emerged as an elite unit capable of capturing an NBA Title.

Loose ball? Delly’s after it. Need to shut down the other team’s top scorer? Shumps got you covered. Need that key offensive rebound? Tristan’s going to fight and claw for every single one.

For evidence, consider some of these Cavalier postseason statistics, courtesy of Cleveland.com’s Terry Pluto:

  • Cavs rank No. 1 in rebounding (plus-6.5).
  • Cavs rank No. 1 in defensive 3-point field goal percentage (.281).
  • Cavs rank No. 2 in defensive field goal percentage (.412).

That’s a crucial thing to note and for this reason. While it’s true that Curry and Thompson have put together some incredible offensive numbers, they’re more pure shooters than they are scorers. There’s a difference between the two, and it’s an important distinction to make.

Yes, there will be times in this series where Curry and Thompson will make some circus-style shots while being heavily guarded. The Cavaliers are just going to have to live with that.

However, it’s much easier to defend outside shooting than it is to defend an attacking slasher. While Curry and Thompson can drive and penetrate at times, they’ve shown that their tendency is to shoot from the outside, and that could tip the scales in the Cavaliers’ favor.

Consider some of these numbers on Curry and Thompson in regard to the number of times they drove to the basket during the regular season (NBA.com defines a drive as any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks):

  • Overall, Curry totaled 454 total drives at an average of 5.7 drives per game. He averaged 4.4 points per game on his drives, and the Warriors as a team averaged 7.6 points per game on his drives.
  • For Thompson, it was 363 drives at an average of 4.8 drives per game. He averaged 3.7 points per game on his drives, and the Warriors as a team averaged 5.8 points per game on his drives.
Now let’s compare that to James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers’ top two scorers. On the season, James and Irving averaged 25.3 and 21.7 points per game, respectively.

While both players are good shooters, Irving especially has a remarkable outside game, they both are known for their pure scoring ability. On any given moment, they are capable of driving to the hoop, getting an easy bucket or kicking the ball out to a teammate for an open look.

With regard to drives this past season, here is how James and Irving performed:

  • Overall, James totaled 665 drives at an averaged of 9.8 drives per game. He averaged 7.6 points per game on his drives, and the Cavaliers as a team averaged 11.8 points per game on his drives.
  • For Irving, it was 694 total drives at an average of 9.4 drives per game. He averaged 7.0 points per game on his drives, and the Cavaliers as a team averaged 11.7 points per game on his drives.

That’s a significant difference from the drive numbers of Curry and Thompson. Overall, Thompson and Curry had 817 drives this season between the two of them. For James and Irving, it was 1,359 drives. James and Irving combined to average 47 points per game this season while Curry and Thompson combined to average 45.5. The difference is how each duo got their points. Essentially, in this series, we’re looking at a battle of two great shooters against two great scorers. So, who gets the nod?

In my opinion, the Cavaliers’ recent defensive efforts should make them the favorite in this series. As noted earlier, there are going to be times where both Curry and Thompson are going to make some wild shots, but it’s easier to defend a player on the perimeter as opposed to the paint.

Perhaps the most important piece in this all is Irving. He’s been hobbled by a right foot injury and tendonitis in his left knee, which has left him at less than 100 percent throughout the playoffs. Thankfully, the Cavaliers have been off since last Tuesday, so hopefully that gives him ample rest time before Thursday’s Game One.

If so, then the Warriors should watch out. It’s going to be hard for them to contend with a healthy Irving and a healthy James. Hell, I’ll take it a step further. It will be borderline impossible.
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About Steve Orbanek

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