This NBA season has seen 1,309 games played. Between four and seven games are left and we’re on the brink of history. If the Warriors finish things off, then they become the consensus Greatest Team Ever. If Cleveland pulls off the upset, LeBron James becomes the guy who ended the city’s walk through misery. As nice as that second option sounds for the city of Cleveland, let’s face the truth here: the Cavs have no shot in this series.
That’s right, no shot. You have a better chance of seeing the Vermont Lake Monsters hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy than the Cavs do of winning this series. Hell, there’s a better chance of the Atlanta Braves hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy than the Cavs do of winning this series. The Cavs are a good team, but they can’t match Golden State. They simply don’t have the personnel. Try putting yourself in Tyronn Lue’s shoes and answering some of these questions.
Question 1: Who guards Stephen Curry?
There’s no right answer to this for the Cavs. Conventional wisdom says to leave Kyrie Irving on him but Irving isn’t a good enough defender to stay with Curry. Among Cavs players in their regular rotation, Irving has the worst defensive rating in the playoffs. That’s not inconsistent with what we already know about Irving as a defender. If he guards Curry, the MVP will have free reign to roast Kyrie in pick and rolls or even just in isolation where Irving has allowed 1.15 PPP these playoffs.
If not Irving, then who? J.R. Smith has improved vastly on the defensive end this season, but if you put him on Curry than Irving is on Klay Thompson. Lue could really roll the dice and go with LeBron, hiding Irving on Harrison Barnes, but that would mean LeBron expanding lots of energy on defense. We saw the adverse effects of that when Curry guarded Russell Westbrook in the Conference Finals, plus there’s no guarantee that Curry wouldn’t treat LeBron the way he does all other big men and shake him off with ease.
The other option is to start Iman Shumpert or Matthew Dellavedova, having either Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson come off the bench depending on what Lue prefers. Those are the Cavs’ best two options in terms of defending Curry but there are drawbacks. While both Shumpert and Dellavedova are solid offensively, neither brings a lot to the table and both are easy for the Warriors to help off of. Additionally, it would require LeBron to start at power forward which he may not want plus it would create a media frenzy if Love were to come off the bench.
Ultimately I think the last option, with Shumpert starting for Love, is the best chance for Cleveland, especially if they need to match up against Golden State’s Death Lineup. Shumpert can guard Curry, Smith can guard Klay and Irving can hide on Barnes or Iguodala if the Warriors start him. Love coming off the bench also makes sense. He would be more involved and better utilized playing against Golden State’s bench units plus he would be less exploitable defensively. That being said…
How are the Cavs going to guard a pick and roll involving Irving, Love or Channing Frye?
Those three players have been great for the Cavs this season and even better in the playoffs. Irving is averaging 24.3 points and 5.1 assists these playoffs and Love is averaging 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds. Frye is shooting the lights out off the bench with an 81.8 effective field goal percentage and 23.9 PER. The Cavs need that production, badly. Without it, they’re stuck in the same spot as last season’s Finals. However, none of those three players are reliable defensively. Remember how the Warriors went out of their way to exploit Enes Kanter against OKC, rendering him virtually unplayable? They’ll try and do the same with Kevin Love and Channing Frye knowing that Cleveland stands no chance switching a pick and roll with either of them. The same goes for Irving.
Defensively, it’s going to be tough for Cleveland to weather the storm with any of those three on the floor. Offensively, it’s going to be impossible to score without any of them. The Cavs may have to win a shootout with the best shooting team in the league and maybe ever to win this series.
Those questions aren’t the only things crippling Cleveland’s chances in this series. They’ve shot incredibly in these playoffs with a 43.4 percent mark from 3 that would have led the league in the regular season but that’s close to impossible for them to keep up. Simple regression theory says that Cleveland’s going to have a rude awakening in terms of shooting given that they shot a comparatively low 36.3 percent from beyond the arc over an 82-game regular season. Channing Frye can’t keep shooting like Larry Bird in the ’86 3-point contest and Iman Shumpert can’t keep shooting like Glen Rice.
That’s not to say they’re a bad shooting team either. Frye is going to shoot well and be a solid offensive player, as are Irving, Love and J.R. Smith. But they can’t keep it up at the level they’re currently shooting.
Cleveland’s best lineup in the playoffs by Net Rating has been Dellavedova/Shumpert/Richard Jefferson/LeBron/Frye. While that’s a solid combination and the Cavs are at their best when LeBron is at the 4, that lineup isn’t sustaining a +46.6 net rating against Golden State. Jefferson and Frye are going to be exploited defensively and there isn’t enough shooting on the wings. That lineup also dominated Toronto by running the exact same play over and over.
In Game 6, the Raptors finally stopped this play by going under on Matthew Dellavedova. The Warriors’ coaching staff is smart enough to avoid getting fooled by the same play time and time again.
Golden State has every advantage in this series. They crushed Cleveland with the Death Lineup last season and after revitalization in Games 5-7 against the Thunder, it’s going to wreak havoc again. Whether the Warriors start Barnes, Iguodala or both is an interesting dilemma, but it’s not going to decide the series. Kerr likely going to go with whichever option allows Iguodala’s minutes to match up with LeBron’s the best. Iguodala worked wonders last season defending LeBron and although James is going to average 35 points and win a game by himself for Cleveland, that’s not going to faze Golden State. This is a battle-tested team that just won an all-out war against the Thunder. Cleveland’s toughest competition thus far has been Toronto in a series that never felt close, even when it was tied 2-2. This series won’t even be as close as that one.
Warriors in 5.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
 Assuming my math is correct.
 The thought of winning this series might be the 5th greatest sports moment in the history of the city.
 Okay, fine. That’s impossible.
 Shumpert shot 29.5 percent from 3 in the regular season and is shooting 47.4 percent from 3 in the playoffs. It’s close to impossible that his playoff shooting is sustainable.
 Picture per HalfCourtHoops on Twitter.