After what seemed like non-stop playoffs action, the past week has seemed like a ridiculously long break. Thankfully, the first game between Cleveland and Golden State is almost upon us. Come Friday morning 11am AEST, the first round of this final battle begins.
Firstly, the great news: Klay Thompson, who was suffering from a concussion has since been cleared to play in Game 1, exuding confidence, readiness, and above all, no symptoms. Everyone desires nothing but a competitive game, and having Klay healthy is an encouraging start to the playoffs' final chapter.
More importantly: what do we expect of our Aussies in this epic clash? Here are a couple of thoughts and potential storylines that warrant a closer look.
Will Bogut be able to handle the Mozgov/Thompson duo?
Andrew Bogut has held it together for the Warriors all season long, when it came to defense. He's healthy, he's positive, and he's ready to give his all.
“My body still feels great,” Bogut said after practice Monday. “There are still days when I’m really sore, but for the most part I feel pretty good and I’ve played 80-odd games this season (including the postseason).
“Hopefully, it can be four more wins and a beautiful offseason.” - Warriors’ Andrew Bogut grinded his way to NBA relevancy
Cleveland's hulking front court is not to be taken lightly, however. When sharpshooting power forward Kevin Love went down with a dislocated shoulder, Tristan Thompson stepped up admirably in his own way: by ferociously attacking the glass. Thompson's offensive rebounding average rose from 3.3 to 4.0 in the playoffs, ranking third in the league. (Technically first, since Chandler and Aldridge only played 5 games each, versus Thompson's 14.)
It's not necessarily Bogey's job to stop Thompson, as Draymond Green will likely be defending the frisky Cleveland forward. Have no doubt though, denying Thompson's rebounding efforts will be a key task for Golden State's front court.
Timofey Mozgov on the other hand, revolutionised the Cavaliers' defense with solid rim protection. This postseason, the Big M is averaging nearly two blocks a game. His defensive impact is elite among centers, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Russian big man hoisting a block party for the Dubs. Ditto for pick and roll plays on the other end. Defending an agile 7 foot giant who's charging headlong at the rim for a two-handed dunk is daunting, and tricky at the same time.
It's not all gloom and doom however. The Warriors have shown themselves to be a capable rebounding team when the need presents itself, the onus is not on Bogut alone. The ball will likely remain in Curry's hands for the most part, but do not be surprised if Bogut plays the role of high post passer. This could bear fruit if Mozgov is forced out of the paint, and Bogut's keen passing vision is well capable of finding kinks in the Cavaliers' defensive armour.
Containing Cleveland's pick and roll plays (especially their roll men) will likely be part of Golden State's game plan in Game 1. And this topic involves our other Aussie in the Finals: Matthew Dellavedova, whose trademark hustle has triggered a meteoric rise to fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it) and at the same time, given the Cavs a huge boost on both ends.
Does Dellavedova get his way on the pick and roll?
It's nothing we haven't seen before. Delly gets a high screen from Tristan Thompson, and drives hard, drawing both defenders to him. He then switches tactics, and tosses the ball up high, back to the undefended Thompson for an alley oop.
Two easy points, rinse and repeat. The Dellavedova-Thompson pick and roll play is fast becoming a Cleveland staple, and you can bet your sneakers the Warriors will be ready for this.
Unlike a lot of other teams, Golden State has the luxury of fielding multiple tall, long-limbed defenders. Instead of deciding whether to go over or under screens, the roster allows an easier solution on the pick and roll play - the choice of switching up defenders on the fly. Against the Warriors, Delly will definitely find the windows of opportunity closing quicker than before. Having a longer defender on his back (ergo, less space to operate) makes the basic play all that harder to run, and the split-second lag a screen usually causes, will be lost on switching defenses.
Does it mean the Cavs should not run pick and roll plays at all? Not at all. Switching causes defensive mismatches, and it is in Cleveland's best interests to exploit these opportunities whenever possible. For example, Klay Thompson being switched over to defend Mozgov could still be a good look, depending on how deep Mozgov establishes himself in the paint. It's on Delly to recognise the scoring opportunities however, and not get fixated on running the basic action (either his own drive or a lob pass), when the potential bucket could very well be another option.
Will Delly continue to get open three-point shots?
Matthew Dellavedova took more than half of his three-pointers this playoffs, with defenders that were at least 4 feet away. When it came to wide open shots that were hardly contested (nearest defender more than 6 feet away), Delly made his shots count, and sank those baskets at a staggering clip of 46.9%.
As long as LeBron James remains on the floor, it's logical to think that the Warriors will at times, be forced to double-team or help out. Rotations like these, couple with James' unmatched passing instincts naturally lead to an open outside shot.
Let us however, consider the opposite angle. Will it be too far-fetched if the Warriors force a gamble like many other teams have done in earlier years, and force James to beat them alone? This means no help defense, every Warrior staying home on the shooter, and letting LeBron chuck all the shots he likes.
LeBron James is no longer the manic scoring tank he once was, and it's unlikely he can sustain heavy minutes without contribution from the other Cleveland players. This scenario likely leaves Delly (and other shooters) with limited shot attempts, and could seriously stifle the Cavaliers' long-range firepower.
Does Cleveland already have a counterpunch in its game plan for this scenario? Kyrie's health might be a key factor in this discussion. Regardless, this defensive war of wits will be an intriguing one to watch.
It's tough that the first four games in the Finals are all scheduled on weekdays. Catching the game live might be a real challenge for most of us, but don't forget to follow Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Friday morning on social media should League Pass, Foxtel (or the pub) not prove to be viable options.
Above all, count on our Aussies to play hard and do their job, regardless of the way the dice rolls.