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The Finals rematch between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers may feel different this year for one huge reason.
In this year’s Finals, the Cavaliers will have both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy. Last year, Love hurt his shoulder in the first round of the playoffs and missed the rest of the year. Irving broke his knee in Game 1 of the Finals.
The two injuries left LeBron James to carry a lesser supporting cast on the NBA’s biggest stage – and he nearly did as the Cavs went up 2-1 before the Warriors closed out the series in six games.
And though Love and Irving’s presence undoubtedly helps Cleveland on the offensive end while providing them with more depth, their presence also comes with a major concern on defense. Simply put: neither Irving nor Love are great matchups against the Warriors because both struggle to defend the very positions at which the Warriors boast great players – Stephen Curry at point guard and Draymond Green at power forward.
In last year’s Finals, the Cavaliers clung to life by riding LeBron James on offense, defending with vigor, and beating the Warriors on the boards. It wasn’t a viable plan long-term – James wore down, the Warriors regained their mojo on offense, and the Cavs’ supporting cast wilted as the series went on. However, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe teased, there are people around the NBA that believe this is the Cavs’ best recipe for success: let James handle the offense while his teammates defend and rebound like hell.
In a breakdown of the Cavaliers’ porous defense this postseason, Lowe dropped another nugget about the feelings toward this kind of Cavs lineup (emphasis ours).
[Opponents] are putting Irving and Love into twice as many pick-and-rolls each game as they averaged in the regular-season, a massive jump out of proportion to the slight uptick in minutes the two are playing together. These are the sort of numbers that had members of the Golden State Warriors’ coaching staff quietly fretting when both Love and Irving missed last year’s NBA Finals, forcing the Cavs to play superior defenders in their place.
The numbers back up Irving and Love’s poor defense. Through the postseason, the Cavs are allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions with Love on the floor and 107 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor – the two worst numbers for any regular rotation player on the Cavs.
Irving and Love will be crucial to the Cavs’ chances of winning the championship. Not only will their offense be needed to provide James with the assistance he needs, but they can’t simply trade points with the Warriors. The Cavs will need stops eventually, and it remains to be seen if they can get them with Irving and Love on the floor.
Part of the problem is that the Warriors don’t allow places for Cleveland to hide Irving and Love. Take Irving off of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, or Andre Iguodala will post him up or bully him on drives. Love can’t keep up with the Swiss army knife that is Draymond Green, and the Warriors are licking their chops at the prospect of forcing him to defend their pick-and-rolls. Should the Cavaliers put Love on a big man like Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli to minimize his defensive responsibility, the Warriors will likely go to their small-ball, “death” lineup with Green at center, leaving no place for Love to hide as he’ll have to cover the entire floor.
The Cavs don’t need Love and Irving to transform into all-NBA defenders, but they need them to be competent. Both players’ offense will be critical for the Cavaliers, but if they are giving up the points that they’re scoring, then the Cavs will have to go to more defensive-minded players. In turn, they’ll lose the precious points Irving and Love provide.
This Finals rematch feels like a defining moment for the Cavs’ Big Three of James, Love, and Irving, and from the sounds of it, the Warriors aren’t shaking in their boots over facing the three of them together.