The 67-15 Golden State Warriors were huge favorites over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals even before Cleveland’s All-Star guard Kyrie Irving suffered a season-ending knee injury in game one.
Without Irving, it seemed impossible for Cleveland to win the series and perhaps even difficult for the Cavaliers to win a game.
Now, Cleveland is up 2-1 over Golden State and, statistically speaking, the Cavaliers are the favorites to win the 2015 NBA championship.
LeBron James is averaging 41.0 ppg — the most ever for the first three games of the NBA Finals — plus 12.0 rpg and 8.3 apg but he is shooting just .402 from the field.
Irving has been replaced in the starting lineup by Matthew Dellavedova, an undrafted free agent whose bump and run defense has left 2015 NBA MVP Stephen Curry missing shots and shaking his head.
Dellavedova has emerged as the point guard version of Dennis Rodman without the tattoos. Rodman used to get into players’ heads while also playing a physical style that disrupted his opponents and Dellavedova is employing similar tactics.
As legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi bellows in an oft-replayed sound bite, “What the hell is going on here?”
To some extent it is foolish to make sweeping statements about a series that is not over and could be 3-0 either way if you change just a handful of key plays.
So, if there are any definitive conclusions to be drawn we need to wait at least two more games to draw them.
However, here are some things that we have learned during this series.
The supposed small-ball, analytics-driven revolution only works if both teams agree to play that way. Cleveland’s size has killed Golden State in the paint, as noted by ABC analyst Doug Collins.
In fact, it could be argued that Cleveland would have won games two and three more easily if Coach David Blatt did not stubbornly stick to his routine of limiting Timofey Mozgov’s fourth quarter minutes. The Warriors have no answer for Mozgov at either end of the court; on offense, he punishes the Warriors every time his defender tries to stop LeBron James from driving and on defense he has blocked and altered many shots.
Post play is allegedly dead and NBA offenses are supposed to rely on layups or three pointers from drive and kick action but LeBron James has controlled this series for significant stretches by posting up. He either backs down his defender from the three point line or else just establishes post position and catches an entry pass.
Coming into this series, most commentators focused on talent — the talented players Golden State has and the talented players Cleveland is missing due to injury — but team defense and rebounding are more important than talent.
Yes, LeBron James is having a superb series but he is not guarding all five Golden State players and he is not getting every rebound (though he is getting a lot of rebounds).
This Cleveland team is similar to the much-maligned Cleveland team that James led to the NBA Finals in 2007; both squads had big front lines, played great defense and had players who could make timely shots when James forced the defense to trap him.
Name brand talent is not as important as skill set considerations and how the skill sets of various players on a team mesh together. Cleveland’s 2007 team did not consist of a bunch of scrubs, nor is James going into battle now with a bunch of scrubs.
In boxing, it is said that styles make fights. The teams that tried to outrun Golden State did not have the personnel to do.
Memphis tried to slug it out with Golden State but Memphis is so inept offensively that the Warriors could just sag their defense into the paint and still win in a slow down game.
Cleveland is not trying to outrun Golden State and Cleveland has better shooters than Memphis.
Cleveland also has the best player in the world, which brings us to another point worth mentioning. Is it not obvious to everyone now that James should have won the 2015 MVP award? Stephen Curry is a great player but he can be stymied. James Harden’s gimmicky offense and lackluster defense will always cause his teams grief in the postseason.
LeBron James can do things that no other NBA player can do, at both ends of the court.
I know that the MVP is a regular season award but James has an unmatched skill set and he had a great regular season leading a team with a rookie coach and a roster being put together on the fly.
The only way to justify not giving the award to him was by either valuing compelling narrative over skill set reality or by using so-called advanced basketball statistics to diminish James’ contributions.
Isn’t it ironic that the narrative now is that we may be witnessing one of the greatest upsets in NBA Finals history, led by a player who is not playing efficiently and who is playing a style for which Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson received tremendous criticism?
Teams that hustle and play defense but do not have overwhelming offensive talent can go pretty far when led by an “inefficient” superstar who accepts the burden/responsibility of scoring 30-40 ppg.