LeBron James Is the Best Player in the League
Basketball fans said that Stephen Curry surpassed LeBron James as the best player in the league in 2016. LeBron looked older, slower, and less engaged, and Steph was the antithesis of him. Where James was brutish and pounding, Steph was quick and electrifying. James bullied his way into the paint for tough shots. Curry drained shots from deep on the perimeter with ease. But, that was all before this series. In this series, Steph labored to score the basketball against bigger, stronger defenders. He turned the basketball over more than he created shots for his teammates. And, his 30.1 points on 50% field goal percentage regular season scoring average shrunk to 22.6 on 40.3% in the NBA Finals. James on the other hand, excelled against the Warriors for a second year. Last year in the Finals, he probably should have won the Finals MVP despite losing in 6 games. He led all players in scoring, assists, and rebounds in the 2015 NBA Finals. In 2016, LeBron James led all players in the Finals in points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals. In three elimination games, James put up 41 points Games 5 and 6, and earned a triple-double in Game 7. He dominated when all the pressure was on him, and reclaimed his spot as the best player in basketball. LeBron James excelled when all the pressure was squarely on his shoulders and willed his team to a championship.
Andrew Bogut Was Really Important
In 4 games with Andrew Bogut, the Golden State Warriors were 3-1. He protected the rim on defense, he set strong picks, he made good passes on offense, and he used his size to disrupt the Cavaliers throughout the first 4 games. When he went down with what is assumed to be a badly sprained knee or a torn ACL/MCL, the series changed. Bogut helped set a tone of toughness for the Warriors with Draymond Green in the lineup. Without his size, rebounding, defense, and role in movement of the basketball on offense, Golden State was seriously outmatched under the rim. Festus Ezeli, his backup, had good size and athleticism, but lacked a lot of the basketball IQ that Bogut brought to the table. Ezeli could not pass well out of double teams, he failed to score on post-ups in one-on-one matchups, and his shot-blocking skills were not as developed as Bogut’s. The loss of Andrew Bogut may have cost the Warriors their magical season.
The Draymond Green Suspension Turned the Series
Draymond Green plays dirty. He leads with his knees and elbows on shots. He has hit a few people in the groin on the way to the rim, including the notorious Steven Adams kick to the baby maker. He grabs jerseys, he tangles his arms with defenders to get calls from the referees, and jaws incessantly while playing. But, he is the heart of this Golden State Warriors team. He pushes them when it looks like they want to quit. He fights when other players have given up. He was needed in Game 5. Green’s suspension and the subsequent injury to Andrew Bogut may be solely responsible for the Warriors falling to the Cavaliers in 7 games. The Warriors needed rebounding and grit, but they were undermanned. The offense stalled without Green’s passing ability and Cleveland went to the rim unimpeded without his defense. More specifically, LeBron James found his stride without Green playing in Game 5. He dropped 41 without Green attached to him for 35-40 minutes per game as he put on a historical run over the last three games of the series, dropping 41 again in Game 6, and scoring 27 while registering the fifth Finals triple-double of his career. Draymond Green punched James in the groin after James disrespected him by purposely walking over him placing his crotch in the face of Green. But, Green’s lack of discipline might have cost his team a championship.
Small Ball Was Exposed
The demise of Small Ball started last year in the 2015 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers challenged the Warriors for six games without both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love by using strength and length to combat the quickness and elusiveness of the Golden State attack. They slowed the Warriors offense with physicality and size. Ultimately, they fell to a more talented team, however, they competed in every game despite being undermanned and had a real chance to win the series with the brilliance of LeBron James. Small Ball was exposed again in the 2016 Western Conference Finals where the Warriors faced a physically gifted Oklahoma City Thunder team. The size and athleticism of the Thunder caused Steph Curry and the smaller Warrior squad trouble with rebounding the basketball, and it helped the Thunder challenge the Warriors’ deadly long-range shots on the perimeter. There were very few clean looks at the rim for Golden State in the first 4 games of that series. But, as that series wore on, better ball movement and less reliance on the three pointer helped Golden State get back into their offensive rhythm and overcome a 3-1 deficit. But, in the NBA Finals this year, Small Ball died before our eyes. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson looked physically outmatched on the perimeter when defenders were allowed to play physical defense. The big men of Cleveland overpowered all of Golden State’s big men, especially once Andrew Bogut went down. Irving looked more athletic and more skilled than the Golden State guards. And, LeBron looked like a man playing amongst boys. He bullied the Warriors with his raw power and size. The Cleveland Cavaliers reinforced a known truth about sports. The bigger, stronger team usually wins.
The MVP Underachieved
During the regular season this year, we saw Stephen Curry do things on the basketball court that the basketball world has never seen. Curry scored from the three point line more efficiently and more often than any other player in NBA history. He became a member of the exclusive 50/40/90 club and earned the highest scoring average on the list. Steph looked like a magician on the court bombing deep shots seemingly from anywhere in the gym regardless of his competition. He played so well that he became the first unanimous Most Valuable Player in the history of the National Basketball Association. At times, Curry was his only competition. He broke his own shooting records and single-handedly won some games on his own with his sharp-shooting exploits. He averaged 30.1 points per game on 50.4% from the field and 45.4% from the three point line with 6.7 assists per game in the regular season. But, in the Finals those averages dropped to 22.6 points on 40.3% from the field and 40.0% from three with only 3.7 assists. He averaged more turnovers than assists on the biggest stage. But, the reasons why he missed more shots are vastly more important than the fact that he missed more shots. Steph stopped attacking the rim. And, at least part of the reason that he stopped attacking was because was because his shot was blocked at a higher rate around the rim in the Finals than in the regular season. In the regulars season only 17 of his 422 shots within 10 feet of the rim were blocked. That is a rate of . Consequently, Curry shot 61.1% from 10 feet in in the regular season. In the NBA Finals 5 of his 26 shots around the rim were blocked, and he only shot 45.5% near the rim in the Finals. Because of that, Curry shot significantly more pull-up jumpers than he did layups and his overall field goal percentage dropped precipitously. The long, questionable shots that he took in the Finals were out of rhythm because he had not scored any of the easier buckets that he made during the regular season before he took the difficult shot. In Game 7, he tried to play hero ball in the fourth quarter, launching terrible shots off the dribble from well behind the three point line, and missing great opportunities to use his teammates and take control of the game. The Warrior offense was disjointed because Curry played out of character. And, they lost because their leader lost himself.
Kyrie Irving Is A Star
Curry, the regular season MVP, needed help to get open because of his size. Kyrie Irving did not. Klay Thompson struggled to get good looks at the rim. Irving created shots at will with his ball-handling. If not for a historic NBA Finals by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving would likely be the Finals MVP. He scored consistently on the biggest stage and in the most important games of his NBA career. Irving hit big shots whether he was well-defended on plays or wide open. He attacked the rim and finished layups off the wrong foot with either hand using perfect English on the glass. He split defenders with a low dribble, had his crossover in full effect, and utilized his quickness to turn the corner on defenders and his strength to keep them at bay. Irving has proven that he is a complete offensive weapon, but he showed a bigger dedication to defense in this series too. He made crucial steals and even had a few blocks against the Warriors, putting forth the type of effort that champions need to give in order to win big games. Irving was already a star in the league having made 3 All-Star teams and having won an All-Star MVP, but his clutch play in the Finals pushed him into another echelon of player.
The Better TEAM Won Game 7
Golden State brought real basketball back to the NBA in the past few seasons. They excelled at ball movement, spacing, and shooting, skills that have been largely ignored in a league full of elite athletes. They stressed teamwork in all their interviews, and their commitment to each other showed on the court. But, in the final 3 games of the 2016 NBA Finals, Golden State became a collection of individual talent trying to win by themselves instead of a talented team with a common goal. Cleveland, on the other hand, followed their leader, and everyone fell into their roles. LeBron scored and distributed the basketball. Kyrie and J.R. Smith finished plays. Love and Thompson rebounded. And, Richard Jefferson did all the dirty work. Golden State had three players trying to win the series through isolation plays. Cleveland unified and played the type of basketball that Golden State has beaten teams with all year. In Game 7, the Cavaliers ran offensive sets where the basketball touched all their players hands before they slashed to the rim for an easy score. Golden State had Curry, Klay, and Green trying to take their defender off the dribble before shooting a contested three pointer. Good basketball always beats selfish play. One team had players who wanted to be heroes so desperately when the series ended that they pilfered away makeable shots for foolish attempts from long range. It cost them dearly. The other team had players who wanted to win regardless of who claimed glory for the win, and they worked to get each other good looks at the rim. Cleveland proved themselves to be a better team in the NBA Finals and their reward was a NBA championship.