Looking Forward, Looking Back

Playoff Diaries 2015, vol. X

by    June 3, 2015

I guess it kind of had to end like this, didn’t it? The 2015 NBA Finals have the NBA’s reigning MVP playing against the player who’s basically the MVP every year, only it’s not much to call him such. It’s Steph Curry and the Warriors, LeBron James and the Cavaliers; it’s the NBA Finals!

Really, this should’ve been predictable. James is the best player of his generation and Curry was the best player on the best team this year. It all seems so obvious, like it could only have ended this way. But then again, this postseason unfolded so crazily that nothing seemed obvious at the time.

Consider the conference finals. The Atlanta Hawks won 60 games, finished with the top seed in the east and beat the Cavaliers three times out of four this season. By the time the conference finals finished, they’d been undermined by injuries and lost in four straight.

Or look at the Houston Rockets. Going into the series, there was every indication it could be a classic: Harden was a popular pick for MVP this season (he was certainly mine) and the Rockets had just fought off the Clippers in seven games. But after losing two close games on the road, Houston laid an egg at home in game three and by game five, Harden looked like he’d rather be any place but on the court. By game’s end, he’d have nearly as many turnovers as points scored.

It wasn’t exactly a glorious week for basketball. And the long layover betweens series’ doesn’t help matters, either.

But the thing is this is the Finals that looks best on paper and should be as exciting as any in recent memory. When Liebniz wrote that we live in the best of all possible worlds he certainly hadn’t considered the possibility of a LeBron/Curry shootout. But he might as well have.

All season long the Warriors have been one of the most exciting teams in basketball, since Alvin Gentry also helped tear it up with Nash and D’Antoni. They rip it up on offense and averaged more per-game this season than anyone, while being a deeply committed and versatile defensive unit at the same time. They have slowed the pace a little these playoffs: their per-game scoring has dropped by about four points, but so has their opponents scoring, too.

Of everyone on the team, Curry has had the best postseason of all. His PER this spring is 26.4, slightly down from his regular season but highest of anyone still playing regular minutes. In terms of Win Shares, he’s leading the remaining players by a wide margin: 3.1 to LeBron’s 2.1. And this is a guy who set a NBA playoff record for three pointers made in just three rounds, nearly half as many games as it took Reggie Miller to set the previous record.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are just steamrolling people this spring. They’ve lost just two games in three different series, both by a combined 10 points. They took down the Hawks, Bulls and Celtics, no small task considering they’ve been missing Kevin Love for over a month.

Indeed, in Love’s absence, the Cavaliers are depending more on Tristan Thompson, LeBron and Rich Paul’s Canadian Ambassador, and he’s performing at a new level. During the regular season, he was strictly an off-the-bench guy, making a career low 15 starts as his scoring dipped to about 8 points per game. This spring, he’s started 9 games and is averaging about a double-double. More interestingly, his offensive rating has soared up to 132, by a wide margin the highest in the playoffs (nearly 6 points above Chris Paul in second).

And LeBron? Well, what about that guy? We’re talking one of the best players ever here, someone who’s previously dragged worse teams than this to the finals. And he might be having his best postseason yet, too. This spring, he’s almost averaging a triple-double: about 28 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists. While his shooting numbers are down, his usage rate is through the roof: he’s involved in over 36 per cent of Cleveland’s plays, tied for a career high.

Still, there are ominous signs. Consider this: James is taking more shots per game than he ever has before in the playoffs: almost 25 per game. But he’s making fewer of them (just a .492 True Shooting percentage, his lowest in the playoffs) and he’s getting to the line less than ever, just 7 times per game.

While Cleveland has rolled through teams, they’ve also been lucky at times. Love aside, they’ve escaped the injuries that derailed Atlanta. And their series against Chicago was a lot closer than you’d think: 3 of the 6 games were decided by 5 points or less. We could look back on that series as their only big test before the finals.

All of which makes me more and more excited for this series. It’s cool to see LeBron playing in his fifth straight Finals and it’s cool to see the Warriors actually make it this deep into the postseason. It’s great to have Curry shooting the lights out and Thompson making the most of his opportunity. There’s even a breakout star in the post-game media conferences in Riley Curry.

Do I have a preference, hot take or a prediction? For once, not really. I just hope this series lives up to it’s potential and makes up for a lackluster conference finals.

is a freelance writer whose writing has previously appeared at The Good Point, Hardwood Paroxysm, CTV.ca and elsewhere. He can be found tweeting at @thejockocracy.

archive  //  Follow Mark on twitter @milnerwords   //   markmilner@flagrantfowl.ca