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N.B.A. Finals: Warriors and Cavs Star in Basketball’s Version of Groundhog Day

N.B.A. Finals: Warriors and Cavs Star in Basketball’s Version of Groundhog Day

His partner, Mark Jackson, has been around the league since 1987 and took his time before weighing in on Cleveland’s chances with “I’m not going to say zero percent chance.”

On paper, it’s hard to make a case for Cleveland. Many have suggested that this is the worst supporting cast James has had in any of his nine career appearances in the finals: Jeff Green, a player almost synonymous with failing to meet expectations, was the second-best player in Cleveland’s upset of the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Warriors, should Andre Iguodala be healthy, can run out a starting lineup of five players who appear destined for eventual enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

But once you accept that Golden State has the advantage in stars, home court and, after last year’s trouncing, psychology, looking for a path to victory for the Cavaliers can provide some fun and maybe some hope for Cleveland fans, who are more than happy to point out that the 73-win Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers in the finals in 2016.

The first thing Cleveland will have to do is build up a huge lead in the first half — huge. Since the Warriors have had a tendency to lazily plod their way through the beginning of games, developing no rhythm on either side of the court, committing horrendous turnovers and settling for shots that qualify as bad even for their expert shooters, there is an opportunity to capitalize with aggressive play. If Cleveland can control the offensive glass — something Tristan Thompson has shown he can easily do against the smaller Warriors players — and the veteran-laden Cavaliers can bully Golden State on the other end of the court with physical play, they could force the Warriors out of their team-first philosophy. The Rockets showed that this strategy could regularly result in a double-digit lead at halftime.

The trick, though, is for the Cavaliers not to let an early lead convince them of anything, and not to fall into the trap of trying to match the Warriors shot-for-shot once the third quarter rolls around.

Golden State has outscored its opponents by a ridiculous 130 points in the third quarter in these playoffs — an average of 7.6 points a game — and was even better against the Houston Rockets, with a 67-point advantage over seven games. Coach Steve Kerr’s halftime adjustments often resulted in the offense running heavily through Curry, rather than Durant, and the points came in incredible bunches once Curry started having fun. A common response to this scenario is to try to match Curry and Durant 3-pointer for 3-pointer while playing at a breakneck pace, rather than just plugging away with higher-percentage shots and letting their halftime lead do some of the heavy lifting. Cleveland can’t fall into that trap.

The Warriors are far more vulnerable in the fourth quarter, so if the game is close in the final 12 minutes, there is hope for an upset.

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