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The NBA Finals X-Factors

Ezra Shaw-Getty Images

The NBA Finals key factors besides the stars.

I know what you’re thinking: “Really, these two teams again?” A fourth consecutive title matchup for the Cavaliers and Warriors is an historic feat. We have arguably the greatest player of all time against the greatest team ever. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green are on the cusp of leading the Warriors to become one of the NBA’s great dynasties, but it feels more like monotony for most fans, especially given the severe underdog status of LeBron James’ Cavaliers. 

The first two games of this series were polar opposites. Cleveland was narrowly defeated in a valiant Game 1 effort that featured questionable officiating, a 51-point night from  James, and an embarrassing blunder from J.R. Smith. Then the Warriors controlled and thoroughly outplayed them in Game 2, casting serious doubt on the competitiveness of this series going forward. 

Besides the obvious stars in this series and their potential impact, here are the x-factors for both teams that can help determine whether Cleveland will bounce back from a 2-0 hole or be dominated by an historically great Warriors squad. 

Warriors Bigs

JaVale McGee entered the Warriors’ starting lineup in Game 2 of this series, and many could argue he was the most effective big on the floor for either team. He was a perfect 6/6 from the floor and brought energy and effort in pick and roll action. If McGee, Jordan Bell, and Kevon Looney can impact the game, it’ll be impossible for the Warriors to lose the Finals. The only prospective advantage for the Cavaliers could be the interior game; the Warriors bigs can negate that possibility by outplaying the Cavalier frontcourt.

In particular, if they can be a thorn in the side of James on his many drives to the basket, it’ll be a quick series and a second consecutive title for Golden State. 

Bench Play

In the unlikely scenario that Cleveland wins this series, they’ll probably have better bench production. The Warriors’ bench contributors are often forgotten. Shaun Livingston, David West, Nick Young, Quinn Cook, and (sometimes) Iguodala provide Golden State with stability when they rest their stars. 

As long as the Warriors’ bench does it’s job, it’s hard to imagine them losing. However, if they fail to contribute, it’ll put a lot on the Warriors’ starting unit and open the door for Cleveland’s bench to have a bigger impact and keep the games close. 

Kyle Korver, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Jeff Green, and whomever else Tyronn Lue decides to use would have to significantly outplay the Warriors’ bench unit to give the Cavaliers a decent chance to steal games. In particular, Korver would have to be highly efficient on his catch and shoot opportunities from deep, and Clarkson would have to find his stroke after a miserable first two games and perhaps provide much needed guard scoring for Cleveland. He’s a talented scorer and has demonstrated an ability to provide instant offense when he’s on his game. 

Another bench contributor, Rodney Hood, could see some action for Cleveland at some point. He hasn’t played a minute in this series, but he averaged about 17 PPG for Utah and showed some flashes for Cleveland this year before losing his groove. Particularly, if J.R. Smith continues to struggle, look for Hood to have an opportunity. 

Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson’s role is simple: physicality and effort. When he’s at his best, Thompson can be an extremely physical rebounding presence. In the historic 2016 NBA Finals, when Cleveland overcame a 3-1 deficit, Thompson was an x-factor and averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds. His enthusiasm to chase rebounds jumped off the screen in the latter games of that series. However, the following year, the Warriors cut his production in half.

When Cleveland is at its best, Thompson is an offensive and defensive presence. He’s oftentimes the most physical and effort-driven player on the court. However, there are also stretches were he’s ineffective, unengaged, and consequently unplayable. His ability to be active on the boards and patrol the painted area will have to impact the series if Cleveland is to pull the upset.  

Andre Iguodala

The Hamptons Five is +20.8 against opponents in the playoffs. The Warriors’ dominant small-ball lineup is their most potent weapon, and “Iggy” is the often overlooked cog of that unit. His injury strips them of the extra ball handler, playmaker, and savvy defender that feels like the “cherry on top” that teams have no answer for.

In addition to the offensive advantages he provides, Iguodala also provides an extra defender to switch onto James. The Cavaliers will surely hunt mismatches for LeBron for the duration of the series, and although no one can “stop” James, Iguodala is one of the few players in the league who can make him uncomfortable. He provides an extra body to throw at Cleveland’s only consistent offensive threat, and his presence means one less mismatch for James is on the court. If and when Iguodala returns, the Warriors’ advantage in this series will grow exponentially. 

Kevin Love

When considering potential x-factors, you typically don’t include a five-time All-Star forward in that category. Unlike the rest of these players, Kevin Love’s presence on this list is a disappointment for his team, not a convenience. Love has routinely logged around 20 points and 10 rebounds throughout his 10-year career; given his talent, his contributions in this series should be automatic, right up there with Klay Thompson’s or Draymond Green’s.

However, this year has been incredibly inconsistent for Love. Since becoming the number two scoring option after the Kyrie Irving trade, he averaged his typical 20 and 10 over the first 34 games of the season. Then he took a nosedive, averaging 12 points on just 43% shooting over his next 14 games. He would then break his hand, miss 19 games, and remain inconsistent through the rest of the season and into the playoffs. 

However, the Toronto series gives Cleveland a bit of hope. He got back to being that 20 and 10 double-double machine in that series, which included a 31-point night in Game 2 that featured his third-highest scoring output of the season. In order for the Cavs to win the Finals, they’ll need that version of him — a highly effective, highly efficient sharpshooter, rebounder, and post presence. 

For Cleveland’s sake, Love can’t allow Draymond Green to be his kryptonite; he has to get to his spots on the court and score efficiently. If Love can be some semblance of a second option for LeBron, the Cavaliers’ chances of pulling an upset are greatly increased. The greatest player of his era paired with just one other legitimate all-star contribution will be a significant challenge for even Golden State. Love’s performance is the biggest x-factor of the Finals.  

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

SQuiz
How many 30-point games did Kevin Love have in the 2017-2018 season?
Created 6/4/18
  1. 3
  2. 1
  3. 7
  4. 10

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