Monday, June 12, 2017

"You're Home, Baby"

The Golden State Warriors defeated the Cavs 129-120 in the fifth game of the NBA Finals to claim the 2017 Championship.  It was a storybook win for this team because every player played well and several played brilliantly.  It was Strength in Numbers triumphant.  After winning in 2015 and losing the seven game series last year, Steph Curry could touch the championship trophy and tell it, "you're home, baby."

Kevin Durant won the Finals MVP but in this revealing postgame press conference he noted the big contributions made by Steph Curry, who some observers claimed on the basis of numbers was the real most valuable player.  (And in fact, after KD got a huge ovation from the home crowd as he held up his trophy, when Steph was introduced the crowd chanted MVP--which technically he could still win for the season, though it's unlikely.)

KD had 39 points, bolstered by some audacious threes and jump shots.  The Cavs harassed Curry all game again and he wasn't hitting 3s but with drive after drive to the basket, he scored 34.  Andre Iguodala played longer off the bench as part of the Hampton Five smaller lineup and again came up big defensively while scoring 20 points.

Klay Thompson's defense paid off again and he had his 3 stroke going.  Draymond Green kept his cool, made plays and hit his open 3s.  Both veteran David West (who finally won his first championship) and rookie Patrick McCaw had key buckets and made plays.

All this was necessary because the Cavs got not only lots of scoring from LeBron and Kyrie but J.R. Smith hit seven 3s.  The Cavs won the first quarter but the Warriors went on major runs in the second and fourth quarters to keep control.  They led by as many as 17 points.

All the talk about the Warriors being the most hated team evaporated during these playoffs.  This is the team of unselfishness, of playing with joy, and of friendship.  The good guys won.  Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors, 2017 NBA champions.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Pre-Game Five

The Cavs hit a record number of threes, benefited from dubious officiating ( hitting their foul shots while the Warriors didn't) and got away with muscling the Warriors to take the fourth game of the NBA Finals.

But nobody was harder on the Warriors effort than Coach Kerr on Sunday, especially on defense.  It was acknowledged by everyone that the Cavs were the more aggressive team.

Now the Warriors come home, playing another close-out game on Monday.  The fifth game is the most crucial game of any series, as the winner of it almost always wins the series.  It is the Warriors best chance to win the championship.

What adjustments do they need to make?  Most observers note that they scored well enough to win most games, but in addition to the Cavs super-hot shooting, their defense was inhibited by foul trouble.  They lost the first quarter badly but stayed pretty even the rest of the way.

It seems the fatigue factor hit the Warriors more, against the desperation energy of the Cavs, which continued by playing ahead and in some sort of zone.  Now the energy edge should go back to the Warriors at home.

One observer suggested that Steph Curry didn't have the ball in his hands enough as playmaker, and given the Cavs muscling him off the ball, it threw him off his rhythm.  So running the offense through Curry more seems like a good idea.

What is there to worry about?  Defending threes but not giving up layups as a consequence.  I'm not sure I liked Steph's statement after the fourth game that the first six minutes are crucial, and without them it takes a near miracle to win. It forecasts the strategy, and if the Dubs don't have a great first six minutes then the doubts creep in?

Draymond has been a little too vocal between games for my tastes.  Everyone knows the Cavs love to bait him, and he seems to be cooperating.  He needs to play a cool game for the first three quarters, and take over the fourth defensively if necessary.

The Cavs opened the fourth game with desperate energy and got the breaks they needed--they got calls, the Warriors were a step behind, and they hit shots at a phenomenal rate.  They fed off that overwhelming start, and even though the Warriors had gotten back within 7 points in the second quarter, the Cavs kept hitting key shots while the Dubs did not, to keep the Cavs at a safe distance.  It's hard to see this happening again.

The Warriors have to play with composure as well as joy, for the Cavs will do their worst to frustrate them and beat them up.  However it's hard to believe that the officiating will be as bad either.  The Warriors have to be the overwhelming favorite to win the championship tonight.

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins, winner of the Stanley Cup NHL championship with a 2-0 win on Sunday in the sixth game.  (They won the fifth game 6-0.)  The Penguins are the first NHL team since 1998 to win two straight championships.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Pre-Game Four

Even apart from being down three games to none, the Cavs are in a tight spot for the fourth game.  LeBron James played major minutes again in the third game, with an aggressive first half going to the hoop and shooting threes.  But he ceded the third to Kyrie and was pretty obviously gassed in the crucial fourth.  Now he's facing a closeout game for Golden State two days later, the least amount of rest in the playoffs.

That James and Kyrie carried the scoring meant other players were less involved, and that also came back to haunt them in the fourth quarter.  So the logical strategy for the next game is for James to get everybody involved early, and save more of himself for the fourth quarter.

But in that third game, without his first half scoring, the game would probably not have been close in the fourth.  So what is the strategy?  Down 3-0, the Cavs might start thinking about the long term, about keeping LeBron healthy and not using him up, even with the long off-season ahead.  But LeBron himself is likely to be especially competitive about not being swept.

So will we see LeBron come out scoring, or distributing? Maybe distributing to start.  Obviously how the game is going will be a major factor.  If the Warriors do what they've done in previous close-out games this year--get a big lead right away--then chances are LeBron will get more rest in this game.

On the Warriors side, all the talk has been about KD and Steph.  Some see them as potential co-MVPs though most observers tip the balance to Durant.  But the fourth game could see two other heroes: Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.  Green has been trying to be careful, although he's been in foul trouble anyway.  He might be more obviously active Friday, and put up big numbers.

As for Thompson, I was impressed that in his postgame interview on Wednesday he kept talking about Friday, what they needed to do on Friday.  He was (in the phrase they all use) "locked in."  Only Curry ventured to evaluate Wednesday's game historically.  So given Thompson's breakout from his shooting slump, he may have one of his monster games on Friday.  If the Warriors don't suffer a letdown, it's hard to see how the Cavs win a game, if they couldn't win Wednesday.

Warriors Tough It Out

Finishing with an 11-0 run to win the third game of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors showed the one element some observers questioned: their toughness.  It was the Cleveland Cavs who arguably panicked as their lead slipped away in the final minutes.

The Warriors took the early punch they expected in the Cavs first home game, and countered it with a record number of threes in the first quarter.  They led at the end of the first quarter and the half.  Their signature third quarter didn't happen however, and the Cavs seized the momentum, when Kyrie Irving took over the scoring at the basket from LeBron.  But they both played heavy minutes and couldn't withstand the cool composure and determination of Curry and especially Kevin Durant in the final minutes.  The final score was 118-113.

Klay Thompson continued his return to shooting form with 18 points in just the first quarter.  His defense in those crucial last minutes, particularly on Kyrie's last possession, was outstanding.

Evidently the Cavs game plan was to neutralize Draymond Green, and he did get in early foul trouble.  Though always important on both ends, Green hasn't had a breakout game--yet.

The fourth game is Friday, when the Warriors could sweep and become the first NBA team in history to go 16-0 in the postseason.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Pre-Game Jitters

The third game of the NBA Finals in Cleveland will begin soon.  For the past few days the sports media chatter has been almost universally about Warriors dominance.  That may be so in the series, but it doesn't guarantee a win in this game.

In terms of the physical benefits of rest, the home team has a decided advantage in the first two games, especially in a time-zone spanning series like this one.  The Cavs crossed from the eastern to the western zone, with whatever effects that may have on sleep and sheer physical energy, presence and groundedness.  The Warriors hadn't gone anywhere in a couple of weeks.  They were totally there.

So we've seen only games in which the Cavs were at the biggest physical disadvantage in terms of time zones of the series. That advantage doesn't repeat to the same extent as the series goes on.  The Cavs will have some but a smaller advantage in their home time zone, but they've had to adjust as well as the Warriors.  The games are at about the same relative time, (5 or 6 p.m. West Coast time) so theoretically both teams now don't have to adjust as much.  But small differences in energy levels, in the ability to maintain focus, can have large consequences.

This is apart from the other aspects of home court advantage, such as familiarity with the space and especially the home crowd.

So how do the Cavs win this one?  If the Dubs come out shooting threes and don't make them, and especially if at some point in the game, the Cavs start hitting threes in droves.  Both things have happened before with these two teams.

The Cavs didn't shoot especially well in Oakland, and still managed to be competitive for most of the second game.  The Warriors went from only four turnovers in the first game, to 20 in the second.  As Steve Kerr said, they'll be hard pressed to win in Cleveland with that many turnovers.

So missed threes and turnovers that help to energize the Cavs with easy baskets early, followed by a rain of Cav threes.  Those are the obvious routes.  But of course every game is only itself: players in foul trouble and above all injuries can change the game, and injuries can still change the series.

Still, it's hard not to agree with media observers that the Warriors have so many weapons and are playing so well (and so fast) that over the course of a game, and certainly over the course of a series, they're very very hard to beat.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Another Record Setting Win for the Warriors

The Golden State Warriors won the second game of the Finals 132-113, setting a Finals record with the most made 3s at 18.  Steph Curry had his first playoff triple double, and Kevin Durant had a double double for the Dubs.  LeBron James had a triple double for the Cavs.

The Cavs changed their defensive approach and mixed their personnel.  Some of it backfired--they fouled to stop fast breaks, but Curry tied an NBA record by making all 14 of his foul shots.  But with an aggressive game by LeBron James, who also had a record number of assists in the first half, the Cavs kept coming close.  Still, the last actual lead they had was at 15-14 in the first quarter.  The Cavs had runs.  But the Warriors had blizzards.  They got a healthy lead in the third quarter and pulled away in the fourth.

Curry and Durant were the big guns, with momentum-changing and breathtaking shots and plays.  Klay Thompson got his 3 point stroke back.  Durant's defense was dominant as the game wore on.

Coach Steve Kerr was back on the bench for the first time since the first round.  In the post-game euphoria of the media, he cautioned that the Warriors turned the ball over way too many times, and if they do that on the road they are likely to lose.

Most Warriors fans probably remember the media euphoria last year, when some sportswriters wanted to declare them the ultimate winners after their first two home game blowouts, and even more so when they went up 3-1 with a fourth game win.  With a healthy Curry and Kevin Durant, whose play in these games invites some to call him the best in the game, this year is likely to be different.  But nobody should be counting their chickens just yet.

The important game 3--the next odd numbered one-- is Wednesday.  Obviously it's must-win for the Cavs, and it's all but over if the Warriors get the victory.

While a historically excellent team plays basketball in Oakland, San Francisco's baseball team struggles on the road, losing a series to the MLB basement dwelling Phillies, prompting at least one Bay Area sportwriter to proclaim them the worst Giants team in a generation.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Warriors Win Game 1

The Golden State Warriors became the first team in NBA history to win their first 13 games of the playoffs, prevailing against Cleveland in the first game of the Finals 113-91.

I remember the Lakers team of 2001 that swept the first three rounds but were unprepared for a rampaging Allen Iverson in the first game of the finals.  But they stifled him after that to beat Philadelphia in five games.

The Warriors played arguably one of their best games of the year, and yet not the best they could, at least theoretically.  Their shooting was a bit off.  But their defense was stellar, as was their rebounding.  The most startling stat was turnovers--they had four as a team.  LeBron alone had 7.  Kevin Durant scored 38, with thunderous dunks and long 3 pointers.  Steph Curry picked his spots for his amazing 3s, that further deflated and panicked the Cavs, as did his stuttering drives.  For most of the game the team was fluid, fast and fun.

 The next day the Cavs were talking about increasing their "physicality."  That could be translated into, the only way they can win is if they hurt somebody.  The Dubs chemistry was incredible, with lots of assists and everyone contributing on both ends.  The Cavs won last year because Curry was hobbled and they goaded Draymond into a suspension.  It's their main hope this year as well.

That's the remarkable thing about that first game: both teams are at full strength for the first time in three finals meetings.  It was clear in that first game that if the Warriors are focused and getting shots to fall at near their normal clip, they are the better team.  Only a significant injury is likely to change that.

Most of the time the odd number games are the most important in a playoff series--1, 3 and especially 5 (and of course 7, duh.)  Winning the first game is a big deal.  But as we found last year, lots can happen.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Two Finals Set

Now it's certain: The Warriors and the Cavs meet in the NBA finals, starting in a week.  There's been a lot of noise about the Warriors sweeping but I'm not listening to it.  I will not be surprised if the series goes the full seven.  I do expect the Warriors to win it.

Congratulations to Stanley Cup champs the Pittsburgh Penguins who tonight made it back to the finals.  I don't follow hockey at all but it was always electric in Pittsburgh when the Penguins were in the finals.