10 players who will have key roles in the NBA Finals
For the fourth year in a row, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet in the NBA Finals. Unlike past years, it hasn’t been a cakewalk for either team, with the Cavaliers forced to win Game 7s against both the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, while the Warriors had to fight back from 3-2 down against the Houston Rockets.
The Warriors are heavily favored, owing to Cleveland’s thin roster and lack of support for LeBron James. Still, this series isn’t a slam dunk, and several players on each side will determine how it goes. Here are ten players who will determine the next NBA champions.
10) J.R. Smith, Cavaliers
Once such an important part of Cleveland’s 2016 title run, Smith’s influence has diminished a bit, though he still holds down a starting role. Nobody will mind in Cleveland if his defense is good; the Cavaliers will need him to be at his very best defending Golden State’s perimeter scorers such as Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson. He’s arguably their best option to defend that perimeter outside of James, and if he can knock down a few threes in the process, that’s even better.
9) Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers
Another member of the Cleveland supporting cast whom James so badly needs to perform, Thompson is the number one interior option. He got heavy run in the Boston series, putting up one double-double and scoring double-digit points three times, all in Cleveland wins. Thompson helps in limiting second chance opportunities and can add a few points down low. Every little bit helps the Cavaliers and LeBron.
8) Draymond Green, Warriors
The Rockets dared Green to beat them from the perimeter in the Western Conference Finals and he mostly couldn’t do it, making just two of his 17 attempts from beyond the arc in the series despite a number of open looks. Against the Cavaliers, he’ll look to get back into playing his game more, and the more porous defense should allow him to do it. Expect to see him tasked with handling James a lot as well, likely alongside Durant. That will be his big job. It’s impossible to keep James quiet, but it is possible to keep him in check and contain the damage he does to a manageable amount. If Green can do that, the Cavaliers won’t win.
7) Kyle Korver, Cavaliers
Who would have thought that in 2018, Kyle Korver would be a key part of an NBA Finals team? So key, in fact, that Lue was trolled by fans for his refusal to play Korver enough in Game 5. When Korver gives the Cavaliers double-digit points in these playoffs, they’re 8-1. When he doesn’t, they’re 4-5. That’s the importance of him as a supplementary option to James and one of Cleveland’s best, most reliable three-point shooting options.
6) Stephen Curry, Warriors
It’s simple for Curry: if he plays up to his full capability, Golden State wins the series. He’s still the best shooter in the sport, and the Warriors’ ability to pull away and win Game 7 against Houston came down largely to him finding looks, flipping the switch, and knocking down pretty much every shot he took. Cleveland’s perimeter defense, a unit that has scuffled, has its work cut out in this series. Curry could very easily torch them and make this a short series.
5) George Hill, Cavaliers
Coach Tyronn Lue wanted Hill to be more aggressive throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, and he popped up with a 20-point performance in Game 6 just in time to help save Cleveland’s season. He faded back into a secondary role as the Cavaliers won Game 7, but he’ll need to get back to that aggressive mindset against the Warriors. Even if it just gives their defense something to think about, James needs all the help he can get — a common theme in this series.
4) Kevin Love, Cavaliers
Love suffered a concussion early in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Cavaliers won both games they essentially played without him. They probably won’t get away with that against the Warriors. It’s a small sample size, but when Love scores at least 20 points this postseason, Cleveland is 3-1. That’s probably going to prove simplistic against Golden State, but it certainly can’t hurt. His status for Game 1 is unclear, but if Love isn’t giving the Cavs a steady second option after James, they don’t stand a chance of winning.
3) Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Golden State’s defense against the Rockets was quite effective, but they definitely suffered from Iguodala’s absence. He’s vital to how they play, and it was no coincidence that it took everything they had to get past Houston without him. The fact that there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the state of his knee is worrisome for Golden State, as his absence really is that meaningful to them. They can win without him, but it certainly makes it tougher.
2) Kevin Durant, Warriors
Though he averaged 30 points per game, Durant was at times maddening during the Western Conference Finals. Particularly late in the series, he fell into the iso-happy offense that colored the worst moments of his Oklahoma City tenure. Golden State’s biggest struggles came when Durant had the ball and looked to shoot. It was far from his best series. He woke up in the second half of Game 7 along with the rest of his teammates, though, and will get a shot at a second consecutive NBA title. Cleveland is an inferior defensive team to Houston, and Durant should have more opportunities to make things happen, both for himself and for his teammates. If he plays to his potential, the Cavaliers won’t have an answer.
1) LeBron James, Cavaliers
Predictable, perhaps, but James is the best player in this series and the only reason the Cavaliers are in it. This is the worst Cleveland team that James has played for during his second stint with the franchise, as they’re porous defensively and lock themselves into a constant struggle to score when James or Kevin Love aren’t doing it. So yes, a big part of this series will come down to James, though even a series of superhuman performances won’t do the job if he doesn’t get enough help from his teammates. Even if that doesn’t happen, enjoy the best player of his generation, especially with so much uncertainty hanging over his future.