Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford says the overarching factor heading into this NBA Finals match-up is pace.
“Both teams will set out to control pace because they play differently,” Clifford said. “The Warriors want to play fast – very up-and-down. You see slower, more inside-out play from Cleveland.”
The NBA Finals begin Thursday night (9 p.m., ABC) in Oakland, Calif. The Observer asked Clifford to describe five keys for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in this much-anticipated match-up.
If he were coaching the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers …
1 “I’d be concerned with our turnovers. People don’t necessarily realize Golden State is first in pace-of-play. They’re great at creating a lot of quick shots (before a defense is set). They steal the ball a lot. That results in not just layups, but a lot of (transition) 3-pointers.”
2 “Great-player defense. With Golden State that’s (against) Steph (Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry), but 2a is Klay Thompson definitely. You’ve got to limit what those two do early in possessions. And that’s not just pull-up 3s. They both make great passes. Steph is so good at getting ahead of the ball (in transition). You need a specific plan to deal with that.”
3 “Three-point defense. Golden State is the No. 1 3-point shooting team, and they do it in a number of ways. Those two guys (Curry and Thompson) put your defense in peril every time they touch the ball. As a group, they’re the most skilled shooting/passing team I’ve seen in 15 years. Their skill level is difference-making with big men (Draymond) Green and (Andrew) Bogut. That’s not easy to stop, because I don’t think (the Cavs) have the ability to switch a lot.”
4 “One advantage Cleveland has is they should win the rebounding game. Tristan Thompson is a great offensive rebounder and the Cavs should get a lot of second-chance points. Golden State doesn’t have great rebounding (22nd among 30 teams in total rebound percentage).”
5 “The Cavs have to win the free-throw game. Golden State doesn’t get to the free-throw line a lot. Creating free throws helps the Cavs’ scoring, but it also gets back to pace. They have a much better chance of having their defense set” after taking free throws.
If he were coaching the Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors …
1 “When you’re playing Cleveland, the No. 1 thing is always your LeBron (James) defense. He is so diverse offensively. They run all those pick-and-rolls where sometimes he’s the ball-handler and sometimes he’s the screener. One thing that works for Golden State against that is their ability to switch, particularly when they have (Andre) Iguodala in the game. Thompson, Iguodala and Green are all exceptional defenders, and (Harrison) Barnes is very good. That gives them opportunities to switch that not all teams have.”
2 “Make Cleveland guard the whole court. Golden State is the best 3-point shooting team in the league. It’s not just about their shooting. Their passing gets you running around so much. They beat you as passers and off the dribble.”
3 “The Warriors spread you out so they can score a ton in the paint. They can work that on the Cavs when they put Bogut at the elbow (the corner between either side of the lane and the free-throw line). He’s such a great passer for his size when they send cutters (to the rim). Three of those baskets just breaks your defense down.”
4 “If Kyrie (Irving) is healthy, that’s a huge part of this series. LeBron wouldn’t have to create everything. Kyrie gives them a great primary option to create offense.” (Point guard Irving has a left knee injury and he said Monday he won’t be 100 percent “unless something miraculous happens.”)
5 “They’ve got to do something (to mitigate) the free-throw differential.” (Golden State has the best free-throw percentage in the NBA at 76.8 percent, but took 225 fewer free throws in the regular season than the Cavaliers.)
Clifford’s pick: Warriors.