It's pretty easy for Golden State to win its first NBA title since 1975: simply shut down Cavaliers superstar LeBron James and then start planning that parade through Oakland and/or San Francisco. But can LeBron be shut down?
James Can Beat You With More Than Scoring
I'm going to answer my own question from above right away: no. But it might be possible to slow James down a bit. James is averaging 27.6 points per game in the playoffs, the third-highest average among players, behind New Orleans' Anthony Davis (31.5 ppg but in only four games) and Golden State's Steph Curry, the regular-season MVP. James' points per game scored or assisted on has increased in each round of the playoffs: 43.1 in regular season; 43.3 in Round 1 vs. Boston; 48.4 in Round 2 vs. Chicago and 53.6 in the conference finals sweep of Atlanta. Even LeBron acknowledges that he's playing at the highest level of his career -- he has had to with the injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
"If you put everything together as far as my mind, my body, my game. If you put everything in one bottle, this is probably the best I've been," James said this week.
But James is doing much more than scoring. He is 10th in the postseason in rebounds (10.4 rpg) and third in assists (8.3 apg). I'm sure the Warriors are plenty motivated, but I bet James is totally focused on bringing the city of Cleveland its first major professional sports title since 1964. It's why James returned to northeast Ohio from Miami. I'm pretty sure he will use Curry beating him out for MVP as some motivation as well.
Let LeBron Launch From Deep!
So how will Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr game plan for LeBron? Those who place NBA picks know that the simple answer is to clog up the paint and make James a jump shooter because he's well below 40 percent on jumpers of at least 15 feet in these playoffs (33.3 percent from midrange). Ideally, you just let James roam free from behind the 3-point arc because he is hitting only 17.6 percent from there in the playoffs. It helps the Warriors' cause that Love is out and Irving is hobbled because they are both good from the perimeter. Irving also is great at getting to the basket but can't do that at all right now with his foot and ankle problems. Sag off him too.
The guy who will be the primary defender on James will likely be Warriors forward Draymond Green, a runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year this season. Certainly Andre Iguodala will also get his looks at James. Green is better suited to defend James on post-ups, while Iggy is great at denying players the ball and stealing it off the dribble. Golden State used Green, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson against LeBron during his one appearance against the Warriors this season, a 110-99 Cleveland Cavaliers victory in February. It didn't work much as LeBron had a season-high 42 points as well as 11 rebounds and five assists. The Warriors used Thompson, Barnes and Iguodala on James Harden in the last round and while Harden mostly got his points he was also a turnover machine. Harden is a better shooter than James but obviously nowhere near as powerful.
"We can throw a lot of bodies at him, which is important against any great player," said Kerr of James.
The Warriors are thought of as an offensive team but they allowed a league-low 98.2 points per 100 possessions during the regular season and have been nearly as good in the playoffs with a 98.9 defensive rating. In these playoffs, James has scored 0.81 points per play on isolations, including passes. That number is 0.90 on pick and rolls and 0.97 when posting up. Green allows 0.787 points per play when the guy he's guarding has posted up in the playoffs. Plus Andrew Bogut is a terrific rim protector. He has held playoff opponents to 39.5 percent shooting at the rim.
For what it's worth, James has averaged 29.1 points over 21 career games against the Warriors. He has averaged more points against only three other teams (Celtics, Thunder and Jazz). I don't take much from that since most of those previous Warriors teams weren't very good against the NBA odds.
Or the Warriors can intentionally sabotage the air conditioning at Oracle Arena. In last year's Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Spurs' system went on the fritz at AT&T Center, James had a problem with cramping and it took him off the court. James had 25 points in 33 minutes in the 110-95 loss.