The Golden State Warriors beat the brakes off of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday in a 126-91 win. Basketball fans are fairly well trained not to extrapolate too much of the regular season to what will happen in the postseason, but with a walloping this thorough it’s natural to wonder if the Cavs have any chance in the Finals.
But after two Warriors-Cavs games this season, we likely still haven’t seen what the teams will look like if they meet for the third Finals in a row this June.
Basketball matchups aren’t really between teams, they’re between lineups. Fans are familiar with the famous five-man units, like the Warriors’ Death Lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes, or the Megadeath Lineup, which swaps out Barnes for Kevin Durant. But the ramifications of more minor adjustments can be profound: In last season’s Finals, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Richard Jefferson, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson outscored opponents by 26.9 points per 100 possessions in 66 minutes; but when they swapped out Thompson for Iman Shumpert for 14 minutes, the Cavs were outscored by 16 points, or 56.6 points per 100 possessions.
So lineups matter. And during the regular season, the Cavs’ and Warriors’ Finals lineups don’t play each other very much.
The Cavs’ five most-favored lineups against the Warriors during the regular season have played a combined two minutes against them in the Finals. Two minutes! Obviously, injuries have been a factor: Kevin Love missed all the 2015 Finals, and Kyrie Irving was injured in Game 1 and did not play again in the series. But considering the most-played lineup against Golden State in 2016-17 includes DeAndre Liggins, and neither J.R. Smith nor Kyle Korver appears in a top-5 lineup, it’s a safe bet that we haven’t seen Cleveland’s preferred lineups against Golden State.
The Warriors haven’t been much more consistent. In 2014-15, the five lineups that played most1 against the Cavs in the Warriors’ regular season games played 45 percent of available minutes in the Finals, anchored largely by the Death Lineup, which played 24 percent of the minutes (most of any lineup in that Finals) and outscored the Cavs by 21.8 points per 100 possessions.
Last season, however, an injury to Bogut and a slump from Barnes threw the Warriors into disarray, as their five most favored lineups against the Cavs from the regular season played just 15 percent of available minutes in the Finals. Plus, the Death lineup didn’t play the Cavs enough during the regular season to crack the top five (and it was outscored by 12 per 100 possessions in 53 minutes anyway).
All of which is to say that while the Warriors have reconstituted their roster since blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cavs in the Finals, it’s likely both teams will shuffle things again between now and June.
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