NBA Picks: Why I Picked the Warriors in Game 6 (and Again in Game 7)
Before Game 6 last night in Cleveland, I was utterly convinced the Golden State Warriors would win the title and avoid hosting Game 7 on Sunday. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by my desire to avoid an NBA Finals-Game of Thrones scheduling conflict. Simply put, I was very, very wrong (we didn't pick the name of this website at random, folks). The Cleveland Cavaliers won by 14, led by LeBron James playing like the best player in the world. Here's what went into my head when I made that pick:
Some people in the media seem to feel that Draymond Green won't make a difference for the Golden State Warriors. That's okay, because sports media today is a very large population, and hot take artists in particular are often wrong. If you're an old-school thinker, Draymond is the vocal leader of this team, the enforcer, and the defensive anchor. If you're more new-age, you can look at the Warriors plus-minus numbers in games 1-4. Through those games, the Warriors were +53 in 81 minutes when Green was playing Center. All other lineups were -24 in 111 minutes. Which brings us to point number 2...
The Death Lineup
A cute name doesn't make a lineup great, but dominating the best team in the Eastern Conference does. Since unveiling this lineup, the Warriors have beaten the Cavs 8 out of 10 times, including 4 out of 5 games in Cleveland. Two of those were regular season games, but even excluding those, the Warriors are 6-2 against the Cavs in NBA Finals games since moving to this 5-man unit. And with Andrew Bogut now done for the series, they'll see more action than ever.
Regression to the Mean
The Cavs won by 15 points in Oakland in Game 5. Kyrie Irving and LeBron James generated 82 of the total 112 points, flashing a glimmer of the potential we envisioned when we first learned they would be playing together. Unfortunately for Cleveland, it isn't sustainable. Kyrie won't shoot 71% from the field again (especially on contested field goal attempts), and I'll take the full-season sample size of LeBron struggling to shoot from outside (<40%) over the one-game sample size from Monday. Of course this brings us full circle; with Draymond protecting the rim, Andre Iguodala can shift back to LeBron duties, and his looks will be more challenging. On the other side of the court, the Warriors missed some open shots last game that could have made a big difference. They shot 4-of-19 on three pointers and 16-of-44 overall on uncontested shots. Expect more of those to fall tonight.
When Vegas is willing to give you two points on a 73-9 team that finished off a more difficult opponent one round ago, take it! Draymond will make a great impact on both sides of the court, Kyrie will struggle to replicate his game 5 performance, and even elimination game LeBron doesn't win them all. I think the Warriors win running away.
Again, I was very, very wrong. I'm picking the Warriors again in Game 7. Here's why:
It's important to remember that regression isn't a negative term. Whether someone is over- or under-performing, we should expect a return to larger sample size percentages in the long run. Harrison Barnes is not a 7.1% 3-point shooter, but in the last two games he is 1-of-14 from beyond the arc. Many of those looks were wide open, and if he (or someone substituted in his place) knocks down two or three more of them, the game changes dramatically. The regression monster DID hit Kyrie Irving; he shot just 39% for the game. Unfortunately, another heroic (and uncharacteristic, with 4-of-8 3-point shooting) performance from LeBron and a perfect 6-of-6 night from Tristan Thompson offset that slip.
Home Court Advantage
There are a lot of conspiracy theories regarding NBA referees, and with the Tim Donaghy scandal in the mid-2000s, it can be difficult to dismiss them out of hand. One bias is borne out by the numbers, but has nothing to do with a conspiracy: subconsciously swayed by their environment, referees tend to favor the home team when calling fouls. It isn't earth-shaking, but getting more than 35 minutes from Steph Curry will obviously help the Warriors' cause. Maybe it will even encourage the referees to T up LeBron for blatant taunting*.
I'm not one of the crazy people who thinks LeBron is a choke artist and can't close out big games. The dude has a resume longer than Giannis Antetokounmpo's arms, and his performance in elimination games is legendary. His teammates, on the other hand, haven't played a critical Game 7 before. Kyrie Irving missed the conclusion of last year's series with an injury. Tristan Thompson will be his usual energetic self, but has never played for these stakes. JR Smith...well, JR Smith lives in a different universe than the rest of us, so I don't know if he'll even realize it's Game 7, much less how it might affect his play.
Conversely, the Warriors have won a championship together, pulled out incredibly difficult Games 6 and 7 in the previous round, and haven't lost three straight games in more than two seasons. I think it's also worth mentioning their advantage in coaching. Tyronn Lue has acquitted himself admirably in his first season, but Steve Kerr is much more seasoned. Every little advantage helps in a winner-takes-all Game 7.
I am going to be terrified if Andre Iguodala looks hobbled to start Game 7. They need his defense on LeBron as much as they need strong shooting from the Splash Brothers and Draymond's presence inside.
Warriors win by 5.
*It should be noted that I actually enjoy seeing trash talk, but if everyone is going to hate on Draymond for throwing shade at King James, they should probably do the same for LeBron's demonstration after blocking Curry. Same thing, different player.