By John Schmeelk
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LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet. Even those who used to drive the “LeBron isn’t clutch and can’t win in big spots” bandwagon seem to have finally disembarked. As great as he might be, he is not so good that he can make up for a completely inferior supporting cast when compared to what the Warriors bring to the Finals.

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Any conversation about how these NBA Finals are going to play out needs to start with one important fact: Kyrie Irving’s health. A severely inhibited Irving means the Cavaliers have virtually no chance of beating the Warriors.

James is going to need help, and not just “hit open three pointer” help that he is getting from J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. He cannot carry the offensive playmaking load and hope to beat the Warriors. He needs Irving. Early indications are that Irving is still going to be far less than 100 percent, which puts Cleveland at a severe disadvantage for a number of reasons.

If Irving isn’t himself, that means Stephen Curry won’t have to guard anyone significant the entire series. Even with a healthy Irving they could hide him on Shumpert, but that might not even be necessary if Irving doesn’t have the athleticism to get to the basket. The Cavaliers can’t hide Irving — or his replacement, Matthew Dallavedova — on defense either. Assuming Shumpert covers Curry, those two would have to chase around healthy Klay Thompson. Good luck.


The other thing that needs to be considered is the disparity in talent between the Eastern and Western Conferences. Even though the Warriors caught a break by avoiding the Spurs and Clippers on the way to the Finals, they still faced a far tougher road than the Cavaliers.

The Celtics were not a playoff-caliber team. Cleveland might not have gotten past the Bulls if Pau Gasol was healthy. The Hawks should have been a quality opponent, but injuries to DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver ended that series before it started.

The Hawks also shot the ball particularly poorly from behind the arc (31.7 percent) despite getting open looks and being one of the better shooting teams in the regular season. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, got out-of-this-world shooting performances from Smith (50 percent FG, 47 percent 3PT) and Shumpert (47.1 percent SPT), which are unlikely to be repeated. The Hawks elected to put extra help on James, and left open shooters all over the floor.

They continued with that baffling defensive strategy even though it proved to be completely ineffective. They would have been far better off letting James score his 40 and preventing his teammates from feeding off his passes after help arrived.

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I expect the Warriors to do just that. They have two of the best defenders in basketball in Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, and they should be able to make James work extremely hard for every point he gets.

I would expect one of those two players to be on him at all times, with Harrison Barnes and Thompson as other options if foul trouble becomes a problem. No one stops James, but they should be able to make him work very hard for his points without the assistance of double teams. If James’ jump shooting continues to slump, he might find it difficult to score efficiently against those individual defenders and the excellent team defense Golden State employs.

Everyone focuses on the splash brothers when they talk about the Warriors, but the real reason they are in the Finals is their defense. Golden State finished on top of the league in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions with 100.7. They were one of the best teams in defending the three-point shot during the season. The Cavaliers are going to have trouble scoring points if James isn’t on fire.

Smith is an excellent catch-and-shoot player, but if the Warriors play their defense straight up more often than not, he is going to have to create off the dribble, which is when he gets himself into low-percentage situations. Shumpert’s offense, spare hitting an open three, is non-existent.

Tristan Thompson feeds off garbage points, often from movement that James forces in opposing defenses. Golden State is perfectly set up to eliminate a lot of those threats since they have individual defenders that can guard James man on man. He might get 40 a couple of games, but if the rest of the team is limited it isn’t going to matter.

Defensively, Cleveland has been improved during the playoffs, but it hasn’t had to face anything like what Golden State is going to throw at it. The Warriors will push the ball in transition constantly, and put pressure on every Cavalier player to do his job at all times. Shumpert will have a huge responsibility of slowing down Curry, because if he gets into foul trouble there aren’t many bodies behind him that can get the job done.

Reading all the other previews of this series, I’m far less optimistic about the Cavs’ chances than anyone else. Maybe I’m missing something, but unless Irving can give the Cavs something significant, I think it is too big of a mountain for James to climb to beat the Warriors as a one-man band. I just don’t see it happening.

Warriors in 5, and there will never be much doubt that they will win this series.

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You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports.