The Golden State Warriors have been the NBA’s best team all season long, and they’ll be tasked with stopping the world’s No.1 basketball player in the 2015 NBA Finals. LeBron James carried the Cleveland Cavaliers through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and he might be good enough to beat a more talented team and claim the third championship of his career.
If any team can contain James, it’s probably the Warriors. They were the league’s top defensive team in the regular season, allowing 98.2 points per 100 possessions and surrendering an opponents’ field goal percentage of 42.8 percent. But as successful as Golden State was against the rest of the league, they couldn’t stop James the one time they got an opportunity to do so.
In Cleveland’s 110-99 win over Golden State on Feb. 26, James totaled 42 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. He made 15 of his 25 field goal attempts, as well as four of his nine shots from three-point range.
James’ numbers have been just as impressive in the playoffs. The four-time MVP is averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game through 14 games. He’s carried the Cavs to a 12-2 record, even though they’ve suffered injuries to both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, their second and third best players.
"I think if you put it all together, yeah," James told reporters this week. "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."
How can the Warriors slow down the best player on the planet, who might be performing at his highest all-time level? It might be impossible to completely stop James from filling up the stat sheet, but Golden State is equipped to limit James enough to help them win the series.
Golden State has a number of players that they can throw at James. Harrison Barnes might get the call to start each game, but Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and likely Klay Thompson will all spend time guarding James.
“It’s not one person’s job to stop LeBron,” Green said. “If we’re going to send any one person on our team to stop LeBron, we’ll probably lose. It’ll be a complete team effort. And as long as we approach it that way, I think we can do it.”
In the Feb. 26 matchup, it was Iguodala who was on James for the majority of the time, guarding him for seven minutes and 41 seconds, according to SportVU Player tracking. Barnes was given the duty of stopping James for over four minutes, while Green was on James for just over a minute. Because Green covered Love, who is out for the rest of the postseason, for much of that game, he could see more time on James. Thompson was on James for 59 seconds.
James was successful against every defender in that contest, making six of his 11 field goal attempts against Iguodala, and going six-for-nine against the combination of Barnes, Green and Thompson. But a larger sample size in the NBA Finals isn’t likely to bode as well for the two-time champion.
The Warriors couldn’t do much to stop James, who put on an incredible shooting performance. While he’s put up terrific overall numbers this postseason, James hasn’t shot nearly as well. He’s made just 29.9 percent of his jump shots, including 12 of his 68 (17.6 percent) three-point attempts. In two of his last five games, he’s failed to total more points than shot attempts.
James’ jump shooting numbers are not reflective of his career statistics, but it’s hard to overlook what he’s done in the postseason. It will be key for Golden State to keep him out of the paint and force him to shoot from beyond the free throw line.
Andre Bogut won’t guard James on-one-on, but his importance as a top rim protector in the NBA should be evident against Cleveland. James has converted on 60.2 percent of his drives to the basket in the playoffs, and he’s relied on close-range shots and free throws to get most of his points.
Iguodala might no longer be the defensive player that he was 10 years ago, but he’s still among the best in the league, being named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team last year. He guarded James Harden for much of Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals, playing a role in the record-setting 13 turnovers committed by the runner-up for MVP.
Kawhi Leonard was named the 2015 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but Green finished just behind him and received more first-place votes. James has posted up more in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, and it’s an area where Green can be key in slowing James down.
When the series is over, a look at the stat sheet might not tell the whole story. James averaged 28.2 points on 57.1 percent shooting in last year’s NBA Finals, but the San Antonio Spurs were able to limit his impact and win the series with ease in five games.
Golden State has multiple upper echelon defenders, and they have a chance to limit James and force other members of the Cavaliers to make plays. If James is able to have his way with the Warriors, the Cavaliers could pull off the upset and win their first title in franchise history