OAKLAND (CBS SF) – This NBA Finals series has been billed as LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry, but the league’s most popular players might not be the ones who decide which team will hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy later this month. Warriors fans know about Harrison Barnes, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli and the other Warriors capable of stepping up an carrying the team when Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are off. But who, other than King James, can the Cavs count on to hit the clutch shot? Here are five names you need to know.
Let’s start with the obvious, Irving is a star in his own right, averaging over 21 points a game every season of his 4-year career, while also dishing out around 6 assists a game. To give you an idea how explosive a scorer he is, he average exactly as many points per game as Curry’s splash brother Thompson this year. He’s a former Rookie of the Year and All-Star Game MVP, so he can take over on the big stage if you let him. Look for Warriors wing players to switch early and often to keep that from happening. Irving’s defense is not his strength, so look for Curry and Thompson to try and get their points when Irving is in coverage. Irving was supposed to be part of LeBron’s new “Big Three” for the finals, but forward Kevin Love is out with a knee injury, and Irving himself is battling tendinitis in his left knee. He won’t be 100 percent for the Finals, but he’ll be dangerous any time he’s on the court.
Filling in for Love this postseason, Thompson has given the Cavs a force in the paint, averaging nearly double digits in points and rebounds while also blocking shots. That includes a double-double in the clinching game against Atlanta last week. He has the potential to give Cleveland extra possessions off the offensive boards while also teaming up with Timofey Mozgov to make things tough on the Warriors when they drive to the bucket. He’s a career .633 free-throw shooter though, so the Warriors may target him for fouls late in the game if it’s close.
Bay Area basketball fans know Delly. The Aussie scrapper was a Saint Mary’s star before he became the unlikely contributor that helped propel the Cavs to the Finals. Dellavedova has filled in respectably for Irving when needed, and even blew up for 19 points against the Bulls earlier in the playoffs. He has also been involved in some high-profile tussles with opponents and had accusations of dirty play lobbed his way. He’s a grinder who can change the game with his hard work and hustle, not unlike the Warriors’ Green.
The Cavs two guard is worth watching for his hair alone, but he’ll also play a key role in this series if Curry is forced to guard him. He averaged close to 10 points a game before his trade from the Knicks, but that total has since slipped a bit. With the other Cavs starters likely drawing tougher defensive matchups, Shumpert will have to find a way to score more than his season average.
The Cavs just don’t have the depth that the Warriors do, but when they need points off of the bench, this is their guy. He was the 2013 Sixth Man of the Year and like Delly, Smith has shown the ability to come up big in the playoffs (he’s averaging 13.5 points per game). He loves to shoot and won’t give up the ball if he’s feeling it, but sometimes won’t give it up when he’s cold, either. Fortunately for the Dubs, they former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee coming off the bench who can both play a little D. Smith’s matchup with Iguodala may be the most fun to watch among members of the second team.