Written by Mark Lattman
Well, the NBA finals are finally here, after a less than memorable run up and a one week layoff due to the pre set schedule and both third round series ending so quickly. And never before has such a boring playoffs led us to such an anticipated and (potentially) electrifying finals. Not only are this year’s two best teams– arguably two of the better teams all time as well – vying for the title, and not only are they both star studded with realistically up to five future Hall of Famer’s combined, but in The Golden State Warriors and local favorite Cleveland Cavaliers we also have the first real top level rivalry in the NBA since the Lakers/Celtics clashes of the 80’s. Jordan’s Bulls had no peers, consistent or otherwise, and nothing’s else has come close till this, which actually already beats it in some ways as it’s the first time in NBA history that the same teams have met three times in a row in the finals. And it’s also, at least for now, the rubber game of their clashes in the finals, so in a sense, the winner could have the bragging rights for the span as a whole. Also of note: The Warriors are coached by Mike Brown, filling in for Steve Kerr who is still recovering from the after effects of a botched back surgery and doesn’t look like he going to be back. That’s of note because Brown coached LeBron James for 5 years when he was the head coach of Cleveland during James’ first stint there. Under Brown, LeBron got to the finals only once, and then was part of the only team to have back to back 60+ win seasons and not even make the finals, so there’s that between at least them, if not so much between the franchises. Because of all this, Game One will be as hyped as any Game One since, well, last year’s Game One. But except for maybe that, it will be the biggest since before at least half the viewers will have even been born. And if the series is at all competitive, expect ratings through the roof throughout. I completely understand that for some, a three peat match up isn’t getting the finals they want. But considering how pointlessly unengaging and lopsided the playoffs were, for the rest of us – including the NBA itself – we’re (finally) getting the series we need. Here’s my breakdown:
The Golden State Warriors (12-0 #1 Seed Western Conference)
The Warriors blew through the season and the playoffs to get here, and though they didn’t quite match their record setting regular season win total from last year, they have not lost a game in the playoffs yet (unlike last year) and have set the record for the highest point differential in NBA playoff history while doing so. This is where their underrated and undervalued defense factors in. Because they play high scoring games, on first glance they seem to give up a fair amount of points. But in terms of points per possession, they are actually quite stifling. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are all strong two way players, and with Clay Thompson (sometimes) adding extra offense to that line up and extra defense (though not much else for such a successful team) off the bench, they are about as formidable an opponent as it gets. They are also playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder having lost to the Cavs in dramatic fashion at home last year in game 7 after blowing a 3–1 series lead. They are injury free (except for their coach) and once again have the home court advantage.
The Cleveland Cavaliers (12-1 #2 Seed Eastern Conference)
Unlike Golden State, Cleveland didn’t exactly blow through the season to get here, but except for one bad half against Boston, they’ve breezed in the playoffs so far. Along the way, Kyrie Irving has turned into a Major Superstar. And LeBron James is in full on Playoff LeBron mode, as if someone had saved up their strength to suddenly stat flicking their thumb wildly at the end of a video game to turbo boost their player’s performance. FunFact: When playing for the Cavaliers, James hasn’t lost back to back home games in seven years. This series will also mark the sixth time in eight years that a LeBron James team will be the underdog in an NBA final, so if he has need (room?) for another chip on his shoulder, or anywhere else, there it is. Echoing Golden State, they’re injury free and have average quality and depth on their bench. Their coach, Tyronn Lue, is a subtle asset.
I’m 4-2 in my picks so far, only so impressive since the last round was a gimme’, but I did hit the exact number of games in the Cleveland series and just missed by one with Golden State. And though it’s certainly clear to me why the Warriors are the favorites here, it’s definitely closer than Vegas – and their reflection of the average bettor’s thinking – would have you believe. There is definitely a credible path or two to victory for Cleveland. If LeBron stays in total Beast Mode the whole way, and if Kyrie has permanently elevated his game to the level he’s been playing at the last few months, then the Cavs could have the two best players on the court at any given time. Add in a strong effort from Kevin Love and a few well timed hot streaks from either Kyle Korver or J.R. Smith – which are hardly guaranteed, but none the less fair possibilities – and you have an even match, possibly even one favoring the Cavs. The other way to win, not counting a key Warrior injury or two, would be the Cavs playing just good enough while Golden State implodes, with issues about who is the Alpha Scorer and Team Leader resurfacing between Curry and Durant, Clay Thompson continuing to underperform, and/or another meltdown by Dray like the one that hurt his team so much last year. And Cleveland can possibly trigger something like that if they can get an early lead in the series, also plausible since they have won all 7 of their road games in these playoffs, and nine in a row dating back to last year’s finals. But without playing near their maximum each game (especially on defense), or the Warriors tripping themselves up mentally, the Cavaliers will be hard pressed to keep up with KD, Curry and Greene over the long haul, no matter if Thompson joins in or not. And if he does, it could be over quick for Cleveland. Ultimately, despite the almost unheard of levels of offensive talent that will be on the court for most of the series, I believe that defense will be the difference here, though it might be pretty tough to spot it in the box score. Warriors in six, max.
Photo credit wikimedia commons.