Last July, Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency set in motion an NBA landscape that always seemed destined to end in this exact fashion. For the third consecutive season, the Warriors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, a grudge match between two franchises that boasted an insane seven All-Stars in 2016-17. Following in the footsteps of Stephen Curry’s rise to stardom and then LeBron James’ legendary comeback down 3-1 will no doubt be difficult, but these powerhouses have enough fireworks to put on a championship-worthy show one more time.
Many have suggested that the addition of Durant will push this series heavily in the Warriors’ favor, but can you really count out the machine-like playoff versions of James and Kyrie Irving? They split their season series at 1-1, but, as if it needs mentioning, the Cavaliers are on a three-game Finals winning streak against the Warriors.
#1 — Golden State Warriors
Naturally, the Warriors followed up their record-breaking 73-win (but ultimately just short) season by adding Durant and learned how to decimate the Western Conference in an entirely new way. Outside of Durant’s month-long absence in March, the Warriors cruised once again to the No. 1 seed in the conference. Even with head coach Steve Kerr still forced to watch from afar, the Warriors are 12-0 in the postseason to this point, easily disposing of the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs (albeit without Kawhi Leonard) en route to their date with destiny.
On their unbeaten jaunt through the conference, the Warriors racked up the postseason’s highest average in points (118.3), assists (27.8) and steals (9.2) per game, doing so with a struggling Klay Thompson in tow. Thompson averaged 24.3 points per game in the playoffs last year, but he’s only reached that mark once in this season’s iteration, even scoring as low as six points on two separate occasions.
Anchored by Stephen Curry, averaging a playoff career-high of 28.6 points per game, and Draymond Green, who should avoid another series-defining suspension, will ask some difficult questions about Cleveland’s suspect-at-times defense. Green can take advantage of his offensive matchup with Kevin Love too — don’t forget the former’s huge 32-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 7’s losing effort last summer.
Once again, the Warriors will call upon Andre Iguodala to shoulder much of the load defensively against James. Durant and Green will spend plenty of time guarding the 13-time All-Star as well, but Iguodala’s steady hand could be a difference-maker off the bench. Even JaVale McGee has proven to be a useful tool in doses for the Warriors, so look for him to be aggressive during his minutes against the Cavaliers’ second unit.
At the end of the day, there’s too much shooting, balance and game-changing bench pieces to doubt the Warriors’ eventual victory in this series. Yes, James is one of the greatest players in league history, but asking him to perform the basketball equivalent of walking on water two Junes in a row is too much.
When you take a 73-win team and add Durant (25 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 55.6 percent from the floor), it’s best not to overcomplicate things.
#2 — Cleveland Cavaliers
In April, as the Cavaliers willingly appeared to cede the top spot in the Eastern Conference to the Boston Celtics, two key buzzwords entered the NBA lexicon: Flip and switch. Could a team go from having a below average defense in the regular season — tied for the 8th-worst defensive rating with the Brooklyn Nets at 108 — to a playoff-ready version at the snap of a finger? Well, as it typically goes with James, nearly anything is plausible.
No franchise in recent memory had been so outwardly disinterested in holding homecourt advantage than the Cavaliers. They frequently slept walked through entire games and committed to entering the postseason as healthy as possible. While the Celtics pulled off their impressive finish as the No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers shrugged and swept their way through eight straight games against the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors, all before taking back that precious advantage in Boston during the first 24 minutes of the conference finals. Make no mistake, despite letting a sloppy effort slip through their hands at home in Game 3 versus the Celtics, the Cavaliers have been just as dominant as their undefeated opposition.
That previously gag-inducing defensive rating now stands at 104.6, a mark that would put Cavaliers among a smattering of the league’s top units during the regular season. Just as important, the offense has been prolific too, and the Cavaliers enter the Finals with the highest averages in field goal percentage (50.7 percent to the Warriors’ 50.2), three-pointers made per game (14.6) and three-point percentage (43.5 percent) in the postseason. Take that red-hot shooting and combine it with the irrational confidence of a roster that already achieved the impossible against this team, and you’ve likely found yourself a competitive series.
The Cavaliers will certainly look to lean on the James and Irving pick-and-roll as Curry struggled with them, albeit while injured, for most of the Finals last year. Of course, the Warriors now have a rangy beast in Durant that’s able (and, more crucially, willing) to play his part defensively — but Cleveland will need to do damage there again to keep pace. In 2016, the Cavaliers focused on denying Curry as much as possible, opting instead to give Harrison Barnes a slew of wide-open attempts. While that strategy largely worked, again, the addition of Durant will complicate Cleveland’s ability to influence the game defensively. The Warriors often live and die by the three-pointer, but having the option to dump it into Durant for an isolation is a wrinkle the Cavaliers may not be equipped to handle.
After James, the defensive abilities on the roster decline quickly, so finding any way to paper mache over those cracks will be key throughout the series. Additionally, the Cavaliers will certainly worry about their lack of size in the paint — should Tristan Thompson get injured or find himself in foul trouble, Cleveland will need to rely on some combination of Love, James, Derrick Williams and Channing Frye to quell the tide at center.
But for all the Cavaliers’ glaring weaknesses, at some point, maybe onlookers should just learn to stop betting against James. The reigning NBA Finals MVP passed Michael Jordan for first place on the all-time postseason scorers list against the Celtics and has shown no signs of slowing down. Frankly, with James on the court, anything is possible — but can it reasonably happen against Golden State four times in seven games?
Who Wins Game 1?
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine the Warriors losing this series in the long run — they’re just the better team across the board. Still, it’s equally difficult to predict the James-led Cavaliers to go down without snagging a few victories of their own, no matter how fleeting. So, backing the Warriors in six games does two things: It doesn’t bet against the vengeful firepower of Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green, but it also doesn’t make the mistake of counting out James on the sport’s biggest stage.
Either way, Game 1 won’t be one of the contests that Cleveland grabs. After plenty of rest, the Warriors will be energized at home and Durant should be eager to set the stage for a potential legacy-changing series. Irving may outplay Curry in this opener, but don’t expect Thompson to continue shooting this poorly either. At home, the Warriors will open up this NBA Finals grudge match with an important 1-0 lead.
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