So. We have a fourth edition of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting in the NBA Finals, with Game 1 looming Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
The big question is, do we want this?
In large part, we have a good idea how this is going to go. Since the Warriors added Kevin Durant to a team that won 73 regular-season games in 2016, Golden State has been mostly unstoppable. Not even a Houston Rockets team that added Chris Paul and seemingly all of the great wing defenders in the NBA to help out James Harden could climb the Warriors’ mountain. With Durant, and Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Golden State has the most talented and most potent nucleus in the league.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are limping into the finals. There’s no Kyrie Irving — the dynamic point guard now plays for the Boston Celtics. There may be no Kevin Love. The all-star forward missed Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a concussion and as of Wednesday is still in the NBA’s mandated protocol. The production of George Hill and Jeff Green and Kyle Korver is hit and miss. J.R. Smith’s best days are clearly behind him.
Only the brilliance of LeBron James proved enough to get the Cavaliers out of the Eastern Conference, and Cleveland had to go seven games in two separate series to do it.
Still, James, the best player of this era, will be participating in his eighth — eighth! — consecutive finals. But, his chances of winning his fourth NBA title appear to be quite slim. How slim? Here are the matchups and the breakdown of Golden State vs. Cleveland, Part Infinity.
George Hill is a good defender, and when healthy he’s pretty good offensively. But Steph Curry is a different beast. Curry is the best point guard in the league, and a complete game-changer offensively. As good as Kevin Durant is, Curry is by far Golden State’s best player. The gravity he draws from opposing defenses is what makes the Warriors offense lethal. He and Draymond Green are the two players Golden State absolutely can’t afford to lose.
In past finals meetings, Klay Thompson has drawn the task of guarding Kyrie Irving. He won’t have that worry this time around. One of the best defenders in the league, Thompson will probably be assigned to J.R. Smith, one of the better streak shooters in the league. The problem for Smith: His streaks have been a bunch of misses of late. His defense has lagged, and he’s having one of the worst stretches of his career. If Cleveland is going to have any hope, even a slight one, Smith is going to have to rediscover his shooting stroke.
Kevin Durant is the second best player in the world, and yet he may not be critical to Golden State in this series. That’s what makes the Warriors unfair. They don’t even need him to win and win big. In Game 7 against Houston, Curry and Thompson did the heavy lifting in a third-quarter rally to forge a lead. And then, in the fourth quarter, with the Rockets clearly fatigued, a fresh Durant finished them off. James is the best player in the world, but even his brilliance won’t matter in this series. It will win Cleveland its only individual matchup, sure. But that’s just a blip in a bleak overall outlook for the Cavs.
Kevin Love hasn’t been himself in the postseason, as he’s dealt with myriad injuries. He’s pretty good, but Draymond Green is one of the three best defenders in the league, astoundingly versatile in large spots and Golden State’s emotional leader. He’s one of the best in the league at grabbing a rebound and pushing the basketball in transition.
Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell form a two-headed monster with Andre Iguodala out for at least Thursday’s Game 1 with a bone bruise in his leg. Both do a lot of little things. They hustle, they clean up misses, they move the basketball. They do a lot of the little things Tristan Thompson does for the Cavaliers. But, there are two of them for the Warriors, while Thompson is just one guy.
The Cavs will bring Kyle Korver, one of the best shooters in league history, off the bench. They also have Jeff Green, who has proven to be big as Cleveland’s playoff stretch has progressed. The Warriors have been a bit spotty here, especially without Iguodala. But they are able to stagger their four stars with players like Nick Young and Bell and David West. That alone makes a difference.
Ty Lue has been maligned, but has done a pretty credible job of making adjustments during this postseason. He’ll have to be terrific in this series to give the Cavaliers a chance. Steve Kerr is the perfect coach for the Warriors. He’s mostly calm and collected on the sidelines, even though he has been vexed at times by his team’s lackadaisical play. He treats all of his stars and role players alike. And his players respect him for it. He has made good adjustments in past finals matchups. He’s figured out ways to make his players successful.
When Iguodala returns, he will give Golden State a big lift, physically as well as emotionally. Whether Cleveland can find the same with Love remains to be seen. If Love can’t start on Thursday, Green will take his place in the lineup. But the big thing for the Cavaliers is that James will have to play 48 minutes a night for his team to have a chance. The intangible there? Most of the games in this series will have two days off in between, instead of one. That will better allow James to handle the load than a series with one day in between games.
Can Golden State win in three games? Well, no. That’s not allowed. So, they will probably sweep, or win in five games. The biggest opponent to the Warriors in this series? Their own boredom. That sounds crazy for any team with LeBron James as an opponent. But that’s what Golden State created when it signed Durant and gave itself two of the top five players in the league, and four of the best 20.
PREDICTION: Warriors in 4