So here we are, where we all expected we should end up from the moment LeBron James almost took Draymond Green’s soul in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals.
This might have been the world’s greatest cherry on top of the most unlikely cake as the Cavs fought back from 3-1 down to take Game 7 on Golden State’s floor, creating history yet leaving us all wanting more. The Cavs defeated a Warriors team that lost Green to an untimely suspension, and had Stephen Curry at far less than 100% health. To make too much of these two factors would be disrespectful to Cleveland, as they themselves had fought the Warriors to a standstill for much of a 6-game loss in 2015 despite being without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to injury.
These playoffs have stunk in so many ways, as competitive games have been few and far between; one lucky Avery Bradley three-pointer is all that has come between these two teams being an unfathomable 24-0 combined headed into arguably the most anticipated NBA Finals series of our generation.
There are seven of the best 40 players in the league on show in this game; arguably the best offensive small forward ever; arguably the greatest shooter ever; one of the best late second-round selections in recent memory; and a man who could well vault into the GOAT conversation with a successful series.
As NBA fans, we deserve this – two elite super teams, at full strength and set to slug it out over what is poised to be a series for the ages. There is quality at every turn, and there seems to be very little margin for error on both sides.
So, let’s look at some facts heading into the series:
- Cleveland’s Big 3 have NEVER lost a series in which they have all played together.
- The last time LeBron didn’t make the Finals, he was the league MVP and Kevin Durant led the league in scoring but Rasheed Wallace started in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
- The last time Durant went to the Finals, his team was embarrassed.
- In his last NBA Finals game, Green sank six three-pointers but his side still lost.
- Two years ago, Andre Iguodala raised alarm bells over the NBA Finals MVP voting process as he became the least deserving Finals MVP in history.
- The Warriors have an NBA-record +16.3 point differential in these playoffs and have played won all but two games by double-figures, while also leading the league in defensive rating.
- The Warriors have lost just one game in the last 81 days; the Cavs just one game in 52 days.
- The away team won three games in last year’s Finals series, all in the last four games of the series.
Now, let’s look at some analysis. The Warriors might have a better starting four than any other team we have seen, but what they do with the centre spot is intriguing. Zaza Pachulia or Javale McGee will likely start, as Tristan Thompson is a legitimate rebounding threat but both will not be a factor in this series. Once Golden State turn to the bench, the fitness of Iguodala is key – his versatility gives them the ability to take the Harrison Barnes-led “Line-up of Death” from last season to nuclear levels. Otherwise, they can call on Shaun Livingston, Patrick McCaw and Ian Clark to play key minutes. David West will be available to play the role of key goon, but may have a fight within his team as Zaza and Draymond will both challenge for the title of dirtiest player in the series.
Now, to call an NBA player dirty seems like a stretch but these three players are the perfect complement to Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson. In Green’s case, one can’t help that his attitude is a little orchestrated but at the same time who would put it past any of the three to take out James, Irving or Love if given the chance? Green and James have history; hell, LeBron might have played this perfectly last season and will be hoping to get under Green’s skin again in this series
Green is a fucking punk. He is a supremely skilled punk, possessing more two-way skill than most players we have seen but a punk nonetheless. And that punk lies just below a very thin skin, so you can expect the Cavs to poke and prod him as much as possible in this series, knowing that he is their barometer. He will likely start by defending Love, but can switch onto James and even Irving so his role is critical. If he is not effective, this may hamper Golden State to such an extent that it cripples them.
Offensively, they don’t need a heap from Green outside of motion because in Durant and Curry they have two elite offensive players who remain as efficient as we have seen. The narrative around Durant will be interesting; some would say he took the easy option in bolting to the Warriors, but others would argue what he did was smart. If James cannot contain him, he is a difference maker in this series as the Cavs have no-one to contain him one-on-one. If Golden State need a bucket, they can give him the ball and get out of the way. Then again, is that problematic?
Curry is not a shrinking violet, and I cannot imagine a world where he defers to Durant when the money is on the line. And, why would he? We are talking about a guy that embarrasses defenders for a living, and does it with an undertone of absolute arrogance yet has manipulated his media image almost perfectly. This could be the greatest three-pointer shooter we have seen, yet he has been below-par over the past two NBA Finals series. He but comes into this series playing efficiently elite offense and knows that the Cavs have no-one capable of stopping him now that Matthew Dellavedova has joined the Milwaukee Bucks.
His backcourt partner Thompson has struggled all season and is the odd man out with the addition of Durant; quite simply, there is not enough ball to go around so he has become an afterthought. For a rhythm shooter, this is a problem and if the Cavs can find a way to filter the ball to him they will consider themselves a real chance. The bonus he does have is that his offensive woes can be channelled into his defense – he can focus on locking down Irving, who needs attention.
Kyrie is a marvel; he seems to cruise through weeks during the season, but verges on becoming the league’s most unstoppable offensive force when he needs to be. The way he dominated Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart in Game 4 was disrespectful – here is a guy playing against two elite defenders, with the world’s best player in foul trouble, and knowing that the series momentum could shockingly swing if his side didn’t respond. He proceeded to take over the game, eviscerating Bradley and Smart with ease and doing so with disdain.
Love has never played better than he has in these playoffs, and look for the Cavs to feed him early and often to get him going. For years, he posted impressive numbers on a horrible team, keeping many a fantasy side alive but doing nothing for his career. However, even as his teams were losing there was no doubting his offensive prowess and the pure brilliance of James has enabled K-Love to thrive as an offensive dual threat. Whether it’s a three-pointer in motion or a low-post move, there is no-one better; if he can get Green in early foul trouble, then the Cavs have a huge advantage as for all Durant’s defensive skills he will not want to be left on a low-post island.
We know what James brings offensively; he is possibly the greatest passer the league has seen, one of the most efficient players alive and someone whose brilliant consistency has been underrated. To make seven straight Finals series in today’s NBA is unfathomable (note – James Jones has managed to ride shotgun in all seven Finals campaigns – when my kids ask me what they should be when they grow up, I am going to suggest JAMES FUCKING JONES), and you know someone is good when people dissect their every move, hoping to find a flaw. He might have to play his greatest ever series, at age 33, to win this series…but who is going to bet against him? Ty Lue might carry the title of head coach, but we all know he is going to sit the fuck down and shut up when its money time because you give LeBron the ball and get out of the way. Right, Festus Ezeli? Sorry, low blow, but how did Steve Kerr allow Ezeli to cover James repeatedly in the last five minutes of Game 7 last year? The fact that he can put Durant in that spot this season is such a significant upgrade it’s enough to cover the fact that Mike Brown is coaching the Warriors.
The depth battle favours the Warriors if they can keep the games on their terms. Livingston, McCaw and Clark are interchangeable through the wing positions, and Curry or Durant will always remain on the floor. If West can hold down the middle, the centres won’t be needed which is key as the Cavs play a second unit anchored by Love in the middle. The Cavs will look to Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert off the bench but are likely to ride all give starters for heavy minutes, with Irving and James alternating bench rest to ensure the offense keeps running.
James will likely play 44-45 minutes a game and throw up the same numbers he has for 14 years; there is much to write about this living legend of the game, and perhaps his impact is best summed up by the way the world exploded when he had ONE FUCKING BAD GAME against Boston in Game 3. He responded by decimating them in back to back wins to take the series. Green, Durant and others will defend him and it really won’t matter – he will get his time and time again.
This series hinges on how well Irving and Love can play defensively, or more particularly how the Cavs can manufacture defensive matchups to cover these two minus defenders. They have managed to cover their defensive holes against inferior opponents, but this is a different story. The Cavs have allowed more than 28 three-point attempts a game but opponents have shot just 35% from the outside. The Warriors have shot just 39% from the perimeter but the Cavs are playing a dangerous game if they allow this team to shoot from the outside. The pressure on Smith, Irving, Shumpert, Williams and Korver to defend the perimeter is immense!
When it comes to a prediction, this is one that can go so many ways. The Warriors are the most talented squad we have seen, and have taken all before them in this series. The Cavaliers have the best player alive, and enter this series knowing they can win on the Warriors’ home floor. It’s hard to see many blowouts, but it’s clear the Cavs need to win early to make this a series. A 4 or 5 game Warriors win wouldn’t surprise in the slightest, but I can’t see Golden State winning on Cleveland’s floor.
As good as Golden State have been, you cannot ignore history and one cannot turn a blind eye to the clinical nature of the Cavaliers playoff run. Love has never played better, Irving has a history of smashing the Warriors and James is the best player we have seen in two decades and has reached a point in his career when anything less than excellence is an abject shock. On the other side of the coin, Curry is playing amazingly well and Durant is the bailout that this Warriors side needs. I could see this series going seven games, and as much as it is tough to bet against James I find it equally hard to think that at least one of Curry or Durant don’t do enough on their home floor when it matters. As someone who has followed the great game of basketball all my life, the Warriors just don’t do it for me and to see them win a title seems all kinds of wrong; watching James is the basketball equivalent to unbridled joy, but even the second-greatest player might struggle to hold his own here… give me the Warriors in 7.