In terms of all-time great trilogies, there are the following: Star Wars, Episodes IV-VI; Ali/Frazier; the Lord of the Rings saga; and the Christopher Nolan Batman series. Surely there are other notable trilogies from the past worth mentioning, and ranking these trilogies in a precise order is a debate for another day. However, we’re all aware of the historic battle set to take place for the third consecutive year between the Cavaliers and Warriors. If this series plays out the way I think it will, it could go down as the greatest one of them all.
Not only is this third meeting the most intriguing matchup yet, but I’d say it is the most compelling Finals matchup of the past twenty years. For starters, the number of Hall of Fame legacies on the line is staggering. LeBron is closing in on MJ. Durant is still looking for that elusive first title. Curry is hoping to rebound after last season’s disappointment. As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, there are plenty of other stars (e.g. Kyrie, Klay, Draymond) capable of taking over games if needed, too. And then there is the revenge factor motivating the Warriors after last year’s 3-1 collapse, as well as a quasi-David vs Goliath feel considering how many people have considered it a foregone conclusion since July that Golden State will win this season’s title.
Yet what really sets this series apart from some of the other memorable battles in recent NBA Finals (e.g. Heat/Spurs & Celtics/Lakers) is the dominance displayed by each side. Golden State became the first team ever to sweep their way through an entire conference. Cleveland, meanwhile, only lost one game along the way and they have the second greatest player in history (as it stands now, subject to change) putting up the most prolific and efficient numbers of his career.
King of the Court
So let’s begin by discussing the man making his 7th consecutive trip to the Finals, LeBron James. You’ve heard analysts say that it’s smart to pick the team that has the best player on the floor to win, right? Because this logic is generally true. Take the previous meetings between these two sides. The main reason why Cleveland upset the 73-win Warriors last year was because LeBron (29.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.9 apg, as well as a series-high 26.5 game score) was easily the best player on the floor. And though the Cavs lost the year prior, they were still able to put a scare into Golden State despite significantly relying on the likes of Matthew Dellevedova (!) because, again, LeBron was easily the series’ most impactful player.
With this in mind, here’s storyline #1 of this year’s Finals: is there any way the Warriors can contain LeBron? Unfortunately for Golden State, it doesn’t appear so. James averaged 32.5 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 8.8 assists over the past two Finals despite being guarded by elite defensive players like Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Remarkably, James is playing at an even higher level entering this year’s Finals than at any other point in his career. Even when you include that miserable Game 3 he had against the Celtics, James is averaging 32.5 points per game this postseason. That’s 10th most all-time in a single-playoff for guys who played at least 13 postseason games. Plus, LeBron’s shooting percentage (56.6%) is higher than every other player in the top 10. In fact, not a single one shot better than 53% in their respective postseasons.
Even though Kevin Durant matches up well with LeBron in terms of length, I don’t think he’s enough of a defensive presence to slow down James. That means it will once again be largely up to an ailing Iguodala and Green to check the King. And based on their lack of success in the last two Finals, as well as LeBron’s outstanding play entering this series, there isn’t any indication that the Warriors can keep their nemesis in check.
With Help From the Other Guys
Even better news for Cleveland: they’re more dangerous offensively than last year’s team. I made this statement back in November and it’s continued to ring true. Arguably the main reason for their improved play–outside of LeBron simply being more dominant–is Kevin Love. He’s finally putting up “Kevin from Minnesota” numbers, as James put it recently, averaging a career high in points (19.0) and rebounds (11.1) since he joined the Cavs. And even though his point and rebounding totals are down in the playoffs compared to the regular season, he’s actually been better from an efficiency standpoint, as his field goal, three point, and effective field goal percentages are all markedly higher.
I’d be remiss not to mention Kyrie Irving as another reason why Cleveland is even more dynamic offensively. Irving set a career-high in points with 25.2 per game in the regular season and also set a new mark for field goal percentage. Moreover, his over 40% 3PT clip also serves as an example of how the Cavs can now keep pace with Golden State from behind the arc. With help from mid-season additions Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, the Cavs shot a staggering 39.1% from distance this season, good for first in the NBA.
Playing the Enemy
With a better offense and a better LeBron, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that the defending champions are sizable underdogs. But that just goes to show how much respect the Warriors garner. Despite declining by six wins in the regular season, Golden State has found ways to improve their squad from last year. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how that was possible: with Kevin Durant in tow, the Warriors shook off some early-season chemistry issues and managed to best many of the historic totals they set last year, such as point differential, offensive efficiency, and true shooting percentage.
Durant has obviously been an instrumental part of their dominance, as he’s averaged over 25 points per game while setting a career-high in field goal percentage (.537). Just as impressive, though, is the fact that he also led all non-centers in true shooting percentage (.651) this season. Plus, let’s not neglect how Stephen Curry has returned to form. After a slow start to the season–he only averaged 20.9 points in December–the two-time MVP has put up just over 27 points per game over the course of Golden State’s 27-1 run since mid-March. And if Klay Thompson manages to turn it around–he’s averaging 10 fewer points per game on significantly worse shooting compared to last postseason–the Warriors might just be impossible to stop.
Clearly both offenses are capable of dropping obscene amounts of points. The obvious follow-up question, therefore, is this: which defense is better? It’s not quite a unanimous decision, but the edge goes to Golden State. The Warriors finished the season 2nd in defensive efficiency, 1st in opponent shooting percentage, and 1st in opponent three point percentage. The Cavs, on the other hand, ranked just 22nd in defensive efficiency during the regular season. In fairness to Cleveland, though, their poor ranking was probably due to a lack of motivation: of the sixteen teams in this year’s postseason, the Cavaliers rank 3rd in defensive efficiency. Moreover, it’s important to note that the Cavs held the Warriors to just over 100 points per game over the past two Finals, which was well below Golden State’s customary 110-115 point totals. It will be difficult for Cleveland to replicate a similar defensive performance now that Durant is in the fold, but they may have the personnel to at least slow down the Warriors that other teams simply lack.
Overarching trends aside, the real spotlight will be on the head-to-head battles. Though I can’t picture Durant spending too much time guarding LeBron, expect Tyronn Lue to assign James to contain Golden State’s most efficient scorer. Staying in the front court, another matchup to watch will be Draymond Green vs Kevin Love. Love was basically invisible when guarded by Green in last year’s Finals, averaging just 7.3 points. But with the four-time All Star playing his best ball as a Cavalier–he shot over 50% from downtown in the Conference Finals–Green might not be able to make him such a non-factor, particularly if Mike Brown opts to give him more time on LeBron.
Yet the individual matchup I’m most looking forward to is Kyrie Irving vs Stephen Curry. While LeBron was mostly responsible for leading Cleveland to last year’s title, Irving was the one who decided the series when it mattered most. His heroics in Game 7, compounded with Curry’s quiet final three games, ultimately tipped the series in the Cavs’ favor. If Irving gets the better of Curry once again, Golden State could be in for another disappointing end.
It all comes down to…
Of course, there are many other factors that could play a key role in deciding this series. How will Steve Kerr’s absence impact Golden State? Which bench will provide the most support? And will any Cavalier player land awkwardly on an over-extended Zaza Pachulia foot?
Cavs/Warriors III, however, will ultimately boil down to this: LeBron’s dominance will be enough to take the series to seven games, but the better team will prevail. Even without Kevin Durant, remember that the Warriors still held a 3-1 lead against Cleveland last year. Credit the Cavs for coming back, but when you factor in the Green suspension in Game 5, a raucous Cleveland crowd in Game 6, and then the Cavs having a decided edge in Game 7 by virtue of having the best player on the floor, it’s easy to explain how the better team, on paper, didn’t close out.
I like this series to go seven, and I still think LeBron will be the most impactful player. However, the difference between a Cavs repeat and a year of redemption for the Warriors will be Durant. Golden State was ultimately doomed by Curry and Thompson’s inability to score when the stakes were highest, particularly in last year’s Game 7. Durant will alleviate that pressure and prevent LeBron, and to a lesser extent Irving, from single-handily taking over the series, enabling the Warriors to exact their revenge.
Golden State in Seven
Finals MVP: Kevin Durant