So, we meet again.
For the first time in league history, the NBA Finals matchup will be the same for a third straight year, with both the Warriors and the Cavaliers arriving in impressive fashion — Golden State at 12-0 in the playoffs and Cleveland at 12-1. All season, there has been little doubt that the two teams would wind up here, but the way they dominated their conferences over the past month and a half is an aspect no one could have foreseen.
In a way, the rest of the regular season and the playoffs never really mattered much. The entire past eight months in the NBA pointed to this moment, to the rubber match between the Warriors, 2015 NBA Finals champions, and the Cavaliers, 2016 Finals champs. In fact, you could argue that this match up was set in stone last July, when Kevin Durant opted to leave the Thunder, turn down the Celtics and land with the already-stacked Warriors.
This will be a star-studded Finals, with seven All-Stars on the two rosters — LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for Cleveland, and Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for the Warriors. It is a commentary on the state of the league that only the Cavs and Warriors had more than two All-Stars this year (Toronto is the only other team that had more than one), and they are, predictably, the ones playing into June.
That’s one reason that the league needs this to be a humdinger of a Finals. The Cavs and the Warriors so dominated the playoffs as to render them boring, and only a competitive, exciting series can rescue what was otherwise a weak six weeks for the league.
To do that, the Cavaliers will need sustained excellence from James, who carried Cleveland through its first 13 games with an impressive mix of accurate shooting and efficient scoring to go with his usual passing, rebounding and defense.
That’s because the Warriors have an advantage when it comes to depth and versatility. In last year’s Finals, by the time Game 7 came around and both teams were fatigued, Golden State was unable to summon any late-game scoring, instead choosing to jack up off-target 3-pointers for the final four minutes. Durant, adept at getting to the basket and deadly accurate when shooting from 15-18 feet, should change that dynamic, giving the Warriors a dimension they did not have last year.
Thus the stage is set, two star-laden teams tasked not only with fighting it out to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but also given the job of salvaging a dud of a postseason.
NBA Finals: The key player
Remember when these two teams met back in 2015, the MVP was not Curry or Thompson. It was Andre Iguodala, and while it’s unlikely that he will repeat that feat, he will be under the same level of pressure that he was in that series. He will draw the assignment of holding off James for large chunks of each game, and he is one of the few in the league that has the combination of strength, quickness and smarts to do a credible job on that front.
Offensively, not much will be asked of Iguodala, who averaged 7.6 points in the regular season and 6.5 points in the playoffs. He has been in a slump with his perimeter shot, making just three of his 27 3-point attempts in the postseason, and he needs to be better than that in the Finals to keep him from being a detriment on the offensive.
But defensively, Iguodala will have to be able to handle James for long stretches, something no defender in the East was able to do during the postseason. Paul George and the Pacers yielded 34.3 points on 54.3 percent shooting to James in the opening round, and the Raptors, with a combination of defenders including P.J. Tucker, gave up 36.0 points on 57.3 percent shooting.
Iguodala is 33 now, and as he ages, his ability to take on such assignments will diminish. One of the unsung causes for the Warriors’ demise last year was that Iguodala hurt his back in Game 6 and was not nearly the same in the final two games of the series. He should be well-rested this time around, and the Warriors will need one more defensive push from him to limit James.
NBA Finals: The big number
22.0. That’s how many points per game the Warriors scored in transition in the postseason, the most of any team in the league. While fast-break scoring typically drops off in the playoffs, the Warriors saw a dip from their league-high 24.7 points per game in transition during the season, a difference of only 2.7 points. Compare to last season, when they dropped from 22.5 points on the break in the regular season to 18.2 in the postseason. This time around, even in the playoffs, they’ve continued to run.
Will that hold, though, against Cleveland? During the season, one of the many complaints about the Cavs’ defense was its inability to stop transition, and at 18.9 points per game allowed on the break, Cleveland was 25th in the NBA. They’ve cleaned that up drastically, holding teams right around 14 fast-break points per game in the playoffs, which could be a reflection of the weak teams they faced, stepped-up defensive effort on their part or a combination of both.
Almost 20 percent of Golden State’s playoff possessions came on the break. Not only are they very capable of getting to the rim in those situations, they have a knack for knocking down transition 3s, which can be big-time momentum-builders. The Cavaliers will have to keep the Warriors in the half court as much as possible.
NBA Finals: The pick
Even with a Game 3 loss in the conference finals, the Cavaliers enter the Finals firing on all cylinders. Their “Big Three” of Love, Irving and James was outstanding in closing out the Celtics, and they’ve gotten some nice contributions from the likes of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams off the bench
But they can’t keep pace with the Warriors, winners of 27 of their last 28 games, in terms of depth. The Cavs and Warriors went seven games last year, and Cleveland returns much the same lineup this time around. Golden State has lost Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, but they brought in Durant, and his playoff performance to date — 25.2 points on 55.6 percent shooting — has been exactly what the Warriors wanted when they signed him last July.
The NBA needs a good series here, and the mere fact that it’s a third straight match up means it will be compelling. But the Warriors just have too much front line talent.
Pick: Golden State in 6.
NBA Finals: Cavaliers vs. Warriors schedule
Game 1: June 1 at 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 2: June 4 at 8 p.m. (ABC)
Game 3: June 7 at 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: June 9 at 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: June 12 at 9 p.m. (ABC)*
Game 6: June 15 at 9 p.m. (ABC)*
Game 7: June 18 at 8 p.m. (ABC)*
This article was 1st published on Sporting News