For the third consecutive time, the NBA Finals will be played between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. LeBron James and his sidekicks against a different version of the superteam from the bay area. Hopefully, both teams will actually sweat for the first time in these playoffs.
If anyone feels a little bit ‘eat, sleep, rave, repeat’ with these finals, there is one major difference: Kevin Durant. After an almost quiet season of missing 20 games and averaging “only” 25.1 points per game, Durant has been a lot more assertive in the postseason, averaging almost the same amount but on an incredible 55.6% from the field and in just 33.4 minutes a night. If anyone thought the Warriors problems of finding a right way to make the system work with Durant would come up in the postseason, they were wrong.
Of course, one might say that the Spurs finally found a way to make the Warriors flinch or think, until Kawhi Leonard injured his ankle. Whether it was on purpose by Zaza Pachulia or just a matter of putting the wrong foot at the wrong time, it completely changed the series. From what looked like something competitive, interesting and perhaps the brewing of an upset, we got another sweep. The Warriors needed only 12 games to get to the finals, the first sweep-sweep-sweep in the 7-7-7-7 era. The Cavaliers lost one game in the conference finals, but overall didn’t really need a special effort to get through, despite being the #2 seed and not having home court advantage against the Boston Celtics in the conference finals.
There are a lot of narratives at work in this series, which always makes for a better story. The teams actually dislike each other now. The hate didn’t exist in the 2015 finals, and only appeared midway through the 2016 finals. Thank Draymond Green for that, who his streak of hitting people in the groin and getting away with it ended when he did it to LeBron James, who was practically seducing Green into doing it. Green fell for it, was suspended for game 5 in the series, and the Cavaliers came back from being 1-3 down. The Warriors tried to make fun of James in the days before that game, but everything backfired. Choked might be the best word for it, although no one will ever admit it inside the Warriors camp.
There’s LeBron James, with the narrative that’s always carried on his shoulders. “Be like Mike”, “G.O.A.T.”, there’s nothing new. Only new chapters and twists in the story. James is having an incredible postseason, averaging 32.5 points in over 40 minutes a night. All the talk about not resting him during the regular season means nothing. The Cavaliers have a week until the Finals begin, and except for just one day of recovery time between games 3 and 4, the rest of the time it’s two days of rest. Last season, James getting that rest time meant a lot in the series finale, enabling him to lead his team to a stunning championship.
Stephen Curry has a stake in this. He’s averaging 28.6 points per game in the postseason, shooting 43.1% from three. MVP-like, even if he isn’t in the consideration, which makes sense. However, Curry didn’t play as expected in the previous Finals (2015 & 2016). While he doesn’t have to carry the offensive load with Durant “helping out” this year, the Warriors need Curry present in every game, and not let over physicality, bad defense or a bad shooting day get to him. Klay Thompson is in the same boat. Less is expected of him, but he has pulled two disappearing acts in two consecutive Finals series.
And there’s the mental makeup. The Cavaliers took the best the Warriors could dish out last season and didn’t stay down for the count, instead coming back with a flurry of counter punches that stunned the Dubs when they were least expecting it. In this series (the regular season, with a win for each team, means nothing), we’ll learn how the demons of last year are doing. The same goes for Durant, who seemed frozen in a way against James in the 2012 finals, and overall has an entire career of playing second fiddle to him in terms of impacting the game when the two meet up. Obviously, he has better teammates to back him up this time.
The Warriors are the favorites, for obvious reasons, even if James is looking as dominant as ever, as if he isn’t a 14-year veteran. The NBA, after an underwhelming postseason, needs this to be a good series and more importantly, a long one – at least six games. What’s better for the NBA in terms of a team that wins? Probably the Cavaliers. The Warriors, even after losing, are probably set for quite some time as the league’s most talented team. But the Cavaliers need to show there’s hope and some sort of blueprint to beat these guys. Most teams in the Eastern conference won’t agree with that sentiment, but the Cavs winning a second straight championship won’t evoke a feeling of helplessness among the rest of the league like a Warriors win would.