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How They Got Here
Golden State: In as dominant a fashion as any team ever has.
After rolling up the NBA’s best record during the regular season, the Golden State Warriors have become the first team in NBA history to go 12-0 to open the playoffs. They have posted the largest average margin of victory ever for a team entering the Finals, steamrolling the Trail Blazers, Jazz and Spurs to win the Western Conference for the third straight year, and enter the Finals undefeated.
There have been some mitigating circumstances. Portland played three of the opening round’s four games without center Jusuf Nurkic, the midstream acquisition who made the Blazers one of the NBA’s hottest teams after the trade deadline before breaking his right fibula. Utah played three of Round 2’s four games without starting point guard George Hill, who couldn’t shake a toe injury that had been bothering him all year long.
San Antonio, most famously, lost MVP finalist Kawhi Leonard in the third quarter of Game 1 after spraining his left ankle following a jump shot when he landed on the foot of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia. The controversial play sparked fierce debate (and even a lawsuit) over the line between hard-nosed defense and dirty pool. It also completely changed the complexion of the conference finals. A Spurs team already working without starting point guard Tony Parker lost its best initiator of offense, its top scorer and its best defensive player in one fell swoop, effectively eliminating San Antonio’s chance to compete with the star-studded, high-powered Warriors.
But injuries happen. All you can do is play the teams in front of you, and the Warriors have decimated them. Stephen Curry has been brilliant, pouring in 28.6 points per game on blistering 50/43/91 shooting splits and breaking defenses with the threat of his shooting. Kevin Durant has bounced back from a late-season MCL sprain and an early postseason calf strain to hit his stride at the right time, shooting a sparkling 60 percent from the floor in the conference finals while providing the ultimate in-case-of-emergency-break-glass isolation scoring option whenever Golden State’s motion-heavy offense bogs down. And with Draymond Green leading the charge, the Warriors defense has been the postseason’s stingiest, allowing a microscopic 99.1 points per 100 possessions.
Yes, their stiffest challenge awaits. Yes, you can find causes for concern in Klay Thompson’s shooting, Andre Iguodala’s defensive creakiness and the turnover-related sloppiness that cropped up late in the Spurs series. On balance, though, this is the best offensive and defensive team in the league coming off nine days of rest; this is about as good as a team can look heading into the Finals.
Cleveland: By grinding the bones of the Pacers and Raptors to make their bread, thus hastening existential crises in Indianapolis and Toronto, before dispatching the Celtics in gentlemanly fashion. So, y’know: pretty standard stuff for LeBron James.
Three rounds in, the Cleveland Cavaliers have lost just once in the 2017 postseason. They won four straight off Indiana on the strength of their lights-out offense, a couple of solid-enough defensive quarters, and the unyielding excellence of James, who averaged a shade under 33 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks in 44 minutes a game.
Some observers still questioned whether the Cavs had really flipped the proverbial switch to resolve their defensive struggles after a historically close four-game sweep. (Which, not for nothing, is still a sweep.) Cleveland responded by absolutely dismantling the third-seeded Raptors, building 20-plus-point leads in three straight wins before finishing off the sweep behind a fourth-quarter flurry from Kyrie Irving.
Again, LeBron decided everything. Toronto had no answer for his ability to get and make whatever shot he wanted, or to create excellent looks for the bevy of shooters with which general manager David Griffin and head coach Tyronn Lue have surrounded him. Better still: the Cavs actually D’d up, holding the Raptors, the NBA’s sixth most efficient offense during the regular season, to just 100.9 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve just barely slotted in above the Philadelphia 76ers in the race for the worst offense in the league.
After another extended siesta while the Celtics and Wizards went the full seven games, the Cavs proved to be rested rather than rusty, traveling to Boston and absolutely pulverizing the C’s in Games 1 and 2 to take complete control of the series. After a Game 3 stumble back at home that stands as James’ worst playoff performance in at least a half-decade, Cleveland regained its footing thanks to some Kyrie heroics and a brutalizing closeout game by LeBron that sent his longtime antagonists in the stands at TD Garden home dejected, and sent the Cavs on to their third straight NBA Finals. (And the seventh in a row for LeBron, which just boggles the mind.)
The structural issues with Cleveland’s defense are still there. Their rotation still skews more toward veteran shooters than younger, athletic stoppers capable of checking multiple positions, and they can be susceptible to pick-and-roll and backdoor-cut exploitation when Irving and Kevin Love are on the floor. Through three rounds, though, their firepower’s been far too potent for that to matter. (The Cavs, not the Warriors, enter the Finals with the postseason’s most potent offense, averaging a staggering 120.7 points per 100 possessions.) And with two straight quick conclusions and a five-game conference finals buying LeBron all kinds of time to rest up and get his body right, it’s hard to envision the Cavs as constituted being in much better position heading into the championship round.
Now all they’ve got to do is beat the team that’s been the NBA’s best over the past three seasons, and that added an MVP after last year’s defeat. Hey, if it was easy, everyone would do it, right? — Dan Devine
Head to Head
The regular season matchups between the Warriors and Cavaliers hold less importance to this series than what happened in the 2016 NBA Finals. Golden State appeared set to defeat Cleveland for the second-straight season and went on to become the first team in finals history to blow a 3-1 lead. They had excuses — Draymond Green’s suspension for Game 5, an injury to Stephen Curry, etc. — but nothing can erase the facts of the matter. LeBron James put forth one of the best clutch performances the sport has ever seen, Kyrie Irving wasn’t too far behind him, and the Cavs as a whole made more plays when it counted. That series will loom over this one, and no one will count the Cavs out as long as LeBron wears the uniform. The Warriors are a different team in 2017, but they’ll still have to prove that collapse was an aberration.
Depending on your point of view, the two games this regular season either met or defied the expectations set by the Cavs’ historic finals comeback. The Christmas meeting in Cleveland was genuinely one of the best games in the season, in part because it fit the narrative of the finals so well. Durant scored 36 points and appeared to be the difference as the Warriors built a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, but the Cavaliers dominated crunch time and won 109-108 on a jumper from Kyrie Irving with 3.4 seconds on the clock. If anything, it had almost too much in common with Game 7.
The second matchup on January 16 at Oracle Arena wasn’t quite so dramatic. The Warriors scored 78 points in the first half and cruised to a 126-91 blowout win that now looks like an early indication of the defensive struggles that dogged the Cavs throughout the second half of the season. The Warriors’ four stars were all terrific, and there was never really any doubt how the result would finish. Golden State was simply much better, enough so that it’s hard to take too much from this one. At this point, we know these teams are likely to play a competitive best-of-seven series. There’s just likely to be a rout or two in there somewhere. — Eric Freeman
Likely Starting Lineups
For the Warriors: Curry and Thompson in the backcourt, Durant and Green up front, and Pachulia in the middle. (Pachulia missed most of the last three games of the conference finals with a bruised right heel, but expects to be fine in time to start the Finals, thanks to Golden State’s lengthy layoff.) Just as everybody expected before the start of the season, a unit featuring four All-NBA talents around a screen-setting, rebounding, ball-moving grinder proved dominant, outscoring opponents by a whopping 23.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season.
That was the second-best mark among NBA lineups to share the floor for at least 200 minutes, behind only … wait for it … Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, which boasted a +23.9 net rating during the regular season. The revamped “Death Lineup” features an embarrassment of length, smarts, playmaking and defensive skill, with the added bonus of replacing the entirely fine (except when he wasn’t) Harrison Barnes with the causing-rambunction-throughout-the-sphere Durant as a scoring, rebounding and rim-protection upgrade at power forward.
When the Warriors need more traditional lineups, they’ll turn to their yin-and-yang reserve center combination: floorbound veteran David West, a heady high-post playmaker averaging nearly seven assists per 36 minutes of postseason floor time, and spring-heeled reclamation project JaVale McGee, who has rehabilitated his reputation and made his presence felt as a rim-running dive man and shot-blocker throughout this playoff run. Golden State’s also stocked with supplementary options on the wing, including 6-foot-7 tablesetter Shaun Livingston, microwave scorer Ian Clark, impressive second-round rookie Patrick McCaw and veteran late-season addition Matt Barnes, all of whom figure to floor time when the series downshifts into small-ball. — Dan Devine
The Cavaliers’ Game 1 starters should be Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith in the backcourt, Kevin Love at stretch four, Tristan Thompson at center, and LeBron James at do-everything. Few lineups boast such a combination of shooters, playmakers, and rebounders. This group has devastated the East for several years and looks set to do so well into the future.
However, the team’s coaching staff has shown a willingness to change lineups for matchup purposes in each of the last two finals and could well do it again. That’s fitting, because the Cavs’ biggest strength is the sheer number of quality lineups they can throw out there. LeBron has pushed the Cavs front office to obtain and continue to pay a number of players, and the result is a roster that goes two-deep at every position.
Against the Warriors, the most likely change would come in the frontcourt, where Love has often looked lost on defense against Golden State (title-winning perimeter stops of Stephen Curry notwithstanding). Veteran forward Richard Jefferson helped get Cleveland back into last year’s series and could prove key to this one, as well. His defensive versatility on the wing is a necessity against Golden State. If there a reason to worry about RJ’s ability to log big minutes, it’s that he’s averaged just 10.1 minutes in eight playoff appearances and turns 37 on June 21. Yet those numbers won’t necessarily matter — the Cavs accept that their roles will change from series to series and have thrived with that approach. Don’t expect any controversies if Love sits on the bench for long periods.
The other top reserves excel as shooters and not necessarily anywhere else. Kyle Korver joined the Cavs via trade in the winter and has continued to be one of the league’s best spot-up shooters, but his minutes could end up tied to at least one of the Warriors’ less prolific reserve scorers for defensive purposes. Channing Frye is also a terrific shooter and provides more value as an interior defender, but that second quality matters less against a team that can easily seek him out on switches. Midseason pickup Deron Williams should play regular minutes as a backup point guard and secondary facilitator, although it’s not great that he rates as the most likely defensive plus of the three.
Thankfully, Iman Shumpert is around to soak up playing time as a perimeter defender. Forward Derrick Williams could be an emergency play, as well, although that would suggest the Cavs were having lots of difficulty defending Durant, Green, and Curry. — Eric Freeman
Matchups to Watch
LeBron James vs. 2016
You can’t blame us for expecting something more than the absolute best that basketball has ever seen, from LeBron James. He was introduced to us some time ago as not only the NBA’s next great star, but also a league-rescuing savior in an era that badly needed some joy to pass around. Though James is to be hardly solely credited, his role in the league’s re-birth is significant; though those running the NBA at the time of his 2003 are likely loathe to admit as much, the league (by then even sorrowful of Michael Jordan’s recent retirement from the Wizards) badly needed LeBron’s addition.
Since then, somehow, he’s met expectations. Somehow, in spite of so many legitimate destination spots for criticism having landed so expertly, James has risen above and performed as advertised. No other transcendent star can claim as much, outside of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and the comparisons between LeBron’s blowhard 2003 intro and Kareem’s early years in Milwaukee or even Magic’s national television debut are the very definition of invalid. The heat, in 2003, was intense. Michael Jordan wasn’t burdened with anywhere near the pressure and exposure and estimation upon his relatively anonymous move to Chicago in 1984.
LeBron’s ability to remain above the fray and a half-step ahead of the fans and media has lent credibility to his on-court work, as if it ever needed the boost. Instead of viewing his play in the 2016 Finals as we should have – an unholy amalgamation of Magic Johnson and something Chuck Yeager would pilot – we now look at is routine. Once you’ve met all expectations, averaging 29.7 points (with 49/37/72 splits) alongside 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks against Golden State over seven games now becomes expected.
Which is ridiculous, but that’s the assumption all of us (mostly correctly) have been working under since July, when Kevin Durant joined this production. That the Cavs somehow have Golden State’s number, because all we can remember is a Christmas Day mess, how injured Cleveland was in 2016, and that LeBron James can perform as a superhuman during Games No. 87 through 94 in his nine-month season.
This shouldn’t be typical, it should reveal itself as unreliable in due time, but most of us will have to see it to believe it. For now, LeBron James will be asked to make par with averages that would make Michael Jordan tug at his shorts. He’ll be expected to do as much against the winningest three-year crew of pros in NBA history. Against a squad working seemingly without weakness.
And he probably has a pretty good shot.
Mike Brown vs. His Critics
Mike Brown got a little cute himself, on Thursday, when he gave a consciously brief answer to the “charge” from Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue that Golden State’s superteam offense was somehow less “harder” to guard than Boston’s premeditated pell-mell attack:
Short answer from Mike Brown on Tyronn Lue's comment that Celtics are "harder to defend" than Warriors: "That's his opinion. It's cute." pic.twitter.com/lHuezIwXfQ
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 25, 2017
This series has too mean too damn much to Mike Brown. Has to. He bore no ill will toward LeBron James when the fault of their failure to reach a championship first fell on Brown via firing in 2010, even though the ex-Cavs coach received absolutely none of the “but look at James’ teammates!”-deflections that LeBron was routinely gifted during and after his initial spin in Cleveland. His move to coach Kobe and mostly just Kobe in 2011 with the Lakers failed in two incarnations. A 2013 return to Cleveland was met with embarrassment after 33 wins, fired again by the Cavs just a year into a four-year contract, and replacement with an NBA neophyte just prior to James’ return.
Famously, Brown spent 2015-16 working with a smile yet without a coaching home, prior to finding a gig as associate head coach in Golden State after the position had previously landed its two other occupants (Alvin Gentry and Luke Walton) three and four-year guaranteed years as head coaches in New Orleans and Los Angeles. Now he’s working as head coach, unless something changes significantly with Steve Kerr in his ongoing quest to be free of back surgery complications.
Nobody would have gulped twice had Gentry been forced to take over the same role for Kerr in 2014-15, nobody even gulped once when the 36-year old Luke Walton was picked to replace Kerr to start 2015-16, and yet Brown’s ascension prior to Game 3 of the Portland series was met with a shortened yet significant series of guttural groans. Known for his between-game mastery, Mike Brown has left some critics wondering at times with his in-game work; either anticipating matchup quirks or responding to them. The devil we didn’t know in Walton and the sensible sideline man we intimately knew in Gentry seemed far safer than Brown, who has spent the last few weeks trying to get rid of those gulps. Our gulps.
Lue’s comments, however accurate in parts, didn’t help things. Then-Clipper assistant Tyronn Lue was not part Brown’s staff in 2013-14, only rumored as a possible head coaching replacement in 2014 prior to David Blatt’s hiring. Lue has repeatedly spoken well of Blatt since that coach’s dismissal, but he would have little reason to align himself with the two-time ex-Cleveland Cavalier Fired Guy. Lue has no association with Brown’s coaching branches, only a relationship an adversary as a player on the 2009 Orlando team that toppled Cleveland, and as an assistant on the 2010 Boston Celtics club that surprisingly popped the Cavaliers in Brown’s last year with LeBron.
Though both Brown and LeBron went “home” to Cleveland in separate trips, the two aren’t likely to work with one another past their 2005-through-2010 stretch, with either anonymous or Shaq-sized in-locker revelations matching with our own assumptions that Brown had a bit of trouble impressing his former co-worker. Somehow the two have met again under these lights, as combatants in ways that few assumed in 2012, when Mike Brown’s Lakers featured Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and a direct line toward June and a meeting with LeBron’s defending champion Heat.
Many didn’t expect Brown to outlast that season, and it he didn’t make it a month. Most assumed Brown would have little issue with the rest of the West until San Antonio hit, and then even that matchup (against his former mates from San Antonio) was made a cinch due to Kawhi Leonard’s injury.
Now, the man who coached an entire regular season’s worth of playoff games before taking over for Steve Kerr some 10 wins ago has to answer to the “walk with me” thoughts of Tyronn Lue, in his 16th month on the job?
Let’s see where “cute” takes us.
Cleveland’s No. 1 Ranked Playoff Offense vs. the Postseason’s Top Defense
Golden State can defend now. The team has been hot stuff defensively throughout 2016-17, finishing No. 2 in the NBA on that end prior to giving us the postseason’s top defensive mark by far over their first, chilly, dozen wins. Your buddies figured out how to be San Antonio, in between those nationally televised games that never seemed to feature healthy rosters.
What was once Golden State’s strongest credit is now perhaps its weak link, center Zaza Pachulia doesn’t so much cover for his teammates’ mistakes as much as he amplifies his opponents missteps, and with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant around to protect the rim in ways either forceful or spindly, the Warriors have hardly missed the sort of barking and swatting that Andrew Bogut provided, and they’re not handing out empty minutes to Anderson Varejao and Festus Ezeli this time around.
Short of lacking a defense-first playmaker, the team seems expertly constructed to defeat a champion like the Cavaliers, given the release of the vacuum that reminds us that the Warriors were champions a full 12 months before these Cavs. Even with Andre Iguodala forced into gutting through his second straight injury-limited Finals, the W’s cast of swingmen can hang without LeBron James without needing too much by way of blows, or help. Most can switch, and you know everyone is going to talk.
Durant’s conquest, in a series like this could have more to do with sticking standing against the ropes in the end, rather than trading late night 25-footers with The King. The trick isn’t looking at minutes in total but rather minding that initial burst out of the gate in the first quarter, but it certainly doesn’t hurt Kevin Durant’s cause that he played 922 fewer minutes than LeBron this year, and that he’s 40-odd months younger. He can chase, cover, contest and hang. Each of these Warriors can, in their particular field.
LeBron James has never been this old, and he’s never stared down a team this great. Absolutely none of that got in his way a year ago, but let us be the latest to remind you that the Golden State Warriors have made some additions in the months since. — Kelly Dwyer
How Golden State Could Win
Don’t turn the ball over. Control the defensive glass. Keep Draymond in uniform and out of foul trouble. If they’re ready for your motion, make them prove they can handle a steady diet of the Curry-Green pick-and-roll; if they can slow that, well, that’s why you got Kevin freaking Durant to come off pindown screens, post up and create from the middle of the floor. Stay patient on offense, stay solid on defense, and rely on your superior overall talent to pose too many questions for even the best opponent you’ve faced so far to answer. — Dan Devine
How Cleveland Could Win
LeBron James has to play the best basketball of his career, again, and Kyrie Irving has to join him. Not just in spots, not just for halves, but throughout the entirety of a series that could genuinely end rather quickly. Kevin Love, who just nine years ago was set to make millions off mostly 40-inch shots taken after jumping eight inches off the floor, has to continue his mark as a super-swift, series-altering marksman from 25 feet and potential championship-tilting presence at center. The Cavaliers have to play greater than the sum of their parts, as the Warriors do at their best, repeatedly. Provided Golden State plays up to its sense of par, toppling the Warriors at their most typical would be a legendary undertaking. — Kelly Dwyer
Best Reason to Watch
This is where you’re supposed to be hit with the reminder that the NBA has never seen anything like this, and in a matchup-laden, individual-intensive pro sport as this, the sheer impact of Golden State and Cleveland’s cast of stars meeting for a third time with Kevin Durant somehow along for the rubber match ride cannot be overstated.
The season ran far too close to expectation to be ranked as much more than a (giddily-accepted!) highlight factory, and though the play was remarkable the threats have been absent thus far in a disappointing postseason.
The playoffs have been bad so far, nearly-enervating in its rote attention to script, but yet that same application could be used to thrill in these Finals. Just as the Celtics were never supposed to bother the Cavs and the Spurs didn’t have a chance against Golden State without Kawhi Leonard, these Warriors and Cavaliers are now presumed hours away from thrilling us with the Greatest Finals Ever. That’s in the next chapter, in a book that’s been dreadfully dull thus far.
Stephen Curry, healthy, has played his best NBA basketball in the calendar year 2017. The same skip over his MVP past was also made with (seeming) ease by Durant, now playing the best two-way basketball of his career. LeBron James, save for a noted hiccup midway through the Boston series, has never looked better. Last year, around this time, he never played better.
You’re right to carp about the script, so far. You’re right to have notes, because this postseason has forced us to search for intrigue, following a season that saw a lack of programmed spark between the performers at the top of the bill.
If this is the payoff, though, and Sofia Coppola’s not acting in it? All we expected out of 2016-17 was an exhausting, obvious regular season and a brilliant Finals once Golden State met Cleveland for what some would call “the third part” of this trilogy. We got the regular season, lacking in nationally televised charm, and the chalk-heavy postseason to follow. At times, it kinda stunk.
Now, we’ve got what we’ve earned. A seat on the couch for what should be the NBA at its best. — Kelly Dwyer
Prediction: Warriors in 7.