Here we go again.
Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers. Version 3.0.
With near perfect records on their way to a third consecutive NBA Finals, the Cavaliers and Warriors have silenced doubters.
The doubters that predicted the Cavaliers were one-and-done when they collapsed to finish their season 23-23. That LeBron was overplayed and that would affect his playoff numbers. That it was unfair that he was once again burdened with carrying the team, and that it wasn’t enough to make the finals.
Exactly none of that happened.
The Cavaliers trampled all over the East with a 12-1 record, stepping over just one small rock in the way of a Game 3 loss at home to the Thomas-less Boston Celtics.
The doubters claimed that the Warriors super team was overkill when they started the season 4-2. That Stephen Curry was overshadowed by the arrival of Kevin Durant and the two could not coexist. when the Warriors started the season. That Curry and Thompson are struggling to find themselves in the wake of the Durant injury.
You know what happened.
The Warriors ripped off a 15-1 streak to finish the season with 67 wins, before proceeding to demolishing the West in Fo’, Fo’, Fo’ style, helped in no small part by this Conference Finals MVP-worthy play by Zaza Pachulia.
All this transpired to give us what a lot of experts predicted would happen: A three-peat of the Warriors-Cavaliers finals.
For an NBA fan, those are mouth watering numbers.
Offensively the Cavaliers can match up with the Warriors. They can bring the fight to them with a big three of their own. Defensively, though, is where this series will be won.
The Cavaliers have managed marginally better numbers on defence that the Warriors. Opponents only scored 13.5 points off turnovers, have managed just 11.6 second-chance points and held to 42.2 points in the paint; all numbers better than the Warriors (16.8,12.3, 44.3). However, bring up the competition against which the Cavaliers did this damage, keeping in mind that both Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors) and Isaiah Thomas (Celtics) missed the playoffs, and you begin to see where the difference hid itself.
Another key difference is the transition game. Offensively, both teams are dangerous in the open court. Make a mistake and they will make you pay at the other end, be it with quick threes, lob passes, or coast-to-coast drives by either James or Durant. Defensively though, it no secret that the Cavaliers struggle in transition from time to time. Case in point, game 3 vs the Celtics, where they often lost track of the men in green in transition.
The most interesting chasm though, lies in the difference between the Cavalier’s offensive rating and the Warriors defensive rating. One would be tempted to look at the Cavalier’s 120.7 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and think team is an offensive juggernaut. And one would be right. Not only are they are whole 10 points more than their regular season average, but this is the best offensive rating in nearly 40 NBA seasons. Similarly the Warriors’ defensive rating of 99.1 is the best the NBA has seen in nearly 30 decades.
NBA Finals: The best offense vs the best defence
The two teams split the two regular season games, with Cleveland winning a close one on Christmas and the Warriors blowing them out in January. Both games showed glimpses of what is in store for the series ahead: featuring four of the ten best players in the NBA, LeBron’s ability to takeover a game when he decides he wants to win it, the Warriors’ stifling defence and blistering offense. If those games are any indication on how this series plays out, expect the series to go to game 7.
Everything about the Cavaliers suggests they are hitting their peak at the right moment. Kyrie Irving who struggled against the Raptors, lit up the Celtics 25.8 ppg while obliterating his regular season and playoff shooting percentages, going for 62 FG% - 50 3P% - 92% FT%. Kevin Love for his part, showed exactly why LeBron signed him three seasons ago, finishing with 23 pts / 12.4 rebs while shooting 49% - 54% - 87%, all figures significantly higher than his regular season averages.
And LeBron, is well, LeBron. His numbers dipped marginally during the Celtics series, only for him to deliver a 35 pts / 8 assists / 8 rebs performance in a game where he missed just 5 of his 18 shots. Monster.
The Cavaliers have remained largely intact. They will be trotting out a team marginally upgraded from last season. Deron Williams has found shades of what made him a top-5 point guard five seasons ago, and handles that faulty, streaky second unit of the Cavaliers. Both Irving and Love are paying much better than they did the same time last year. And LeBron has, as unfathomable as it is, become better.
No surprises here for the Warriors, except that they have a team that is just as determined and hungry for that title. The Cavaliers were merciless in their journey to the 2017 Finals, and can taste blood in the water. I’m afraid that LeBron, (gulp) may have yet another gear.
The knock on the Cavaliers is the quality of competition they faced all the way to the Finals. No matter how you look at it, the Indiana Pacers, the Toronto Raptors and the Thomas-less Celtics aren’t the Portland Trail Blazers, the Utah Jazz and the Leonard-less Spurs.
However, detractors would do well to remember that this was the case last year as well. The Cavaliers romped to the Finals with a 12-2 record after beating the Raptors who had two healthy stars. Yet, they showed up prepared for the Finals, took advantage of a suspended Draymond Green in Game 5, and created history to come back and with the NBA Finals after being down 3-1 to a record-breaking 73-win against a loaded Warriors team. Count out the Cavaliers at your own peril.
What’s at stake?
This is what is boils down to. Legacy.
For Irving, a second championship back-to-back establishes his credibility as one of the greatest sidekicks in NBA history.
For Green, a championship purges him of the foolishly embarrassing Groin-Gate controversy and puts in conversation for one of the 20 greatest power forwards in NBA history
For Curry, a second championship will aid his eventual legacy, surpassing Ray Allen as the greatest shooter in NBA history.
For Kevin Durant, a championship puts his name in the conversation for one of the greatest forwards ever. Ask Malone and Barkley why this is important.
For the Cavaliers, they once again become a beacon of hope in a city that had suffered one of the worst championships droughts in the history of sport until LeBron delivered the 2016 NBA Championship
For the Warriors, they get to exact revenge for the humiliation they faced last season: that a team with an NBA record 73 wins in the regular season not only lost the Finals, but lost it after being up 3-1.
The most important one, though?
For LeBron, another championship, his second back-to-back and fourth overall, places him squarely above Kobe, and puts him in the five greatest NBA players ever.
At the end of it all, the Warriors have their 73-win core intact, are 100% healthy, and added a skinny dude who just happens to the one of the ten purest scorers in NBA history. He’s pretty good.
Prediction: Warriors in six.
Best of the Conference:
Performance of the Conference Finals:
Kyrie Irving, Game 4 vs Boston Celtics, 42 pts on 68-57-89 shooting splits
Curry’s 40 in Game 1 deserved to be here too. Irving’s 42 though reminded us of why the Cavaliers trusted him to take the Championship shot last season. Down 16 and fresh off a tough loss against the Thomas-less Celtics, Irving locked in and delivered a performance for the ages. Signs of this performance began when Irving sliced through the Celtics’ defence twice in the waning seconds of Game 3. The rap on Irving is that he could not have won without LeBron James. That was also true of Scottie Pippen though, doesn’t make any less of a legend that he is. Something tells me Irving and LeBron will last in Cleveland till they retire. That does wonders for Irving’s legacy in an age where superstars change teams or are traded every season.
Game of the Conference Finals:
Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, 111-108
This, for me, is the game of the playoffs this far. First, survive a brutal seven-game series against a team that ought to have beaten you; second, lose Thomas for the series; third, lose Game 2 by a historic (in a bad way) 44 points and go down 2-0 at home, and last, fall behind by 21 points halfway through the third quarter. I could have counted a few teams that would make it back against these odds, but a Celtics team without their best player would not have been one of them. Also, I’d be dead wrong. The Celtics mounted one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoffs history. With everything going their way, you’d expect the basketball gods to give them the bounce on the game winning 3-pointer. That is exactly what happened.
Player of the Conference Finals:
Stephen Curry, 31.5 ppg / 6.0 rpg / 4.8 apg / 3.0 spg / 56-47-90 shooting splits
Durant is important to the Warriors’ championship quest this season, but Curry is the key. And he is reminding everyone of the same. Curry is carving up his regular season number in true super star style, averaging better digits across all categories. His conference finals numbers against a solid defensive unit like the Spurs (even in the absence of Leonard) were breaching greatness. It warrants a double-take when you realize he averaged those numbers with a sidekicks named Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and a running mate named Kevin Durant.
Team of the Conference Finals:
Golden State Warriors, 4-0 vs San Antonio Spurs
This ought to have been the Celtics’ spot, for reasons listed above. However, despite the absence of Leonard, what the Warriors did to the second best team in the NBA cannot be overlooked. Without Leonard the Spurs are still a top-10 defence in the league. Didn’t matter to the Warriors. They carved them up for 125 ppg. Despite every small run the Spurs put up, the Warriors would not go away. They treated Pop’s top-10 defence as that of a college team’s. As a Spurs fan, this series was super hard to watch. As a basketball fan, however, it was the most beautiful execution of basketball I have seen in a very long time.