* Thursday on ABC: NBA Finals, Game 1 (9 ET)
OAKLAND, Calif. — Will the Golden State Warriors get crowned for the third time in four years and lay claim to being the best team of this generation? Or will LeBron James defy odds and pull this off and make his case for the greatest player of any generation?
Those are the only options. It’s one conclusion or another on the line here with the fourth installment of Nobody Else In The NBA Could Stop Them And That’s Why We Get Warriors-Cavs In The Finals.
Yes, already there are whines and groans and slumped shoulders in the basketball world because a portion of the population claims to suffer from Cavs-Warriors fatigue. Which in itself is unusual: This is a battle between a collection of four All-Stars vs. LeBron. Purely from an entertainment standpoint, what matchup would’ve been tastier?
The Young-And-Not-Ready Boston Celtics? The Houston Rockets without Chris Paul? The Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz or New Orleans Pelicans?
Those teams simply weren’t up to the task and were doomed by their faults and imperfections, and so this re-re-re-repeat became a reality. Perhaps it was destined from day one of the season because LeBron never reached for a body part -- the 33-year-old hasn’t sat out a single game, regular season or playoffs, 101 straight -- and the Warriors didn’t quite die from total boredom, although it was close for a minute.
The public fear with this series lies with a Warriors wipeout. Meaning, if the Cavs with Kyrie Irving were erased in five games by Golden State last summer, how can Cleveland possibly put up a better fight without him this time?
The soul of the 2018 NBA Finals, therefore, centers around LeBron and his limits as a basketball player. He can push the bar beyond anyone’s imagination by stringing together four unfathomable performances, or his season stops here, abruptly.
He’ll enter The Finals with one advantage: Andre Iguodala will not play Game 1 because of a persistently painful bone bruise.
Iguodala normally is the Warriors’ first line of defense on LeBron, someone who did a good enough job in that area to earn Finals MVP three years ago. Iggy is smart and athletic and therefore could make LeBron work harder than normal. But he can’t do that from the bench in a suit and tie. This will be the fifth straight postseason game missed by Iguodala, who says he isn’t beating himself up over it.
“That’s just wasted thoughts and energy,” he said. “Those negative thoughts can weigh on your mood and keep you from healing. I have really good days and really bad days. You can get impatient. It’s just a process to get through. I’m not that far away.”
LeBron applauded Iguodala’s quick hands and ball reaction and also revealed this on the eve of The Finals:
“We were one pick away from drafting him when Philly took him. Then we selected Luke Jackson from Oregon.”
We’ll save you the trouble of research: Jackson lasted two seasons in Cleveland and is now coaching in NAIA Division II. Iguodala’s still going, albeit with a limp currently.
The Warriors will toss other bodies in LeBron’s direction, including Kevin Durant, who must avoid foul trouble in that situation. Iguodala knows what his replacements will deal with.
“LeBron’s a very cerebral player,” Iguodala said. “He does a good job of always being a threat whether he’s on the ball or off the ball and does a good job of making his teammates threats. You can’t take any possessions off.”
LeBron’s 2017-18 run isn’t the best of his career, yet perhaps the most challenging. He’s doing it without Irving, who requested a trade last summer. Isaiah Thomas came in return, and left almost as quickly. A midseason trade brought George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., players who needed to be weaved into the club. And coach Tyronn Lue took a leave of absence for health-related reasons.
In addition, LeBron endured Game 7s in the first round and conference finals in the East playoffs.
Through it all, he maintained an exceptional high level of play, especially considering this is his 15th season. Scoring, rebounding, bringing the ball upcourt, finding teammates, creating shots for teammates, leading the club in tense moments and dropping game-winners … nobody at his age has done this in the NBA.
LeBron may need to average 40-plus minutes a game in this series, and he’s OK with that. He’s had three days off leading into Game 1, and will play only one game in five days between Games 1 and 3. Doing the math, that’s two games in eight days. That schedule works in his favor.
“I’ve been blessed to be available, and that’s what I take pride in more than anything,” James said about his durability. “I’ve never bought into a 'ceiling,’ either. I don’t really have a ceiling. I want to try and maximize as much as I can and be as good as I can.”
LeBron has a new toy: A fading, elevating half-turnaround mid-range jumper that he used to punish the Pacers, Raptors and Celtics. It has become part of his arsenal and it allows him to create space after backing his man down first. Michael Jordan developed a similar shot late in his career -- a turnaround jumper along the baseline -- and it helped make him dangerous in his early 30s.
Of course, there’s the passing which sets LeBron apart from the game’s other great scorers. He’ll need plenty of that if the Warriors throw a double his way, as expected without Iguodala.
Everything starts with LeBron and trying to throw up as much resistance as you can. When he’s on the floor, he’s the factor that you’ve got to worry about, and try to take the other guys out, too."
“Everything starts with LeBron and trying to throw up as much resistance as you can,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry. “When he’s on the floor, he’s the factor that you’ve got to worry about, and try to take the other guys out, too.”
LeBron must also guard Durant, something that didn’t work out so well for Cleveland last summer. Durant averaged 35.2 ppg in The Finals and was named series MVP. As a defender, LeBron is better at offering help than man-to-man as his his frequent run-down blocks (most notably on Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals) can attest. Last year, though, LeBron had to labor on both ends, and it’s a very fair and real question whether he can do that again without Irving around to absorb some of the offensive slack.
Kevin Love, coming off concussion protocol, is expected to be cleared. Whenever he suits up, he’ll be a factor, obviously. But in order to give themselves a chance, the Cavs need reasonable production from everyone: Tristan Thompson double-digit rebounds, JR Smith hitting multiple 3s, George Hill absorbing some of the playmaking duties, Clarkson scoring off the bench. Those chip-in performances would keep Cleveland competitive in games. If it’s all or mostly LeBron, good as he is, this could be quick.
“They still play a grind-out, physical game,” Durant said. “They’ve got a well rounded team with a lot of athletic guys. It’s different, obviously, without Kyrie in the mix but it does present a different challenge for us that we’ve got to be focused on.”
But even if the Cavs and LeBron are at their finest, is that enough?
Unlike Cleveland, the Warriors return to The Finals fully intact from a year ago. Durant, Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have all been here multiple times. They’re coming off a Western Conference finals that tested their will, and they survived. There’s also the good chance they won’t see a defense as tricky and switch-happy as the one Houston threw their way. The Rockets had PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Chris Paul (for five games anyway) and rim-protector Clint Capela, all with solid and varying defensive skills. Cleveland offers none of that.
Durant was often flummoxed by that defense and zoned out for a few fourth quarters but finished strongly in Game 7. Curry appears fully recovered from a bum knee that made for a late playoff debut, and Thompson can produce hot stretches. The Warriors work best, however, when Green directs the offense and looks for teammates cutting or running off picks. The Warriors got away from that against Houston and lapsed into isolation ball but perhaps learned from their mistake. Also: The Warriors haven’t played solidly in the playoffs for four full quarters; maybe that’s about to happen.
Matchups will determine how deep each coach reaches down the bench, but that’s minor. The stars will ultimately decide this one, as always in The Finals. Golden State has more of them, Cleveland owns the biggest.
That equation steeply favors the Warriors, who also own home-court advantage, for whatever that’s worth. For someone who struggled against the Celtics without Irving and the Pacers and needed every fiber from LeBron’s middle-aged body to get this far, winning four against the defending champions seems somewhat unrealistic.
“I don’t think we need that as motivation,” said Lue. “When you get to the NBA Finals, there is no added motivation. You’re trying to win a championship.”
So that’s the state of the series before it begins. Warriors-Cavs IV is the NBA Finals matchup you expected to get, even if repetition isn’t everyone's idea of a compelling stage.
“It may not be as suspenseful as people want it to be or as drama-filled,” said Durant, “but that’s what you’ve got movies and music for. If you enjoy basketball, I don’t feel like you should have any complaints.”
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