Finally, the Finals, and perhaps finally a competitive series in these NBA playoffs.
It’s been a mostly disappointing NBA Spring. But now it’s seven of the last eight league Most Valuable Player award winners in one series. It’s the last two defending champions coming into the Finals an unprecedented combined 24-1 in these playoffs. It’s LeBron James, regarded as the best player of this generation, against perhaps the most popular in Stephen Curry and James’ closest rival in Kevin Durant. It’s arguably the best shooting team ever in the NBA against a darned good shooting team with the player some say will end his career the best ever to play basketball.
With the teams playing in the Finals for the third consecutive time, it’s a series that is being compared to the biggest alltime rivalries, Ali and Frazier, Federer and Nadal, Evert and Navratilova, Burr and Hamilton, the Hatfields and McCoys, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
I’m looking forward to it even if I don’t believe it’s going to be all that close. I’d love seven games; I don’t expect to be a witness.
No team ever came into the Finals 12-0, and the Warriors are impressive. But also really lucky so far in these playoffs. That would be two of the top three San Antonio Spurs players out injured after Portland’s center was injured after the Utah Jazz center was injured and the Jazz pretty much were just happy to win a first round playoff series.
Consider, first round opponent Portland, a .500 team without its starting center and a year since losing it’s best player, LaMarcus Aldridge, had been out of the first round twice in the previous 16 years and not past the second round in that time. The Jazz had missed the playoffs five of the previous six seasons. And then the 61-win Spurs were without former Finals MVP Tony Parker and current MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. But only after trailing the Spurs by more than 20 points when Leonard was hurt in Game 1.
Leonard’s very good, and perhaps will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame one day. Same with Parker. Surely the Spurs Pau Gasol, too, though he’s now at the end of his career. It’s difficult to find other than Leonard a potential Hall of Famer in his prime on any of the three teams the Warriors defeated. While the Warriors likely have at least two and perhaps three or even four depending on the rest of Draymond Green’s career.
Though the Warriors probably had the more difficult path compared with Cleveland’s. Did the Cavs face even one potential Hall of Fame player in their 12-1 run? Perhaps Paul George, but he’ll have to do a lot more. DeMar DeRozan? Isaiah Thomas? C’mon. And if Rajon Rondo doesn’t get hurt with the Celtics just having lost two straight at home who believes they’re in the conference finals?
OK, perhaps that’s a good reason these playoffs were so one sided. But now we get the Greatest Series Ever?
You mean better than the 1961 Finals with 11 future Hall of Famers? Or ’62 with Russell, Cousy and Sam Jones against West and Baylor. Five of the top 25? And having to beat Wilt to get there. Or the next year to beat a team with three Hall of Famers led by Oscar. Heck, you’d have trouble finding a Finals in the 1960s without at least eight Hall of Famers on the two teams. Or in the 1980s; like in 1985 with nine future Hall of Famers in the Finals and perhaps three of the top six players of alltime. Or maybe 1987 with eight future Hall of Famers. And I still haven’t mentioned Jordan.
Look, this should be a terrific Finals for drama and story, the Greatest Guy against the Greatest Team. And a welcome relief after almost two months with some excellent performances, very good games, but not much in the competitive series category other than the occasional Eastern undercard contested series. But let’s not forget greatness just because you didn’t see it.
Though perhaps one of the best things about this Finals is also how the loser explains it.
LeBron, we know, is scrutinized like few players ever. If the Cavs lose, who knows if he’ll come out of his basement before August for all the commentary that he really is no Jordan. Or maybe Magic or Kareem. If the Warriors lose, it means LeBron gets to replace Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore. After all, Teddy wasn’t even the most famous Roosevelt. What’s he doing up there? And the once and future dynasty just becomes another Silicon Valley overhyped startup.
The curiosity about this matchup is both seem to have become villains. LeBron, of course, has long been the Great Ambivalence, dividing the basketball world like the nation’s political parties. The Warriors, though seemingly a nice bunch, have taken on a somewhat unlikeable quality because of Kevin Durant’s signing. And really, who isn’t tired of Curry with all that mouth guard chewing and celebrating every time he makes a three. Look, San Francisco already is the nation’s capital of smug with the views, the technology and the hybrid cars. They also need their basketball team to act like that?
So at least whoever loses, a lot of people will feel good.
It’s almost like the Dallas Cowboys playing the New York Yankees.
So let’s get it on starting 8 p.m. Central Thursday
Here’s a look at the matchups is what will be one of the most intriguing series for individual battles. Which, everyone knows, we are told is what the playoffs are all about.
Point Guard: Stephen Curry vs Kyrie Irving
One of the great rarities of this series is two of the league’s best players, perennial all-pro players and perhaps both eventual Hall of Famers, will not win their individual matchup. Irving is one. He was great in the Eastern Conference playoffs and actually has outscored Curry in the Finals. And made that winner in Game 7 last year. But, like Curry, he’s not much of a defender and could have issues in this series. Both teams, like basically all NBA teams these days with defense not so much a priority any more, do a lot of switching. So matchups will change, though Golden State has by far the better defenders. Other than Curry, that is. He’s their defensive Achilles. So Curry will probably guard J.R. Smith, who is basically just a jump shooter. Klay Thompson, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, likely defend Irving. Irving is amazing with the dribble, but doesn’t much give up the ball much. He’ll get to the basket, but everyone often stops to watch while the ball whirls all over with the Warriors constant motion game. Irving will likely have to defend Curry as Smith probably is not quick enough. And generally due for two or three goofy things every game or two, though quiet lately. The Warriors also have this tendency to relax and act overconfident and then turn over the ball. It’s almost like kids trying to make a game more competitive against the little kids in the neighborhood. Forget that after the embarrassment of losing last year with the 3-1 lead. You get the feeling the Warriors aren’t messing around this time. Now they just need the shots to go in.
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson vs J.R. Smith
Thompson has been unusually non proficient in the playoffs this far, shooting under 40 percent. Worse, he’s not a brother anymore. When you hear about the Splash Brothers these days, it’s more Curry and Durant, who are the main shooters these days for the Warriors. Thompson, as unassuming as he is, seems quietly to have accepted moving down a notch in the Warriors’ star hierarchy. He’s said basically nothing. Of course, he didn’t when he and Curry were taking them to 73 wins. Which does make these guys hard to not like. But you figure a guy who once had almost 40 points in a quarter is going to break out. The Cavs basically are a bad defensive team and if they feel they need Smith on Curry, then Thompson could go off scoring. He may anyway. And how about J.R. not even being considered the wackiest guy in this series with more anticipation about where Green’s foot will be the next time he sees LeBron’s groin.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant Vs. LeBron James
This is bigger than Magic and Bird. More like Russell and Chamberlain. It’s the two best players of the day and, at the time in history, not only in the same series, but probably defending one another. That’s the flaw of all those Jordan/LeBron matchups. They never played. Durant got himself an MVP in 2014 before Curry’s two. Yes, it was Derrick Rose the only MVP in the last eight years not in this series. Obviously, you can’t pick against LeBron individually, and he’s been extraordinary in these playoffs averaging more than 30 points. Other than that off game in Boston when the Cavs had their only loss, he’s charged the basket and avoided the fall back threes that lead to Cavs losses. The Cavs usually try to rest him on defense because he does so much on offense and likes to save himself for those run down blocks. But there’s really no one else to guard Durant. Kevin Love is way too slow. If I were the Cavs, I’d actually try Tristan Thompson, who has some quickness. Of course, that could leave Thompson too far from the basket for rebounding. And the Cavs figure one edge they should have is rebounding. The Cavs like to run and shoot threes, but would they slow it down to try to take advantage of their size for this series? Something to watch for. Coaches never do this stuff any more, but I like the Don Nelson trick of trying to lure your opponent into going to a guy who can’t score. So maybe put Thompson on Durant and have Irving guard ZaZa Pachulia or JaVale McGee if the latter gets in the series. See if the Warriors will stop their shooting and throw it inside. Then you have Smith on Curry and LeBron on Thompson, who is mostly a jump shooter, though he does run around a lot. Tyronn Lue will check with LeBron to see if he can do that. It’s not easy to play with LeBron sometimes even as unselfish as he is passing the ball so much. The Warriors understand LeBron wants to be a playmaker more than scorer and they never double team him. It’s the way to play the Cavs. Dare LeBron to score. It begins to take everyone else out and he really doesn’t want to. Plus, he hates going to the free throw line these days. It didn’t come up much in the playoffs thus far, but when the Cavs lost in Boston it did. Their chemistry for all the talk they do about getting along doesn’t seem that great on the court. When things go bad you always see Cavs guys yelling at one another, especially LeBron. How will they handle things if they fall way behind again? Well, we did come back from 3-1 last year. Durant outscored LeBron when they met in the Finals the one time, though the then LeBron Heat won easily. LeBron will see more defenders, certainly Green and perhaps some Andre Iguodala. But the faceups and staredowns with Durant should be great theater.
Power Forward: Draymond Green vs Kevin Love
Love was lovely, especially in the Boston series averaging about 22 and 12. And Boston had some good defenders, though not particularly tall ones. Green’s not that tall, either, but tough and probably this season’s Defensive Player of the Year. He, like James, can guard every position, and Love always has had problems with him. The Warriors still believe the league took the title away from them last season with the suspension of Green after there wasn’t even a foul call on his field goal against LeBron. Green has been on his best non punting behavior this season with his words having the most kick. Though Love has shot well, Green has shot even better in the playoffs, and Love is going to have problems chasing him around. The Cavs added a lot of three-point shooting to complement James, but those guys don’t move or defend well, which figures to be toughest against the Warriors. The Warriors with Durant are a better offensive team this season and the Cavs with Love, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye, the latter who hasn’t played that much lately, are a poorer defensive team this season. Because Love doesn’t post up much, the Warriors can play other defenders against him as he’ll also see the taller Durant when Green plays LeBron. Mike Brown for Steve Kerr has been a setback for the Warriors even as they are undefeated. Brown went to too many lineups in the playoffs with Curry and Durant off the floor. Bad idea, and that probably won’t happen in the Finals. One should be on the floor all the time because of their abilities to create.
Center: ZaZa Pachulia vs Tristan Thompson
OK, Thompson gets a lot of offensive rebounds. Box out.
Bench: The Cavs kind of manned up in this area with Korver and Deron Williams, though this is going to be a series of the starters. Iguodala hasn’t had a great season, but he was a Finals MVP and if the Warriors don’t win, David West is signing with the New England Patriots next season. Lots of other guys running around occasionally and not doing much, like Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and Shaun Livingston, especially for the Cavs.
Coach: Steve Kerr (Mike Brown) vs Tyronn Lue
OK, I was kidding. Lue never has to really say pretty please, LeBron. Lue’s fine as a coach, but still just finishing his first full season as a head coach. Yes, it’s the Mike Brown of being fired every time they get to know him well, including by LeBron before he left for Miami. He’s running things during games with Kerr still trying to recover from that botched back surgery. Kerr isn’t on the bench to start the series, but he did the media appearance this week and is at practices and doing game plans. The Warriors by now are the train on the straightaway. Throw it in automatic. They adjusted quickly to Durant and he bought in immediately despite Westbrook telling Curry not to pass to him. Just guessing. Their offense is a machine, and they still have assistant Ron Adams driving the defense. Kerr has become one of the elite coaches in the game and his presence is ever present.
Pick: Warriors in 5.