2018 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

NBA Finals Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors, an encore presentation

Rivalry returns once again in historic fourth straight Finals meeting

Seen previously on “Cleveland vs. Golden State, NBA Finals”…

That’s really how ABC’s broadcast of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals Thursday night should begin. The matchup of Eastern and Western winners that we’ve gotten, the one so many experts and “insiders” envisioned back in October, finally is here.

It’s like a new season of “The Sopranos” or “The Walking Dead” or some other recurring, limited TV series. With a lower attrition rate of recognizable characters, at least.

Some NBA aficionados might have preferred a championship round featuring the Houston Rockets, the Boston Celtics or both, just to freshen things up and introduce some new blood to this ultimate playoff round. The media folks who’ll be covering it surely would have welcomed new storylines behind fresh faces.

But there is an equally compelling argument to be made on behalf of Cavaliers-Warriors IV. Sports thrive on rivalries, and with four consecutive Finals clashes, this Cleveland-Golden State re-re-rematch arguably rates second only to the storied Celtics-Lakers struggle over the past 60 years.

Until these two franchises locked horns for the first time in 2015, NBA opponents had only butted heads in consecutive Finals 12 times. Never had the same teams made it to three in a row. So history already has been made, with more likely to come.

This might be, as some have suggested, the stiffest test yet for LeBron James in his nine Finals appearances. He leads a team with a predictably unreliable, or reliably unpredictable, supporting cast and is down one star sidekick, Kyrie Irving, from the Cavs squad that got dispatched in five games by Golden State a year ago. Yet at age 33, in his 15th season, James has appeared in all 100 Cleveland games so far and arguably produced — “enjoyed” is too loaded a word given the Cavs’ many ups and downs — his best performance ever.

For Golden State, a season marked by boredom and a desire to manage injuries snapped into focus courtesy of a 2-3 deficit in the West finals. The Warriors’ famous offense hasn’t looked as well-oiled as in the past three years, though defensively they have dialed up the efforts and results as needed.

The casts are as beloved or, er, be-hated as stars of an aging drama or comedy series: James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kevin Love (expected back from his concussion protocol of the East finals) and coaches Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue. That sameness probably will keep this Finals strong with viewers nationally and globally, as everyone waits to see if Golden State goes up 3-1 or Cleveland ties 2-2 in the trophy count.

If it’s the latter, of course, there will be clamoring for a tiebreaker, as in 2019 Finals. So be careful what you wish for.

Three quick questions and answers

1. Who guards LeBron? This is the first question (or should be) of every preview of every playoff series every year of James’ career since he first started qualifying in 2006. So far in this postseason, James has dealt with Indiana’s Bojan Bogdanovic and Lance Stephenson, Toronto’s OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam and Boston’s Marcus Morris with Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and other helpers. Now it’s old familiar — wait a minute! If Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ primary James assignment, isn’t recovered from the bone bruise that sat him down in the Houston series, we will see Draymond Green, maybe some David West and younger defense-committee members. Iggy is Golden State’s preferred option, not just to pester and deny the Cavs’ star at one end but to attack to make James work as a defender himself.

2. Who guards Kevin Durant? And as soon as you answer that question, tell us who guards Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Green and… That’s always the problem with the Warriors, the sheer number of scoring weapons they can throw at any defensive game plan. Since Cleveland ranked 29th of the 30 teams in defensive rating, it will rely more on individual matchups and adjustments — the way Lue went to Tristan Thompson or Larry Nance up front as he saw fit to prompt or counter Boston’s tactics. Still, as far as Durant goes, Jeff Green is a mobile wing new to this series and Rodney Hood might have been as well, if he hadn’t dropped out of Lue’s rotation weeks ago.

3. Does this whole thing get decided in the third quarter? The old cliché about the NBA was that you could watch the last five minutes and see everything you need. Updated to 2018 with these combatants, those first 12 minutes after halftime loom as pivotal. The Cavaliers have had a bad habit of coming out flat in the third quarter this postseason — they have been outscored 438-437 in their 18 playoff games and have hit just 34.6 percent of their shots. Golden State, by contrast, is relentless in the third. In their 17 playoff games to this point, the Warriors outscored teams by 130 points in the third quarter, compared to a total of 20 points in the other three quarters combined. They hit 51.9 percent of their shots while averaging a lethal 30.5 points in that period. Fixing their leaks while slowing down the Californians just in the third quarter could swing a couple games.

The number to know

4.5 — The Warriors have been the postseason’s most improved defensive team, having allowed 4.5 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs (99.7) than they did in the regular season (104.2). It was on defense where the Warriors fell off (and ranked ninth) in the regular season, but they’ve had the No. 1 defense in each round of the playoffs thus far. They’ve held their three opponents — San Antonio, New Orleans and Houston — to 5.2, 9.2 and 11.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than they scored in the regular season, respectively.

The Cavs have had the second most improved defense in the playoffs, having allowed 3.6 fewer points per 100 possessions (105.9) than they did in the regular season (109.5). Of course, they had more room for improvement, having ranked 29th, and their best round defensively in regard to holding an opponent under its regular season mark for offensive efficiency (they held Boston to 3.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than it scored in the regular season) wasn’t as good as the Warriors’ worst round. Still, since the league started counting turnovers in 1977 (41 seasons), no other team had ranked in the bottom three defensively in the regular season and gone on to win a playoff series. So the Cavs have already made history in winning three. — John Schuhmann

Making the pick

In a brief interview with TheAthletic.com immediately after the Warriors’ Game 7 victory in Houston Monday, team owner Joe Lacob said: “Sort of tired of Cleveland, to be honest. But having said that, LeBron James is an immense challenge, an incredible player. It’ll be fun.” Familiarity might grow more respect between the principals in this series — James seems to get along swimmingly with Durant, while no NBA player past or present denies James’ talents and achievements — but it also famously breeds contempt. Green and James have a history, fans on both sides have honed their heckling over three years and probably both the Warriors and the Cavaliers would have welcomed a change of foe. The regular-season series went handily 2-0 to Golden State, but they faced each other way back on Christmas Day and MLK Day — and, in fact, it was Cleveland’s low-energy performance in the second meeting that led to its big roster makeover at the trade deadline. Those moves, exciting at the time, have meshed slowly and inconsistently, leaving James to again shoulder too great a burden. He carried a 2015 Cavs team subbing in Matthew Dellavedova for Kyrie Irving to six games vs. Golden State, but the Warriors were new to this themselves then. This time may go down like a rerun — or “encore presentation,” as they say in the world of TV series — of 2017. Warriors in 5.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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