I’ve been putting this off all weekend. Since last September, really.
Come on, we all had these two written down in ink since then.
There were hiccups in the regular season when the Cleveland Cavaliers took a few weeks off defensively and didn’t much care what seed they were in the Easterm Conference playoffs. But, after that …
No significant injuries to Stephen Curry’s ligaments, or Kyrie Irving’s kneecap, or Kevin Love’s shoulder. No significant technical foul problems — Draymond Green has but a measly two Ts entering The Finals, five short of the seven needed for a mandatory one-game suspension. (Ayesha Curry is, though, still tweeting.)
So, step up to the plate and make your best call, between the last two NBA champions, in Act III — deciding, once and for all, who’s the better team. Until next year, probably.
1. Who Guards Kevin Durant?
You have to start with KD; he’s the piece that wasn’t here last season, the guy that tilted an already leaning board clear in Golden State’s favor this year. Cleveland doesn’t have a lot of great options here.
The Cavs can’t put LeBron James on Durant for long stretches and have him chase the 7-footer all over the floor — he’ll be wiped out by Game 4. Last year, Cleveland played off of Harrison Barnes, who had an awful Finals (29 of 71 from the floor, including 5 of 32 the last three games), allowing James to play defensive centerfield. Doing that isn’t an option now, with Durant shooting 55.6 percent overall and 41.7 percent on 3-pointers in the playoffs.
Durant averaged 28.5 points per game in his two games against Cleveland this season, while shooting 51.3 percent.
James will probably start on him, but you’d expect Love and Iman Shumpert and others to take turns. But that’s going to be a major problem for the Cavs throughout the series.
Conversely, the Warriors have better options to throw at James, not that they’re going to stop him – Durant, Green and Andre Iguodala, for starters. And at any rate, James is less valuable to the Cavs as a scorer than he is a distributor. The Warriors will need to stop his passing more than his scoring.
2. The Transition Team
The Warriors led the league in fast-break points during the regular season (22.6 per game) and in the playoffs (20.7 per game). Cleveland has been much better getting back in transition in the playoffs than it was in the regular season, giving up 10.2 fast-break points per postseason game, and the Cavs took advantage of a slow-transitioning Boston Celtics team in the conference finals to score 14 fast-break points per game. Can Cleveland keep this number close against Golden State? In the regular season, not so much: the Warriors outscored the Cavs 53-16 in transition.
3. Starring … Tristan Thompson!
The Cavs’ center is averaging almost a double-double in the postseason (9.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and manhandled Boston in the paint. Zaza Pachulia is a solid post defender, but doesn’t have the spring in his step to keep Thompson off the offensive glass. Which means we may have a steady diet of JaVale McGee in The Finals, and, no, I never thought I’d type the words “a steady diet of JaVale McGee in the Finals,” either. But it’s true.
4. Machine Gun Irving vs. Baby Face Curry
Cleveland’s contempt for Curry is barely beneath the surface, but Curry’s competitive streak is also less obvious than it should be. You didn’t see the real Curry in The 2016 Finals. In these playoffs, he’s got an insane offensive rating of 122.5, while Kyrie Irving is averaging 24.5 points per game in the playoffs. There will be crossmatches, but Irving and Curry aren’t going to guard each other for 48 minutes. But whoever is the more productive superstar will likely tilt the series in his team’s direction.
5. The New Boss, Not the Same as the Old Boss
Mike Brown is a veteran coach, and it may well be that this Warriors team can police itself with Steve Kerr still sidelined. But coaching does matter — along the margins, in the marrow of a team. This isn’t about Brown’s ability to X and O — it’s about a coach knowing exactly what button to push when it needs pushing. Kerr can reach Green in ways nobody else can, because Kerr is Green’s coach. Will it matter? I don’t know. But not knowing the answer can only benefit Cleveland, not Golden State.
6. Defending Your Life
The Warriors’ defense has remained outstanding and they lead the playoffs in Defensive Rating (99.1) and opponent field goal percentage (.416). It’s going to be hard enough for the Cavs to keep up with Golden State offensively; they have to keep pace, somehow, with the Warriors’ offensive juggernaut. That means…
7. Love, Northeast Ohio Style
Kevin Love was lethal against Boston in the East finals: 22.6 ppg, 12.4 rpg, an insane 23 of 43 (.535) on 3-pointers. Love will have to be that kind of special against Green, who’s up for Kia Defensive Player of the Year honors, and won’t give him the undeterred looks he got throughout the conference finals. But Love showed some renewed post presence, too, against Boston, and he is still 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. He’s more than capable of a little Bully Ball, too.
8. Is It Possible We’ve Gone This Long Without Mentioning Klay Thompson?
Yes. And that’s why the Warriors are damn near impossible to beat. He’s averaging just 14.4 points per game in the playoffs, which sounds like he’s in some kind of slump. He isn’t. He’s just playing the role necessary for his on this team. But this is the same guy that scored 41 in OKC last year, with the season on the line, in an historic Game 6 win. Don’t get it twisted. Thompson is capable, at any time, of winning a Finals game by himself.
9. The Legacies Project
LeBron James is chasing a ghost — a bald one, with six rings. He is playing at an unreal rate: 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.0 apg so far in the 2016 playoffs. He’s had plenty of rest before The Finals, and with two days off between most of the games, along with the extra length of Finals timeouts, fatigue shouldn’t factor in. The Cavs can play a shorter rotation than normal — one big (probably Channing Frye) and one guard (probably Deron Williams) should be fine. LeBron is That Dude and this is still his time.
But … the Warriors were one shot from going back to back last season, and that was with a hobbled Curry and without Durant (and without Green for the pivotal Game 5 after his one-game suspension). They have their own version of their legacy: fulfilling the promise of what almost everyone has believed since last July 4 was the NBA’s best team. What better way to prove it by beating the NBA’s best player? It will not be easy and it will not be inevitable, but can you see the Warriors losing another Game 7 at Oracle? I can’t.
10. So, Who wins?
Warriors in seven.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Golden State Warriors (1-0): The Warriors enter The Finals a perfect 12-0, the first team in league history to be so dominant in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) May 23, 2017
TEAM OF THE WEAK
Cavs’ playoff opponents (1-12): We all drank the figurative Kool-Aid that the east was deeper and tougher and would provide Cleveland with true competition in the playoffs. Collectively, it did not. And we do not have much confidence that Washington (or, say, Milwaukee) would have provided Cleveland that much more resistance had they faced the Cavs in a seven-game series. The chasm between the Cavs and everyone else in the conference remains … vast.
Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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