Yes, this is a Lakers site but I am a basketball fan first and foremost. And today, the Finals begin and the tug-of-war for the championship will commence. To be clear, I have no horse in this race. Those who know me personally know that my wife has ties to the Warriors and, thus, is a fervent fan of theirs. So, if the Dubs win, my life is easier (happy wife, happy life, as the saying goes). But, beyond that, I really don’t care who wins. I just want a good, competitive series befitting of these two excellent teams.
I especially want this now, after these playoffs. Collectively, this postseason has been basura. The Warriors and Cavs have played, probably, a combined one or two compelling games in 25 total contests to this point. And while there have been some other good games (and a few excellent ones), I can’t think of one memorable series; one matchup that I will actually remember a year from now. I hope the Finals changes that. As basketball fans, I think we’ve earned it. After all, we were told this series was coming for the past 9 months. Now it’s here. Time to live up to the hype.
As for this series, I am on the fence as to who I think will actually win. I’m not big on predictions, though I do enjoy being right (as we all do).
I understand what the conventional wisdom is. The Warriors should win and do so handily. The most common prediction I’ve seen is that the Warriors will win in 5 games. This makes sense. Last year they were up 3-1 in the series before a Draymond suspension set the wheels in motion for the Cavs comeback. Add Kevin Durant to the mix and this version of the Warriors is even better. They’re also almost fully healthy (Iguodala is dealing with some knee issues that cost him time in the WCF) and are playing exquisite basketball. They are a juggernaut and it’s difficult to see any team beating them 4 times in 7 games.
That said, I cannot shake the sense that these Cavs are ready to test them and turn this into a competitive series. LeBron James is an all-time great. He’s the rare generational talent where just having him ups your odds at not just competing, but winning any game against any opponent. Add to him Kyrie (who is evolving into one of the better “big game/moment” players in the league) and Kevin Love (who is playing the best he has as a Cav) and the talent gap between this team and the Warriors isn’t so large.
I mean, I look at it this way: if picking a team from both rosters heading into this series, I would probably select them in this order: LeBron, Durant, Steph, Draymond, Love, Kyrie, Klay, Tristan Thompson. I know some might rank Klay higher, but he’s been struggling with his offense all playoffs and while his defense is strong (and super important) that cannot overshadow that he’s been well below his normal standards offensively. So, with that ranking above, the Cavs have 4 of the top 8 players in the series — including the best player. Believe me, I get that KD/Steph/Draymond in the 2-4 spots can (will?) overwhelm. After all, those guys are also top 5 players in the entire league, not just this series.
But, even when considering all that, the talent gap isn’t as large as I think it’s being made out to be. Especially with the way Love is playing and Kyrie’s penchant for scoring and shot-making in big moments.
From an X’s and O’s standpoint, the Warriors do have clear advantages in their favor. Their offense is, essentially, unstoppable and is primed to attack the Cavs’ specific weaknesses. Their off-ball screening and cutting actions are incredibly difficult to track without air-tight communication and their passing ability and general IQ leads to the type of quick ball movement from strong to weak side which has given the Cavs problems these playoffs. If the Cavs mishandle a switch or over-help, the Warriors are equipped to pounce.
Defensively, the Warriors are also the superior team due to their versatility and high level individual defenders. Draymond is the likely DPOY winner this year and with Durant, Thompson, Iguodala, and Livingston they have length, athleticism, and switchability in abundance. The Warriors can, and will, switch most every screen (on or off ball) and make the Cavs work in isolation both from the perimeter and via post-ups at the elbows and mid block where help will be lurking.
Still, though, this Cavs team has potential answers to these problems other Warriors opponents could not muster. LeBron and Kyrie are fantastic isolation scorers and shot creators for themselves and teammates. Love can create for himself in the post against smaller players. They also have smart screeners and an excess of shooting to capitalize on any help which has to be deployed due to an earlier switch. I expect the Cavs to use LeBron to screen Steph often, to either force a switch (ideal) or to get the Warriors to try to help and recover in ways they have not had to all playoffs. I also expect the Cavs to use LeBron and Love at the elbows a lot, putting the defense into those hard choice situations where helping is so enticing they can get caught ball watching or put into rotations against lineups with multiple good shooters.
In other words, I don’t look at the Cavs like I do the other opponents the Warriors have had to face these playoffs. In fact, I don’t look at the Cavs as a normal opponent at all. They have LeBron and as specific roster to attack the (relative) weak links of the Warriors defense. They will target Steph with screens and attack him in switches. They will target JaVale in the P&R. They will pick on Ian Clark. They will make David West defend the rim and make rotations to the arc to contest threes. For all I know, none of this will matter or all of these guys will prove capable. The Warriors are so good, it really wouldn’t surprise me.
But I cannot fully escape the feeling that some of these things won’t just go smoothly for Golden State. That even if their stars have it going, some of their role players will show enough cracks to disrupt rotations and plant some seeds of doubt. That some of these games will be close and, with that, LeBron/Kyrie/Love will be as up to the challenge as Steph/KD/Draymond/Klay will be. And that, ultimately, the former will be able to make some winning plays for their team.
This isn’t to say the Warriors won’t win. Even a competitive series can only go 5 games. I remember the 2009 Finals clearly. The Lakers won in 5, but several of those games were down to the wire. Golden State could end up just like those Lakers, winning a close series in a number of games which implies differently.
But, for some reason, I just don’t see that happening. I envision a series going 6 or 7 games. And, honestly, I could even see the Cavs winning it all. I’m not going to say that will happen, but if you were to ask me which I thought was more likely: a Warriors win in a walk or a Cavs win in a grueling 7 game series, I’d probably say the Cavs winning makes more sense to me.
In the end, though, maybe that’s just me projecting what I said I wanted at the top – a competitive series. After all, we’re due for one, right?