Tonight is the night. Almost one year ago, LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavalier teammates looked on as Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy on their court at Quicken Loans Arena. Undoubtedly for the Cavaliers, a tough sight to see.
After all, this was supposed to be their year. Between LeBron coming back home, to trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, and even acquiring Iman Shumpert and JR Smith, this was the year the Cavaliers were supposed to break through and bring a championship back to Cleveland. However, all of those plans went awry as the Cavs saw Kevin Love dislocate his shoulder in Game 4 of their first round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, effectively ending his postseason. Fast forward to Game 1 of The Finals and the injury bug bit Cleveland again as Kyrie Irving went down in OT with a fractured kneecap. Prior to the injury, Irving had tallied 23 points to go along with six assists and a potential game-saving block on a Steph Curry attempt at the buzzer to send it to OT. Irving did not play another game in the series and while backup PG Matthew Dellavedova surpassed expectations in his absence, it still was not enough in the end.
Tonight however, the world will see a much different Cavaliers team take the floor at Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA. This team will have both a healthy Kevin Love AND Kyrie Irving. Not only that, but Cleveland has only surrendered two games this entire postseason to the feisty Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. They are rested, healthy, and a confident bunch as they head west to take on the defending champions, the Warriors. While the Cavaliers may not publicly admit it, this is assuredly the matchup they wanted.
On the contrary, the Golden State Warriors are coming off a knockdown, blow for blow seven game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in which they dug out of a 3-1 hole, thanks to the Splash Brothers. Without Klay Thompson’s heroics in Game 6, we would be talking about a LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook NBA Finals rematch. Yet, the quiet assassin had other plans in OKC last Saturday night as he rattled off an NBA Playoff record 11 three point field goals en route to a season-saving win for the Warriors. In Game 7, Steph Curry the league’s back-to-back MVP, looked like himself once again as he delivered when it mattered most with his best game of the series tallying 36 points on 13-24 shooting from the floor. As the final buzzer sounded, Golden State had seemingly dodged another bullet in this wild postseason as they had already overcome the ankle and knee injuries of Curry in their previous two series against the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers.
That is how we got here. Two very different paths for both teams, yet those paths meet tonight in Oracle Arena as the defending champion Warriors look to repeat and the Cavaliers look to get redemption. So what does it all mean in the context of this series? It all remains to be seen. Will Cleveland having a chip on their shoulder after last year’s defeat play a major factor? Maybe, maybe not. Will Cleveland having so much time off between games cause them to be sluggish or well-rested and ready to go? I’m really not sure. Will Golden State continue to ride the wave of momentum that they picked up in Game 5 vs. OKC and never look back? Maybe, maybe not. Will Golden State show signs of fatigue after coming off such a physically and mentally exhausting series? I’m not sure. That’s why this matchup is so intriguing and why so many people truly believe it could go either way.
While there is a great deal of uncertainty, there are also some things that undoubtedly will happen throughout the course of this series. First, Golden State will try and put Kevin Love in as many pick and roll situations as possible. Whether it be Steph or Klay on the ball, Steve Kerr will try and facilitate situations forcing Love to switch onto the guards, creating an immediate mismatch in favor of Golden State. If Love crowds either Steph or Klay, they will go by him forcing help to come and allowing Golden State an opportunity to showcase their elite ball movement with the defense rushing to recover. This can be especially dangerous when the Warriors play their patented small-ball lineup with Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala at the five spot, surrounded by Steph, Klay, and Harrison Barnes or Shaun Livingston. Conversely, should Love decide to back off either of the Splash Brothers in an effort to compensate for his lack of foot speed, we have all seen what they can do with a little room from behind the arc.
Second, Tristan Thompson will be a problem for the Warriors on the glass. Thompson burst onto the scene last year as the athletic big man averaged 13 rebounds a game in The Finals against the Warriors. With his activity he is extremely difficult to check as the ball comes off the rim. The Warriors will have a decision to make whether they choose to go big and keep an Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli on the floor to keep him off the glass, while sacrificing some offensive firepower. Or, will the Warriors go small and throw Green on Thompson, which could lend itself to better offense but more second chance opportunities for the Cavs?
Third, JR Smith will win a game for Cleveland in this series as well as lose a game for Cleveland in this series. Smith is one of the NBA’s most enigmatic players, in addition to being arguably its streakiest shooter. He can shoot you into a game just as fast as he can shoot you out of a game. The problem is even when Smith isn’t feeling it, he still continues to fire away which is why he will inevitably cost Cleveland a game in this series. However, when he is on, look out. Smith can singlehandedly make even the best defenders look silly and hopeless.
For me, what this series comes down to is which leader, which superstar, plays at his highest level most consistently. Both teams have very talented “others,” as Charles Barkley would affectionately call them, but in this series for their respective teams to win Steph Curry and LeBron James have to play like the Steph Curry and LeBron James we have all grown accustomed to. I believe whichever player can do that for the longest time will ultimately be victorious.
My pick is Golden State and my rationale behind that is the plethora of bodies that the Warriors can throw at James. While no one in the NBA, even Kawhi Leonard, can truly shut down LeBron, I believe the Warriors have enough options to at least slow him down. Last year’s NBA Finals statistics would disagree with me as James averaged over 35 points per game to go along with almost nine assists. Nevertheless, I think the combination of Iguodala, Green, and Barnes on James will do just enough to slow him down. On the contrary, I’m not sure if Kyrie Irving has proven that he can be a good enough defender to slow Steph Curry down for an entire series. When Shumpert comes in the game, it is presumed he will draw the Curry assignment. The question is: how much offensive production is Tyronn Lue willing to give up to keep Shumpert on the floor to check Curry? Additionally, as I said earlier, if the Warriors bring Kevin Love into a pick and roll with Curry, it doesn’t really matter if Shumpert is guarding him or not.
I have no doubt this is going to be a spectacular series. A healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, with the addition of sharpshooting Channing Frye to go with LeBron James, will challenge the Warriors in ways they haven’t been before. However, I still find myself unable to pick against the defending champions. I’d be shocked if this series did not go seven games and with home court advantage, Golden State will be too much for this Cavaliers squad looking for revenge.