Was it really going to go any other way? When the season started in October, we all knew that it would come down to the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers completing the third part of the trilogy, but we had to play 82 games and three playoff series to know for sure.
Now that it’s been confirmed, who’s taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy?
The Western Conference Champions completed three consecutive sweeps of Portland, Utah and San Antonio to become just the third team in NBA history, after the ’89 and ’02 Lakers, to enter the Finals undefeated.
After losing to the Cavs in last year’s Finals, the Warriors added former MVP Kevin Durant to make their heralded Death Line-up even more terrifying. Yet the new group didn’t provide the immediate improvement that many had predicted as a mid-season injury to Durant prevented the Dubs from improving on last year’s NBA record 73-9 season.
When Durant returned to action just prior to the playoffs, we saw the Warriors fulfil their potential, looking utterly unstoppable during the post-season. A ball-dominant scorer throughout his career in Oklahoma City, KD has been able to find his niche in the Warriors’ system, averaging 25.5 points per game on 55.6% shooting during the playoffs and becoming more comfortable without the ball in his hands.
After struggling to find form while working out how to share the scoring load with Durant, Steph Curry is back playing at the level that won him the unanimous MVP last season, averaging 28.6 points during post-season.
The Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers on the other hand come into the playoffs having dropped just one game in post-season – Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against an Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics.
Cleveland are looking to defend their title from last season and have kept their core of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love intact prior to adding Kyle Korver and Deron Williams to replace the loss of Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov.
LeBron has been playing like a man possessed in the post-season to make his seventh (!) straight NBA Finals, averaging 32.5 points, eight rebounds and seven assists on his way to passing Michael Jordan. This puts him in a class of his own, becoming the all time post-season scoring leader while shooting at an incredibly high clip of 56.6% from the field and 42.1% from deep.
Irving has been hot too, averaging 25.8 points in the ECF while shooting a ridiculous 62% from the field and 50% on threes, including a 42-point performance in Game 4 after turning his ankle in the third quarter. Love has carried the form that give him his best season since joining the Cavs into the playoffs, averaging 17 and 10 to shoot 47.5% from three in post-season.
While, at times, the dominance of both teams during the playoffs hasn’t been the most enjoyable viewing experience for the neutral, it does give us a build-up unlike Finals of years past. When these two heavyweights take to the court Friday morning Australian time, it will be a week since the Cavs knocked off the Celtics. That’s an entire week for both teams to rest up and an entire week for the fans to build the series up like a big money boxing match. It also gives us a look at the league’s two best teams going head-to-head completely healthy after they both took out their conference rivals, with the Spurs and Celtics each losing their best players during the series.
After two consecutive Finals series, these outfits know each other well and will be familiar with the opposing offence. The Warriors led the league in points per game and offensive rating, which, considering their firepower offensively, is the least surprising stat in basketball. However, they’re also the second-best team in the league defensively, behind only the Spurs in defensive rating. This is a key point for the Warriors, as the Cavs boast a very high-powered offence with the third-best offensive rating in the league. With elite defenders like Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors hold the advantage on the defensive end.
Cleveland on the other hand have a relatively porous defence for a title contender. This comes in the form of the tenth-worst defensive rating in the NBA, allowing 110.3 points per 100 possessions. James, as always, is a defensive anchor, leading the team in post-season steals and blocks, but has struggled to find help.
Irving has struggled to keep up with the likes of John Wall and Isaiah Thomas in the playoffs and Love has been outmuscled by larger centres when the Cavs go small. Throughout the playoffs, the Cavs have been doubling their opponent’s best player: Wall in the Washington series and Thomas in the ECF. They have found some success doing so but with the Warriors boasting so many offensive weapons, if they double anyone then there’ll undoubtedly be a shooter open somewhere.
The Warriors go into the Finals as narrow favourites. They will need to take advantage of the Cavaliers defence, which will struggle to stop Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green simultaneously. With Durant and Curry each playing at their peak and Thompson finding his place in the team, they have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Cavs. Defensively, they appear to have a decent matchup at most positions, especially with Durant being able to guard one through five and being the best matchup with LeBron outside of Kawhi Leonard.
Cleveland are underdogs, yet they were underdogs last year too and in the NBA Finals, anything can happen. Last year, Draymond Green got himself suspended and it completely flipped the series with the Cavs winning the next three games to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
LeBron is firing on all cylinders on both ends, Kyrie is looking as dangerous as he ever has and Love has found the form that made him such an attractive free-agency target for the Cavs in the first place. They will require every bit of defence they can muster to slow down the Dubs.
Is Kevin Durant’s move going to pay off? Does LeBron James cement his legacy as one of the greatest ever? In two weeks, we’ll find out who the best team truly is as they try to break the deadlock in the third series of their NBA Finals trilogy.
Game 1: Friday, June 2 at 11am in Oakland.
Game 2: Monday, June 5 at 10am in Oakland.
Game 3: Thursday, June 8 at 11am in Cleveland.
Game 4: Saturday, June 10 at 11am in Cleveland.
Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, June 13 at 11am. in Oakland.
Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, June 16 at 11am in Cleveland.
Game 7 (if necessary): Monday, June 19 at 10am in Oakland.
Prediction: the Golden State Warriors win the NBA Championship in 6.