In professional sports, there is rarely anything guaranteed. Certainty always seems to be lacking with an unexpected twist here or a surprising turn there altering the previously assumed course of action. That’s what makes things so thrilling (or painful) to watch across hundreds of games over the course of many seasons.
That, however, was not the case when it came to the NBA this year. This season will mark the third straight time that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet in the Finals, a matchup that has seemingly been set in stone since the moment their series ended last year in a thrilling Game 7 slugfest. These two super teams feature no fewer than four of the top 10 players in the league and are the un-questioned best of the best — just as they were in the previous two seasons. Luckily for fans in both cities and those across the world, a rubber match awaits and it promises to complete a trilogy of high-end play on the court coupled with some superhuman performances from future Hall of Famers.
From the typically brutal Western Conference, the Warriors find themselves playing June basketball once again after having laid waste to everyone in their path on the way to a so far perfect 12-0 postseason run. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and company are no doubt motivated to make up for last year’s loss that spoiled a historic season but the dynamics of the team are slightly different thanks to the presence of former league MVP Kevin Durant. The perennial All-Star signed with Golden State for one reason: to win a ring. Now he and the rest of the team are on that very door step and looking to add further validation to what has become the marquee franchise in basketball.
Standing in their way are the defending champion Cavaliers, who have been nearly as flawless this postseason in defense of their well-earned crown. Leading the way once again has been arguably the game’s best player in LeBron James. Making his seventh straight trip to the Finals is as impressive as it sounds and he’s done so this year thanks to a supporting cast that has really stepped things up once the regular season ended. A budding offensive juggernaut has made Cleveland quite the threat to bring back another victory parade to the shores of Lake Erie and sets up what should be an enthralling third matchup for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
We’ve seemingly known for over a year now which teams will be playing in these NBA Finals. After a drama-free postseason that was low on entertainment and close games, it’s finally time for the matchup we’ve all been promised to take center stage and inject a little bit of life into one of the most thrilling sports around. While everything up to this point has been predicted in stone, it’s finally time for the unexpected to play out in the final series of the season.
Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31) vs. Golden State Warriors (67-15)
Game 1 - Thursday, June 1, 9 p.m. ET
Game 2 - Sunday, June 4, 8 p.m. ET
Game 3 - Wednesday, June 7, 9 p.m. ET
Game 4 - Friday, June 9, 9 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary) - Monday, June 12, 9 p.m. ET
Game 6 (if necessary) - Thursday, June 15, 9 p.m. ET
Game 7 (if necessary) - Sunday, June 18, 8 p.m. ET
Note: All games will be broadcast on ABC. Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., while Games 3, 4, 6 will take place at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Keys for Cleveland
There will likely be a ton of overanalyzing the lone loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals but make no mistake that this Cavaliers roster is finally rounding into the form many expected to see this year but never did until the playoffs began. The shooting in particular has been off the charts no matter what player has the ball in his hands and they’re going to need keep that up in order to lift the trophy once again. With a lone exception the past few weeks, LeBron James has been incredible in not only getting his numbers but also lifting the game of his teammates on the offensive end.
The issue for Tyrone Lue’s squad comes when they’re trying to guard the Warriors’ playmakers. This is a team that has dealt with issues defensively all season long and there have been stretches in the past three series where those same flaws have popped up time and again. Scoring so well has covered up some of those issues but their next opponent presents so many challenges from all over the court that everyone will have to step their games up. Tristan Thompson was key defensively down the stretch last year but he’ll need a lot more help this time around given the opposing starting five is that much more dangerous with a scorer like Kevin Durant on the floor.
Keys for Golden State
Given all of the shooters on the roster for the Warriors, it’s understandable to think of this team as offense-first. Whether it’s the “Splash Brothers” raining down threes or Kevin Durant knocking down mid-range jumpers, it goes without saying that the Dubs can score. Despite that reputation though, the past three years have taught us that they are vastly underrated in terms of what they do on the defensive end of the court. Their play there more often than not is what leads to effortless baskets going the other way and if Golden State wants to shake off what happened last year, continuing to clamp down defensively is a must.
That won’t be easy given just how hot Cleveland has been over their past 13 games on the offensive end (historically so, depending on the metric used). It’s paramount that the Warriors are able to slow down shooters like Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Channing Frye. Then, of course, is how to handle the King. Preventing LeBron James from driving to the hoop is no easy task and it seems pretty apparent that a host of bodies will rotate onto him over the course of the series. Whether it’s Draymond Green, Klay Thompson or Durant who is charged with the honors, the entire team must be aware of where the Cavs’ star is on the court and what lanes are open for him.
Finally, don’t discount the role the non-superstars will play on this run either. Whether that’s Zaza Pachulia or David West or somebody like Matt Barnes, getting contributions from everybody will be crucial in major moments during the second half of games or when trying to close out a win.
Let’s face it, this is a series that has been a year in the making and the only one that most NBA fans have pined to see since then. The addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors’ already potent roster will be a continuing theme throughout the series as much as the lengthy debate over the legacy of LeBron James. Either way, one thing is for certain: these are the two best teams in the NBA meeting for the right to be called champions. Perhaps the only shame of this year’s Finals matchup is that it didn’t start weeks ago and isn’t a best of 21.
This rubber match will do just fine though and has the chance to be the first real compelling series of this year’s playoffs that is competitive from start to finish. There are superstars galore, some incredible outside shooters and a pair of vastly underrated defensive units. Short of having it go more than seven games, perhaps the only shame is that it will all be over in just a few weeks.
Which team will emerge victorious when all is said and done though? A title defense is one of the hardest things one can do in major professional sports and the Cavs have to be cognizant of that fact. Luckily they have the best basketball player on the planet in James and a bench that is deeper and more flexible than last year’s edition. If Cleveland is to emerge as champions once again, it will be well earned and come as a result of an incredible offensive surge that covers up some of the Cavaliers’ defensive flaws that have been apparent since the beginning of the year.
Cleveland will be underdogs for a reason however and the addition of a former MVP to an already stacked roster only adds to Golden State’s arsenal. While the regular season edition of the Warriors wasn’t quite as sharp as last year, the postseason has refocused every member of the squad and turned them into the group of assassins that everybody suspected they would be when Durant put pen to paper last summer. This is a group on a singular mission to correct last year’s Finals result and solidify their place in the game’s history with another ring for the Bay Area.
There are few outcomes that would be surprising given the mix of personalities, players and coaches involved in this year’s NBA Finals but when all is said and done, the best team usually prevails over the course of a playoff run. That’s been Golden State throughout this season and the Dubs will confirm that with another thrilling series win to capture yet another title to solidify their legacies.
Prediction: Warriors in six
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)