OAKLAND — What's one more week compared to a 40-year championship drought? What's one more week when it means a shot at the first title in franchise history?
The Warriors eliminated the Rockets with a 104–90 victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday, advancing to an NBA Finals date with the Cavaliers. This is a matchup worth waiting for, and a little patience will be required. Because both Golden State and Cleveland made quick work of their conference finals foes, the NBA will hit the pause button for a full week before the championship series opens in Oakland on June 4.
These two franchises and their fan bases know a little something about patience. Golden State just clinched its first trip to the Finals since 1975, and it will seek its second championship since the franchise relocated from Philadelphia to California in 1962.
“Winning feels like a relief more than anything most of the time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But to get to the Finals for the first time in 40 years for the Warriors, it's more than relief. It's joy. Our players are feeling it. I know our fans are.”
Cleveland, meanwhile, has never won a title in a franchise history that dates back to 1970, and it has only one Finals appearance, in 2007, to its name.
These Finals set up not only as a matchup of new blood, but also as a showcase for how quickly fortunes can change. In 2012, the Warriors were coming off a 23-win season, and they inked Stephen Curry to a bargain basement rookie contract extension because persistent ankle problems had limited his availability and effectiveness. Less than three years later, the Warriors took the league by storm, becoming one of 10 teams in history to win 67 games and one of eight to post a +10 point differential, with Curry taking home MVP honors. Similarly, the Cavaliers were mired in a rough rebuilding patch as recently as last season, before the return of four-time MVP LeBron James led to a 20-win improvement.
The 2014 off-season marked a key turning point, when both franchises hired first-time coaches in Kerr and David Blatt. For Golden State, parting with Mark Jackson to hire Kerr was about going from good to great. For Cleveland, dumping Mike Brown to add Blatt was a search for a new voice and a better locker room dynamic. Ten months later, this Finals will mark the first time since 1947—the year the league came into being—that two rookie coaches will square off on the biggest stage.
Although this matchup was virtually impossible to foresee a year ago, the Warriors and Cavaliers both evolved into presumptive Finals participants as this season unfolded, even if their paths were different. Golden State has enjoyed a charmed season, largely avoiding injury and off-court drama as it stacked up victories and thrilled fans with its high-paced style and balanced, deep team.
If Curry's Warriors resemble a parasailor, gliding easily above the fray, the Cavaliers have been a battering ram, powering through obstacle after obstacle. Cleveland emerged from the East after overcoming a slow start, roster-shaking midseason trades, questions about Blatt's job security and a number of key injuries (Kevin Love is out, Kyrie Irving missed time and James has been a little banged up).
Make no mistake: The cream has risen to the top. Since Cleveland acquired Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in midseason deals, these two teams have seemed to be on a collision course. In fact, after Shumpert made his debut on Jan. 23, Golden State ranked No. 1 in winning percentage, No. 1 in net rating and No. 2 in offensive rating, while Cleveland ranked No. 2, No. 3 and No. 1 in those categories, respectively.
Golden State has accumulated a 12-3 record in the playoffs, ranking No. 2 in offensive rating, No. 4 in defensive rating and No. 2 in net rating. Cleveland held up its end of the bargain by blitzing through the East with a 12-2 record, posting the No. 1 offensive rating, No. 3 defensive rating and No. 1 net rating. On paper, these are easily the two most qualified teams to help basketball fans forget about a 2014-15 season that was marred by injuries to superstars (Kevin Durant, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, among others) and a 2015 postseason stocked with disappointments of all kinds (the Spurs' early exit, the Clippers' collapse, the Bulls' buckling, the Hawks' no-show).
Headlining the series, of course, will be James, the consensus best player on the planet, and Curry, perhaps the best shooter in league history. The week off should allow both players time to heal, as James was dealing with cramps and an assortment of minor injuries in the East finals, while Curry flipped head over heels in Game 4 against the Rockets, sustaining bruises to his head and right shoulder. Although Curry surely has more help, he understands that James enjoys a significant advantage when it comes to experience.
“[James's] been here plenty of times before,” Curry said. “Five straight Finals appearances. We've got to bring our ‘A’ game if we're going to beat a great team and a great player like that four times. We're excited about the challenge. He had to win his first one at some point. Nobody on our team has experienced that, so we're going to be fighting like crazy every night.”
The next seven days should provide some answers to lingering questions, and a forum for endlessly debating others. Will Irving be able to shake off knee and foot injuries so that he can get closer to 100 percent? Will Klay Thompson be medically cleared after developing concussion-like symptoms due to taking a knee to the head in Game 5? Will Kerr and Blatt opt for small-ball approaches, or will they decide to keep their capable centers fully in the mix? Will two of the NBA's top four three-point shooting teams (in terms of makes) turn the Finals into a full-fledged perimeter shootout? Can Golden State's do-everything forward Draymond Green and wings Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson find a way to slow down, or at least frustrate, James? How, exactly, will the Cavaliers approach the task of limiting Curry? Can the Warriors handle the mental burden of entering the series as the favorites? Can the Cavaliers get enough from James’s supporting cast to pull off the upset?
Those questions will swirl and swirl during the break, until June 4 inevitably starts to feel like it's taking forever to get here. As the anxiety and anticipation mount in this interim period, one simple fact should help provide peace of mind: There's no doubt, not one iota, that the West's best will meet the East's best next week.