Can Stephen Curry cap his MVP season with a title? Will LeBron James bring a championship back to Cleveland? SI.com's NBA experts dish their Finals predictions.
As a Bay Area native, I never thought I'd write that. But the Warriors' defense is too strong, their bench too deep and Kyrie's ankle (for now) appears to be too gimpy. J.R. Smith might go nuts once, and LeBron will have plenty of LeBron moments, but in the end Golden State is the better team, with the better coaches.
There is really only one reason to pick Cleveland, and I think we all know who he is. LeBron James has put up more efficient numbers in other postseasons, but considering the talent around him, he is controlling games as well as he ever has. Worth noting, though, that while the Cavs made the Finals, they did not have to beat any of the best teams in the league to get there. (Golden State, the L.A. Clippers, Houston and San Antonio are all better than Atlanta, and one could argue for Memphis.) James helps push this to six, but that's as far as he can take it.
Making a prediction is risky without consulting both teams’ medical staffs for a second opinion. The series could turn on the questionable health of Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving, but let’s assume that both guards will at least be close to their normal selves by Game 1. The Cavs didn’t see a team nearly as complete as Golden State during their jaunt through the East, but that doesn’t mean they’re ill-equipped to hang with the Warriors. One issue they pose for Golden State is that Draymond Green seems to be the Warrior best suited to both defend against LeBron James and keep Tristan Thompson off the offensive glass. Green may be have a reputation as a do-everything forward, but he can’t literally do everything. If the Warriors have to match him up against James for long stretches, it could land Green in foul trouble, give Thompson the chance to get second shots for the Cavs, or both. The Warriors are an elite defensive team, but James presents problems that no other player in the league can cause. But defending against Steph Curry and that free-flowing Golden State offense will be just as tough for Cleveland. James’ praise for Iman Shumpert’s defense notwithstanding, Curry will likely be too much for the Cavs’ perimeter defenders. The Warriors’ attack, which features tons of passing and movement without the ball, is reminiscent enough of the Spurs’ offense that King James faced in last year’s Finals to give him nightmares. This will be one of those series that everyone tries to call too early, because there will be points when one team seems in control, and then the other will reverse everything. The Cavs and Warriors aren't much alike, but their differences make them near equals. Look for a series that goes the distance, with Golden State finally prevailing in a tight Game 7.
There are a million good reasons to pick the Warriors in this series, but I only need one to pick the Cavaliers. Cleveland's injury-riddled roster is far from perfect, just like its superstar leader—LeBron James has gone 2-of-5 in past Finals appearances—but my gut tells me both will overcome their deficiencies in this series. No team is better equipped to slow down James than the Warriors, but even when you know what's coming, there's no stopping LeBron when he's in the zone. Like Ronda Rousey's armbar or Mariano Rivera's cutter, you can prepare for LeBron James all you want, but facing the music is a different story. Forget the days of appeasing star teammates in Miami, LeBron is 100% focused on doing whatever it takes to win. He was the one who decided to return to Cleveland, to face even more pressure, to answer even more critics. Now he gets a chance to write his own ending much like he penned his beginning. While it might appear the Cavs are a depleted squad without one prong of their Big Three, they've actually played better without Kevin Love and matchup better against the small-ball Warriors. Since Love went down in the first round, the Cavaliers own a defensive rating of 99.1, a mark leaps and bounds better than regular-season mark of 104.1. Golden State owns the overall talent advantage, but Cleveland boasts the best player and the greater will to win. LeBron wants to prove everyone wrong, while Golden State is trying to prove everyone right. I'll take the four-time MVP with the chip on his massive shoulders.