- An NBA Finals trilogy seems all-but inevitable at this point. But what happens if we don't get Warriors-Cavs III? We ranked and examined the other matchup possibilities.
Midway through the second round of the NBA playoffs, a feeling of inevitability has swept through the league. Both the Cavaliers and Warriors swept their first two postseason opponents, dismantling the competition and cruising to 8–0 starts.
In the first round, the Blazers got Javale’d and Indiana’s defense was little more than a turnstile for LeBron James’s furious attacks on the rim. Round two wasn’t much better for the competition. Utah simply couldn’t keep pace with the Golden State’s barrage of scorers, and Toronto once again looked woefully unprepared to take on the King. The conference finals should be more competitive (emphasis on should), but barring a mammoth upset, we’re currently on a crash course for Cavs-Warriors III come June.
That said, there are no guarantees in this league. Both conference favorites have injury concerns dating back to the 2015 postseason, and a star player going down could drastically alter the title race. And if an underdog can steal a road game early in the series, a team’s respective superstar could carry them to the Finals. So even with a Finals trilogy clearly in sight, we decided to rank and examine the best possible matchups that could spoil the three-match.
1. Cavaliers vs. Rockets
This is the most intriguing non-Warriors-Cavs Finals matchup. Both teams sported worse-than-league-average defensive ratings during the season, and also hold the top two spots in threes made. The first team to 120 may win each game.
Two regular–season tilts is the definition of small sample size, though in this case, the Cavs–Rockets matchups provide a solid primer for what we could see in the Finals. The teams combined for 33 made threes in each contest, with little perimeter resistance against LeBron James or James Harden. Eric Gordon saw increased action in both battles, preventing Kyrie Irving from hiding on Patrick Beverley defensively.
The Rockets would love nothing more than to wage war against the Cavs from the three-point line. Much like what they’d face against Golden State in the Western Conference finals, Houston would need to consistently make it rain from beyond the arc to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In 17 games this season where Houston has made 18 or more threes, 16 have been victories.
The Cavs' greatest advantage against the Rockets would be in the paint, especially with Nene out for the remainder of the playoffs. Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love would crash the offensive boards with abandon, and Cleveland would be well served to limit possessions and play at a slower pace. Expect James to provide an increased post presence, often backing in following a screen from either guard spot. With the way Cleveland can whip the ball around the perimeter, Houston would struggle mightily with James on the block.
Houston would certainly enter the series as the underdog, and for good reason. They have too many defensive deficiencies, and facing the greatest player of his generation adds a whole other set of complications. But this series would be no gentleman’s sweep. If Houston advances past San Antonio and Golden State, they could give the champs a run for their money.
2. Cavaliers vs. Spurs
With all due respect to Ty Lue, the chess match in this series would be between LeBron James and Gregg Popovich. Two two are intimately familiar with each other having met in the Finals three times. And if Ray Allen hadn’t sunk a miracle three in 2013, Pop would be 3-0 all-time against James.
The Spurs strategy against the four-time MVP would mirror what they’ve done dating back to 2007: back off James, seal his way to the rim, and dare him to hit open jumpers. It worked to great effect a decade ago against a the 23-year-old James, and also yielded quality results in the 2014 Finals.
However, an older and more-evolved James can lay waste to even the most brilliant plans. He’s shooting a blistering 47% from three through eight playoff games. Kawhi Leonard will go a long way to slowing James down, but can the Spurs offense really survive if he has to shadow James for 40+ minutes?
On the offensive end, San Antonio will rely on their tried and true system. They’ll ping the ball from side to side, searching for only the highest quality shots. The Spurs would be smart to draw Irving into as many pick-n-rolls as possible, much like the Cavs did to Curry last year in the Finals. Throw in some Danny Green and Patty Mills threes along with Leonard’s typical wizardry, and the Spurs could keep up with the Cleveland.
3. Warriors vs. Wizards
The Wizards’ path through the playoffs is pretty simple; they’ll go as far as John Wall and Bradley Beal can take them. The duo has destroyed opposing backcourts this year, serving in a starting five that logged the most minutes by far of any five-man lineup group this year. Lineups featuring Wall and Beal garnered an offensive rating of over 114 during the regular season, just shy of third in the league behind Golden State, Houston and Cleveland.
The two guards have continued their dynamic play in the postseason. Wall effectively ended round one by himself after torching the Hawks for 42 points in a Game 6 victory, while Beal has turned in five 25+ point performances despite struggles from beyond the arc. To take down the mighty Warriors, Wall and Beal must outperform Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on both ends of the floor.
However, even outstanding performances from Washington's backcourt won’t be enough to sink Golden State. The Wizards would get torched with their bench on the floor, with little depth filling in behind their stellar starting five. Shaun Livingston would have a field day against the likes of Brandon Jennings, and staggering Curry and Kevin Durant’s bench minutes could be the Wizard’s death knell. This series could provide some entertainment in the backcourt, but anything other than a sweep or five-game series would be a surprise.
4. Warriors vs. Celtics
Isaiah Thomas taking down the mighty Warriors would be one of the greatest upsets in sports history, but for now it seems more like a movie script than anything.
The Celtics have looked far from the East’s top seed since the playoffs began, limping their way to a 0-2 deficit in round one before winning four straight against the Rondo-less Bulls. And after giving up a 26-0 run in Game 4 against the Wizards on Sunday, advancing to the Finals seems like a bit of a long shot.
Boston’s defense could hamper the Warriors’ attack for at least a few games. The Celtics boast a slew of lengthy, interchangeable wings, and coach Brad Stevens has found ways to consistently shield Isaiah Thomas defensively. Golden State would inevitably pierce the Boston defense—especially on the offensive glass—but Curry and Thompson could struggle against the likes of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.
But even an impressive defensive effort won’t be enough against the Dubs. Boston simply doesn’t have enough offensive weapons to effectively attack a team that finished the regular season just a half point shy of the league’s best defensive rating. Thomas would find himself swallowed up at the rim by Draymond Green and Javale McGee, and if you’re relying on Smart and Crowder threes, well, good luck with that. The Celtics making the Finals with this group would be an feat in itself, and gaining even a game on Golden State would be an accomplishment.