When Cleveland finished off Boston in Game 5 of the East finals on Thursday night, a spotty postseason run-up officially gave way to an NBA Finals showdown that’s been circled on the calendar for a full year.
As the NBA world counts down to Game 1 on June 1, here are The Crossover's 23 reasons to be excited for the Warriors vs. Cavaliers Three-Match.
1. The referendum on Kevin Durant
All eyes will be on the new guy.
Kevin Durant tried to get out in front of what will surely be intense scrutiny over the next three weeks, telling TheUndefeated.com this week that he made the correct decision to join the Warriors “win or lose.” Needless to say, most of the viewing public won’t agree with that assessment.
If Golden State wins, Durant’s hotly-debated decision to leave Oklahoma City will at least have immediate and indisputable validation. A ring is a ring, especially for a former MVP who has spent a full decade chasing his first championship and five years trying to get back to the Finals for a second time. Critics might dispute his method, as they did with LeBron James and the Heatles, but they will have to live with the results.
But a loss to the Cavaliers would come to define Durant in even harsher terms than James’s unexpected loss to the Mavericks in 2011. Durant and the Warriors didn’t have the early-season hiccups like James’s Heat and they weren’t assembled when three stars came together from three different organizations. No, Golden State cruised through the regular season with one of the top-five point differentials of all time and then torched the West to the tune of a 12-0 mark and a record +16.3 pre-Finals point differential. The Warriors did so after honing their winning formula and refining their core during two dominant seasons prior to Durant’s arrival.
If the Warriors lose, Durant will be—fairly or unfairly—the “Guy who never won and jumped on an all-time great bandwagon and somehow still couldn’t win.” To fans frustrated by the lack of competitive balance during the 2017 postseason, he could also become “The guy who ruined the playoffs by taking the easy way out and has nothing to show for it.” To himself and to James and to everyone who has followed their respective careers, he will continue to be the “Guy who can’t beat LeBron.” These tags don’t apply to Stephen Curry, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson, who won the 2015 title over James and successful recruited Durant from Oklahoma City. They apply only to Durant.
The upside: Durant is healthy and balling hard. After missing time down the stretch with a knee injury and then sitting out portions of the first round with a minor calf injury, the 2014 MVP has been sensational, averaging 25.2 PPG (on 55.6 FG%), 7.8 RPG and 3.7 APG during the playoffs.
2. LeBron James the underdog
As James prepares for his eighth overall and seventh consecutive Finals trip, it’s worth noting that the Warriors are the most dominant team—by point differential and postseason point differential—that he’s ever faced during his illustrious career. More dominant than the 2007 Spurs. More dominant than the 2011 Mavericks. More dominant than the 2012 Thunder. More dominant than the 2014 Spurs. More dominant than either of the past two Warriors teams.
Last year taught us that “Nothing to lose LeBron” is, far and away, the greatest force of the post-Michael Jordan era. After falling behind 3-1 in the Finals, James posted 41/16/7 in Game 5, 41/8/11 in Game 6 and 27/11/11 in Game 7 to pull off the unprecedented comeback.
And “Nothing to lose LeBron” is wasting no time ceding the pressure and the favorite status to Golden State. “They've been the best team in our league for the last three years, and then they added an MVP,” James said of the Warriors after closing out the Celtics. “That's all I can give you right now, because I'm happy and I don't want to be stressed. They cause a lot of stress.”
3. The possibility of another feather for LeBron James in the MJ debate
Shortly after guiding the Cavaliers to their first title in franchise history, James told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins that he had turned his attention to surpassing Michael Jordan in the Greatest of All Time discussion. “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing,” he said. “The ghost played in Chicago.”
In a well-timed bit of history, James moved past Jordan to claim the top spot on the NBA’s all-time postseason scoring list. By reaching that mark at age 32, James reminded us all that his consistency has put him in position to completely rewrite the record books.
As the incessant “MJ vs. LeBron” debate picks up steam again, it’s worth considering what a Finals win would mean for James’s ghost quest. First, it would bring him to 4-4 for his Finals career and within two rings of Jordan. Second, it would likely give him his fourth Finals MVP award, again bringing him within two of Jordan.
Third, and perhaps more importantly, it would bolster an argument that started to gain traction last year: That James had defeated better competition than Jordan in the Finals. Jordan might have won 72 games in 1995-96, the argument goes, but James defeated the 73-win Warriors. This year, James is in position to knock off a team that boasts two MVPs. Sure, one might argue, Jordan beat Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, and Karl Malone and John Stockton, but he never faced a team with four All-Stars in its starting lineup and, in Durant and Steph Curry, two of the top three players in the league. That might not be enough to sway Jordan’s diehard supporters, but it would count as a serious feather in his cap.
4. Pure shootout
Strap in for a long-distance bomb-off. Cleveland enters the Finals boasting the East’s best offense during the regular season and the No. 1 overall offense in the postseason. The Cavaliers also led the East in three-point attempts and shooting percentage during the regular season. Meanwhile, Golden State holds the overall best offense during the regular season and the West’s best offense in the postseason. They also ranked in the top five in three-point attempts and percentage during the season.
With both teams casting off traditional centers like Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov over the past year, the table is set for more small-ball and plenty more three-point shooting. There’s a strong chance that much of the Finals will be played with 10 capable three-point shooters on the court at the same time, given Golden State’s ability to play Draymond Green at center and Cleveland’s ability to use James or Kevin Love in that role.
5. A juicy Finals MVP discussion
The Finals MVP discussion could go in a bunch of different directions. If Cleveland wins, James gets it. From there, it gets trickier. Let’s say Cleveland pushes it to seven games but loses. Does James get it to make up for 2015 and reflect his status as the best player on an overmatched team? Does he get it as a protest vote for Durant’s decision to team up with Curry? If Golden State wins, does Durant get it for overthrowing James? Does Curry get it after missing out in both 2015 and 2016? Can Green sneak into the conversation as an “all-around” candidate if Curry and Durant cancel each other out and Golden State wins going away? Or, could Green emerge as the pick if voters determine that the Warriors’ defense was the difference in the series?
6. The off–season repercussions
With Golden State and Cleveland blitzing through the playoffs with a combined 24-1 record, there’s really only two ways for this Finals to be perceived by non-participants heading into the draft season and free agency.
The first: Wow, [the champion] killed [the other team]. Everyone else is playing catch-up to this Superteam.
The second: Wow, that was an awesome series between [the champion] and [the other team]. Everyone else is playing catch-up to these Superteams.
Seriously, imagine that Boston has its dream summer, drafting Markelle Fultz, signing Gordon Hayward and trading for Paul George or Jimmy Butler. Are they really ready to knock off the Cavaliers in the 2018 East finals given that James will still be James and Cleveland’s core is locked in around him? Similarly, imagine that San Antonio signs Chris Paul, trades LaMarcus Aldridge for a more useful third star and brings back guys like Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons on major hometown discounts. Are they really equipped to unseat Golden State in the 2018 West finals? Maybe?
There are a bunch of established stars who are free agents or possible trade targets—guys like Paul, Blake Griffin, George, Hayward, Butler, Kyle Lowry, and Paul Millsap—who should be thinking about how they can combine their powers to mount a true challenge to Cleveland and Golden State next season. Will some of those guys tune into the Finals and decide that enough is enough with their current situations and opt to chase greener pastures like Durant did last summer?
7. Remember Christmas?
The Warriors surely do. Back on December 25, Golden State gagged away a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to lose 109-108 in Cleveland as Durant faltered in the game’s closing moments. That defeat raised questions about the Warriors’ late-game offense and brought back bad memories of their Finals collapse.
8. JaVale McGee
It’s not easy to generate enough material for a 10-minute long blooper reel. For JaVale McGee, it’s been even harder to salvage a career that, until this year, seemed unsalvageable. Credit Golden State’s quirky center for pulling his game back together after three full seasons spent off the radar bouncing around from Washington to Denver to Philadelphia to Dallas. While It’s unclear exactly how big his role will be in the Finals, he has been a strong lob target throughout the regular season and into the postseason, making defenses pay for loading up on Golden State’s stars.
In a best-case scenario, perhaps McGee punishes the rim enough to further his case that he’s more than just “Shaqtin’ a Fool” bait. In a worst-case scenario, Shaquille O’Neal and company have more high-profile goofs to work with next season. Either way, McGee in the Finals is must-see TV.
9. The incomprehensible downside if Golden State loses
The Warriors have won more games over the past three years than any team over a three-year span in NBA history. They posted the fourth-best point differential of all-time during the regular season and did it while in fourth gear. They suffered through a historic collapse last year and haven’t lost a playoff game yet this year.
Given those circumstances, it’s hard to overstate just how rough it would be for the Warriors to go one-for-three in the Finals. Consider this: the 2017 Warriors would have the highest point differential of any team not to win the title. And the 2016 Warriors would be third on that list! To make matters worse, the 1972 Bucks are second and they were beaten by the 1972 Lakers, who hold the all-time record for point differential.
To boil this down: the 2017 Warriors and the 2016 Warriors would have a case as the two biggest disappointments in league history. The same franchise in back-to-back years!
10. Plenty of heat on feet
The NBA’s showcase series will feature the top four best-selling signature sneakers. According to Forbes.com, James (Nike), Kyrie Irving (Nike), Curry (Under Armour) and Durant (Nike) generated more sales with their respective signature sneakers over the last 12 months than any other NBA players.
11. Golden State’s unanswered clutch questions
Starting with the Christmas Day loss to Cleveland and continuing with a much-discussed collapse against Memphis in January, Golden State’s late-game execution has been under the microscope. At issue: Durant’s tendency to pound away in isolation rather than embrace Golden State’s free-flowing style. “I’m kind of thrilled that we lost,” Green said after the loss to the Grizzlies. “This is good for us.”
The Warriors have charged down the stretch to the Finals, winning 27 of their last 28 games. However, they’ve done it largely by wiping teams off the court. In 12 playoff games, Golden State has played a total of nine clutch minutes (when the score is within five points or less in the final five minutes of regulation). In their last 15 regular season games, Golden State played a total of eight clutch minutes, the fewest of any team during that span. Will the Warriors be able to execute if James and the Cavaliers push them into the closing minutes or will bad habits, like stagnation and Hero Ball, resurface?
12. Kevin Love, back and better than ever
Love saved his best for last during the 2016 Finals, making a key defensive stand against Curry late in Game 7. Prior to that, though, he had a rough series: missing Game 3 due to a concussion, moving to the bench in Game 4, and taking a major backseat to James and Irving in Games 5, 6 and 7.
New season, new story for Love, who is averaging 17.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG while shooting a blistering 47.5% during the playoffs. During the Cavaliers’ closeout win over the Celtics, Love was a whopping +43 in 28 minutes, finishing off a series that saw him deliver multiple game-changing efforts.
While the trade talk around Love is long gone, the 2017 Finals will give him an opportunity to claim back some of the attention that dwindled during his first two seasons in Cleveland.
13. The Block on repeat
James took off from behind half-court, carefully plotting out his movements step by step to perfectly time the best play of his career. Now, get ready to watch it over and over again for the next week straight. Good thing it never gets old.
14. Draymond Green’s atonement
No one has more to prove in this series than Durant, given his ringless situation and free-agency move, but Green is a close second. If not for his suspension-inducing kick on James in Game 4 of the Finals, the Warriors almost certainly cruise to their second consecutive title and thereby avoid all the “3-1 lead” jokes and the backlash that accompanied Durant’s arrival.
The Warriors did an admirable job of not placing the blame for their collapse on Green, and he did an equally admirable job showing up big with 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in Game 7. Still, Green’s suspension was a truly haunting turn of events, made even crazier by the fact that he was and is one of the league’s most polarizing and outspoken players.
The early signs for this potential turnaround arc are promising: After a rocky summer, Green turned in a spectacular regular season and he has been even better during the playoffs. Perhaps more importantly, he’s been on his best behavior, staying away from leg-kicking controversies and avoiding flagrant fouls altogether during the first three rounds. He will face Cleveland without the possibility of a suspension hanging over his head.
Green is central to Golden State’s title hopes: he’s the best passer on the team, he’s the emotional leader, he’s the best answer for James at the rim and he’s a key shot-maker when it’s time to keep the defense honest. Will Cleveland have a counter for a Green who seems determined not to beat himself again?
15. Kyrie Irving’s Mamba Mentality
Everyone can agree that Irving’s “Flat Earth” controversy was one of the single dumbest episodes of this NBA season. Let’s agree to wipe that from the memory bank and flash back to that time when Irving, channeling his inner Kobe Bryant, fearlessly took and made what the Wall Street Journal persuasively argued was “the biggest shot in NBA history.”
Irving enters the Finals on a roll, averaging 24.5 PPG in the playoffs and riding high from a 42-point outburst against Boston in Game 4. He’s a match-up problem for everyone, including the league’s best defense.
16. New faces
Durant isn’t the only newcomer to this year’s Finals. For Golden State, center Zaza Pachulia, McGee, rookie wing Patrick McCaw, and veteran forwards David West and Matt Barnes should all see time after playing elsewhere last year. Meanwhile, Cleveland has also retooled, most notably with the midseason additions of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams. Will a winner emerge from the nonstop arms race to add role players?
17. Mike Brown’s revenge
Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown doesn’t exactly come off like the bloodthirsty type. On the contrary, he’s known for his easy laugh and bookish reputation. But Brown has stepped into the coach’s seat with Steve Kerr has been sidelined during the playoffs and that means his history with James and the Cavaliers is sure to be dissected in the coming days.
Brown coached the Cavaliers from 2005 until 2010 and oversaw James’s first trip to the Finals, which ended in a 4-0 loss to the Spurs. He was then fired in May 2010, shortly before James made “The Decision” to leave for Miami after losing in the second round to Boston. In a 2011 book, Shaquille O’Neal wrote that James “never really” listened to Brown. While James was playing for the Heat, Brown returned to the Cavaliers in 2013 for a single 33-win season.
Now Brown has the opportunity to claim the first title of his career and stick it to the organization that fired him twice in four years. Not bad, even if he is unlikely to admit how sweet his revenge tastes.
18. Healthy Stephen Curry
The Warriors will lament so many aspects of the 2016 Finals forever. Andrew Bogut’s injury. Andre Iguodala’s lagging health. Too many minutes for Ezeli and Varejao. Green’s suspension. Klay Thompson’s trash talk. The list goes on.
But the biggest “What if?” concerns Curry’s health, as true believers will always assert that Golden State could have overcome all of the other factors had the back-to-back MVP played to his full capabilities. While James cruised to his third title, Curry shot just 22-of-60 combined over the final three losses and finished with a 17-point dud in Game 7. Although his exact health status was never quite clear, he had missed six games earlier in the playoffs and had struggled at times in the Western Conference finals as well.
Curry looks poised for big things over the next few weeks. He’s averaged 28.6 PPG on 50/43/91 shooting splits during the playoffs. He spent most of the West finals in a groove, delivering 40 points in a comeback Game 1 victory and a cool 36 points in Game 4. He’s also fresh, as Golden State hasn’t yet needed him to log 40 minutes in a game during this postseason run.
Simply put: If Cleveland can’t get a grip on its shaky defense, things could get really ugly, really quickly thanks to Curry.
19. Old guys capping careers
Either West (age 36 with 961 games played) or Korver (age 36 with 1,031 games played) will get to taste champagne for the first time. Pretty cool.
20. How will Golden State defend James?
The Warriors enter the Finals with a league-best 99.1 defensive rating in the postseason. They held Portland’s strong backcourt in check, they chewed up and spit out the Jazz, and they made LaMarcus Aldridge’s life miserable. James, obviously, represents a much taller order. Unlike Indiana, Toronto and Boston, Golden State has the personnel and discipline to consistently guard both the rim and the three-point line. James can’t expect to parade nonstop through the paint for dunks and to feast on wide-open passes to his shooters.
One question to watch: Will Golden State dare him to shoot from outside like San Antonio did in the 2013 and 2014 Finals? While James has looked very confident from beyond the arc and has connected on a career-high 42.1% from deep during the postseason, he did cool off considerably in the East finals. Will the Warriors try to encourage further regression or will they attempt to wear him out by playing aggressively throughout while rotating their deep cast of defenders on him?
21. Raw feelings
Draymond Green: “[Expletives that can’t be repeated.]”
LeBron James: “I’m the father of three kids and a man.”
Klay Thompson: “I guess he got his feelings hurt.”
These are the words and memes that fuel the richest rivalry the NBA has seen in years.
22. 2016 was, in the aggregate, so very close
Thanks to Irving’s clutch three and James’s insane chasedown block, Game 7 of the 2016 Finals will always be remembered as one of the most intense games in Finals history. While the first six games of the series lacked that late-game drama, as each was decided by double digits, the aggregate score of the series made it clear the two teams were evenly matched. Over the course of seven games, Cleveland outscored Golden State, 703-699. In other words, they won each game by less than a point, 100.4 to 99.9. Expecting Warriors/Cavaliers III to be as tight as Warriors/Cavaliers II is expecting too much, but anything close would quality as another classic.
23. The possibility that the Warriors go 16-0
No team has ever completed a perfect postseason. The 2001 Lakers went 15-1. The 1983 Sixers went 12-1. The 1991 Bulls went 15-2. The 2007 Spurs hold the best mark of the last decade by going 16-4.
Sweeping Cleveland won’t be an easy task, not with James playing arguably the best basketball of his career and not when the Cavaliers boats an eye-popping 120.7 offensive rating. But it could happen.