The most inevitable Finals matchup in NBA history is here. For the third straight season, the Cavaliers and Warriors will square off with a championship on the line. In honor of 2016’s seven-game epic between the two teams, here are seven burning questions for the upcoming threematch.
Who will be the best player in the series?
The three best basketball players in the world—LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant—will all share the court in the Finals. Curry entered the last two matchups between these teams as MVP, but he was upstaged by James each time. Durant was making a case for MVP for much of this last regular season until his knee injury knocked him out of the running. And LeBron has been on another level during the postseason, putting together perhaps the finest playoff campaign of his career.
If James is the best player on the court, that will be the Cavs’ only chance at actually winning this series. As always, LeBron will have to do a bit of everything for Cleveland. He’ll have to guard and slow down Durant, and at times, maybe even Curry. He’ll have to be a playmaker and keep finding easy threes for guys like Kevin Love and Kyle Korver. And he’ll have to be a scorer, racking up points efficiently even when matched up against the likes of Draymond Green.
If Durant or Curry are the best player on the floor, the Warriors could cruise. Curry is almost silently having his best postseason, and Golden State is still most dangerous when he’s at the top of his game. We’ll likely find out just how injured Curry was last season if he’s dominant during these Finals. I have a feeling Curry is really looking forward to the first time Tristan Thompson switches onto him in Game 1, a matchup Steph struggled with during last year’s series. When Curry is at his petty, disrespectful, best self, Cleveland does not have an answer for him defensively.
If for any reason Curry struggles, Durant is the ultimate safety valve. He can isolate and still find easy scores, and when the Warriors go small, the Cavaliers cannot afford to leave Durant open the way they did with Harrison Barnes in 2016. Durant has seemingly hit his stride in the playoffs, and the Cavs will need a very focused effort defensively to slow him down.
Will the Kevin Love revival continue?
Kevin Love was spectacular against Boston in the conference finals, averaging 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per game while shooting a blistering 53.5% from three. Cleveland worked much harder to put Love in favorable situations vs. the Celtics, letting him anchor bench lineups and at times force-feeding him the ball in the post. A similar performance will be absolutely necessary for the Cavs to topple the Dubs.
Love’s defensive stop in last year’s Game 7 has overshadowed what was an awful series for him. Love averaged 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in the 2016 Finals, shooting a ghastly 26.3% from three. He was a non-factor for much of the series, and his defense left a lot to be desired.
If Love can pick up on June 1 where he left off in the conference finals, Cleveland is much more dangerous. The Cavs could be compelled to play small for longer stretches if Love is going off on offense, and those lineups could then match the firepower of Golden State’s attack. If there’s an X-factor who could tilt this series to Cleveland’s favor, it’s probably Kevin Love.
Will Klay Thompson wake up?
Amidst the Warriors’ postseason dominance, Klay Thompson has been uncharacteristically struggling. The Splash Bro is averaging playoff career-lows in scoring (14.4 points per game) and shooting (38.3% from the field.) Thompson was remarkable for Golden State in 2016—this year, he’s only scored over 20 points in two postseason games, which is the same number of times he’s scored in single digits. Of course, Thompson’s disappearance hasn’t slowed down the Warriors one bit in the last 12 games. If he wakes up, the Cavaliers could be toast. But if Thompson’s offense remains an issue, the door to winning opens a little bit more for Cleveland.
What role will the bigs play in this series?
The Warriors have played extremely well with both Zaza Pachulia and Javale McGee on the floor as they’ve swept their way through the West. Will Golden State be tempted to play a little bigger against Cleveland because of their impact? McGee could especially pose an issue for the Cavs’ bench lineups, as Channing Frye would be asked to cover a lot of ground to contain the Dubs’ shooters while also preventing McGee from getting easy rim-runs.
Meanwhile, Thompson was the unsung hero of the last Finals, as his defense on Curry on the perimeter allowed Cleveland to remain big even when Golden State went to the Death Lineup. How Thompson fares one-on-one after switching onto a smaller player could go a long way in determining how this series plays out.
It’s also possible the bigs are kept off the court for large stretches. We already know what the Warriors can do with Green at center. Against Boston, Tyronn Lue deployed LeBron at center for some brief stretches, and those lineups were devastating offensively.
Will the Warriors miss Steve Kerr?
Steve Kerr is not expected to return to the bench during the Finals as he continues to deal with complications from a back surgery he underwent in 2015. Mike Brown has more than kept the ship afloat in his absence, leading the team admirably with a fairly cheery disposition. Still, the stakes will be on another level in this round, and Brown will have to make tougher decisions than he’s had to over the last three rounds. The Warriors have obviously played very well without Kerr when he’s been absent, but they also haven’t faced any real adversity in those moments. If the Cavs can put the Warriors in a hole at any point during this series, then the coaching could become a serious factor.
Can the Cavs keep shooting lights out?
Cleveland has been the No. 1 team from three in the playoffs, both in terms of makes per game and field-goal percentage. That’s probably the Cavs’ best path to winning against the Warriors—out-shoot them for three. That’s easier said than done for multiple reasons. Golden State will by far be the best defense Cleveland has seen during the playoffs. The Dubs are No. 1 in defensive efficiency in postseason play, and they finished second in that category in the regular season. The Warriors will be more comfortable than any other team switching out onto the Cavs’ shooters, and they also have the offensive firepower to match Cleveland bucket-for-bucket on the outside. Cleveland’s shooters will also have to hold their own defensively. Guys like J.R. Smith and Korver have done well enough on that end so far, but now their defensive assignments will be Hall-of-Fame level talents. Ultimately, if the Cavs keep shooting well without giving up a three every time back down the court, they can start thinking upset.
Will this series be fun?
The Warriors will be heavily favored in the Finals, and rightfully so. But after the boring postseason we’ve endured, the Basketball Gods owe us another classic. Who doesn’t want to see this series go another seven games? We can only hope both teams deliver another masterpiece.