The event we've been waiting for all season—Warriors-Cavaliers IV—is finally here. While the outcome of this series almost feels like a foregone conclusion, there are still big questions lingering.
With some of the sting taken out of this year's matchup, The Crossover staff banded together to make series predictions along with their official Finals picks. Some of the topics discussed by our experts: Which lineup should the Cavs close with? Who will lead the Warriors in scoring? And which two players are most likely to fight? Let's get to the picks.
Who will be the second most important Cavalier?
Clearly, it's Mike Mancias, LeBron James’s trainer, who for the last 15 years has been in charge of putting James’s body back together after every 45-minute opus. But if Mancias is not eligible, then it will be Kevin Love, currently dealing with the effects of a concussion. Simply getting Love back into the lineup is not enough for the Cavaliers. They need Andre Iguodala to remain out for the Warriors. In previous Finals, Love has been a non-factor against Golden State, mainly because the Warriors play small with Iguodala. But if Iguodala is still sidelined with his knee injury, Golden State figures to go big, allowing Love to stay on the court and produce more than in the past. — Lee Jenkins
Who will lead the Warriors in scoring?
This could be an interesting barometer for the series. If the ball moves on the Warriors and Curry is draining threes, chances are the Warriors are winning, and handily. If Durant is leading the team in scoring, especially by a wide margin, it’s more likely that Golden State has reverted to the relative dysfunction that plagued them at times late in the season and against Houston. Durant is most valuable when he’s rebounding, defending, and sharing the ball: 25, 8, and 5 kind of nights. When he goes 38, 3, and 2 it means something’s awry with the Warriors (and/or KD). The guess here is that a combination of the Cavs’ shaky defense, surviving the Rockets, renewed team chemistry, and Curry’s drive—whether stated or not—to win his first Finals MVP will lead to Steph (and the Warriors) coming out on top. — Chris Ballard
How many games will LeBron play all 48 minutes?
Zero. (Okay, maaaaaaybe one.)
LeBron James has led the NBA in playoff minutes in five of the last seven postseasons, and he’s on track to make it six of eight thanks to his league-leading 743 minutes in these playoffs. Even so, history and common sense both strongly suggest that LeBron James will come close but not duplicate his incredible performance of playing the full 48 minutes in Game 7 of the East finals.
For starters, James has never played an entire Finals game, topping out by playing 50 out of 53 minutes in overtime games in 2013 and 2015. He’s also twice logged 47 minutes in regulation games, both against Golden State in 2015 and 2016. Generally speaking, James's teams have concluded that short breathers are better than no breathers.
Remember that, at age 33, James will likely be older than any of his opponents for large chunks of this series. For comparison’s sake, James Harden, a 28-year-old likely MVP, topped out at 43 minutes during the grueling Western Conference finals. And Harden still showed signs of late-game fatigue, especially as that series wore on.
It's also worth pointing out that blowouts have been quite common in previous Finals match-ups between the Cavaliers and Warriors. In fact, 11 of the 18 games during the last three Finals were decided by double-digits, granting James rest opportunities during garbage time.
Although Cleveland will struggle to get by whenever James goes to the bench, it's hard to make the case that playing 48 straight minutes against the defending champs really amounts to a better alternative. Going the entire way against these Warriors, given their pace, talent and defensive intensity, just isn’t a wise idea for anyone, even the game's reigning King and Ironman. — Ben Golliver
Which lineup should the Cavs close with?
LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, George Hill, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. There are many reasons to close with this lineup, but mostly, these might be the only five players who can consistently hold their own on both ends of the floor. Tristan Thompson has always been critical whenever Cleveland tips the scales against Golden State. J.R. Smith and George Hill are the only wings who have the size and athleticism to defend Golden State's guards. If they successfully slow things down and beat up the Warriors, Smith can get hot, Hill can hit a few threes, and LeBron can be LeBron. Korver will help for stretches and Jeff Green may have his moments, but bully ball is probably the best chance they have. — Andrew Sharp
Which players are most likely to get into a fight?
Draymond Green and Tristan Thompson. Draymond Green and anyone, really. "Fight" is certainly a loosely defined thing when it comes to the NBA, but rest assured there will probably be at least one Draymond moment at some critical juncture of the series that everyone finds somewhat annoying, the Cavs hate, and ends up somehow benefitting the Warriors, anyway. This is how these things tend to go. — Jeremy Woo
Will the Cavs wear suits to at least one game?
I would be more shocked if the Cavs rolled up in matching suits to a Finals game than if they actually won the Finals. Look, this is the premier podium event of the season, and no one can waste that spotlight on a cute (if not really effective) team-bonding experiment. LeBron is going to be absolutely dripping opulence at the podium. He’s going to look like everything Rick Ross raps about. If there’s one area James can definitely dominate these Finals, its style. I can’t imagine he’s going to waste that opportunity by wearing the same charcoal suit as Jordan Crawford. I mean Clarkson. This is, perhaps literally, the best time to shine for every Cleveland Cavalier. If they’re going to go down, they should at least go down in their best fits of the year. — Rohan Nadkarni
Who is the primary LeBron defender if Iguodala is hurt?
Should Andre Iguodala continue to watch his teammates in street clothes, sidelined by an ailing left knee, Golden State becomes far less menacing than the ridiculous 8/1 favorite Vegas lists the team as. Don't get me wrong, any team with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson should be a massive front runner. But a major key to Golden State's Finals dominance a year ago came down to Iguodala guarding LeBron, sparing Durant for offense while James was forced to man one of the Warriors' primary scorers—besides the hapless stretches where Richard Jefferson attempted to slow KD.
Without Iguodala, Durant, Green or Thompson will likely be forced to start out on James. And with The King routinely posting 40-point triple doubles this postseason, that will obviously provide a grueling challenge for whoever claims that assignment. I would guess that person will be Green. The Cavs will likely try and pick-and-roll James into switched matchups with Curry, freeing him to bulldoze past his MVP counterpart. With Green on James, Steve Kerr will have his most versatile and willing defender switching onto whichever opponent Curry was previously guarding, rather than yielding another mismatch for James to pinpoint as a passer. And we all know how, uh, testy Green vs. James can become in a championship series. — Jake Fischer
Will we see Warriors-Cavs V next season?
We won't. There are just too many reasons to bet on the field. What if LeBron leaves Cleveland, killing any hope of the Cavs' return? What if he winds up in Houston, standing in the way of a Warriors threepeat? It took three Game 7s between the Warriors and Cavs to get to this point. What if they make even a few more mistakes next time around, when teams like the Rockets, Celtics, and Sixers promise to come back even stronger?
It seems more likely than not at this stage that James signs with a new team in free agency, which would reject this premise out of hand. And talented as the Warriors are, Andre Iguodala's injury reminds us that any championship run is a fragile thing. There's a reason why this fourth round between them is already unprecedented across the major American sports. Teams tend not to stay on top for that long—much less two of them. — Rob Mahoney
NBA Finals series predictions
Lee Jenkins: Warriors in 5.There is a strong case to be made for a sweep, but the Warriors’ apathy, Andre Iguodala’s injury and LeBron James’s brilliance should allow the Cavaliers to salvage one game. To compete, the Cavs role players (i.e., everybody but James) must defend the way they have in the playoffs while shooting the way they did in the regular season. Cleveland shot 37.2% from three in the regular season but only 33.9 in the playoffs, struggling outside of the Toronto series. Improved accuracy would help, but as James Harden just demonstrated, one star is not enough to vault the Warriors’ four.
Ben Golliver: Warriors in 5.Houston proved that Golden State isn’t invincible, but Cleveland’s mish-mashed roster doesn’t appear up to the test. Too many new faces, too many inconsistent performers, and too many defensive liabilities. If the Warriors play to their capabilities, they have a chance to sweep the Cavaliers even without Andre Iguodala. In the more likely event that their attention to detail wanes, LeBron James should be able to make them pay at least once. Anything past that would reflect poorly on the Warriors’ significant talent, chemistry and experience advantages.
A third title in four years would rank as the most dominant stretch for any NBA team since the Lakers won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002. Remarkably, it would put the Warriors in position to chase their fourth title in five years come 2019, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the 1960s Celtics. Kerr and company aren’t just competing for fleeting glory, they are rolling towards the rarest of history.
Rob Mahoney: Warriors in 4. To say that the Cavs don’t have the horses to win this series doesn’t tell they half of it. Cleveland doesn’t have the reins, the hay, or the stable. They have LeBron, and the Warriors happen to be the rare opponent for which that is not enough. Expect this series to come as a relief to Golden State after a demanding conference finals. Houston had the personnel and the basketball acuity to stifle the defending champs. Cleveland cannot claim the benefit of either, as evidenced by its erratic play and lacking rotation throughout these playoffs. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will breathe easier.
Andrew Sharp: Warriors in 6.The safe play is Warriors in 5, mainly because that's a nice way to acknowledge that LeBron is the most dominant player on the planet while also noting that none of this will be very close. The bold play, the one I came really close to making here, is Warriors in 4. Golden State's stars just spent two weeks dealing with an exhausting Rockets defense, and life against the Cavs defense should allow the whole offense to breathe again. That could get scary. What's more, Cleveland has fewer weapons than ever to keep pace—LeBron could average 50 in this series and it probably wouldn't be enough. So a sweep is definitely in play.
But I have a weird feeling that it'll be closer, at least for a little while. Golden State has been sloppy and sluggish all year long, and Iguodala is still hurt. LeBron is in Jordan mode right now. The Warriors have been consistently perplexing everyone who watches them, while LeBron and the Cavs have been cheating death for weeks. Does any of that mean Cleveland can actually pull this off? No. Probably not. But we may get a few days to dream.
Chris Ballard: Warriors in 5.Not a lot of suspense here, as exemplified by a sampling of conversations with other writers from Wednesday, the first day of Finals media availability: Would the Warriors beat the best five players from the Eastern playoffs (say, LeBron, Giannis, Oladipo, Horford, and Lowry)? If LeBron were to go down with a series-ending injury in Game 1, should the NBA just call off the Finals (or should the league be allowed to call in the Celtics, like an understudy in theater)? And: Can LeBron will the Cavs to one win? On that last front, my vote is for yes—let’s say Game 4, in Cleveland. But, unless the Warriors implode, incur a series of injuries, or something else bizarre happens, that’ll be it. While the series may lack competitive drama, it will still offer plenty to appreciate. After all, we are watching the greatest player of all-time going against what may be the best team in history. Things could be worse.
Rohan Nadkarni: Warriors in 5.It would not be surprising if this series were a sweep but LeBron deserves the respect of losing in five. This is just such a bad matchup for the Cavaliers. A team with a defense as bad as Cleveland’s has never even sniffed the Finals before, and that same defense will have to stop one of the best offenses ever created. Golden State also received a little bit of a wake-up call in the conference finals, and I don’t imagine the Dubs will play as carelessly with a championship on the line. The Cavs are a markedly worse team than they were in last year’s Finals, which they also lost in five. The Andre Iguodala injury makes things slightly more interesting, but it would defy all logic for this to be a close series.
Jeremy Woo: Warriors in 5.Although I really don’t feel like picking the team that doesn’t have LeBron this year, the most rational case for Cleveland is an inherently irrational one: that perhaps the most talented player of all-time, coupled with the right strokes of luck, will create a narrow window of opportunity for a less-talented team to defeat the most dominant franchise of the last decade of NBA basketball. I’ll hedge that the Cavs don’t have enough in the tank to get it done, and that the Warriors already absorbed their most difficult punch of the playoffs from the Rockets, who were closer to winning that series than history will probably realize. Golden State is too much, and they’ll be locked in from the get-go.
Jake Fischer: Warriors in 5.I'll take Golden State in 5, just like I (correctly) predicted a season ago. This is obviously an objectively worse Cavaliers team, with a supporting cast around LeBron James that would appear prone to a sweep at the hands of the almighty juggernaut Warriors that postseason allegory has created. But the Western Conference finals certainly leant credence to this Golden State iteration being a little more storyboard than material. That's a credit to the Houston Rockets, who of course dealt the Warriors more losses in a single playoff series since the 2016 Finals. But it's also a credit to the Warriors' collective mindset that seems to wane a little lackadaisical at times, enough for James to power Cavs to a victory at home, in what may prove to be his final game in a Cleveland uniform.