Are y'all awake yet? We got action!
If you thought Mamba Day and the Warriors' achievement of eclipsing the 1997 Chicago Bull's regular season record were going to be the last exciting moments of the NBA season until the hallowed Finals, you missed some epic basketball.
Before Stephen Curry proclaimed "I'm here. I'm back," as if to really say, 'This is my Jordan moment,' in front of a stunned Trailblazers crowd in the Western Conference Semi-final; and before the Cavaliers went on a ten-game tear, going undefeated until they crossed international borders to play in the '6', we all assumed the playoffs would go as scripted. Eight teams from each conference get to extend their season into the spring, but did we really entertain the thought that anyone other than King James and the Cavaliers would emerge from the Eastern Conference as champions? And how could two-time reigning MVP and the Golden State Warriors at 73 wins and 9 losses be stopped? Since last summer, all signs have been pointing to a necessary rematch: King James' shot at redemption and Stephen Curry's validation, but we almost spoke too soon.
After a month and a half of playoff basketball, storylines have shaped shifted and shifted some more. Making it all the way to the Conference finals last year, the Houston Rockets were relegated to vacation status after the first round. The Clippers, yet again, were snubbed by the injury bug, unable to see what kind of fruit their floor general and high-flying slammers could bear. We also saw flashes of Dwayne Wade's youth, as he willed-in every contorted lay-up and clutch three-ball he took throughout the Hornets and Raptors series. If only leading shot blocker Hassan Whiteside stayed healthy, we could have not only seen Lebron's return to a post-season Miami environment, but also two best friends compete for a trip to the NBA Finals.
More glaringly, it might be the end to the efficient, well-oiled, crisp passing machine of the San Antonio Spurs after the six game destruction by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli, despite the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, and Lamarcus Aldridge, appeared to run out of the proverbial gasoline. Remember when a dejected 40-year old Duncan walked to the bench, head down, after Serge Ibaka of the Thunder swatted what would have been a routine slam? if only he had young legs. For all the championships and milestones Duncan has achieved, that split second was a microcosm of what fans had been watching all year; a depleted GOAT having to more carefully pick his moments of attack, realizing his body could no longer follow what his mind enacted.
As fast as that block had happened was how quickly Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant coasted in transition to take momentum in the West as a legitimate championship contender. KD and Russ had been proving their greatness as a duo for the entire season. Westbrook dominated, angrily, tallying 18 triple-doubles this tour, and Kevin has matured so beautifully--an assassin with endless ammunition.
You can't help but feel like the Warriors and the Cavaliers were destined for a rematch. The Dubs, and more specifically Klay Thompson and Andre Igoudala, ripped Game 6 away from the Thunder. Thompson, who hit 11 three-pointers to break an NBA playoff record, scored 17 tough points in the fourth quarter to will his team back in the game. Igoudala's stifling defense on back-to-back possessions, swiping the ball away from both Durant and Westbrook sealed the deal on a stunning road win. Game 7 happened, but it was over before it started. OKC had the lead at Oracle, but Steph's high floater off the glass to end the half was a signifier that the Dubs were just heating up.
Lebron and the Cavs controlled their destiny throughout the East. Even when they lost Games 3 & 4 in Toronto it seemed like they rather conceded the victories when you consider some were "oot and aboot" late on the town. Say what you will about the lack of parity in the Eastern Conference, but James has figured out the winning formula for the last six straight years. No other players have been able to achieve such a feat since the Boston Celtics were the mainstay in the Finals, every year, from 1956-1969. Although Lebron has had a strong supporting cast to help, there's no denying the value on the court and psychologically that King James adds to a roster.
The biggest difference from last year's appearance in the Finals is health. Kevin Love suffered a playoff ending shoulder injury in the first-round and Kyrie Irving was sidelined for the rest of the Championship after his knee gave out in Game 1. At 100% and having played the most offensively efficient basketball in the league, the Cavaliers don't have to rely on James' heroics, like they did last year, for their first taste of glory. Their losing effort wasn't all for nothing, though. The Warriors exposed holes in the Cavaliers' lineup that GM David Griffin has been filling in anticipation of this rematch. As seldom as it was to see Lebron off the floor in 2015's Finals, the Cavaliers offense became stagnant against Golden State's active defense when he was on the bench, struggling to keep pace with their motion offense and flurry of Splash Brother three's. Adding Richard Jefferson, who is making his return to the Finals after a thirteen-year hiatus, and Channing Frye, who is shooting over 50% from three-point range has helped the Cavs' secondary lineup in Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert continue their scoring edge. At 35 and 33 years of age respectively, you wonder if these veterans can consistently make an impact against a fast-paced, younger Warriors squad.
The Warriors quest for back-to-back championships began at the very first tip-off of the 2015-2016 season. They made twenty-four straight victories to begin their campaign look easy, especially with Assistant Coach Luke Walton at the helm, while Head Coach Steve Kerr, rested an ailing back. Opposing teams certainly made it interesting, whether Golden State would reach the elusive 72-wins mark, but all that team chemistry and improvement by Curry and Thompson paid dividends throughout the season. Honestly, we didn’t start to see the kind of championship resolve this team had until they were faced with elimination by the Thunder. Many were clamoring that the Warriors had been “figured out” once Durant, Westbrook, and New Zealander Steven Adams began running the same high-octane, fast-transition offense better than the Dubs. If there’s one thing we learned this season, though, is that the Warriors are never ever out of a basketball game. Draymond’s strip steals and outlet passes to a flashing Curry or Thompson for a quick three is enough to ignite a lethal group of weapons that once warmed up, are hard to stop.
This bout deserves to go seven rounds, and I would not be surprised if it did. Home-court has been well protected by higher seeds in this year’s playoffs. The Cavaliers have yet to lose in Quicken Loans Arena and Steph reiterated that his team would be better prepared to defend Oracle Arena, unlike when OKC stole Game 1. The 2016 Warriors and Cavaliers are not the same teams that met last June. Golden State, most importantly, has experience; they know what that atmosphere of the NBA Finals feels like and they know how to complete the task. The Cavaliers have re-tooled, creating a different complexion of who they were a year ago.
I think about what this series means in the broader conversation about basketball, and I get excited. We’ve watched memorable Finals matchups a-la the Celtics and Lakers in the 2008 and 2010 Finals, but when was the last time we witnessed the two best players in the world at the peak of their powers compete to be crowned champion? The game has been starving for a heavyweight title fight; we never got to see Kobe vs. Lebron in a winner-take-all. We’d have to go all the way back to Michael Jordan’s first NBA Finals appearance and Magic Johnson’s last when the Bulls and Lakers met in 1991, something I wasn’t alive to see. Stephen Curry has earned every bit of his successive Most Valuable Player awards, and all the way on the opposite coast, a King still reigns.
Father Time lurks behind the scene, who knows when he pays a visit to Lebron James, but until then, what’s keeping him from reaching another one or two more NBA Finals? And are mere Finals appearances enough to proclaim oneself the best basketball player on the planet? Three rings in seven total appearances to the Finals, each corresponding with a Bill Russell trophy, is very hard to argue against. Lebron would have no contemporary equal. Make it 2-5 with a loss again to the Dubs; however, and that’s just as many Finals accolades as the spritely Curry. After the next two weeks unfold, there might not have to be a conversation over which star is brightest. You can’t argue with two championships and two MVPs back-to-back. Jersey sales indicate that Stephen has already become the face of the Association, but dominion comes with consistent victory.
The winner of this series will be the team that can defend home-court and steal one on the road. You could feel the emotion ooze out of Lebron and the Cavs when they escaped Oracle with a Game 2 win last year, but they also had the stench of champagne baths from Game 6 permeate through the away locker room of the “Q” for the entire summer. Match-up wise, I’m wary that Golden State exposes the lack of defensive prowess of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. But it’s also possible that the combination of James, Irving, Love, Smith and Frye is too much weaponry for a smaller Warriors lineup. I don’t know who wins and my gut hasn’t identified a clear favorite yet either, so this time around I’ll actually leave it to a coin flip. The Cavaliers are heads and the Warriors are tails.
Heads it is. Cleveland Cavaliers in seven.
Game 1: Tonight @ 9pm
Game 2: June 5th @ 8pm
Game 3: June 8th @ 9pm
Game 4: June 10th @ 9pm
Game 5: June 13th | If Needed
Game 6: June 16th | If Needed
Game 7: June 19th | If Needed
* All games to air on ABC