The calendar finally hit inevitable. The NBA Finals start tonight and feature the two teams everyone expected to still be playing basketball in June. For the third consecutive year, Golden State is coming out of the West and Cleveland is coming out of the East. The Warriors won in 2015 and the Cavaliers came out on top last season. Here are some storylines and things I will be watching for this time around.
You have to believe that Kevin Durant will be scrutinized as soon as Golden State takes the court in Game One. All eyes will be on him. If Golden State wins, Durant’s hotly-debated decision to leave Oklahoma City will achieve validation status. A ring is a ring and Durant has spent a decade chasing one. You may dispute his method of attaining a title, but LeBron James did the very same thing back in his Miami Heat days.
But if Golden State and Durant fall to the Cavs, the former MVP will suffer a major credibility hit. Durant will become the guy who never won a championship, even after he jumped on the Warriors’ bandwagon. And he will continue to be the guy who cannot beat LeBron. Most of his teammates do not carry that tag. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson won the 2015 title over James.
One thing Durant has going for him is that he is healthy and playing at a very high level. Cleveland will have a tough time matching up with him while Curry and Thompson spread the floor with their outside shooting. The Warriors are 12-0 thus far in the playoffs while Durant is averaging 25 points a game. He is shooting well over 50% from the field and is also averaging eight rebounds and four assists a game.
Another storyline is that LeBron is an underdog in the Finals again. James is making his eighth Finals appearance (his seventh consecutive). Statistically (point differential), this season’s Golden State team is the most dominant team James has ever faced in the Finals. Recent history tells us that James relishes challenges like this. A year ago, LeBron and Cleveland fell behind 3-1 in the Finals before James went off. He tallied 41 points in Game 5 and 41 points again in Game 6 before posting a triple double (27, 11, 11) in Game 7 victories.
Fans of the three-point shot should love this series. Golden State has long been known as a long-distance shooting team. But Cleveland enters the Finals with the No. 1 overall offense in playoff action this year. And they are doing it from beyond the three-point line. Both teams have chosen to remake their rosters and go with small-ball. Golden State does not have Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli anymore and Cleveland is going without the likes of Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov. Often times, we will see 10 capable three-point shooters on the court at the same time. The team that defends the three best will likely win the rematch.
One has to wonder how Golden State will do in close games. The Warriors are so dominating that they rarely play close games. They did play a close one on Christmas day. Golden State blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead to Cleveland before losing 109-108 to the Cavs. That setback has to still be in the Warriors’ memory banks as does the bad memories of collapsing in last year’s Finals.
I wrote last week that Golden State has a lot to lose this year. If they fail again this season, what will their legacy be. They have won more games over the past three years than any team in NBA history has over the same time span. Yet they would only have one title to show for it.
But I do not see that happening this year. Simply put, even if Lebron and Kyrie Irving cancel out Durant and Curry, Thompson and Green are likely to produce more than Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson of the Cavaliers.
I will go with Golden State in six games. As everyone thought once Durant made his decision, he will be the difference.
Photos: Top- Kevin Durant; Bottom- LeBron James