• It’s not 2015, but don’t tell that to LeBron James.

    Three years ago, he entered his first NBA Finals after returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a decided underdog, bringing a hobbled star and jumble of random veterans with him to Oracle Arena to battle against the Golden State Warriors. James’ performance in that first go-around, objectively flawed as it was historically dominant, took the championship series to six games before the Warriors’ depth of talent, cohesion and two-way versatility won out. That didn’t stop a vocal majority of league followers from singing the praises of an exhausted, overworked James, who would have been, and perhaps should have been, the first losing player since Jerry West in 1969 to be named Finals MVP.

    Andre Iguodala won instead, rewarded for helping hold James to 39.8 percent shooting despite his otherworldly numbers of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Time, and Golden State realizing its destiny as a revolutionary small-ball force, have made it easy to overlook the other reason Iguodala, not James or Stephen Curry, was chosen Finals MVP. In Game 4, after James slammed the ball to the heavens and let out a primal victory scream at Oracle then took the first game at Quicken Loans Arena, Steve Kerr used his ace in the hole, replacing Iguodala with Andrew Bogut as a starter and committing to the Death Lineup almost full-time. The Warriors promptly won the next three games, outscoring the Cavaliers by 42 total points en route to their first championship in 40 years.

    Coming into the playoffs, conventional wisdom said the only way Cleveland had even a remote possibility of upsetting Golden State in yet another Finals redux was if the favorites were bit by the injury bug. That it took winning back-to-back elimination games over the Houston Rockets for the Warriors just to be here wasn’t solely the influence of Iguodala’s absence over the final four games of the Western Conference Finals. Not even close. Houston might very well be in the hazy afterglow of winning the West and prepping for James right now if Chris Paul hadn’t injured his hamstring in the waning moments of Game 5. But Kerr has always maintained that Iguodala, box score be damned, is a bellwether of sorts for Golden State, and said as much over a beer and a steak following Monday night’s season-saving win.

    “We would have won the series in five if Iggy played,” he told The Undefeated.

    The notion that the Cavaliers had a chance against the Warriors if random circumstances conspired against them is not just based on hopeful conjecture, but recent history – the 2016 Finals. Curry, though he produced like a superstar during that initial rematch, was hardly the player that became the league’s first unanimous MVP in history. Draymond Green was famously suspended for Game 5, having passed the cumulative postseason threshold for a mandatory one-game ban due to a flagrant foul retroactively assessed for tussling with James.

    The absence of Iguodala alone, even for the Finals’ entirety, wouldn’t reach the extent of luck this undermanned Cleveland team needs to be competitive with an all-time juggernaut like Golden State. That would be the case if Kevin Love was fully healthy and playing near his peak, too. As is, with Love’s status uncertain for Game 1 and his postseason true shooting percentage hovering barely above 50.0, it sure seems like James will be forced to shoulder a bigger offensive burden than ever before just for his team to keep pace.

    Iguodala has already been ruled out of the Finals opener, ensuring Kerr will dole out major minutes to a combination of Kevon Looney, the likely starter, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell and Nick Young. David West should get a chance versus Cleveland, and the same goes for Patrick McCaw – assuming Kerr thinks he’s ready to make an impact on the game’s biggest stage after missing the previous two months of play with a bruise on his spine. Maybe JaVale McGee is dusted off; he’d be a far more viable option against the Cavaliers if Love is unable to go.

    It will be a boon for Cleveland no matter how the playing time normally earmarked for Iguodala is allotted. None of the players the Warriors will be replacing him with offer his combination of defensive excellence, offensive ingenuity and overall versatility. Iguodala isn’t as central to Golden State’s playing ethos as Curry or Green, but innately brings the best out of his teammates nonetheless. While his ability as a primary defender and supplemental ball handler account for that reality more than anything else, the playoff magnifying glass reduces his worth to something even simpler: Another player who poses a sustained threat to opposing defenses.

    The Rockets didn’t guard Looney or Bell in the Conference Finals, and routinely cheated an extra couple steps off Green and Livingston to try and contain Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. That approach worked better than anyone could have anticipated. Houston didn’t come within a single game of dethroning the Warriors by lighting up the scoreboard, after all. But Golden State got more comfortable exploiting that wrinkle as the series wore on, and is more than ready for the Cavaliers to bust it out for a fourth consecutive June as a result.

    The Warriors were held to a 104.7 offensive rating in the 2016 Finals. One year later, with Durant in place of Harrison Barnes and Kerr fully embracing small-ball, they hung a 117.5 offensive rating on Cleveland, five points higher than the San Antonio Spurs’ stellar mark from the 2014 Finals, when they used the beautiful game to destroy the Miami Heat and forcefully avenge a heartbreaking loss the previous June.

    Not even the most biased Cavaliers fans believe their team has the defensive chops to stop the Warriors. Cleveland ranked 22nd in defensive rating after the trade deadline, and has been wildly inconsistent on that end of the floor in the playoffs. It’s not like the strategy that worked so well at times against the Boston Celtics, switching when appropriate and affording extra help to overmatched defenders from there, will be similarly effective against Golden State even with Iguodala unavailable. The Cavaliers aren’t the Rockets. They frequently fail to communicate and make extra efforts, and even when fully engaged, don’t have the like-sized athletes to consistently run Curry off the arc, push Durant away from his spots or deny passes to Thompson 25 feet from the basket.

    Cleveland’s stingiest lineup is the one likely to be on the floor for tipoff of Game 1: George Hill, J.R. Smith, James, Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson. That’s a rangy, athletic group, but probably won’t be as tough for the Warriors to score on as any of Houston’s top defensive quintets.  Worse, the Cavaliers don’t have the secondary playmaking to offset the energy it will be necessary for James to expend defensively. Unlike James Harden, he doesn’t have a Paul, or even Eric Gordon, to briefly take the reins offensively whenever the Warriors run him ragged on the other side of the ball. Golden State won’t target James the way it did Harden, but the limits of Cleveland’s roster – namely, Rodney Hood‘s complete disappearing act and Cedi Osman‘s inability to gain the trust of Lue – and the opposition’s star power mean he doesn’t have a safe hiding place in the Finals. Slotting James on Looney or another non-threat, letting him roam, will only work for so long; the Warriors found ways to weaponize those guys in the last two games against the Rockets, and the Cavaliers are liable to switch any screens involving James, Jeff Green, Thompson and Smith.

    Of course, it’s unclear how Cleveland is supposed to create varied, efficient offense against the Warriors – especially when Love is off the floor, by circumstances of injury or time and score. James has already put together one of the finest individual playoff runs of all time offensively. The per-game statistics are absurd, and his historic crunch-time play from the regular season has seamlessly transferred to the postseason. The Cavaliers are 7-1 in clutch games during the playoffs, per NBA.com/stats, with a net rating of +36.8, by far the league’s top mark. Might that be the rare area in which Cleveland has a decided advantage over Golden State? James’ season-long dominance down the stretch of close games suggests as much, and so do the Warriors’ struggles in their 11 total minutes of playoff crunch time.

    That incredibly small sample size of clutch play is actually a feather in Golden State’s cap; the best teams avoid close games altogether rather than pulling them out. If the Cavaliers are able to make the Warriors sweat in the fourth quarter, it will be due to James’ singular brilliance more than anything else. Hill has been frustratingly inconsistent offensively in the postseason, either completely blending into Cleveland’s morass of well-traveled veterans or functioning perfectly as a complementary ball handler and spot-up shooter. That’s the problem, though. Hill, like every teammate of James’ but Love, doesn’t have a higher level to reach. Kyrie Irving is gone, and Isaiah Thomas didn’t work out. Smith has never recovered after beginning the season coming off the bench behind Dwyane Wade. Hood is a lost cause, while Larry Nance and Jordan Clarkson, even if their athleticism could theoretically juice the Cavaliers’ offense, might not be playable against the Warriors. This team needs Kyle Korver on the floor to score, but his presence at large may prove debilitating.

    That’s another issue in this series, by the way. There’s only so much Cleveland can do that will surprise Golden State. The Warriors know better than anyone how to make James work for his points while keeping his teammates in check. They’ve seen the cross-court bullets from the post, perfectly-timed pocket passes to rollers and all the nuance and subtlety from James as a playmaker that commonly allows the Cavaliers to be more than the sum of their parts. Cleveland knows Golden State well, too. But when the Warriors are humming, there’s no level of familiarity that gives the opposition a lasting advantage. Even Houston, designed with the defending champions in mind and employing a defense that specifically combats the ball and player movement that makes them so, so unique, eventually bent to the point of breaking. If Golden State is right, just imagine what its amalgam of talent and execution is capable of doing to a team so inconsistent yet vanilla as the Cavaliers.

    Maybe Iguodala’s injury opens the door for Cleveland to play Love, when healthy, and Thompson simultaneously for the lion’s share of this series. If the Cavaliers own the offensive glass, they’ll have a much better chance to keep the Warriors out of transition, where the latter is at their best offensively and the former at their worst defensively. Targeting Curry in the halfcourt over and over, just as Cleveland has for the past three Junes, could yield early foul trouble for the two-time MVP, goading Golden State into the stagnant offense that plagued them often against the Rockets. The Warriors were hardly locked in defensively from Game 1 to Game 7, tipoff to final buzzer, either. Perhaps that penchant rears its ugly head again in the Finals, ceding open looks from three for Love, Korver and Smith. Jeff Green has shown he’s at least occasionally capable of knocking down triples, key because he unlocks the lineup flexibility so necessary when facing the Warriors.

    But none of those possibilities are likely to come to pass. Golden State is a lot better than Cleveland, and should have appropriate fear of losing after just being pushed to the brink. The mere sight of James wearing opposing colors might instill that feeling of competitive tension all by itself. The Warriors certainly aren’t overly concerned about anyone else in wine and gold.

    If there’s a silver lining to Cleveland’s one-man band, it’s that James’ solo act has never been better. He’s shooting 74.4 percent when defenders are within two feet of him, and 60.5 percent on 7.5 field goal attempts per game after taking seven dribbles or more. James is at 48.6 percent on mid-range jumpers in the playoffs, accuracy that would make Dirk Nowitzki proud. He averaged 33.6 points and 8.4 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 61.0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, not just facing the league’s top defense, but also the only one with as many viable defenders to throw at him as Golden State.

    For James, being the best player on the floor every game won’t be enough to give the Cavaliers a puncher’s chance. He needs to be on a higher plane than even Durant and Curry, producing points for himself and his teammates at an all-time level while controlling the pace, limiting turnovers – something he was completely unable to do against Boston – and setting a tone of ceaseless engagement for Cleveland on the other side of the ball. No player in league history has ever been asked to do more than James on a game-by-game, season-by-season, series-by-series basis. Even so, keeping this Cavaliers team, his worst since the 2000s, competitive against the Warriors represents a new extent of responsibilities and challenges.

    “Listen, Golden State is one of the best teams I’ve ever played,” James said on Wednesday. “It’s one of the best teams ever assembled. And then they added Kevin Durant.”

    This time last year, that equation added up to a gentleman’s sweep by Golden State. Today? Cleveland, almost no matter what James does, will be lucky to suffer the same outcome.


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