June 1, 2016, 8:59 am
The journey was completely different, but here we are again in the month of June with the two teams favored to get to the NBA Finals set for a rematch the networks are salivating over. Six of the last eight NBA MVPs are in this series (LeBron James 4, Stephen Curry 2) and the hero vs. villain story is clear for America to follow.
We have the Warriors, who broke the record for best regular season record in NBA history at 73-9. The playoffs were a different story. America’s darling MVP was hurt in round one, recovered in round two and struggled for most of the conference finals until Game 7. They don’t look exactly like the 73-win team at all times anymore, but the pieces are all there to rediscover that swagger, which they might just have. The Thunder had them on the ropes with a 3-1 series lead, but the Warriors found it within themselves to rally and flex their “best team in history” muscle to rattle off three straight wins. They have a player in Steph Curry who hits video game shots from weird distances and consistently hits circus shots to end quarters. He looks like a child, is the new NBA fad, has the cutest daughter who says the darnedest things, and well…isn’t LeBron.
Meanwhile, the Cavs were 57-25 in the regular season and went through a lot of questions along the way. They fired their head coach David Blatt and replaced him with another rookie coach in Tyronn Lue. They traded for Channing Frye in February for added depth to stretch the floor. They ran through the first two rounds with sweeps of both the Pistons and the Hawks, resting plenty along the way. The Cavs allowed the Raptors to climb into the series at 2-2, but they were quickly dismissed in six games. More rest for Cleveland. They are healthy. They are hungry for revenge. They have a player in LeBron James who is criticized more than any player in NBA history, left his hometown city to chase championships with his all-star buddies, came back and desperately needs rings to enhance his legacy of going 2-4 in the NBA Finals.
THIS ISN’T 2015
So here we are again. There are a lot of drastic differences from a year ago. For the Warriors, the expectations have certainly increased. Their roster is almost identical to the championship squad (except they added Anderson Varejao, more on that later) but the experience is astronomical from an adversity standpoint. There was no pressure last season to accomplish anything. They started the 2015-16 season 24-0 and with each win came added pressure to win the next one. After their first loss to the Bucks on Dec. 12, the hype did not stop. They were chasing the 72-10 record from the ’96 Bulls until the final night of the regular season.
Several comebacks, broken records and wild shots later, they climbed back to a rematch with the same team they beat in six games in June of 2015. Their lone transaction was to steal Varejao from LeBron, which makes for an interesting theory: will he provide inside information to the team as to how LeBron operates? Or is he a spy for the King? (I’ve been watching way too many episodes of Game of Thrones lately.)
The Cavaliers are extremely different as far as personnel goes. They have two more all-stars in their lineup this time around in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Not only does that take immense pressure off of LeBron, but it increases team depth and gives the Cavs a plethora of more options than they had last year. Matthew Dellavedova was fun and will still be relevant in this series, but Kyrie is an all-world talent. The stretch four position for the Cavs is actually a thing this time around. Not only will Kevin Love park himself in the corner, but the Cavs acquired Channing Frye from Orlando to knock down open looks (he’s shooting an NBA-high 58.8 percent during these playoffs). The offseason signing of Richard Jefferson has also been key, as every deep team needs a savvy vet to play stints of energetic basketball and hit big shots. He was part of the best defensive lineup against the Raptors and could play a key role in the Finals to defend the Warriors with his size. This isn’t your one-year younger brother’s Cavs team.
The Warriors are more seasoned, savvy, tested and have much more swagger than they did last June. They have faced every test imaginable, including three straight victories facing elimination. This series becomes the ultimate test: defending their title against a team desperate for revenge. I don’t think this series will lack any sort of drama and the Warriors won’t make quick work of the Cavs either. Here are some quick predictions that I would bet on:
-You can expect the NBA to suspend Draymond Green for a “flagrant” just to make things interesting.
–J.R. Smith will have a bonkers three-point bonanza game for a Cavs win. Channing Frye will have a hand in that game too.
-Kevin Love will be useless on defense and the Warriors pick-and-roll will force Lue to bench him.
-Matthew Dellavedova will be a household name again. He will be on the ground divind more than he will be standing. Maybe he’s the one who sets Draymond off.
-The Warriors and Cavs will break NBA Finals record for all things beyond the arc: attempts, makes, etc.
SERIES PREDICTION: Warriors in 7. The Cavs would have no chance in a winner-take-all final game at the Roaracle, and you can’t convince me they beat the Warriors four out of six times.
FINALS MVP: Steph Curry. Since Draymond will miss a game with an inevitable flagrant, so he won’t be in the mix. Klay Thompson was eliminated from the equation with LeBron’s defense last year. Andre Iguodala “stopped” LeBron to the tune of 35.8 ppg, 13.8 rpg, and 8.8 apg so I doubt he will outshine his teammates again. Sometimes the easy choice is the right choice. Don’t overthink it.