Finally, the gold standard of the NBA will clash with the league’s burgeoning dynasty in the playoffs to determine who rules the West.
The match-up between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs will not only feature the two best teams from this past regular season, but from last year as well, with the sides meeting for the first time in the playoffs during the Warriors’ three-year stretch of dominance.
Golden State barely broke a sweat in sweeping opponents through the first two rounds, while San Antonio have had a more challenging road, needing six games to overcome both Memphis and Houston.
As heavily favoured as the Warriors are, the Spurs have proven they’re capable of at least making the road more challenging for the team from the Bay.
San Antonio claimed two of the three regular season meetings, including an opening night blowout win. The other victory, however, came in a contest in which both sides rested their key players, while the loss saw Golden State overcome a 22-point deficit.
In the two games that included the regular starters, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich trotted out a more traditional line-up with two big men. While the Warriors are at their best when they go small and play Draymond Green at centre, San Antonio prefer to utilise their size and do damage in the paint and on the glass.
The Spurs grabbed 27 more rebounds in total across those two games, while holding a massive 48-22 edge in second-chance points.
“That’s how they won this last series (against Houston), by keeping balls alive,” said Golden State forward Kevin Durant said.
“They murdered us that in first game with rebounds, but that was the first game of the season.
“We’ve gotten so much better and more comfortable with each other since then, but we know offensive rebounding always translates no matter what.
“If we give up offensive rebounds and they take more shots than us, it’s going to be hard for us to win.”
Durant only played in the season opener against the Spurs, but dropped 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing four assists.
He and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard will go head-to-head, with the latter dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of the series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Rockets.
In the absence of Leonard and with point guard Tony Parker out to a leg injury, San Antonio have needed LaMarcus Aldridge to step up and the big man has delivered.
“He’s really turned it on, demanded the ball, got in good position using his body, and not always settling for a jumper,” Popovich said of Aldridge. “[He got] to the rim, did a really good job.”
Golden State’s jack-of-all-trades, Green, will pose a challenge for Aldridge on both ends and the match-up has the potential to dictate the series, which begins with Game 1 at Oracle Arena (UAE: 23:30).
Flipping the proverbial switch should never be made to look this easy, but then again, LeBron James makes a lot of absurdities look easy.
One month ago, after back-to-back losses to Atlanta that crippled Cleveland’s grip on the Eastern Conference’s top seed, we were asking “what’s wrong with the Cavaliers?” for what seemed like the umpteenth time since the season began.
Today, in this moment, the only question worth asking regarding Cleveland is whether they’ll even lose a game ahead of an inevitable third-straight trip to the NBA Finals.
The Cavaliers’ current air of invincibility isn’t just the result of them getting to this point again, but an effect of how easily they’ve done it – two sweeps stemming from LeBron playing out of his mind, deadly 3-point shooting and much-improved defence.
It hasn’t been flawless by any means. There have been small lapses interlaced with the long stretches of dominance, which, aside from reminding us this team isn’t perfect, have almost made their performance seem more impressive.
Take the first-round sweep against Indiana. Yes, the Cavaliers never truly looked threatened and the short series indicates as much. However, they earned their wins by a point differential of one, six, five and four, respectively, for a plus-16 total in the match-up. That tied Cleveland with the 1975 Golden State Warriors for the lowest margin of victory in a four-game sweep in NBA history. Basically, it was as close of a sweep as we’ve ever seen.
No one considered the Pacers to be the type of team to capitalise on the Cavaliers’ weaknesses though. So if Paul George and little else could play the defending champions that close, what would happen when Cleveland met a team of real substance?
As it turns out, not a whole lot changed. In fact, the Cavaliers feasted on the Toronto Raptors more comfortably than they did Indiana, claiming another sweep against their foes from north, but this time with an average margin of victory of 15.2 points.
It’s difficult to discern how much of the series was a case of the Raptors not playing well or failing to take advantage of opportunities, and how much of it was Cleveland just stomping on – what at the time seemed legitimate, yet in hindsight has proven to be just cute – belief a revamped roster with Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker could hang and maybe even conquer their giants.
Any time Indiana or Toronto came close to turning the tide, the Cavaliers responded and kept them at arm’s length. Playing with fire has been nothing new for Cleveland and they’ve taken it to heightened levels of daring this season, but it’s almost as if they’re mastering how much and when to care in the playoffs. Instead of taking it by game though, as they often did during the regular season, it’s been by possession in the playoffs.
That type of flaw makes them human, even as they employ an immortal force in LeBron. It’s an interesting concoction which both makes them more interesting than their impervious rivals in the Bay and emphasises just how ridiculous LeBron is.
The best player on the planet isn’t just maintaining his otherworldly level as he rises in age, he’s unfathomably getting better. And you can only imagine what little room remained between what LeBron had already accomplished and what’s actually physically, humanly possible.
Yet here we are, in the midst of 32-year-old LeBron having the best postseason of his career with averages of 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 55.7 per cent shooting from the field and 46.8 per cent from deep. Granted it’s been eight games and tougher opponents await on the horizon, but time and time again LeBron has made it clear that there’s nothing he can’t do.
Shaq at his best finishing inside the paint + Steph Curry at his best shooting from downtown...— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 7, 2017
That's LeBron in the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/mFM4IG9FF1
The Cavaliers’ issues in the regular season had little to do with LeBron himself, but it’s not a coincidence they’ve turned it on while he’s gone Super Saiyan. As one of the best to ever play the game, LeBron can cover up cover deficiencies like very few others can.
Will it be enough for him to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the fourth time? The Golden State Warriors still loom large and that will be a mountain the likes of which LeBron has never scaled before. But as unavoidable as that question will become in a few weeks’ time, it’s not something Cleveland have to worry about as they prepare for the penultimate step in their journey.
Right now, all that matters is the Cavaliers have somehow managed to play their best basketball of the entire season at the very exact time they wanted and needed to.
And, because of LeBron James, no one is surprised.
At their best, the Golden State Warriors are a free-flowing, ball-skipping machine that dissects defences in search of the most optimal shot.
That style, however, doesn’t always suit the playoffs, but in their 102-91 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of the second round series, the Warriors proved they can adapt and play out of their comfort zone.
If the Jazz were going to steal a victory in the lopsided series, Game 3 was the time to do it. Golden State’s Splash Brothers duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 7-of-29 from the field, while Draymond Green’s outside shot crashed back down to Earth as he went 0-of-3 from long range.
The pace of 94.54 possessions and just seven fast break points for the Warriors also didn’t work in the visitors’ favour, but Durant and Curry combined for a fourth-quarter outburst that resulted in yet another double-digit win.
Durant and Curry each tallied 11 points in the period, but it wasn’t necessarily off crisp ball movement and in the flow of the offence. Instead, with Utah’s defence clogging the lane, Golden State leaned on Durant in isolation and off ball-screens near the top of the key.
It was a call-back to Durant’s days in Oklahoma City as the former MVP reminded just how much of a mismatch he is for any defender. While that style has been the antithesis of the Warriors’ unselfish approach, it provides Golden State another weapon in their deep arsenal, a ‘break in case of emergency’ option that will be more and more handy the deeper in the playoffs they advance.
“Really, for us, it’s simplistic, basic, backyard basketball,” Warriors coach Mike Brown said. “You find where you think you have an advantage, and we felt we had that in a pick-and-roll situation, moving Gobert away from the hoop.”
Golden State’s ability to shift the offensive strategy wouldn’t be possible if not for Curry’s willingness to slide into more of a sidekick role, which he did in the fourth quarter as Durant accumulated a usage percentage of 43.5, compared to Curry’s 31.8.
“Myself and the other 19,000 people in the arena and everybody watching on TV saw the same thing I saw,” Curry said. “It’s an easy decision to at that moment (to defer to Durant). Try to set a screen for him and get him to the right spot and, obviously, he does the rest.
“We’re smart enough basketball players to know what’s going on at that moment and try to make the right decision and let a talented scorer like he is…let him do what he does.”