There will be an abundance of star power in the NBA Finals, although most of it will be concentrated on one side.
The Golden State Warriors will not only have four of the five best players in the series, but their four pillars are arguably among the top 20 players in the entire league.
However, the best player in the world still resides in Cleveland and as long as LeBron James is around, the Cavaliers have a shot at taking down the Warriors’ uber-talented group.
Here are the four key match-ups that will decide the Finals.
LeBron James v Kevin Durant
What more is there left to say about LeBron and his singular impact? His presence alone gives Cleveland a chance and until he’s dead and buried, it’s foolish to count him out. That said, James is up against a mountain of a challenge in the Finals, even more so than he was back in 2015 with an undermanned Cavaliers side. He’s been doing it all for Cleveland in these playoffs, but he’ll have to somehow go to another level to beat Golden State. That starts on the defensive end where he can’t take plays off and has to slow down Durant.
LeBron is the best player in the world, but Durant was arguably the best player on the floor in last year’s Finals. James was matched up on him for much of the series and even he had no answer for the Warriors’ forward, who averaged 35.2 points on 55.6 per cent shooting, including 47.4 per cent from deep. Golden State have been using Durant in isolations more than ever in the playoffs, but that may play into LeBron’s hands instead of running him off screens and making James exert defensive energy.
Stephen Curry v George Hill
If it wasn’t obvious before, it certainly is now after the Warriors’ run to the Finals: the offence is at its best and retains its identity most when Curry is heavily involved. That means running the guard off both ball and off-ball screens to get the defence over-committing to his ability to launch from distance. The gravity he commands on the perimeter is second to none and that in turn opens up opportunities for the rest of the team. And fortunately for Golden State, the Cavaliers have no lock-down perimeter defenders.
Hill is capable of making life difficult for opposing guards, but he’s been hit-or-miss on the defensive end during his stint in Cleveland. For the Cavaliers to have a legitimate chance of winning the series, Hill will be crucial on both ends – he’ll have to neutralise Curry as best as he can, while also having an aggressive mindset as a ball-handler. With LeBron hunting Curry and Golden State preferring not to get caught on that mismatch, Hill should have plenty of space to operate with the defence going under the screen when he has the ball.
Klay Thompson v J.R. Smith
Like Curry, Thompson is essential to the Warriors’ signature style and his success is even more tied to their fluid attack because he’s so deadly without the ball. The Houston Rockets decided to switch everything last round and they still struggled to contain Thompson at times, who needs just a sliver of space to catch and release. He’ll put extreme pressure on the Cavaliers to defend with discipline, focus and communication, otherwise they’ll be picked apart.
There are few players in the NBA more head-scratching than Smith, who on one night can look like a 3-and-D stud, and on the next be a total disaster. Needless to say, the Cavaliers need the good J.R. Smith to show up in the Finals and defend with purpose, while shooting a good percentage on the other end. His shooting is incredibly streaky, so it’s possible he could win Cleveland a game or shoot them out of the series.
Draymond Green v Kevin Love
His numbers don’t jump off the page like the Warriors’ other stars, but Green is necessary to what Golden State want to do on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he’s the quarterback and directs rotations, while on the other end he’s a primary playmaker and distributor. Cleveland will almost surely leave him wide open and dare him to shoot – Green is hitting just 27.7 per cent from 3 in the playoffs – but he won’t need to force it for the Warriors to put up points.
Love’s status for the opener is up in the air as he continues to recover from a concussion, but he’ll likely return at some point in the series. When he does, he won’t have much time to reintegrate as he’ll be needed to help alleviate the offensive load on LeBron. Love will have to be more efficient than in past two Finals though, when he shot under 40 per cent.
Here are five key stats heading into the series.
4 – Not only will the Finals rematch be the first time in NBA history that the same teams have met four straight years with the title on the line, it will also be the first time across America’s four major sports league, including the NFL, MLB and NHL.
8 – LeBron James will be playing in his eighth straight NBA Finals, with the first four coming with Miami and the past four with the Cavaliers.
He’s just the fifth player in NBA history to reach eight consecutive Finals and the only not part of the 1950s and 60s Celtics.
LeBron is going to his NINTH NBA Finals. pic.twitter.com/7WDkKO5uAy— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 28, 2018
67.2 – Outside of LeBron’s scoring average of 34.0 points in the playoffs, the rest of the Cavaliers are scoring 67.2 points per game, with Kevin Love the only other player in double figures at 13.9.
Golden State, meanwhile, are averaging 80.1 points outside of their leading scorer, Kevin Durant, and have a total of four players averaging double figures.
130 – The Warriors have been dominant in third quarters during the playoffs, outscoring their opponents by 130 points which is the largest differential in any single quarter during the shot-clock era, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The next closest team is the 1985 Lakers, who had a differential of plus-105 in second quarters.
As we enter the 3rd quarter of the day, we must be aware of that @warriors run...— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 29, 2018
Golden State has outscored opponents by 130 in the third quarter of these playoffs, the largest point differential in any single quarter by a team in the playoffs in the Shot-Clock Era pic.twitter.com/E6LSx1NfZl
612 – No one in playoff history has scored more points heading into the Finals than LeBron’s 612.
James, who has accumulated that mark in 18 games, is ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon, who had 594 points in 18 games in 1995.
The @cavs and @warriors will meet in the NBA Finals for the 4th straight season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 29, 2018
Warriors won 2 of the previous 3 series but now must stop LeBron James who has scored 612 points in the Playoffs, the most by any player in a single postseason prior to the Finals in NBA history pic.twitter.com/0NxGHgbQvC
I know, I know. I hear you. We went through an entire NBA season – all of its intricacies and storylines – just to end up in the same place we’ve been in the past three summers… with the Golden State Warriors once again meeting the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
It’s Part IV of a seemingly never-ending saga which, at this rate, could surpass the total number of Star Wars movies. And no one sounds all that excited. Even fans residing in Oakland would have probably preferred to see another opponent in the final series of the season, while that definitely holds true for those in Cleveland, although mostly for different reasons.
Yet here we are. With LeBron James set to bring his one-man show up against the greatest collection of talent in NBA history. We’ll be lucky to get six games out of this, with another gentleman’s sweep by the Warriors appearing to be the most likely scenario.
Then what was the point of everything that preceded the Finals, you’re probably asking. It was all inevitable, right?
Actually, no. Even though we’re here again, it could have just as easily been different. And how close it was to being different should put an end to the apathetic outlook and narrative that this was all predictable from the start.
The Cavaliers and yes, even the Warriors, needed breaks to get to this point. Both teams were down 3-2 in the conference finals and had to win a Game 7 on the road – one of the toughest challenges in the sport. The sides who represented their final hurdles were both banged up with injuries – the Boston Celtics were without two All-Stars in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, while the Houston Rockets didn’t have one of the greatest point guards of all-time in Chris Paul for the final two games.
Even with those circumstances already working in their favour, Cleveland and Golden State still needed their opponents to have horrendous shooting nights in Game 7 to advance.
The margin between winning and losing can often be minuscule and in the case of the conference finals, it was razor thin. As much as LeBron and the Warriors’ return to the Finals solidifies their respective greatness, it also proved they’re not infallible.
Really, this is a referendum on Golden State’s invincibility. That’s the only endgame we’ve been talking about since Kevin Durant decided to hop aboard an already-runaway train in the summer of 2016. Until it’s proven the Warriors can be stopped, we thought, all of this is pointless.
Well, the Rockets didn’t just get closer than anyone else against Golden State – they got as close as you can pretty much get, outside of a dramatic final minute in Game 7. And it wasn’t by fluke either. Houston were specifically built to beat the Warriors by relying on two elite shot-creators, switchable defence and high-variance 3-point shooting (which cruelly backfired in Game 7).
The Celtics’ precocious roster, meanwhile, came within minutes of knocking out LeBron before the Finals for the first time since 2010. And again, they got that far without two of their best players, while leaning on a 20-year-old rookie in Jayson Tatum who is on a path to super-stardom.
Houston and Boston don’t appear to be going anywhere. If anything, they should be stronger next season and peskier challenges to Golden State and Cleveland. Even without significant roster change and, say, LeBron joining Paul and James Harden, there’s a decent chance we could get the Rockets-Celtics Finals we barely missed out on this time around.
So swallow that pill and endure one more rematch between these same old teams in the Finals, because it may be the last time the end result is this predictable again.