LeBron James is staring at the tallest mountain he’s had to scale yet and the odds stacked against him are just as high.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have done this dance before – the past three summers to be accurate – but never has the rivalry felt so one-sided as it does now on the eve of a fourth straight meeting in the NBA Finals.
Standing on one end is a foursome of All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Facing them is James and his cadre of foot soldiers, who’ve done just enough to help their leader get back to a stage he’s been a regular on for eight consecutive years.
It was only two years ago when James did the unthinkable and fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat a 73-win Warriors side in the greatest Finals comeback ever, but much has changed since then. Durant joined Golden State’s budding dynasty in 2016, tilting the balance of power like an anvil dropping onto one side of a seesaw. Cleveland managed to take only one game from the new iteration of the Warriors last June and that was with Kyrie Irving still in the fold.
Irving left to ply his trade elsewhere, leaving an even greater load for James to carry, while Golden State remained intact. Andre Iguodala’s knee injury changes the equation a bit, but even that loss may be somewhat offset by Kevin Love’s concussion, which has kept the Cavaliers forward sidelined since the early minutes of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The rest of James’ supporting cast has undergone massive turnover since the start of the season, with veterans Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose replaced with Jordan Clarkson, George Hill and Larry Nance Jr and Rodney Hood.
The Cavs traded Kyrie Irving. Kevin Love missed two months. Ty Lue missed two weeks. Isaiah Thomas missed two months. They ripped up half the roster in February. LeBron’s played every game. And they’re going back to the Finals— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) May 28, 2018
It’s been one of the most challenging seasons of James’ career, but for all the drama and change that has taken place around him, the Cavaliers have given him a chance at capturing a fourth title – as unlikely as it may be against the Warriors’ juggernaut.
“At the end of the day, the game is won in between the lines, and we have an opportunity to play for a championship. That’s all that matters,” James said. “No matter what the storyline is going to be, no matter if we’re picked to win or not, let’s just go out and play ball. “We’re going to have a great game plan. We’re going to try to get better throughout the series, and we’ll see what happens. I just like to compete. I have a love for the game. I have a passion for the game, and everything else will take care of itself.”
These could also be the final games for James in a Cleveland uniform as he has the option to hit free agency in the offseason, adding more intrigue to a series that already consists of the highest stakes.
For Golden State, this is an opportunity to cement their claim as a dynasty, as three championships in four years would put them in exclusive company, alongside the early 2000s Los Angeles Lakers, the 90s Chicago Bulls, the late 80s Lakers and the 60s Boston Celtics.
LeBron is a superhero, but this is a situation even he can’t overcome on his own. The Warriors are too talented and possess too much firepower for this series to be all that close. Because it’s LeBron and Golden State tend to fall asleep when they’re unbothered, it won’t be a sweep. But five games is as far as this series can go.
Warriors in 5
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One of the greatest players of all time, against one of the greatest teams of all time.
Yes, Warriors-Cavs IV is boring. Like all good epics, this should have stayed a trilogy.
It’s not even going to be competitive. The Golden State Warriors are too good as a team, and LeBron James, as magnificent as he has been in dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, isn’t enough to dethrone them. (Right?)
But there are still enough subplots to make the series interesting even if the games are all blowouts. Just how much can King James do? Can the Warriors stop getting in their own way? Will Kevin Durant blow off the criticism that his hero-ball is ruining what made the Warriors great? Can Steph Curry finally have a defining NBA Finals moment, a signature performance on the biggest stage at last?
The Warriors are going to win. There’s little reason to dispute that, even for the most die-hard of LeBron fans. But watching his one-man crusade against Steph, KD, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green is going to be fun, even if it ends up being fruitless.
Series prediction: Warriors, 4-2
Everyone’s expecting a sweep or a “gentleman’s sweep” by the Warriors, and there’s enough of a gap in all-around quality for that to happen. But the Warriors showed just enough vulnerability against the Rockets to give someone like James an opening. Plus, he’s going to play somewhere around 48 minutes a game, and that means time against the Warriors’ role players. Imagine the havoc he’s going to wreak on the likes of Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell.
It won’t be enough to pull off an epic, legacy-defining, GOAT-title-claiming Finals win, but enough to make the Warriors sweat.
This will be the third straight Finals featuring both coaches and each has gotten the better of the other so there will no shortage of familiarity.
Here’s a breakdown of what to watch for in Lue and Kerr’s game plan.
The Cavaliers coach has his work cut out, considering the talent gulf between the two sides. While Kerr has four All-Stars at his disposal, Lue has LeBron James and mostly role players. His only other All-Star, Kevin Love, is recovering from a concussion and may not be on the floor to start the series.
On offence, expect Cleveland to use a similar approach to the one they utilised against Boston last round, which centred on LeBron drawing a switch against a small defender, usually Terry Rozier. The target in this series will be Steph Curry as LeBron seeks to overpower the guard, like he’s done in the past. It could also put Curry in foul trouble, serving as a double whammy.
As a whole, the Cavaliers will need to toe the line in terms of pace. That means getting out in transition on Warriors misses and turnovers to catch them before they can set their defence, while also being wary of upping the tempo for the entire game, which plays into the Warriors’ free-flowing hands.
Defensively, the Cavaliers may take a page out of Houston’s book and switch everything. To do that though, they’ll have to play Jeff Green more and Love less. It’s likely Cleveland won’t be able to use the Tristan Thompson-Love frontcourt much and Thompson would be the preferred option for defensive purposes. However, minimal gains on defence may not be worth sacrificing spacing around LeBron on the other end, so Lue could decide to play four shooters around James and hope Cleveland can score enough to keep up.
Andre Iguodala’s knee injury makes Kerr’s job a little harder, with the forward’s absence robbing the Warriors’ of their best LeBron defender and leaving a hole in the lineup. Kerr has started Kevon Looney and rotated Jordan Bell, Shaun Livingston and Nick Young in as the fifth player alongside his stars, but he may need to keep his bigs on the floor more counteract Thompson off the offensive glass. Going small with Draymond Green at centre, however, would make it difficult for Love to be on the floor.
As far as who to throw on LeBron, Kevin Durant did fairly well last year, although Kerr could change up bodies to keep his players fresh. The real challenge will be how to guard LeBron when he draws a mismatch and looks to post. The Celtics held their own in those situations by using a scram switch, which sees a bigger body on the weakside pull the overmatched defender off before or immediately after the entry pass. Golden State have the length and versatility to do the same, although James will look to punish the switch from the top of the key and near the perimeter, making the defensive strategy not as viable in those instances.
On offence, Kerr has to resist going to Durant so often in isolation. That was a somewhat needed approach against the Rockets’ stout defence, but the Warriors should have no problem carving up Cleveland with back cuts and off-ball movement. Playing a grind-it-out, half-court slog focused on one-on-one play would even the playing field for the Cavaliers.