Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry, one of NBA's greatest, might have just come to an end
If they don't meet in the Finals again, let's appreciate every one of the 27 matchups since late 2014
During the past four seasons, the Warriors and Cavaliers have squared off 27 times. They have met in three consecutive NBA Finals. It has been one of the truly great rivalries the NBA has ever seen, maybe the greatest rivalry, and after Golden State's 118-108 victory Monday in Cleveland, we have to at least acknowledge the possibility we might never see this matchup again.
Now, before you go lighting up my Twitter feed about how I'm overreacting and it's only one game and yada yada, let's be clear: This is not some kind of 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers eulogy. They're still the favorite to win the East and go back to the Finals, where they would likely meet the Warriors again. But the odds of that happening, according to our SportsLine data specialist Stephen Oh and his thousands upon thousands of completely neutral simulations, are diminishing. Have a look:
- Cleveland: 27 percent chance of winning East
- Boston: 26 percent chance of winning East
- Toronto: 24 percent chance of winning East
A month ago, Cleveland was the clear favorite (50 percent to Boston's 31 percent), and the reasons for the slip are clear. One, the defense has fallen completely off the map, 29th in the league per 100 possessions. (Only the Kings are worse.) Two, including this latest Warriors loss, the Cavs have now dropped four straight and eight of their past 10. During this four-game skid, they've been outscored by 81 points ... with LeBron James on the court. They lost to the Wolves by 28. Three days later, the Raptors shellacked them by 34. The day after that, they blew a 22-point lead in a loss to the Pacers.
Of course, people are going to point out that this is merely the regular season, which Cleveland never takes particularly seriously, and that's certainly a fair assessment. The Cavs still have the best player in the world. Isaiah Thomas has shown enough in his five games back that it's not unreasonable to think he could be back to elite scoring/playmaking levels by the playoffs. Jae Crowder could still find his two-way groove by May. Cleveland could even make a move at the trade deadline, which would start a whole different conversation.
To that point, even with the Cavs able to dangle that 2018 Brooklyn Nets first-round pick they got from Boston in the Kyrie Irving trade, there doesn't seem to be a lot out there in terms of impact players who could actually help the Cavaliers close the gap on the Warriors, or significantly widen the gap in the East. Are the Pelicans really going to deal DeMarcus Cousins when they have a chance to make the playoffs themselves? Perhaps, but I wouldn't count on it. Are the Thunder going to give up on Paul George without giving their Big 3 at least one playoff run to make something work?
Even if OKC would consider moving off George, would it even be prudent on the Cavs' part to move the biggest future building block they have for a guy who has said publicly he wants to end up with the Lakers? If James decides to bolt this summer, the Cavs are going to want -- no, they're going to need -- that pick. Perhaps Lou Williams is a guy you could get without giving up that pick, but probably not with the way he's playing this season. Julius Randle? Jordan Clarkson? Do any of these guys sound like difference makers?
Chance are, this is the Cavs team that is going to have to make a fourth consecutive run through the East, and even if you think they can "flip the switch" and become the team they've been the past three years come playoff time, there is no doubt the road will be tougher. Boston is better than it was last season. Toronto is, too. More important, both teams are better equipped to adapt and thrive in the playoff environment -- Toronto with its completely ignored top-five defense and its move toward pace and 3-pointers, Boston with its versatile defense and Kyrie Irving to single-handedly create consistent offense in late-clock and late-game situations.
Again, James -- along with Thomas and Kevin Love and some timely supporting performances -- could still be enough to get the Cavs back to the Finals, but if he isn't ... if this was, indeed, the last time we ever got to see this iteration of this rivalry play out, man, what a ride it has been.
Three Finals in a row, people. That had never happened before in NBA history. Even in this super-team era, the sheer domination these two teams have held over the league is remarkable. It has been basketball's version of Ali-Frazier. That 2016 Finals in which the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit was arguably the most thrilling NBA series anyone has ever seen. Kyrie's clutch 3 in Game 7 at Golden State will be forever frozen in time, as will LeBron's block on Iguodala. All told, what LeBron has done during these past three Finals -- not merely from a numbers standpoint, but from a "put an entire team along with an entire city on his back" standpoint -- has been unbelievable, and I don't use that word lightly.
Durant's dagger last year in Game 3.
Draymond's infamous groin kicks and punches in 2016.
Curry's sneer after schooling the pesky Matthew Dellavedova in 2015.
So many great moments from so many great players, and if we're lucky, we'll get at least one more run at this rivalry this June. Not to take anything away from Boston or Toronto -- or maybe even Washington if we really want to stretch the list of true Eastern contenders -- but Cleveland and Golden State, one more time before LeBron makes his next Decision this summer, would be something we might never see again. Four consecutive Finals matchups. Amazing.
But we have to recognize that this Cleveland team is as vulnerable in the East as it has been since James came home in 2014, and the fall is coinciding with the rise of Boston and Toronto. Yes, James has been to seven consecutive Finals. He has earned the benefit of the doubt. But everything ends at some point. If that ends up being the case for this Warriors-Cavs grudge match, let's all appreciate what it has meant to the NBA and all its fans.
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