We're finally here.
After knowing this was coming for a full year, after hyping it and talking about it over and over, after sitting through an interminable playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors meet in the 2017 NBA Finals after going a combined 24-1 through their conference playoffs. Here are 20 things you need to know about this incredible matchup between two legendary teams in what is being called the Three-Match.
1.THIS IS, SOMEHOW, EVEN MORE ABOUT LEBRON JAMES (by Matt Moore)
It seems unfair that Kevin Durant went through free agency, made such a bold choice that was hated by so many, the Warriors put together this incredible collection of talent, and the Finals are still about LeBron James. But that's really what the Warriors have done, put another challenge in front of James as he seeks to climb ever higher in the all-time ranks in the minds of fans and players.
In some ways, James doesn't have the kind of pressure on him this time around that he has in the past. If he loses, he falls to 3-5 in the Finals, but it's just difficult to blame him if he loses to this kind of a super-team. He'll take the flak from the usual cadre of morning talk show hosts and shock jocks, but overall, this will just be a case of him being bested by an unprecedented collection of talent.
On the other hand... if he wins, defeating this team, that added Kevin Durant, the year after he came back from down 3-1, to collect his 4th title and go .500 in the Finals, 4-3 since 2011? Well, you can read more about that below.
2. WARRIORS TITLE PROBABLE, OR INEVITABLE? (by Matt Moore)
The Warriors should win this series. They arefor a reason. They have matchup advantages at every position except arguably point guard (due to how good Kyrie Iving is) and small forward (James). They have a better defense, a better statistical profile, a better bench.
So the question becomes "What is a reasonable expectation for this Warriors team?" They're facing LeBron James, so you can't just completely dismiss the idea of a loss, but they have Kevin Durant and the core of a 73-win team. They should win this series, and if we're being honest, fairly comfortably. The Cavaliers defense just hasn't been the same and the Warriors have been that overpowering, we just haven't noticed because they haven't played anybody.
There are two ways of approaching this. One is to say "Look, we all thought it was a done deal last year and we know how that turned out. Never doubt LeBron." And that's a valid take. You can argue that James deserves every last bit of faith until he is actually eliminated with four losses out of seven. He is that singularly great as to demand that respect.
On the other... it took the greatest comeback in NBA history last year to beat a team that was without Andrew Bogut, and had s suspended Draymond Green and a hobbled Steph Curry, coupled with some of the greatest performances ever from James and Kyrie Irving. Then the Warriors added Kevin Durant, on top of that.
Last year we learned that probability does not equal inevitability. But we also have to be able to recognize how unlikely last year was, and how similarly unlikely a repeat of that performance would be, especially given how this Warriors team may genuinely be even better.
3. THE GOLDEN BOY HAS FINALLY SHINED BRIGHTEST (by Matt Moore)
Stephen Curry's numbers have always been great. Even in the playoffs, you could look back, point to his numbers and go "See?! He was great."
But it never felt great.
His greatest performances have come vs. teams short-handed, or in a comeback game vs. the Blazers last year who weren't even supposed to be there. His Finals performances were always "good" but it was never "That game was about Steph Curry taking over the whole damn thing."
This year has been different. It's there in the numbers, sure. He's averaging career highs in points (28.6), and field goal percentage (50 percent). But more than that, he's been in control of the game. He's bursting through and around Kevin Durant's casual brilliance, filling the gaps with explosions and bursts of Steph-ness. He's making incredible layups, playing great defense, controlling the game like we haven't seen.
Curry's already a legend for what he's done the past three seasons. But he's missing that definitive Finals series. His defining moment right now is being locked up by Kevin Love. This could be the year that while Durant is the Warriors' best player, Curry gets to fully unleash what he's capable of on the biggest stage, with no injury to hold him back.
4. THE JORDAN/LEBRON DEBATE (by Brad Botkin)
You'd better be ready for some serious legacy talk in the lead up to these Finals, because you're about to be inundated with it. The headline topic, of course, is going to LeBron vs. Jordan. You just can't get away from it. LeBron himself said as recently as Thursday that chasing Jordan's legacy -- in other words dethroning him as the people's GOAT --.
I love and hate these discussions. I hate them because the logical part of me understands the futility in trying to compare different players from different eras. Deep down, the only thing anyone knows for sure -- or anyone worth debating with, at least -- is that Jordan was the best of his time and LeBron is the best of his time. And yet, the question lingers. Who's better? We can't help but want to answer that.
Personally, if LeBron wins this series, I would have to put him ahead of Jordan. I already think he's a better actual player. In a straight-up tale of the tape, I don't think there are more than a couple things, if that many, that Jordan did better than LeBron, who is a better passer, better rebounder, better floor general and if not the better outright defender, then certainly the more versatile one. Even when it comes to the traditional scoring, if you are intent on ignoring efficiency, LeBron would easily average the 30 per game Jordan did for his career if that was his main focus.
At this point, it's not about the basketball; it's the romance of Jordan combined with his undefeated mark in the Finals that are still just enough to win the public perception. That goes out the window with a Cavs win.
The bottom line is Jordan's Bulls never, ever, had to face anything close to this Warriors team. Frankly, they never had to play a team as good as those Spurs teams that LeBron split with in Miami. If he takes two of three from this Golden State team that is going to go down as one of the five best ever, at worst, your Jordan argument is going to get pretty tough to maintain.
5. THE KERR ABSENCE (by Brad Botkin)
No Steve Kerr, no problem?
On Thursday Warriors GM Bob Myers said "at this point, [Kerr] is not ready to coach." Game 1 is still a ways away, but we have to assume Mike Brown will be manning the Golden State sideline in these Finals. How much will this hurt the Warriors? On a macro level, not much. Before the playoffs, I compared Kerr to who has raised his kids to function at a high level and make good decisions on their own, and this is still the case. The Warriors know what they're doing, largely thanks to the system and culture Kerr has built, and because their roster of chock-full of really smart basketball players. Overall, they're fine without him.
There will be moments, though, in which Kerr will be missed. The Warriors will be tested in this series in a way they haven't been throughout the playoffs. Kerr is a master at dialing up the right play, particularly out of timeouts, at the right time. More than that, though, his presence will be missed in the huddle at some point in this series. He's a world-class communicator. If Curry is shooting poorly, if Draymond is losing his cool, if LeBron is going wild and the Cleveland crowd is in a frenzy, Kerr knows what to say. He keeps this team on schedule. Whether Mike Brown can step into this role is a real question. Little things could make a big difference in a series like this.
6. A MISSION OF LOVE
Kevin Love has played the best basketball of his career this season. Not only is hitting over 48 percent of his 3-point shots, but he's back to rebounding like a beast, working the post, and, incredibly, defending at a high level. Love's defense has never looked this sound or aggressive. He's responded to the challenge of being targeted by the opponents' matchups and become rock solid.
However, it's a different deal vs. the Warriors and the myriad weapons they produce. They'll have Love spinning and forcing him to rotate and move constantly on the perimeter, and they'll attack him inside with Draymond Green and JaVale McGee. Love has had a great season and a great playoffs. If he is able to really establish himself as being on that same level as the great players in this series, that's going to help out Cleveland in big ways.
7. PICK AND SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE OPTIONS (by Matt Moore)
The Cavaliers finally found ways to slow down the Warriors' pick and roll last year. LeBron James blitzed and recovered on Draymond Green, disrupting passing lanes and crowding Stephen Curry.
Now they have Kevin Durant.
Oddly, the Warriors haven't used Durant and Curry much in pick and rolls all year. There's a lot of belief that was in part to keep it secret to use vs. the Cavaliers, but it's a bit late to bust out. If they do use it, it's deadly. The Cavaliers have to keep Irving on Curry, he can't adequately get in Klay Thompson's sight line. Which means if the Cavaliers switch in that pick and roll, Irving winds up on Durant. If they blitz Curry, that puts Durant free, with Thompson, Green, and at times, another shooter spotting up.
It's a nightmare, and one that the Cavaliers are going to have to have a great plan for, and live with the fact the Warriors are going to score often out of this set no matter what they do.
8. DRAYMOND'S FUSE (by Matt Moore)
Ah, yes, Draymond. The emotional heartbeat of the Warriors sometimes thumps too loudly, and last year, it cost him. Green's suspension last year was catastrophic and is still talked about as the turning point of the series.
Green cannot have that happen this year. He has to keep his cool. The officials will be on the lookout for his wayward kicks, for any extracurricular activity. If he gets caught again, it won't be official profiling, it'll be him asking for it after what's gone on. Green has to stay engaged emotionally and lead the Warriors, they need his fire. But it's got to be within reason. He cannot lose control. He's too important. He knows that his groin tap of LeBron James may have cost his team a championship last season.
9. POP-A-SHOT (by Matt Moore)
The Cavaliers' biggest change to their roster this season is that they have even more shooters. The Cavs last year scored 29.5 percent of their field goals from deep in the Finals vs. the Warriors. For Golden State, that number was 43.6. This year in the playoffs, the Cavaliers have a higher 3-point rate, 41.3 percent to the Warriors' 36.4.
The Cavs added Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, Channing Fye gets more more minutes, Iman Shumpert is a more willing shooter. They have shooters. Their whole plan was to come into this matchup and be able to hang with the Warriors in a shootout. The Warriors are less reliant on 3s than ever, attacking the rim with how often teams try and overplay the perimeter.
Trying to win with offense seems like a dubious approach for Cleveland, but it's clear that's part of the plan. They really want to try and hang with the Warriors in 3-point shooting this time around.
10. WEAR-AND-TEAR (by Matt Moore)
LeBron James played a career-high 37.8 minutes per game in the regular season. He's played over 100 minutes more than any Warrior in the playoffs. At the same time, the Cavs have swept the first two rounds and won over Boston in five games with long layoffs in between, and he gets seven nights off before Game 1 of the Finals.
Still, is the beating going to catch up with him? He's 32. Is this the most he's ever had to manage? He's the primary ball-handler, a key rebounder, playmaker, scorer, and defends the toughest matchup.
It's probably pointless asking if this is James' breaking point; he's been invincible until now. But he's also been known to overheat from his workload. Can he handle this?
11. POSSESSION BASKETBALL (by Matt Moore)
The Warriors are still bad at clutch-time situations. They just haven't had much practice in them. They also don't value the basketball. They are turnover prone, still, and if they're not flippantly tossing the ball around in single-score games inside five minutes, they're going to Kevin Durant isolations like they're OKC.
Are they ready for those moments? After all, the last time they were in such a spot vs. the Cavs in the Finals, it didn't work out well. They're much more comfortable in blowouts.
12. THE GHOST OF 3-1 (by Matt Moore)
The Warriors are great with the media. But they're probably going to be sick of being asked about last year by about three days in. They've spent the last year waiting for this moment. The Warriors had the best season in NBA history, and then suffered the biggest collapse in NBA history. They've endured the jokes, They've suffered the reminders.
They can have their revenge, but they have to face it. And if you don't think that's in their heads, you're crazy. Every time they get a lead, they'll remind themselves of it. It's always going to be there, until they vanquish that ghost.
13. SURPRISE HEROES
These Finals are overloaded with star power, which makes any contributions from other players so important.
14. SLIPPAGE (by Matt Moore)
Richard Jefferson defied Father Time last year and made big plays, but he's barely hanging onto the rotation this year. Andre Iguodala still looks like a premier defender most of the time, but he's not quite the elite guy he was a few years ago. Do those slips matter? Does James ever slow down? Is Deron Williams exposed by the Warriors' youth? These things matter.
15. THE KNOWN UNKNOWN (by Matt Moore)
No one saw last year coming. The Warriors' stars weren't even great in the first two games, it was the bench that got it done. Then Draymond Green's suspension happened. And Bogut's injury. And Curry getting tossed out of Game 6. And Curry getting locked down by Love. None of which anyone expected.
What happens this year? These playoffs have been defined by their predictability. Are we really looking at nothing but what we expect from these epic Finals as well? Surely a plot twist awaits that we can't anticipate.
16. JAVALE AND THE END OF SHAME (by Matt Moore)
Well, here we go. JaVale McGee, constant punchline, is a key component for an NBA Finals team. McGee has been phenomenal, in short bursts, for the Warriors. He's a special attack in a video game. You use him once and then you have to recharge. There are ways to exploit him, and Kyrie Irving and James will, but his athleticism and shot blocking can also create havoc for the Cavs if they don't pay attention to him. He's just one more weapon they have to account for.
JaVale McGee was a joke, a castoff, a guy NBA teams wouldn't touch. The Warriors not only signed him, but embraced him, and made the most of him. They stand by him as a player and as a teammate, and if they win with him, it can erase a million hours of Shaqtin' A Fool highlights he's suffered through.
17. FORGOT ABOUT KLAY (by Matt Moore)
Did you know Klay Thompson is only shooting 38 percent from the field, and just 36 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs this year? Thompson has been largely quiet in these playoffs, and hasn't had a signature game. You can tell that Kevin Durant's emergence has made him into solely a spot-up shooter. He's averaging 14.4 points per game, just 0.5 points more than Draymond Green.
So he's either a big piece missing... or a sleeping giant. Whether he wakes up could wind up swinging at least a game or two in these Finals.
18. DIRTY DEEDS, DONE DIRT CHEAP (by Matt Moore)
Look, I'm just saying. Zaza Pachulia leveled Russell Westbrook and took out Kawhi Leonard. He's got a hit list going on MVP candidates. LeBron James needs to be aware of where Pachulia is, because with this much on the line, you can bet Pachulia will do anything to help his team win. He knows what his job is.
19. WIN OR LOSE, SAME KD (by Brad Botkin)
If Durant notches his first title, will it change his ... legacy (man I hate that word)?
Unfortunately, yes, it will. It changes it for everyone. But this one I think is pretty silly. If Durant does get his first title this year, it won't be because he's suddenly become a different player. It will be because his circumstances have changed.
Understand that in the history of the NBA, only three teams have ever eliminated an opponent with a double-digit point differential for the season: The 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks, last year's Cavs and last year's Thunder, who took out San Antonio in the second round.
Another way of saying that is if Durant was going to win a title last year, he would've had to go through two such teams (the Spurs and Warriors) before even getting to the Cavs, meaning he literally would've had to travel the toughest road in NBA history to a title. His team simply wasn't good enough. He was. He's always been good enough. His team just never was, particularly in a Western Conference that has just been brutal during his career.
And so, no, Durant hasn't changed. His circumstances have. Sure, he's getting to show some more depth and variety to his game because, again, he's on a team that allows him to do so, but those things have always been there. Win or lose, he will go down as one of the best scorers, and players, to ever play in the NBA. Don't listen to anyone saying this series, however it ends up, changes any of that.
20. MOST TALENTED FINALS... EVER? (by Brad Botkin)
Pretty simply, there has never been more combined talent in an NBA Finals than the one we're about to witness. When it's all said and done, no less than seven Hall of Famers will have played in this series, all pretty much smack-dab in their primes. The collective level of basketball we're about to watch is going to be unlike anything anyone has ever seen.
Think about it: In one series you've got arguably the best player ever in LeBron, irrefutably the best shooter ever in Curry, perhaps the best all-around scorer in history in Durant, and maybe one of the great defenders in history in Draymond Green. And that's before you get to Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, all of which, barring injury, are headed to the Hall of Fame. You can say it's too early to say that, but you'd be wrong. It's a lock.
And here they are, on one court, in their primes, squaring off in the rubber match of anthat will, in its own right, go down in history, right there with Lakers-Celtics. This is something special, people. Cherish it.