Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) blocks the shot of Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Come 9:00am on Friday morning, the three-match between the defending world champions Cleveland Cavaliers and the #1 overall seed the Golden State Warriors, will finally begin.
The entire season seems to have been building up to this inevitable conclusion to a titular best-of-three never before seen in the history of the NBA. In a strange postseason that has seen more sweeps than game seven’s, it's refreshing to be on the cusp of what could go down as one of the best championship bouts of all time.
And just to get things out of the way, I'm picking Golden State to have the last laugh in this one, winning in six games — yes, winning in Cleveland, where it'll hurt LeBron James the most.
Still, of course, anything can happen in a seven-game series. We may have injuries, guys thrown out, suspensions, flying mouthpieces, Kyle Korver hitting 10 three’s in a game, or Javale McGee scoring an own goal. Anything and everything is on the table here, but what I want to look at now are several x-factors that I believe can potentially turn the tide or swing the momentum in very significant ways.
Let's begin with the postseason's “biggest villain” so far, Kevin Durant. In a matchup with a number of moving parts, the stars have remained constant ever since The Land vs. G-State Part 1 in 2015. KD though is the earth-shaking, fortune-changing addition to this rivalry. He turned his back on OKC specifically for this moment — to have an opportunity to win a ring and get a measure of vengeance against the man who denied him in 2012. He's the main reason the Dubs have been labeled this season's big baddies — the empire, the horde, the first order — whatever you want to call them.
Now, we'll see if Durant can, indeed, be worthy enough to be part of NBA championship lore's celebrated greats, or, on the flipside, if he will, once again, fall miserably short. Many people are rooting for KD to get his ‘chip, sure, but much much more cannot wait for him to mess up.
As of now, Durant is averaging 25.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in the Playoffs while also shooting nearly 56 percent from the floor. Needless to say, he will be a tough nut to crack for the Cavs, and coach Tyronn Lue will have to build a gameplan around stopping him, probably using multiple coverage. That's the kind of attention KD commands, and if he gets into a groove in this series, Cleveland may not have enough firepower to match.
The next huge x-factor for the Warriors is former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. Iggy's experience, size and skill set are very important for the Warriors to be able to at least attempt to slow LeBron James down. Nobody can stop the King — that's a fact — but Iggy is one of the very few who can make life really tough for James. Remember the 2015 Finals?
The question right now with Iguodala is whether he'll be 100 percent or not for the series. He wasn't when they blew a 3-1 Finals lead last year, and a recent MRI on his left knee indicates he is unlikely to be at full gallop when game one tips off. To compound things, he has been shooting a paltry 11 percent from beyond the arc in the Playoffs. Granted he won't be anywhere near the Dubs' first option to score, but if the Cavs choose to leave anyone open, Iggy would be an easy choice.
As for the Cavaliers, one guy who will be a key barometer in their collective fortunes is Kevin Love. Even now that they have won a title, the UCLA alum remains mired in a cloud of doubt about his fit with the team and his ability to come up big on the biggest stage. Many people continue to doubt him, and many would pick him as the most "tradable" asset the Cavs have on their roster.
Frankly, I find that a bit unfair, but given Love's history with injuries at the most inopportune times, nobody can really blame his critics. This is why he needs to be at his very best in this series. GSW added a KD to up their scoring prowess, but, strangely enough, it's the Cavs who have been this postseason's best offensive team, and Love has been a big reason why.
He wowed us by norming 22.6 points and 12.4 boards per game in the ECF against Boston, but there's just a slim chance he will be able to duplicate or even approximate that in the Finals opposite the Warriors. Remember that this is the same guy who put up only 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest in the 2016 Finals. Those are terrible numbers for someone bringing home $20 million a year. Of course, all it took for people to kind of push Love's issues under the rug was when he locked Curry down in a key sequence late in game seven last June that proved to be a critical turning point in the Cavs' fortunes. If Love can show up — and I mean really show up and light up the Dubs — Cleveland should be extremely difficult to beat, but if Coach Lue insists on Love playing the slot against Golden State, that would be one big ouch.
The final x-factor I want to point out is Cleveland's bench. Many have labeled this team the deepest in the entire league, and a cursory look at the players composing their second unit — Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, and Richard Jefferson — will support that claim. Hey, what if Andrew Bogut actually remained healthy, right? What the Dubs will have to be wary of is how hot guys like Williams, Korver, and Frye can get from the perimeter. If those guys wax hot, the Warriors won't be able to commit more than one player to stopping either LeBron or Kyrie, and that kind of situation usually ends with the Cavs owning a W.
Of course, the flipside here is that Cleveland's bench mob is pretty terrible defensively. These guys are such defensive liabilities that it would not be too far-fetched to imagine McGee, Zaza Pachulia, or even Ian Clark having shining moments. What the Cavs' reserves have to really do here is make sure there isn't much of a drop in terms of production, especially offensively, when the starters rest. And, again, with a number of streaky Cleveland shooters to worry about, Coach Mike Brown may be tempted to more consistently dig deep into his own bench or settle for the GSW "Death Lineup" featuring Draymond in the middle. The truth is Golden State has more star and scoring power when it comes to both teams' starting units, but the opposite is true for their bench depth. Cleveland's supporting cast is more formidable than the Warriors', and if the Cavs play their cards right, Northeast Ohio's reserves will surely be among the key driving forces to the Land's prospective second title parade in a row.
Lastly, I think Coach Lue is better than Coach Brown, but good coaching — even excellent coaching — can only get a team so far. The basic tools for a title run — having great talent, having a solid program, and being healthy — are still the main factors, but because the Warriors have shown some propensity this season to kind of blow stuff up in crunch time, perhaps coach Lue should have the edge.
Both teams are on the verge of maybe the most titanic tussle on the hardwood in recent memory, and, again, I believe Golden State, behind the Finals MVP-worthy production of Kevin Durant, should bring the proverbial trophy back home.
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