Basketball fans everywhere are excited about the start of a new season. It’s a fitting matchup, pitting the Warriors and Cavaliers against each other in a rematch of last year’s Finals.
Wait … this is the Finals?
I kid, but this lengthy wait between series is giving this matchup more of a feel of a Summer Olympics than an NBA Finals. The bright side is that it’s allowed each team’s respective stars to heal a bit. Klay Thompson has been cleared from his concussion, and if it’s possible for Kyrie Irving to bounce back, this is the break he needed to do so.
How the Warriors Got Here
Despite facing an All-NBA first-teamer in every round, the Warriors had practically the ideal path to the Finals. They breezed by an overmatched opponent in the Pelicans, combining dominance with an all-time great comeback that served to both keep their mind on the task at hand as well as reinforce what they’re capable of at their best. Then they were pushed physically and philosophically by the Grizzlies, a team that served as a rite of passage for other Western Conference contenders this decade. Facing a 3-1 deficit unless they won Game 4 in the Grindhouse, the Warriors got back to being themselves, winning the final three games, two on the road, by a combined 50 points. Finally, they outran the Rockets in a five-game series that was reasonably fun despite a couple blowouts and endless replays of Stephen Curry‘s scary fall and subsequent return in Game 4.
Their versatility, considering the Warriors are essentially Amazo. (They can’t be compared to the Borg in a world where the Spurs exist.) While their supporting perimeter weapons (Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa) are collectively shooting a hair under 30 percent from three in the playoffs, they, along with Shaun Livingston and Festus Ezeli, present a litany of options for coach Steve Kerr to adapt to nearly any situation on the court.
If they need energy, Kerr can go to his ultimate trump card, the Green-at-center lineup. If Andrew Bogut is in foul trouble and LeBron James is attacking at the rim, few bench players in the league are a better option than Ezeli. They have multiple guys to throw at LeBron in case of foul trouble, injury or simply switching on defense.
Every Warriors rotation player has had a key moment in the postseason. Green was dominant in the Pelicans series and Livingston had a 14-point quarter, while Barnes and Ezeli formed an unlikely crunch time duo as the Warriors put away Houston in Game 5.
That’s before even getting to Curry, who has the versatility to win a game by himself if he gets hot, along with the passing ability to get his teammates involved and move the ball against a Cavs defense that can get sloppy on the necessary minutiae of what it takes to be consistent on every possession.
What the Warriors Have to Do to Win the Series
Contain Cleveland’s supporting cast. Chicago had Cleveland dead-to-rights in the second round, with LeBron having a dreadful shooting series and Jimmy Butler making enough in-roads on defense to prevent James from single-handedly dominating. Besides a stagnant and predictable offense, the Bulls lost that series even though Irving was hurt because they let J.R. Smith loose just enough, the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones came out of nowhere to hit open threes and Tristan Thompson punked the vaunted Chicago frontcourt on the boards.
Many have made the comparison of this series to last year’s Spurs/Heat rematch, where LeBron being the best player was fairly irrelevant when San Antonio had the vast majority of dependable players in the series. It’s hard to argue with that logic, particularly when LeBron, despite how he feels personally, isn’t as indestructible or efficient as he was in Miami.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Cleveland, considering they really only faced one legitimate team in the East (Chicago), as Boston was a relative tomato can while the remains of the Hawks weren’t the team that took the conference by storm on their way to the top seed. Furthermore, there’s almost no comparison between Chicago and Golden State. Kerr understands how important transition offense can be; Tom Thibodeau always had the Bulls playing slow. The Warriors almost always play small, sometimes even super small, counter to the Bulls, who stayed so big that Nikola Mirotic struggled to get on the floor at times during the season unless it was at small forward.
Golden State has experienced a physically dominant (albeit inexperienced) player in Anthony Davis and a burly pair of Memphis bigs superior to Cleveland’s, as well as a ball-dominant perimeter attacker in James Harden. Nothing can be a stand-in as preparation for LeBron, but their path has been a reasonable facsimile. If any team is going to snap LeBron’s streak of 21 straight series with a road victory, it’s these Warriors.