By Matt Straub
The long layoff between the end of the conference finals and the NBA Finals should have been a great opportunity for basketball fans to think about the upcoming third installment of what has been a wonderful rivalry between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. With so many future Hall of Famers on the floor and any number of strategic points to discuss, the last few days could have been spent discussing substantive basketball topics.
Instead, as too often happens when the media parachutes in to cover an event it really knows little about, or worse, assumes its consumers don’t, we were subjected to garbage “big picture” topics which are better left as barfights among casual fans.
So, before we look at the NBA Finals in a serious way, let’s get those out of the way right now.
This one series has nothing to do with LeBron James’ place in history. Remember when he took the great Warriors to six games by himself a couple of years ago? Or when he and a somewhat healthy group beat the Warriors in the greatest comeback in Finals history last year? Those wins proved his greatness more than this series will one way or the other. Larry Bird wouldn’t be any greater if Bill Walton and Kevin McHale were healthy and the Celtics beat the Lakers in 1987, nor would Magic Johnson, the actual greatest player ever, be any better if he never got sick.
You read that correctly. The main argument being thrown around this week, James vs. Michael Jordan, is not only pointless in the context of what should be a fascinating series, but is also a stupid argument to begin with. James and Jordan are completely different types of players. It’s like arguing Barry Bonds vs. Pedro Martinez. You can’t do it because they have incomparable games.
If you must force me to take part in such drivel, however, I would like to remind you Magic was better than both of them. He could do things Jordan could only dream of, and did what James does at a higher level. James is a more complete player than Jordan, whose best argument is defense, where he was better one-on-one, but James is a smarter defender more able to race back and block people from behind in transition or in help. I could also make great cases for about five other players over Jordan, but that would take us further away from the task at hand.
After all, the point of this piece is to get back to what matters, which is the game at hand. Save your mythical arguments for the summer. The best trilogy since the original Star Wars starts tonight. Let’s look at the keys to the series by breaking down things you can watch for without having to watch a dozen videos breaking down the Warriors’ defense.
Pressure points: The one more general topic which is worth discussing is the extra attention placed on two of the sport’s biggest stars. James has the ridiculous Jordan comparisons to worry about, (if I’m forced to make this list, I’d put James as second all-time to Magic with the chance to gain ground over the next five years), while Golden State’s Kevin Durant has the pressure of getting the ring he chased when he went to the team which beat him last year. Instead of starting his own group or recruiting more people to join him and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, he decided to be the fourth Warrior in the hopes of being handed a ring. If he doesn’t get it, he will have lost all his credibility as a competitor without getting anything to show for it. Now that’s pressure. He could have been part of basketball’s answer to the Outsiders and started something special. Instead he is basketball’s version of Steve McMichael, who got to be a Horseman because someone gave him a T-shirt.
Matchmaking: The few good breakdowns of this series out there have focused on one main question: Who will guard whom? In reality, however, the series is less about great one-on-one battles as it is each team being able to hide their defensive liabilities. Can Cleveland force Draymond Green to guard Kevin Love, and if it does, can the Cavs take advantage of the matchup at center they’ll expose? Can Golden State find someone for Steph Curry to pretend to guard? And if that ends up being James, can LeBron either get him into the post (unlikely) or shoot over him effectively? The one knock on James in his career is his relative inability to shoot from the outside, something he has gotten better at with age. If he shoots well from deep, it won’t matter who guards him.
Make it, take it: The one thing Doc Rivers said when coaching the Celtics a few years ago which didn’t make me want to pull my hair out was this: “at the end of the day, it’s a make-or-miss league.” On this, Rivers is exactly right. We can talk for hours about how each team will try to get players open but it comes down to shotmaking when someone is open. If Golden State is raining threes, the series is likely over quick. If James is making jump shots, the Cavs are indefensible. If both teams are on, it will come down to the last make of the series, just like last year.
The pick: The Cavs have yet to play the Warriors in a full series with a full team. Short-handed, they won once and made the other one close. Throw in James playing some of the best basketball of his life, and the Cavs look unstoppable. If James has one of his weird no-shows in the middle of the series the Warriors will make it interesting, but I don’t think he will. Cavs win in six.