The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have spent the past six weeks dismantling all comers, methodically advancing toward the NBA Finals rubber match the entire basketball universe has been waiting for.
Now, it’s finally here.
Starting Thursday, the Warriors and Cavaliers will duke it out for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a second time in three years. It’s the first time in NBA history the same two teams have met in the finals three straight seasons.
Here are five things to focus on when the Warriors and Cavaliers take the floor Thursday night at Oakland’s Oracle Arena for Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
1. Will the Cavaliers be able to successfully defend the Warriors? And if so, how?
This is the key to whether this series will be a noncompetitive rout by the Warriors or a longer series that the Cavaliers can win. Cleveland was second-to-last in the league in defense after the all-star break and has won its past two series against teams missing their best offensive player (Kyle Lowry for the Toronto Raptors and Isaiah Thomas for the Boston Celtics) due to injury.
Guarding the Warriors, who feature three of the game’s top scoring threats in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, is immeasurably harder than anything the Cavaliers have done so far in these playoffs, and there is no proof they can up their defensive level to the point it will have to be to take on one of the most explosive offenses of all time.
If Cleveland can manage to slow down Golden State, the Cavaliers have enough firepower of their own to make this series a toss-up. But if the defense they displayed the final two months of the regular season appears during the Finals, then it’s hard to see this series being anything other than a Warriors in a walk.
2. Can Kevin Love stay on the court?
This is a parallel question to the first one. Love has been on fire during the playoffs, shooting 47.5 percent on three-pointers as part of Cleveland’s own devastating offensive attack, and can be a particularly deadly matchup nightmare for opponents when he’s playing at center. The problem for the Cavaliers, though, is finding a home for Love defensively.
Although everyone remembers the one stop Love had against Stephen Curry on the perimeter in Game 7 of last year’s Finals, he’s a liability on that end — particularly when the Warriors go small. The more minutes Cleveland can find to keep Love on the court, the more he can keep the floor spaced and give LeBron James another option to hit with one of his pinpoint passes.
Love’s role will be one of several cat-and-mouse games these two teams — and, more specifically, their coaching staffs — will be conducting as this series goes on. If Love can tip the scales in his favor, that will be a big victory for Cleveland.
3. Can the Warriors’ centers contain Tristan Thompson?
When the Warriors and Cavaliers go against each other with their base lineups, there will be plenty of focus on the star power at positions like point guard (Curry vs. Irving) and small forward (Durant vs. James). But the most fascinating matchup on the court might very well be Tristan Thompson vs. Zaza Pachulia. Really.
I know, I know. Thompson vs. Pachulia? Why? Well, because if Pachulia — as well as his backups, JaVale McGee and David West — can somewhat neutralize Thompson, one of the true “star” role players in the NBA, it will open up everything for the Warriors. For as much as Golden State thrives when it goes to its small lineup, if it can stick with a traditional big man on the floor against Thompson, a rugged, mobile big man and a strong rebounder, that will allow defensive wizard Draymond Green to stick to Love. And if Green is able to do that, Love will be neutralized.
If Thompson dominates that matchup, however, the Warriors then have to shift over to Green playing at center — wearing him down and also allowing Cleveland to potentially do some things to free up Love and others elsewhere. This will be a fun matchup to watch — especially considering it won’t get nearly the attention that the many other high-profile matchups in this series will.
4. Can Kevin Durant stay out of his own head?
One of the most fascinating quotes of the playoffs came from Kevin Durant after Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
“I just play, man. I just play. If I see a lane open, sometimes I think too much. Sometimes I look to pass when I should look to score. Sometimes I look to score when I should pass. But I figured out if I just don’t think at all, that’s when I’m best.
“So I try not to think out there. The times when I do think, early in the game I was battling on the defensive end because he was thinking too much. The third quarter I just went out there and played and not worried about anything. Just played every possession and tried to play as hard as I can. I was able to score, because it started with my defense first. So that’s what I think about offense. Whatever happens, whatever Coach calls, I just try to go out there and run it as hard as I can.”
Durant has always been one to climb into his own head. Well, now he’s playing against James, who owns a 16-4 edge in their career head-to-head series, in the NBA Finals, where he and the Warriors were always supposed to get — and win — from the moment he agreed to sign with Golden State last July. It will be fascinating to watch how Durant handles this moment. That will be particularly true if the Warriors run into adversity early in the series — something they’ve avoided throughout this entire playoff run.
5. Is this finally Stephen Curry’s time to shine on the biggest stage?
Two years ago, Curry lost out on the NBA Finals MVP award to Andre Iguodala. Last year, Curry had his moments in coming back from a knee injury early in the playoffs — including 36 points in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals and 38 points in Cleveland in Game 4 of the NBA Finals — but wound up being the face of Golden State’s collapse from up 3-1.
This year, he enters the NBA Finals playing as well as he ever has in the postseason, averaging 28.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range. Everything is set up for this to be the moment Curry finally delivers on the NBA’s biggest stage.
If he can do so, the Warriors will be celebrating a second title in three seasons — and Curry will likely be holding the Finals MVP trophy, as well, giving him the last piece of missing hardware he’s looking for.
The Warriors needed about a million things to go wrong last year — Curry’s lingering knee injury, Green’s suspension for Game 5, Andrew Bogut getting hurt, Andre Iguodala’s back tightening up, Harrison Barnes going 5 for 32 on virtually all wide-open shots in the final three games, not to mention spectacular performance from James and Irving for the Cavaliers — to blow that 3-1 lead and watch the Cavaliers celebrate on Golden State’s home court.
Then the Warriors went out and added Durant. They return with an even deeper supporting cast this time around. Despite James, it’s hard to see how the Cavaliers can get the job done this time. Even Cleveland, with all of its talent, doesn’t have enough to keep up.
Warriors in five.