This Thursday, NBA history will be made as the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers meet up with the back-to-back Western Conference champions, the Golden State Warriors for an NBA record third consecutive season in The Finals. This matchup will feature two teams that have been far above each opponent they faced in their respective conferences. Two teams that feature former MVPs, perennial All-Stars and dynamic players that will have their place in Springfield, OH. Above all, two teams that have used the adversity they faced during the season and the postseason to get them to the point where they stand just four more wins away from the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy.
How dominant have the Cavs and Warriors been? The Warriors enter The Finals an unblemished 12-0, being the first team in league history to enter the final round of the NBA postseason without a setback in 12 chances. The defending champions enter their tilt with the Warriors at 12-1, with their only setback in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the No. 1 Seeded Boston Celtics.
To put into perspective how dominant the respectable the Cavs and Warriors have been in 25 combine postseason contests, they have outscored teams by 373 points and their scoring margin is a +14.9, which is the best all-time by two teams in NBA history entering The Finals. The two teams have combined to go 13-0 on the road and in the Warriors series clinchers at the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, and San Antonio Spurs, they won by an average margin of 21.7 points and they scored an average of 126.0 points in those contests. In their three visits to TD Garden in Boston, MA, the Cavs never trailed in Game 1, 2 or 5, win all three games by an average of 30 points and they averaged 127.3 points per game.
In the Cavs 135-102 win in Game 5 last Thursday night, they set an NBA record with their 13th straight series closing chance. The win also improved the Cavs record to 36-5 against the East in the postseason since 2015.
While four-time MVP LeBron James has been at the head of the Cavs onslaught this postseason, scoring 30-plus points in 11 of the team’s 13 postseason games, it has been the continued maturation of All-Star lead guard Kyrie Irving, who averaged 25.8 points per contest in the Conference Finals on 62.2 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from three-point range and the emergence of Kevin Love, who averaged 22.6 points, 12.4 rebounds on 53.5 percent from three-point range in the Conference Finals that has made the Cavs a juggernaut in the postseason.
What has also been a major plus has been the play of the role players, center Tristan Thompson with his rebounding and relentless energy defensively; J.R. Smith’s shot making and defense on the oppositions best player on the wing and the consistent contributions off the bench from the likes of Deron Williams, who had 14 points on 5 for 6 shooting in the Game 5 clincher; the veteran savvy of Richard Jefferson; Channing Frye and Kyle Korver’s ability to light a match from three-point range and the defensive energy and fire from Iman Shumpert.
On the Warriors side of things, their offensive attack has been carried by reigning back-to-back MVP and All-Star Stephen Curry, who has averaged 28.6 points per game, 5.5 boards, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals, on 50.2 percent from the field and 43.1 from three-point range this postseason and 2014 MVP Kevin Durant, who all-around game has carried over from the regular season to the postseason with averages of 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists on an incredible 55.6 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from three-point territory.
Both were at their best in the Western Conference Finals versus the mighty five-time champion Spurs. Durant averaged 28.0 points, 7.3 boards, 3.8 assists and 1.8 blocks on 60.3 percent from the floor and 40.9 from three-point range. He had double-doubles to finish the series with 33 points and 10 boards in the Warriors’ 120-108 win in Game 3 on May 20 and 29 and 12 in the 129-115 in Game 4 two days later. After garnering 40 and 29 points in the first two games of the series, Curry finished in style with 36 points, six assists and five boards on 14 for 24 from the floor in Game 4, to average 31.5 points, six boards, 4.8 assists on 56.4 percent from the floor and 46.7 from long range in the Conference Finals.
As good as the two MVPs have been, the Warriors are nowhere near what they were able to accomplish without the efforts of their version of the swiss army knife in Draymond Green, who has averaged 13.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 2.1 blocks during the postseason. What is more impressive has been his shooting from the floor in the playoffs, where he has made 50 percent of his field goal attempts and 47.2 percent of his tries from the three-point arc.
At the start of this season, one other major question about the Warriors besides how the four All-Stars Curry, Durant, Green and sharp shooter Klay Thompson were all going to have to share the offensive load is could they get major contributions from role players Ian Clark, ZaZa Pachulia, Patrick McCaw, David West, Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee?
The Warriors and head coach Steve Kerr have gotten that and then some from the Warriors’ reserves throughout the regular season and postseason.
In Game 2 of their first-round series against the Trail Blazers without Durant because of a calf injury, McCaw, West, McGee, Iguodala, James Michael McAdoo, West and Clark combined for 58 points, and 28 rebounds in the 110-81 win on Apr. 19, to take a 2-0 series lead.
McCaw, McGee, Iguodala, West and Clark followed that up in Game 3 at the Moda Center in Portland, OR combining for 52 points and 23 boards in the 119-113 victory three days later, to take a commanding 3-0 series lead. Thompson, who has had a rough shooting postseason scored 24 points, while Curry led the way with 34 points and eight assists.
While the dominance by both the Cavaliers and Warriors to reach The Finals has been exciting to see, it has been something that has ruffled the feathers of a lot of viewers.
Those who watch long for the days of when the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics meet up in The Finals, particularly their three matchups in the 1980s when they faced some form of resistant’s in meeting up with each other for the title. That has not been the case this postseason for the Cavs and Warriors this postseason.
The counter to that is these two teams worked their way to becoming great during their postseason runs to be again within four wins of winning a title.
Back on Jan. 2, the Cavaliers won versus the New Orleans Pelicans 90-82 to improve their record to 26-7 on the season, the best record in the East at that point. They finished just one game over .500 the rest of the season going 25-24; losing the No. 1 Seed to the previously mentioned Celtics and their defense was a major problem as teams seemingly scored on them with no problem.
It did not get any better in the beginning stages of the first-round versus the No. 7 Seeded Indiana Pacers, who they narrowly beat 109-108 and 117-111 in the first two games. In Game 3, the Cavs were in serious trouble as they trailed 74-49 at intermission in Game 3. Then behind the effort of James, who the 17th triple-double of his playoff career with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists on 14 for 27 from the field, including 6 for 12 from three-point range, the Cavs registered the third largest comeback in NBA playoff history overcoming that 25-point halftime deficit to win 119-114 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead. The Cavs gave up just 40 points in the second half in garnering their 11th straight postseason victory since the return of James to the Cavs in 2015.
From that point on, the Cavs finally had a defense approach that complimented the offense and they have been at the top of their game ever since.
It really showed in Game 3 of the East Semis at the No. 3 Seeded Toronto Raptors where the Cavs won 115-94 back on May 5, outscoring their opponent on their home floor 36-17 in the fourth quarter. The Cavs held the Raptors to just 43.7 percent from the field, including just 2 for 18 from three-point range and out-rebounded them 58-33.
In their Game 2 victory at the Celtics on May 19, the Cavs put together their most complete game of the postseason dominating the C’s at TD Garden 130-86, handing them their worst home playoff loss in their storied franchise history, which has seen them win 17 NBA titles.
They led 72-31 at intermission, which represented a new playoff record for a halftime deficit of 41 points, which came to fruition thanks to a buzzer beating fade away jumper by Smith. The led by 46 (103-57) after three quarters.
What was a franchise record for points in a postseason game, the Cavaliers shot 56.5 percent from the field; hit 19 for 39 three-pointers; registered 28 assists and 24 fast break points. Defensively, the Cavs held the Celtics to just 37.2 percent from the floor; 8 for 27 from three-point range; forced 21 turnovers, which turned into 23 points and recorded six block shots.
The Cavs did take their foot off the gas in their Game 3 loss 111-108 on May 23, which was capped by a game-winning three-point by the Celtics’ Avery Bradley that danced on the rim and dropped and the series lead of the Cavs was cut to 2-1.
It was the Cavs first loss since Game 4 of the 2016 Finals against the Warriors, as they blew a 21-point lead in the third quarter, to end their 13-game playoff winning streak dating back to last season.
The Celtics got into a position to win the game because of the 27-point effort from guard Marcus Smart, who was 8 for 14 from the field, including 7 for 10 from three-point range as he started in place of two-time All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas due to a hip injury, which kept him out the second half of Game 2 and for the remainder of the series.
James had one of the worst games of his career with just 11 points scored and he had more turnovers six than field goals with four, going an abysmal 4 for 13 from the field.
It waisted major efforts from Irving, who had a game-high of 29 points and seven assists on 10 for 15 shooting, including 4 for 6 from distance; Love, who had 28 points and 10 boards, hitting 7 for 13 from three-point range and Thompson, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds.
The Cavs and James bounced back in a major way as the Cavs won versus the Celtics 112-99 two days later to take a 3-1 lead, as they outscored the Celtics 65-42 in the second half, which included a 40-23 effort in the third quarter.
James who battled foul trouble for one of the rare times in his eventual Hall of Fame career, finished with 34 points, going 15 for 27 shooting. Irving though was the catalyst in this one scoring a playoff-career-high 42 points, with 19 of them coming after halftime, going 15 for 22 from the field, including 4 for 7 from three-point range. Love was the only other Cavalier to score in double-figures with 17 points and a playoff-career-high 17 rebounds.
After giving up 46.2 percent shooting and 18 triples in 40 tries in the loss in Game 3; the Cavs surrendered just 44.3 percent shooting to the C’s and held them to just 10 triples in 31 attempts; They outscored them on the fast break 16-4, after being held to just two in Game 3, and 58-34 in the paint after being dominated 36-24 two nights earlier.
They were just as good on both ends in the Game 5 clinching victory on Thursday night, hitting exactly 56.5 percent of their field goal attempts and the exact number of triples with 19. While the Celtics out-rebounded them 52-44, the Cavs registered 24 assists; had 20 fast break points and outscored them in the paint 50-38. Defensively the Celtics shot just 43.0 percent from the floor, while connecting on just 11 for 30 from three-point range.
For the Warriors, their brush with adversity came when Durant was lost for 19 games after suffering a knee injury in the 112-108 loss at the Washington Wizards back on Feb. 28.
At that time, the Warriors lost the guy that the Warriors ran their offense through and for a short period without him, the team struggled losing five of their next seven games, which included their first two-game losing streak in nearly two years.
They got back on track with a nail biting win versus the Philadelphia 76ers 106-104 on Mar. 14, which started a 14-game winning streak and 15 wins in their final 16 games to close the 2016-17 NBA campaign.
While the Warriors hot streak continued into the playoffs, they lost their head coach as Kerr has been sidelined in recent weeks because of recurring complications from back surgery he had two off-seasons back.
The team has played inspired ball in his absence and lead assistant Mike Brown has kept the ship moving.
Kerr was able to be with the team and even travel with them in the Conference Finals against the Spurs and his message at halftime of Game 1 back on May 14 where they trailed 62-42, motivated them to overcome as much as a 25-point deficit to garner a 113-111 win and they never looked back, as they outscored the Spurs 71-49 in the second half, including 39-28 in the third quarter.
The game and the series really turned when Spurs All-Star and reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard re-injured his left ankle after Pachulia of the Warriors challenged him on a corner jump shot where Leonard came down and proceeded to re-sprain that ankle and he was lost for the rest of the game and eventually the series.
Both teams have a lot at stake in their third straight matchup in The Finals.
For the Cavs, James, who is making his seventh straight appearance in The Finals, a record for a non-Celtic is trying to win his fourth title, while also trying to even his Finals record at 4-4. The team is trying to join the Chicago Bulls, Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat to win back-to-back titles.
The Warriors are trying to win their second title in the last three seasons and their fourth in franchise history. Durant, who left the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency back in the summer to join the Warriors and capture what has been missing on his resume, an NBA title.
This series will come down to three things. First, which team will dictate the tempo that they want to play at? Second, can Durant be that difference maker with his ability to score and shoot the ball that Harrison Barnes lacked in last year’s Finals, especially in Games 5, 6 and 7? Third, Can Thompson find his shooting stroke again, where he is scoring just 14.4 points in the postseason so far on 38.3 percent from the field?
Series with this much hype normally do not live up to the weight of expectations. However, the first two Finals matchups between the Cavs and Warriors were great series, with last season’s being decided in seven games. The hope is that the third matchups does the same and more. It all gets underway with Game 1 from Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA Thursday at 9 p.m. on ABC.
Information and statistics are courtesy of 7/19/16 www.heavy.com article, “How Many Teams Have Back-to-Back NBA Titles,” with comment by Tim Kenney; 5/26/17 7 p.m. ESPN Bottom Line news crawl; 5/26/17 www.nba.com article, “NBA Finals Preview: Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers meet for Round 3,” by Steve Aschburner; www.espn.com/nba/team/schedule/_/name/gs; www.espn.com/nba/team/schedule/_/name/cle; www.espn.com/nba/team/schedule/_/name/cle/seasontype/2; www.espn.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/gs/golden-state-warriors; www.espn.com/nba/player/gamelog/_/id/3975/stephen-curry; www.espn.com/nba/player/gamelog/_/id/3202/kevin-durant and www.espn.copm/nba/player/_/id/6475/klay-thompson.