For the 11th time in NBA history, we have a rematch of the previous year’s finals, and this one is loaded with intrigue, drama, and side stories. It’s the Cleveland Cavaliers, perhaps the most disappointing 57-win team ever, versus the Golden State Warriors, who in their quest to be the GOAT won a league-record 73 regular season games. ESPN gives the Cavs a 25% chance of winning title, Basketball Reference has them 23.6%, Vegas has them at +180 – LeBron James is unmoved by these things.
“I don’t get involved in all of that – underdog, overdog, whatever the case may be. It’s stupidity,” James told the media on Tuesday.
The Cavs and Warriors met twice this past season, with Golden State winning 89-83 on Christmas Day, and again in a January 18 blowout, 132-98. Just a few days after the second meeting, Cleveland head coach David Blatt would be fired, and replaced by assistant Tyronn Lue. Though Blatt led the team to a better regular season record, 30-11 vs 27-14, there’s no arguing with Lue’s results in the playoffs, as he appears to have the Cavs playing their best basketball of the LeBron-Kyrie-Love Era.
But this series isn’t about what happened in December or January – this is about taking a mulligan on last year’s Finals. The Cavs went into that series without the services of Kevin Love, who’d suffered a shoulder injury in the series against Boston, and they then lost Kyrie Irving to a busted kneecap toward the end of a Game 1 loss to the Warriors. But somehow, by the grace of LeBron, and the honky-go-hard hustle of Matthew Dellavedova, the Cavs won Games 2 and 3, and the impossible seemed there for the taking. LeBron started to run out of gas, however, Dellavedova came up short on pixie dust, and Andre Iguodala played just enough defense on LeBron to somehow win the FInals MVP, as the Warriors won the next three games and the title, despite James being so clearly the most valuable player on the court in the series.
When it was over, the Cavs rightly felt that they’d gotten a raw deal, with two of their Big Three out, and the Warriors were rightly angry that some folks were questioning the validity of their title. It’s not often both sides feel cheated, and it’s rarer still for them each to get a shot at justice. But here we are.
On the road from October to today, the Warriors had to start the season with head coach Steve Kerr out of commission following back surgery, and still began the season 39-4 with assistant Luke Walton at the helm; the Cavs fired Blatt; LeBron’s social media shenanigans had people thinking he was ready to trade himself to Miami; Kyrie Irving was embroiled in an ugly, embarrassing and very public love triangle… It was a crazy year.
Cleveland won their first 10 playoff games, easily dispensing with the talented-but-much-too-young Pistons, then the maybe-they’re-just-not-that-good Hawks, before finally getting a little push back from the completely respectable Raptors. The Cavs handily won the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals by 31 and 19 respectively, but in Game 3 DeMar DeRozan scored 32 and Bismack Biyombo grabbed 26 rebounds, as Toronto won 99-84. Game 4 saw DeRozan drop 32, with Kyle Lowry chipping in with 35, en route to a 105-99 nailbiter of a win. But Cleveland soon got back to the business of smoking the Raptors by 38 and 26 points, thanks largely to the return of Kevin Love, who’d spent the previous two games bricklaying.
Despite coming out of the West, the Warriors had a surprisingly easy road to the finals – at least schedule-wise, though Curry would miss six of their first eight games with injuries. Golden State faced the ever-self-immolating James Harden and the Rockets, who stole a game while Curry was sidelined with an injury; the Blazers won Game 3 of the next round thanks to Curry’s absence and Damian Lillard’s 40-5-10; and then the Thunder took them to the brink, down 3 games to 1, and couldn’t finish them off, as Curry averaged 33-7-8 over the last three games, but most crucially, Klay Thompson had the fourth quarter of a lifetime, outscoring OKC 19-18 to lead the Warriors to a 108-101 victory in Game 6.