When Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the formidable Oklahoma City Thunder took a commanding 3-1 series lead over Golden State – few, if any, thought the Warriors could revive their run at a history-making season.
Well, almost as quick as a Steph Curry bomb from beyond the arc, Golden State reeled off three straights wins to return to the NBA Finals for a shot at going back-to-back.
Awaiting them, like last year, is a team led by one of the all-time greatest players of the sport, trying to lead a team and a city to the ever-elusive promised land.
Cleveland enter this version of the NBA Finals a vastly different team to the one Curry and co. overcame twelve months ago. For a start – and arguably most importantly – they’re fully healthy with All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving entering the Finals in excellent form.
Australian’s can again be keen viewers with the rematch pitting Warriors centre Andrew Bogut up against Cavaliers reserve guard Matthew Dellavedova against each other. No matter the result, us Aussies will again be able to celebrate a championship-winner from Down Under.
Cleveland have been referred to as Believeland of late as the Cavs rolled to the Finals on the back of a dominant Eastern Conference playoff run. Cleveland is home to the Cavaliers, NFL’s Browns and MLB’s Indians and combined, the three teams own a 159-year championship drought.
In 2007, LeBron James led a grossly under-matched roster into battle against the seasoned San Antonio Spurs, resulting in an embarrassing 4-0 series whitewash. James lowered his colours in a series that was over before it started. After a four season stint in Miami which resulted in two agonising Larry O’Brien trophies for Cavs fans, James returned to Ohio with a revamped supporting cast. In his first season back in Cleveland colours, James led the oft-injured Cavs to the Finals to face the new NBA MVP Stephen Curry and the high-flying Golden State Warriors.
In game one (a Warriors 108-100 overtime loss) Irving injured his knee and was later diagnosed with a fractured knee and out for the remainder of the playoffs. James scored 123 points in the first three games and led Cleveland to an unexpected 2-1 series lead with a home game to follow in game four. The Warriors balanced up and emphatically took the next three games to claim the championship banner. Andre Iguodala was named Finals MVP but James could do more for his undermanned squad as he averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 dimes.
Dub Nation took ownership of the O’Brien trophy in the Cavs’ Quicken Loans Arena and you know King James wants nothing more than bringing a ring back to the title-starved city of Cleveland.
Let’s go inside a few of the keys to the series;
SUPERSTAR v SUPERSTAR – LeBron has publicly queried the meaning of the V in MVP whilst Curry has reeled off two straight awards, his latest in a unanimous decision – the first in NBA history. James was otherworldly in last year’s Finals and it took Curry a couple games to shake Dellavedova and get his groove going, but he did and he averaged 25-5-5 and could easily have been the Finals MVP as well. Curry looks fully fit after missing considerable time this playoffs with a knee and ankle complaint whilst James has, as always, done everything required for his team to progress. Will Curry complete his historic 24-month run of dominance or will James solidify his standing as one of the best couple to have ever played and bring Cleveland a ring ?
CO-STARS – Klay Thompson can lay claim to being the best two-way player in the game. Kawhi Leonard might have something to say about that but Thompson has developed into a supreme all-around competitor who could arguably carry the Dubs without Steph. Thompson will guard Irving, James and JR Smith throughout the Finals whilst his outside shooting will be crucial, as evident in his 11 made three’s v OKC in the West finals. Draymond Green, of leg-swinging fame, is almost as important to GSW as Curry with his ability to score, rebound, make plays and provide salivating, hyperactive energy to his team and its fans in the league’s loudest arena. For the Cavs, Love and Irving have been superstars in their own right before joining forces with LBJ. Love has taken the longest to assume a regular role on the team but his combination of rebounding, outside shooting and some key post plays give the Cavs a vital inside-outside presence. Irving is a guard, like Westbrook, capable of posing questions to Curry and his greatness. His defence won’t trouble Curry’s shooting and passing but he will make #30 play defence on every possession with his sensational scorer’s mentality.
SUPPORTING CAST – As good as the stars of the respective teams are, you don’t make the NBA Finals on the back of one or two standout players. The role players of each roster could command far bigger roles and far more money on other teams. New York provided the Cavs with two of its most prominent role players in Iman Shumpert and JR Smith. Smith is a streaky outside shooter capable of bombing away like Steph Curry one night before making endless bone-head plays the next. He, along with Shumpert, has developed into a strong, physical, rugged defender. Tristan Thompson is the interior force for interim coach Tyronn Lue whilst Russian Timofey Mozgov may not see much court time. Gritty Aussie Dellavedova was the talk of the Finals last season but will assume a lesser, more suitable reserve role this time around but he will be asked to chase Curry off the three-point line a fair amount of the time. Up the opposite end on the Warriors bench, Iguodala is the ultimate role player. He does a little bit of everything and provides coach Steve Kerr with remarkable flexibility as do fellow perimeter players Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes. Barnes is a streaky outside shooter but has a scorers mentality whilst Livingston creates mismatch options as the back-up point guard. Big man Bogut – of Dandenong Ranges fame – saw his role dramatically reduced in the Warriors 2015 playoff run and things may head in a similar direction as the Finals progress. He can however always provide Kerr with interior defence and boards as well as an underrated factor – each and every game Bogut has six hard fouls that he can use on James whenever he attacks the rim.
PREDICTION – For me, this is a tough decision. My head says Golden State but my heart (even though I am not actually a Cavs fan) says Cleveland. LeBron James is too great of a basketball player to slip to 2 wins, 5 losses in the NBA Finals whilst it would be great to see the working class city of Cleveland blessed with a major sports title. GSW play basketball the right way and have added an excitement factor like nothing else we have seen in this league and again, would be worthy winners. Home court is huge but both teams clearly have the ability to go and get a road victory whenever they need it most. What a series this should become.
In the end, it’s likely to be the shooting prowess of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala and the playmaking of Green against the big three of James, Love and Irving. It’s hard to have faith in three-point shooting when 40% is a good result but they have won again and again and again and again. Time to get off the fence: Cavs in six and LeBron to bring that elusive crown back to his home state.
CLEVELAND wins 4-2…