Do the Cleveland Cavaliers even have a smidge of a chance in this NBA Finals encore against the Golden State Warriors? I mean, geez, why bother? The numbers crunchers already have the Eastern Conference champions hastily packing their bags and trekking off to their annual vacations in Paris, Hawaii, London or the Bahamas.
On second thought, forget Nassau. That’s the offseason playground of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and their teammates. And as defending champs – and prohibitive favorites in this best-of-seven rematch – they have dibs and bragging rights until further notice, say until or unless the Cavaliers tarnish all that has been golden these past two seasons in the Bay Area.
That title in 2015. That record 73-victory regular season. That historic recovery from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There are a million reasons to favor the Warriors while admiring LeBron James and sympathizing with long-suffering Cleveland fans. Rumor has it, heartbreak hotels occupy every street corner. Futility, it is.
Since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964, the Indians lost twice in the World Series (Atlanta in 1995, Florida in 1997), the Cavaliers lost twice in the NBA Finals (San Antonio in 2007 and last year), and the Cavaliers lost and found James, their beloved, iconic Akron native.
I think they are dramatically different. They tried to grind us to a pulp last year playing big, and they were slowing the ball down. This year, they’ve added Channing Frye, they’re not playing (Timofey) Mozgov, they’ve got shooting all over the place, and they’re playing at a much faster pace.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, on the Cavaliers
Despite all the legitimate reasons to predict another Warriors championship, a victory by the Cavaliers would be one of the most compelling stories in the modern sports era. LeBron left. LeBron returned. LeBron fulfills his promise to break the drought. That would be insanely memorable.
James, who often spoke last season about his desire to be Cleveland’s sports savior, appears to have shed some of the weight. The Save Cleveland theme has been mostly muted, with the emphasis instead on the current roster, the midseason changes and the more recent achievements.
“I’m no longer appreciating what I’ve been able to do,” the four-time MVP said with a laugh, referencing his sixth consecutive Finals appearance. “I’m back to my usual self.”
The Cavaliers, in contrast, barely resemble the team that lost in the Finals a year ago. Starters Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who were injured for most of the playoffs, are healthy and playing at a high level. Rookie coach Tyronn Lue, a longtime favorite of Warriors consultant Jerry West, replaced David Blatt in January and implemented several significant changes, including increasing the offensive pace and placing a premium on spacing, ball movement and transition opportunities.
“I think they are dramatically different,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They tried to grind us to a pulp last year playing big, and they were slowing the ball down. This year, they’ve added Channing Frye, they’re not playing (Timofey) Mozgov, they’ve got shooting all over the place, and they’re playing at a much faster pace.”
The boyish-looking Lue, who anticipates using the 6-foot-8 James at power forward and center, as the Warriors do with Draymond Green, is credited within the organization for holding players accountable and instilling a heightened sense of confidence. He also is a calmer presence in huddles than the frenetic Blatt, an accomplished European coach who, to be fair, was hired before the Cavaliers had any clue James would leave the Miami Heat and return to Cleveland.
0 Major pro sports championships by Cleveland teams since the Browns won the 1964 NFL title
Superstars have to buy into what their coach is selling. (See DeMarcus Cousins-George Karl.)
Other than countering the Warriors’ depth, length, experience, three-point shooting, the suffocating defense of Andre Iguodala and the wizardry of reigning two-time MVP Curry, Lue’s other challenge is extracting aggressive, All-Star-caliber performances out of the enigmatic Love, who needs to consistently rebound and convert three-pointers for the Cavaliers to have a shot.
“I’m expecting Kevin to play well,” said Lue, who twice benched the veteran in the closing moments against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. “Draymond is a great defender. He plays tough. But Kevin is one of the top 10 players in this league. He’s scored on a lot of different people. It’s not going to be any different. Our game plan doesn’t change.”
The Warriors will have something to say about that. The playoffs are about matchups and adjustments. But the Cavaliers – and the NBA executives in New York – got what they wanted, that marquee rematch featuring the league’s two most dynamic stars, the two most prolific deep shooters, and a million intriguing, humanistic elements. Rock on, Cleveland.