The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are playing against each other in a third-straight NBA Finals. This shouldn’t be a shock to you – not just because both teams were clearly the best in their respective conferences this season, much as they have been all season, but also because it’s been widely predicted and assumed all season. And while some teams looked as though they could potentially challenge the two along the way, the playoffs were a quick reminder that there’s nobody better than these two teams right now, as they cruised into the Finals with a combined 24-1 record.
This isn’t a post about lack of “parity” in the NBA – such arguments are boring, outdone, and not really all that correct or well put together currently. This also isn’t a breakdown of matchups and offenses and other technical stuff that other people can do much better. You’ll see dozens of those before these two teams tip-off on June 1st. Instead, I want to look at five things you’ll really want to watch for from a subjective standpoint. You know, the fun stuff. Let’s dive in.
Will we get a Kyle Korver moment similar to the Ray Allen moment from 2013?
Think back, if you will, to game six of the 2013 Finals. The Heat are down three games to two to the Spurs. They’re also down three points with just under 20 seconds to go. Mario Chalmers brings the ball up the floor, eventually gets the ball into LeBron’s hands, who bricks a three of the rim. However, Chris Bosh gets the offensive board and kicks it out to a waiting Ray Allen in the corner. Shot goes up, shot goes through, crowd goes crazy. It’s a tie game with five seconds left. The Heat would go on to win in overtime, and then win game seven.
Allen’s shot has become a lynchpin for both LeBron admirers and detractors alike. Those who love him point out how important it is to have someone else who can knock down big shots and string out the defense, allowing James to utilize his incredible passing and court vision and torture a defense. Those who dislike him point out that without Allen, James would only have one championship on a team that, when it was built, was anticipated to win multiple (not two, not three, not four…).
Earlier this season, when the Cavs traded with the Hawks to acquire Kyle Korver, many saw it as a similar move to the Heat signing Ray Allen. This was a somewhat aging shooter who is still so deadly behind the arc that he demands a defense’s attention. So it begs the question, will Kyle Korver have his Ray Allen moment?
It really feels that way. Say game two or three is coming down to the wire. Say the Warriors are up 1-0 or 2-0 in the series, but then in a close game Korver gets open in the corner and drills a dagger. That sort of a play can swing the series, and it sure feels like Korver, much like Allen, was brought on for just such a moment.
Who will get into a fight (or the closest thing to a fight)?
It’s very extremely obvious that these teams despise each other right now. Dating back to when the Warriors beat the Cavs in the 2015 Finals, nothing but bad blood has stewed and festered. This was never more evident than in game four of the 2016 Finals, when Draymond Green took a swipe at James’ crotch after James seemingly stepped over Green. Obviously Green was suspended and the rest is history, but I’m wondering who’s going to do something like this, or at least something that incites a similar reaction. You know guys are going to be keying on James; he’s been reveling in the Cavs comeback from 2016 the most, and has poked the most fun at the Warriors. And it sure seems like Draymond would be the guy to incite such an event, however there are a few other players to consider here. Zaza Pachulia made headlines in the Western Conference Finals for a closeout that reinjured Kawhi Leonard’s ankle, and that Spurs coach Greg Popovich equated to manslaughter. While potentially losing Pachulia for a game or two could have bad implications for the Warriors, if it comes on the heels of injuring a key piece to the Cavs rotation, it might not matter.
The Cavs have their own players who could also incite such an incident. Tristan Thompson got into it with Isaiah Thomas in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Iman Shumpert’s biggest contribution to the team is how much trash he talks. J.R. Smith is also forever a wild card when it comes to such behavior, no matter how much he seems to have matured. Any one of these guys, or some others on the Cavs roster, could likely get into it with a Warriors player (or players) seeing as how much disdain these two teams share.
Who wins between Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving?
This was probably the most fascinating one-on-one matchup in the 2016 Finals. With Irving out for all but game one of the 2015 Finals, many felt as though the Cavs were cheated out of a legitimate shot to challenge the Warriors. Golden State, and most notably Steph, felt annoyed at the notion that they’d only won because the Cavs weren’t at full strength, and used that motivation to win the most regular season games in history and get a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals against the Cavs until…well, you know.
A lot more went into this matchup than just that one shot, of course. Irving had exploded offensively in games five and six, and Steph was playing so poorly that it seemed he’d never gotten over a knee injury he’d suffered earlier in the finals. But in game seven with the game tied and the series on the line, the Cavs purposefully got Curry to switch on Irving (who had put Curry on skates a few times in this series already) and he hit the biggest shot of his career.
The differences from 2016 to 2017, though, are enormous. Curry is healthy and Golden State has added Kevin Durant to their roster. The Cavs rotation is mostly the same, save for the key addition of Kyle Korver. But the one huge matchup to watch is Curry and Irving. Both are offensive maestros – one with his lights out shooting, and the other with his ball-handling and superior finishing ability at the rim. Curry’s also going to have a chip on his shoulder after Kyrie hit the above shot a year ago and made Steph’s life a living hell for several months.
Expect a lot of fireworks here. But if Steph’s shot mysteriously disappears again or if Kyrie’s offensive numbers start to sink, one of these two will have a long summer.
Who will have their “The *insert act here*” moment?
The Finals are notorious for giving us “The” moments. In 2016’s game seven we got three.
The question now becomes who will give us one this year? Will James have another ridiculous defensive play in a tight game? Will Kyle Korver hit a dagger three that either saves the Cavs or ices the series? (See point one.) Will Steph or Klay Thompson explode for a million points on a hundred or so threes? One of these moments certainly could happen, but it’s hardly a given. Both teams are capable of running away with a game, and the Warriors are capable of doing it several times. But if any one of these games are close, it’s a real possibility. Whether or not it matters as much as the three we got a year ago, though, remains to be seen.
Who will be the offseason darling of the winning team?
The Cavs winning last year’s title gave us a ton of good things. But arguably the most unexpected and most entertaining was J.R. Smith’s offseason. It started with a teary press conference:
And it continued with him partying shirtless for virtually the entire summer. Seeing a player as turbulent and inconsistent as Smith finally be a champion and get to bask in the glory was an unexpected amount of fun, and now we can only guess as to who will provide that same joy this time around.
It might be Kevin Durant, but I seriously doubt it. Even if the Warriors do win, most will not likely feel a ton of joy for Durant. After all, this was an MVP who left his current team (that was one win away from competing for a title a year ago) to join the team full of all stars that had beaten them the previous year to make the Finals. Durant also isn’t one to get super emotional and have a ton of fun in front of fans and media, so this probably isn’t happening.
It might be Steph, who has endured the most criticism and barbs since last season’s defeat. Getting to see him revel in being a champion again after the previous year might bring some joy, but I’m hesitant to put all my eggs in that basket. Draymond Green is another choice, but with a player as polarizing as he can be, it’s really tough to say.
One possibility for the Warriors, though not a player, could be Mike Brown. Brown, who is filling in coaching responsibilities for Steve Kerr, was fired twice by the Cavs in the last ten years. After taking a sabbatical from basketball, Brown eventually returned into coaching via the Spurs before taking an assistant job with the Warriors. Seeing him coach his way to a championship (albeit with a team like Golden State) and beat his twice-former team could be fun and a nice thing for a coach that’s come a long way in his career.
With the Cavs, there are only a few candidates as well. Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye are a lot of fun, and Jefferson’s stories and moments from the offseason a year ago were great in their own right. Of course, we could just see “The Year of J.R. Smith Part II” if the Cavs win again. I personally have no objections to that.