The saga continues: Starting tonight, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors will face off in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season. While this matchup seemed inevitable to some, neither team had an easy path to the Finals. Both failed to secure first place in their respective conferences, and, as a result, had to win Game 7 on the road in the Conference Finals. But, with the help of a key injury and extraordinarily unlucky 3-point shooting, they have begun another chapter in the story of one of sports’ greatest rivalries.
After dominating the basketball world for the past four seasons, the heavily-favoured Warriors are looking to repeat their easy five-game victory over the Cavs in last year’s Finals. While LeBron James is reaping the rewards of one of the best seasons in his storied career, this iteration of the Cavaliers’ roster is composed of James’ weakest supporting cast yet. Key helpers from past seasons, like Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, have either declined in their performance or left the team entirely For Cleveland to win this series, they will desperately need the support of forward Kevin Love, who will only just be returning to the floor from a concussion sustained in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland must also limit the Warriors’ Kevin Durant, a glaring mismatch with any Cavalier guard besides James, but James must preserve his energy in order to play up to 48 minutes and run the offence. Durant is averaging 29 points per game in the postseason and, standing at nearly seven feet tall, is arguably the Warriors’ most dynamic offensive threat.
For Cleveland, this series might be the last that they enjoy in the spotlight for quite some time. With LeBron James seeking a stronger team to surround himself with and perhaps a better relationship with his team’s owner, it seems likely that he will take his talents elsewhere next season. Houston Rockets guard and close friend Chris Paul has purportedly already started recruiting the four-time MVP.
The Warriors, on the other hand, have coasted through much of the 2017-2018 season—even, at times, in the playoffs. In an interview with TNT, coach Steve Kerr described the first quarter of the Warriors’ seventh game against the Houston Rockets as “one of the worst quarters of basketball [they had] ever played.” In Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals against Houston, the consequences of the Warriors’ uneven performance became evident in light of the Rockets’ relatively consistent lead. Closing performances allowed the Warriors to come back in each game and take the series, but it won’t be easy for them to continue at this pace in the final games of the season.
Golden State’s Hamptons 5 lineup—the four All-Stars Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, and versatile wing Andre Iguodala—is nearly-unstoppable at full force. However, the deadly lineup has been sidelined for most of the first three playoff rounds: Both Curry and Iguodala have sustained knee injuries causing them to miss the first six games and the last four games of the playoffs, respectively.
Iguodala and Love are key to their teams’ successes. Iguodala is the Warriors’ best choice to limit James’s impact, whereas Love is the greatest option the Cavs have to support him. With Love performing at sub-optimal strength and without a secondary scorer, only James will be there to carry an entire team’s load of the work against the Warriors.
The Warriors will need to stay healthy and maintain an energetic performance in order to hold onto the edge they have on the Cavs. LeBron versus the world has been an enjoyable watch thus far, and his greatest challenge yet will be entertaining regardless of the outcome. But, even as James has done incredible things this postseason, his Cavaliers don’t have enough firepower to dethrone the Warriors at their best.