Only a fool believed LeBron James back in February when he claimed that Cavs-Warriors isn’t a rivalry. Nonsense. This is possibly the best NBA rivalry in 20 years. And on Thursday it will reach an unprecedented pinnacle: for the first time in NBA history, two teams will be meeting in the Finals for the third consecutive year. To make things even more intriguing, each team has won a title thanks in part to a key injury, leaving the other team thinking “What if?”
Cavs-Warriors I saw the Warriors take Game 1 in overtime at home, while the Cavs lost Kyrie Irving for the series to a fractured knee cap. Then the Cavs stunned the world by taking the next two games behind James relentlessness and powered by the frenetic (and possibly dirty) play of Matthew Dellavedova. But the Warriors awoke from the slumber to win the next three games and the series, with Andre Iguodala taking home MVP honors after averaging 16-6-4. James, meanwhile, averaged 36-13-9. Cavs-Warriors II saw the Warriors take a commanding 3-1 lead only to become the first team in NBA history to lose the Finals after going up 3-1, the exclamation point on the Cavs’ historic comeback being James’ jaw-dropping rundown block of Iguodala’s fastbreak layup attempt that would’ve given the Warriors a 2-point lead with 1:51 to play in Game 7. But Steph Curry, who was coming off back-to-back MVP seasons, was hobbled throughout the playoffs, missing three games in each of the first two rounds, and never quite playing as well as he had in the regular season, putting up just 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting in the finale. James would win his third Finals MVP award for averaging 30-11-9 and making one of the most iconic defensive plays ever. What does Cavs-Warriors III have in store?
The Warriors have been an absolute juggernaut since 2014-15, compiling 207 wins, the most of any team over a three-season stretch in league history, besting the ‘95-’98 Jordan Bulls’ mark of 203, and beating the Bulls’ single-season record with 73 wins last season. After having the best regular season ever, they went out and signed Kevin Durant, one of the most electric scorers in the game with an eye toward vengeance. On March 11, they lost for the fifth time in 7 games, a skid that began when Durant went down with a grade 2 MCL sprain in the opening minutes of a game against the Wizards. Those struggles and Durant’s injury dropped their record to 52-14 and cast doubts as to their fitness for a title run. Since then, however, they’ve gone 27-1, and in the process became the first team in NBA history to win the first three rounds by a total of 12-0, while Durant has proven himself perfectly healthy. And their playoff run has been done in convincing fashion, as they’ve outscored the opposition by 16.3 points per game.
The Cavs march back to the Finals has been even more tumultuous. LeBron has gotten into public verbal scrapes with Cavs management, Donald Trump, Charles Barkley, Lavar Ball, and a reporter, and he took a bunch of heat for sitting out a few games down the stretch to save his gas for the postseason. The team retooled their roster, bringing in Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, and Andrew Bogut, whose Cavs career lasted all of one minute before he broke his tibia. Then the Cav went just 11-15 to finish the regular season, and in the process surrendered the #1 seed in the East to the Boston Celtics. But then the playoffs started and the Cavs flipped the switch, winning their first 10 postseason games, which along with their 3 wins to finish off last year’s finals, tied them for the longest playoff winning streak of all time at 13, and have made it to this year’s Finals by defeating their opponents by an average of 13.6 ppg.
As it stands now, both teams are essentially at full strength, though the Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia is coming back from a bruised heel, and head coach Steve Kerr remains sidelined as he contends with lingering complications from back surgery. In a nice twist to just heighten the drama, taking over for Kerr is assistant coach Mike Brown, who coached LeBron and the Cavs from 2005 to 2010.
The Warriors are the heavy favorite according to just about everybody, with their odds of winning ranging from 70% to 90% depending on whom you ask. But over the last three seasons, including the playoffs, the Warriors are 234-53 (83.2%) against all non-Cavs teams, but just 11-8 (57.8%) against the Cavs. So, yes, the Warriors are pretty clearly the better team, but there’s no way LeBron and company are just gonna roll over and die. And if James, who is making his 7th straight finals appearance, most ever by someone who wasn’t a member of the Russell Era Celtics, can defeat the Warriors for a second year in a row, he just may convince a few doubters that he is the GOAT.
Game 1 – Thursday, June 1 @ 9pm ET on ABC and ESPN3
Game 2 – Sunday, June 4 @ 8pm ET on ABC and ESPN3