June 4, 2015
I have not spoken much of the NBA Playoffs this spring. My reasoning is that the early round matchups were not all that intriguing and did not provide much excitement.
That could all change in the Finals as the NBA gets a chance to salvage its 2014-15 campaign with an eye-catching matchup featuring the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The showdown features LeBron James, a four-time MVP and the league’s most dominant player, and Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP and the league’s most exciting player.
Joining the two most popular players in basketball are a host of other talented players. Along with James, Cleveland has all star Kyrie Irving and former sixth man of the year winner, J.R. Smith. Joining Curry for Golden State is all-star Klay Thompson, and 2015 All-Defensive honorees Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut.
Another storyline is the lack of history both teams have playing basketball in June. Golden State is seeking its first title since 1975 and its second title since relocating to California in 1962. The 67-win Warriors are also pursuing a spot next to the greatest teams in league history.
Cleveland, meanwhile, is seeking the first title of its 45-year franchise history, as James looks to complete the circle by bringing a championship trophy to his home state of Ohio after claiming two in Miami. While James has officially matched Michael Jordan’s six career Finals appearance, and surpassed Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan by making five straight, he needs a victory to avoid a 2-4 career mark.
There were not any upsets in the early rounds and we are clearly left with the best two teams. Since Jan. 23, the date that the Cavaliers fully formed with their current roster, Golden State had the league’s best record (33-9), with Cleveland a close second (30-9).
After that date, the Cavaliers closed the season with the league’s most efficient offense (109.6), with Golden State a close second (109.1). In the playoffs, Cleveland (12-2 in the East) and Golden State (12-3) both breezed through their conference brackets, while ranking No. 1 and 2, respectively, in offensive rating.
I see this series giving us great and fun-to-watch basketball, with plenty of strategy. Both teams are guided by MVP-quality players that have enjoyed big late-game performances in this playoffs. Both also have complementary stars and well-fitting role players.
Golden State enters as heavy favorites. To reach the Finals, the Warriors shot through the stronger Western Conference in the regular season and continued their excellence by beating New Orleans, Memphis, and Houston. Although the Warriors’ key players are lacking in Finals experience, they are as prepared as any team can be for James and the Cavaliers. By comparison, Cleveland advanced through a below-.500 Celtics team, a Bulls team that faced injury issues and off-court issues, and a Hawks team that was depleted and playing well below the standard expected of a 60-win team.
Golden State will have plenty of offense. They always do. What will make the difference is that the Warriors now also have an elite defense is capable of providing a much stiffer test to the Cavaliers than the Celtics, Bulls or Hawks.
I looked at the likely matchups. They all seem to break in the Warriors favor. Much like the Western Conference finals, where Curry went nuts and a platoon approach succeeded in limiting James Harden’s effectiveness, Golden State has more capable players to throw at James than the Cavaliers have to use on Curry (who is averaging 29.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds while shooting 43.7% on threes during the postseason).
The Warriors can try Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Thompson on James at various times, and they can trust Bogut to protect the rim.
I can easily see Cleveland pulling off a surprise. Why you ask? Because of LeBron. James combines elite scoring, brilliant playmaking, positional versatility, steady leadership and years of experience. That combination of skills has enabled James to average 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game. Anytime you have the best player on the floor, you can win. And James is the best player on the planet.
It’s worth nothing that James was lights out against the Warriors when he scored 42 points in the regular season, shooting 15-25 overall, 7-for-15 outside the paint and 4-for-9 from deep. The Cavaliers will absolutely need those type of numbers from James along with picking up their defensive intensity.
I am going to take Golden State in five games. James and the Cavs will put up a valiant effort in the early games before wearing down.
The NHL Finals are also here. Tampa Bay will take on the Chicago Blackhawks.
Both teams big time talent. In Steven Stamkos, the Lightning possess an elite gamebreaker whose 43 regular season goals were second only to Alex Ovechkin’s 53. And Chicago still has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Cane.
I have to go with Chicago here. They are going for their third Stanley Cup in six years while Tampa Bay makes a run like this about once every 10 years.
The Blackhawks are deeper with four productive lines compared to just two effective lines for Tampa Bay. One amazing stat is that the first two lines of Tampa Bay has tallied 20 of the team’s last 21 goals.
I will be rooting for Tampa Bay because they are fun to watch. But I would have to take Chicago in six games if I was a betting man.