Dubs in 6: Curses, the King, and How the Warriors Win History’s Greatest Finals
(Artwork via @hyper_three )
The stage was set last year as LeBron reclaimed his crown from the Golden State Warriors and, in response, the Dubs enlisted the NBA’s most coveted mercenary since 2010: Kevin Durant. Now, the teams (and their 11 current or former All-Stars) are set to meet again and decide their tie-breaker with the biggest show in NBA history. For the first time ever, professional basketball will see a trilogy or “three-match,” with two teams meeting in the Finals for a third consecutive year. For the first time since 1983 (when the league fielded seven fewer teams), the Finals will feature seven current All-Stars. It's the NBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer at the height of his never-ending prime met by a historically dominant team that added a twenty-eight year old Hall of Famer. LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers look to defend their title and secure the tie-breaker against a Golden State Warriors team that replaced Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. Six Warriors and seven Cavaliers remain from their 2015 matchup, eight and ten from 2016 — and for the first time, neither team features Anderson Varejao and both teams are fairly healthy. It, the third leg of this 21-game series, is the anticipated apex of modern basketball, and rightfully so. Since the absurd 3-1 comeback and the controversial addition of KD, all fans of sport and entertainment have been eagerly, some angrily, awaiting this eventual trilogy or “threequel” — the climactic finale that decides whether LeBron’s tyranny continues or the crown returns to Golden State. The series will determine legacies (particularly for LeBron, Curry, and Durant) and, given the balanced matchups, the production from role players will be key. The Cavs have more roster stability and thus less variability, but if the Dubs continue clicking then they should win in six games.
Curses and Matchups: Slight Edge for Golden State
Internet detectives have run amok and discovered a variety of incredible curses that beset each of this year’s contenders. The series might feature a superstar battle with Cleveland’s trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love facing Golden State’s quartet of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. The series might also feature some of the NBA’s most talented role players, as Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, Deron Williams, and Channing Frye contend with Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, Ian Clark, and Patrick McCaw. The Warriors defense, designed by Ron Adams and instituted by Draymond and Iguodala, is absolutely smothering and their offense is nebulous and deadly with fluid pieces that move the ball and attack whether they go small or large. The Cavs defense saves their effort for the playoffs and with LeBron roaming like a Free Safety they get their stops so that Kyrie and LeBron’s offense, surrounded by shooters and rebounders, goes into effect. With LeBron unable to roam freely as he’ll likely be tasked with guarding Kevin Durant, the Cavs will need to perform without their safety net and get greater production out of their other pieces. The Warriors have more, albeit less consistent, talent so the series should come down to their stars getting an edge and their role players extending or maintaining the lead. But, curses and blessings are abundant and this series also features some curious conflicts of magic.
“The toaster has been working.” The toaster’s power has even been acknowledged by Klay himself. The Warriors are 27-0 when Klay plays since he signed a fan’s toaster on May 14th and each round has also seen an opposing player fall victim to the toaster’s curse (Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, Utah’s George Hill, and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard). Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have never lost a series with a healthy Kevin Love and are 32-4 in playoff games blessed by his appearance. The Warriors should be pleased that Clemson beat Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide this January, as LeBron James has never won a championship without Alabama winning college football’s National Championship (as noted by redditor PZinger6). But they do have to worry about the two S.A.S. curses: 1) No Western team to beat the San Antonio Spurs has won their next round matchup since 2008 (via redditor BearsNecessity), and 2) No team predicted by Stephen A. Smith to win the NBA Finals has actually done so since 2011 (via redditor _Papasmurf_). On the other hand, LeBron has never won a Finals when the Wizards have made the playoffs and LeBron has only ever won the Finals in years that he has also led the league in two-point field-goals (he was fifth this year, as noted by redditor Atallahnator). Both of those go against Cleveland, but as a final, absurd, and cherry-picked curse to ease the biased fan in me — LeBron has never won a championship the same year as Tom Brady. The curses seem to align in favor of Golden State, but it will be impossible to know their strengths until the series begins. For now the Warriors seem like the more talented team, but a surging LeBron and Kyrie means that a Golden State squad missing Steve Kerr and possibly Andre Iguodala will need to lock in and learn from their first two Finals appearances if they want to finish in champagne.
2015 and 2016: Weak “W” + Close “L” = Bolster Depth
The Warriors beat the Cavs 4-2 in the Finals that capped off the 2014-15 season. The Cavs responded with an absurd 3-1 comeback to win 4-3 in the 2015-16 season. The teams may be tied, but history is not kind to the Warriors. When they won in 2015 they may have been the first team ever to win the Finals without any Finals experience on their roster, but they did so against a Cleveland team that got no minutes from an injured Kevin Love and 44 total minutes from an injured Kyrie Irving. LeBron was the first player to ever lead both teams in points, rebounds, and assists for a Finals and the Warriors needed to commit fully to their revolutionary small-ball lineup (Curry/Thompson/Barnes/Iguodala/Green) to beat the Cavs in six. LeBron stole two games while starting alongside guys like Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov... a little embarrassing and asterisk-worthy for Golden State. 2016 was better basketball, but obviously devastating for Warriors fans. Andrew Bogut missed the final two games after suffering a knee injury in Game 5 and both Kevin Love and Draymond Green missed a game apiece with a concussion and a suspension, respectively. Bogut’s loss was huge and Andre Iguodala may have been a little hobbled, but the Dubs should have still been able to close the series out after taking a 3-1 lead. LeBron and Kyrie were just too clutch and Cleveland was too hungry for a championship. It was Cleveland’s first professional sports championship in 52 years. They were the first road team to win a Game 7 in the Finals since 1978 and the first team ever to come back from 3-1 in the Finals. LeBron (the first player ever to lead a playoff series in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks) and Kyrie dominated while Golden State got decent production out of Steph, Klay, and Dray with abysmal production from the rest.
Depth issues are exactly why the Warriors went out and made such a splash this offseason. Bogut’s loss meant the Warriors were left trusting an injured Festus Ezeli, a horrible Varejao, and the biggest shooting-guard in the NBA Marreese Speights with guarding their paint. Unideal. Shaun Livingston was great, but a hobbled Iguodala, a 33 year-old Leandro Barbosa, and an inexperienced Ian Clark could not provide any relief for a Golden State team whose 190-pound life-force, Stephen Curry, was steadily getting pushed and shoved into fatigue. This year, the depth is bolstered. And not just by Kevin Durant. The frontcourt was upheaved, with Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, and David West all joining the group. Each big provides a different skill-set and the team a different shape. Zaza is the gritty, all-hustle starter with size and IQ. JaVale gives the Warriors the most effective lineup in the NBA in his minutes through his verticality for blocks and oops. And West brings grit, an elbow jumper, and smart passes. The backcourt also received some work: Ian Clark spent all year getting serious minutes, playing 1,137 minutes (twice as many as last year) and shooting a primo 49%. Rookie Patrick McCaw, a gangly 6’7” 185-lb wing with range and hops, is still a little raw but also played over a thousand minutes this season and that experience has helped him shoot 49% these playoffs. The team even added “We Believe” Warriors veteran Matt Barnes for some range, defense, and grit. A weak win in 2015 against half of the Cavs and a close loss in 2016 with two aging Brazilians getting major minutes (Barbosa and Varejao) taught the Warriors their lesson so this new team has all of the right pieces, they just need to click.
2017: Shooters and Superstars Galore
“They’re the champions. We’re not … They’re a great team, they’re the champs. We’re trying to take what they took from us last year.” Steve Kerr knows how strong this Cleveland team is and how hard-fought this series will be. LeBron is obviously the best player in the world, averaging 33/8/7 so far on 57% shooting, and Kyrie has been playing out of his damn mind, averaging 25 on 47% shooting while just embarrassing opponents. Those are Cleveland’s two keys. Their two seemingly unstoppable forces. And Warriors interim head coach Mike Brown knows it, since he coached the two of them in Cleveland before getting fired. “He is basically unguardable. He has more skill sets than almost anybody in this league.” Brown knows how absurd Kyrie’s talent is, and with most of Golden State’s defense focused on nullifying Kyrie and LeBron’s dominance, Cleveland’s other players will be tasked with exposing the space they’re left with. That’s where their shooters come into play. Cleveland shoots the lights out. The team is shooting 44% from 3 this postseason and, since beating the Pacers in the first round, they are shooting 45% on tightly contested three-pointers as well. J.R., Korver, and Frye are designated shooters but even Shumpert, RJ, and Deron Williams can light it up too. It will be a struggle for the Warriors to keep the Cavs offense from heating up behind LeBron’s battering ram and Kyrie’s guerrilla finessing, but the real struggle should be Cleveland’s.
Ron Adams might be the best defensive coach in the NBA and Mike Brown is a terrific defensive coach in his own right. Draymond, Iguodala, Thompson, Barnes, and Pachulia have all made careers off of the ability to buckle down and stifle on D. Meanwhile, Cleveland has two notable defenders on their roster: LeBron and Shumpert. The Warriors will struggle to defend the Cavs, but at least they’re built to do it. Most Cavs are known for their offense and throughout their playoffs the team has locked opponents up by letting LeBron roam and rectify their mistakes. Against the Warriors, LeBron won’t be able to roam since (as noted by Zach Lowe) there’s no Harrison Barnes to leave open this time around. The Cavs step it up on defense when the golden mantelpiece is on the line, as evidenced by Kevin Love locking Curry last year, but they’ll need consistent, focused defense against Golden State’s different looks if they don’t want their offensive talents to get abused on D. The Warriors principal offense runs through the quartet with Zaza as the traditional bruiser, the Cavs starting lineup is about even as Tristan can handle Zaza and both Love and Draymond can outwork each other on the opposite end. When the Dubs go vertical, JaVale becomes a tougher matchup for Tristan and Shaun Livingston is a nightmare for Kyrie to defend. When the Dubs go to their Death Ball lineups, with Draymond or KD manning the 5 and Iguodala joining the quartet — Cleveland is left needing to decide whether the size advantage of Love and Thompson on offense outweighs their slow defense. Since the Cavaliers have more backcourt, and the Warriors more frontcourt, depth, the coaching and lineup battle will be vital. The Warriors can go both bigger and smaller than the Cavs can, but the Cavs have LeBron and a steadier core so the new-look Warriors might be less consistent.
Warriors in Six
Fine, there are some more curses. Since 2011, LeBron has only won the championship when Rihanna’s been in the Top 13 of Billboard’s June Hot 100 (she is not this year, per redditor igoticeinmyveins). But, unfortunately, LeBron has only won the championship when La Liga’s Golden Boot winner’s first name starts with an “L,” and this year’s winner was Lionel Messi (from redditor JaguarGator9’s incredible list of curses). The total points of last year’s Finals were completely tied up until 0:53 remained in Game 7 and Kyrie Irving hit an okay shot. That is as close as a series can be and this year, new additions and experience should make the difference. Experience has developed Ian Clark into a promising piece and pushed, hopefully, Draymond past his suspension phase. Additions have given the Dubs some versatile looks and a generational talent in Kevin Durant. When JaVale McGee is at his best, the Warriors are unstoppable and feature a high-flying, defensive-stopping seven-footer. Unless LeBron can frustrate Golden State so much that their new, continually forming chemistry cracks (as it did late-game against the Grizzlies in January when Draymond disagreed with Durant’s shot-selection), then the Warriors should be able to push the Cavaliers defense with different offensive lineups while keeping their shooters from getting too hot — eventually taking this series and establishing themselves as the worst kind of super villains: successful super villains.