NBA Finals – Game 1
No. 2 Cleveland at No. 1 Golden State (ABC, 9 p.m. ET)
Cavs-Warriors III is finally here, arriving as the first-ever NBA Finals matchup played between teams vying for the title three consecutive times. Considering the Celtics and Lakers have run things in multiple decades and are unquestionably still the rivalry to end all rivalries, this is quite the accomplishment.
Now the series just has to live up to the hype to try and salvage what’s been by all accounts a dud of a postseason. Fortunately, all the ingredients are there.
Well, most. Steve Kerr won’t coach Game 1 and is questionable for the rest of the series as he attempts to overcome lingering side effects from back surgery.
That means Mike Brown will be coaching these Finals against the Cavs, who fired him after deciding he was expendable back in 2010. LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami weeks later.
There are loads of ties that bind in this series. There are tons of driving forces that extend beyond just claiming a ring and going 2-for-3 in this Finals matchup.
Draymond Green feels especially guilty for what transpired after he lost his temper and got himself excluded from a key Game 6 as the Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead last year. That collapse allowed Kevin Durant to feel it was ok to jump ship to the Warriors, which makes this year’s task much tougher for LeBron and Co.
Durant has a score to settle, having been beaten by LeBron as a favorite with Oklahoma City on a team that he led which also featured Russell Westbrook and James Harden. That alleviated James’ burden in Miami after being upset in the 2011 Finals by Dallas.
Then there’s Steph Curry, whose 6-for-19 Game 7 implosion contributed heavily to the 93-89 loss in the series-deciding game. He shot 4-for-14 from 3-point range, a performance that still haunts him. It’s easier to forget that he also started poorly in last year’s Finals, shooting 4-for-15 in Game 1 despite his Warriors pulling away for a 104-89 win.
Golden State won thanks to its depth, getting a particularly strong game from Shaun Livingston in a 104-89 romp that also featured great efforts from Andre Iguodala and Leandro Barbosa off the bench. All but Barbosa are back, so the noise that this team is weaker due to less depth because they traded Durant is just that – noise.
Game 2 featured a Cavs team determined to lock in defensively and saw them up 21-19 after a quarter, but at home, depth and familiarity played to the Warriors advantage in an easy 110-88 win as they rolled 91-56 the rest of the way. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love combined for 15 points and six rebounds in a no-show that would seem ridiculous at this point given the form they’ve displayed this postseason and what they’ve already accomplished in becoming champs for the first time. James led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists that game, but gets significantly more help these days.
The Warriors are a -240 series favorite, which is roughly a 70 percent lean on the series. You get the rationale. Up 3-1 without Durant, a key variable since Harrison Barnes was a liability in the same spot in the lineup, the Dubs have to be favored to win a championship. Golden State is a 7-point favorite for Game 1.
While Love is within his rights to wonder aloud how in the world the defending champs are substantial underdogs defending their own title, there’s a method to the madness of bookmakers and experts that are viewing this series without bias.
As far as Game 1 is concerned, the Cavs have little to lose and can experiment with some strategies that should serve them well down the road in what they’re expecting will be a long series. Golden State doesn’t really have that luxury since a loss would immediately forfeit the homecourt edge that could play such a huge role in deciding a champ.
Although they lost Game 7 on their home floor last season, the opportunity to get off to a strong start in Oakland in addition to the prospect of playing a key Game 5 and potential Game 7 there loom large. There’s no one under more pressure than Durant, who has faced immense backlash for his decision to defect from the Thunder, even irrationally catching blame for the lack of competitiveness in this postseason. Then there’s Curry and Klay Thompson, who need to shoot it well to ensure the Cavs have to respect everyone defensively.
Cleveland won every game it needed to last year, thriving in a Game 3 where it faced a certain sweep had it lost, then rallying in three straight elimination games to impose its will. It’s well within their rights to feel like they’re being slighted here and can also rely on having rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit on Christmas Day to edge Golden State 109-108. Irving scored 25 points and made the winning basket, helping the Cavs overcome a 36-point, 15-rebound. Curry shot 4-for-11 in that game, further fueling speculation that Cleveland has his number.
Tristan Thompson’s ability to generate extra opportunities on the boards and serving as the backbone of a defense that was porous most of the regular season makes him the x-factor for the Cavs. Zaza Pachulia is healthy and ready to go for the Warriors, but we’ll see how often Brown utilizes him or JaVale McGee in the middle as opposed to going small with Green at the five.
Because the pace is expected to be fluid and 3-pointers are likely to fly, the total has been placed incredibly high for an NBA Finals game. Oddsmakers opened the total for Game 1 at 225 ½ and that number has held steady over the last week while a couple books have gone to 226.