So, we meet again.
For the first time in league history, the NBA Finals matchup will be the same for a third straight year, with both the Warriors and the Cavaliers arriving in impressive fashion — Golden State at 12-0 in the playoffs and Cleveland at 12-1. All season, there has been little doubt that the two teams would wind up here, but the way they dominated their conferences over the past month and a half is an aspect no one could have foreseen.
In a way, the rest of the regular season and the playoffs never really mattered much. The entire past eight months in the NBA pointed to this moment, to the rubber match between the Warriors, 2015 NBA Finals champions, and the Cavaliers, 2016 Finals champs. In fact, you could argue that this matchup was set in stone last July, when Kevin Durant opted to leave the Thunder, turn down the Celtics and land with the already-stacked Warriors.
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This will be a star-studded Finals, with seven All-Stars on the two rosters — LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for Cleveland, and Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for the Warriors. It is a commentary on the state of the league that only the Cavs and Warriors had more than two All-Stars this year (Toronto is the only other team that had more than one), and they are, predictably, the ones playing into June.
That’s one reason that the league needs this to be a humdinger of a Finals. The Cavs and the Warriors so dominated the playoffs as to render them boring, and only a competitive, exciting series can rescue what was otherwise a weak six weeks for the league.
To do that, the Cavaliers will need sustained excellence from James, who carried Cleveland through its first 13 games with an impressive mix of accurate shooting and efficient scoring to go with his usual passing, rebounding and defense.
That’s because the Warriors have an advantage when it comes to depth and versatility. In last year’s Finals, by the time Game 7 came around and both teams were fatigued, Golden State was unable to summon any late-game scoring, instead choosing to jack up off-target 3-pointers for the final four minutes. Durant, adept at getting to the basket and deadly accurate when shooting from 15-18 feet, should change that dynamic, giving the Warriors a dimension they did not have last year.
Thus the stage is set, two star-laden teams tasked not only with fighting it out to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but also given the job of salvaging a dud of a postseason.