Las Vegas oddsmakers might have one of the most difficult tasks in recent memory thanks to the third meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The big change this year, of course, is the arrival of Kevin Durant in Golden State. Cleveland only lost one game in the postseason this year and looks even better than the team that won it all a year ago, yet adding a former MVP is adding a former MVP.
But over a seven-game series? As last year showed, anything can happen. Here's a look at the series schedule, with everything after Game 5 under a presumed "if necessary" label:
- Game 1: Cleveland at Golden State, Thursday, June 1, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
- Game 2: Cleveland at Golden State, Sunday, June 4, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC
- Game 3: Golden State at Cleveland, Wednesday, June 7, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
- Game 4: Golden State at Cleveland, Friday, June 9, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
- *Game 5: Cleveland at Golden State, Monday, June 12, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
- *Game 6: Golden State at Cleveland, Thursday, June 15, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC
- *Game 7: Cleveland at Golden State, Sunday, June 18, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC
Before Thursday, let's take the time to analyze the third meeting between these two sides and nail down some predictions.
Kevin Love Gives the Warriors Major Problems
A year ago, the Cavaliers didn't exactly get much from Kevin Love.
Love, battling injury and erratic play, was the easy scapegoat for the national narrative when things went wrong for Cleveland.
Not this year.
After averaging 19.0 points and 11.1 rebounds during the regular season, Love exploded against the Boston Celtics, averaging 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds on 48.6 percent shooting from the floor and 53.5 percent from deep.
And yes, the Celtics were soft underneath the basket thanks to Al Horford and others, but as ESPN Stats & Info noted, Love's efficiency hasn't happened over just one series:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Kevin Love: on track to become first player to average 10 reb per game, shoot 45% from 3-pt range, make 20+ 3-pointers in an NBA postseason https://t.co/1qKbhzIgbe2017-5-28 04:15:01
Love certainly seems to have the right mindset going into the series too, as captured by ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin:
"The whole underdog thing is funny to me, because, yeah, at the end of the day we are defending our title. We're trying to repeat, which is so hard to do. I think we will use it as fuel, we will use it as motivation, but the idea of playing into it? It's tough for me to say that is the case. I don't feel like we're underdogs. We match up well with them, and I think they'd say the same about us."
With the way Love has played so far, it's clear he's going to stretch the floor incredibly well while the Warriors try to contain LeBron James and Stephen Curry and others try to stick to Kyrie Irving.
Based on the shooting and the smooth defense he showed against the Warriors last year, Love will be the reason the Cavaliers make this a lengthy series.
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Yes, the knee-jerk reaction is to say this isn't such a bold prediction—and in a way, it's not.
Durant will obviously make a huge difference in this series compared to last year's classic. We're talking about a guy who averaged 25.1 points, 4.8 assists and 8.3 rebounds over 62 games and looked like a seamless fit into what is a well-oiled machine in Golden State.
But he's not the new face we're talking about.
Whereas Cleveland tends to get credit for savvy additions such as Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Derrick Williams, Durant's arrival tends to overshadow the other solid moves the Warriors made.
This refers to guys like JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West.
West has helped from a veteran leadership standpoint. Pachulia has played some key minutes during the postseason this year and brought some necessary grit to lineups that only Draymond Green had before.
Then there's McGee, who has undergone a bit of a career renaissance of sorts while playing key minutes at times. He really made some headlines in the Western Conference Finals, dropping 16 points in 13 minutes in a Game 3 win.
Maybe McGee doesn't go off or Pachulia make a major enforcer difference. But the Warriors need size down low when the Cavaliers trot out Tristan Thompson to win the battle on the glass. At the least, these new faces are proof enough that the Warriors can create far more matchup problems for the Cavaliers than last year.
Klay Thompson Is the X-Factor
On paper before the season, Klay Thompson looked like the biggest loser when analyzing Durant's impact upon his arrival.
Yet Thompson still averaged 22.3 points per game, slightly better than the year before, took around the same neighborhood of shots from all ranges and still hit on 41.4 percent from deep.
Then the playoffs started.
Thompson was a no-show against the Spurs, averaging just 11.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36.8 percent from deep. In fact, over the three playoff series thus far, Thompson's conversion clip hasn't hit the 40 percent mark.
The notable drought aside, it's Thompson who might decide the Finals outright. For starters, he's going to do much of the heavy lifting on the defensive end of the court while trying to slow down Irving.
"I take pride in (playing) both sides of the ball, defense as equally as offense," Thompson said, according to CSN Bay Area's Monte Poole. "Whether or not my shot falls, I can always control that part of the game."
On the offensive end of the court, Thompson should find himself with cleaner looks than usual. LeBron and others will need to run around trying to contain Durant this year, and the Cleveland backcourt will need to spend the bulk of its time making sure Curry doesn't catch fire.
Thompson will find his shot sooner or later, especially over seven games where the Cavaliers have to defend the first and second options on his offense and also produce big numbers on the other end of the court. It simply feels like a matter of time before Thompson's shooting lights up the scoreboard and grabs attention like his defensive efforts have as of late.