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NBA Finals 2018: Warriors vs. Cavaliers Schedule, Format, Predictions and More

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 29, 2018

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) is guarded by Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James during the second half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

For the fourth consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are set to square off in the NBA's championship round.

Both survived their conference finals with elimination-avoiding victories in Games 6 and 7.

LeBron James willed the Cavs to wins with 81 points, 26 rebounds and 18 assists over the two win-or-go-fishing contests. Golden State split its heroics between Klay Thompson in Game 6 (35 points, 9-of-14 from three), Stephen Curry (27 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds) and Kevin Durant (34 points, five assists) in Game 7.

Backs against the wall, though, each did what it had to do. Now, we'll again get arguably the greatest player in the game's history against arguably its greatest team.

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The bell for round four between these heavyweights will ring Thursday night. We'll lay out the complete schedule below, then spotlight key players for both sides and predict how this series will play out.

                   

2018 NBA Finals: Series Schedule and Format

Game 1—Thursday, May 31: Cavaliers at Warriors, 9 p.m. ET on ABC

Game 2—Sunday, June 3: Cavaliers at Warriors, 8 p.m. ET on ABC

Game 3—Wednesday, June 6: Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m. ET on ABC

Game 4—Friday, June 8: Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m. ET on ABC

*Game 5—Monday, June 11: Cavaliers at Warriors, 9 p.m. ET on ABC

*Game 6—Thursday, June 14: Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m. ET on ABC

*Game 7—Sunday, June 17: Cavaliers at Warriors, 8 p.m. ET on ABC

*if necessary

                 

Golden State's Key Player: Kevin Durant

This will say a lot about the Warriors' depth (and the Cavs' lack thereof), but they can win a title without nightly dominance from Durant. That said, if he looks anything like a four-time scoring champ, this series is probably over in short order.

He didn't always bring his best in the conference finals, which feels foolish when his series averages were 29 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists. But he struggled with (relative) inefficiency during the middle portion of the series, shooting just 39 percent from the field and 33.3 percent outside of Games 3 through 6.

He still went for 26 points per night in those outings, but the combination of his shooting woes and Golden State's uncharacteristic display of vulnerability brought some California-based criticism his way.

"On talk radio, cable talk shows and the fuming cloud of podcasting, there's one consistent thread of criticism: Durant is playing too much isolation ball," Al Saracevic wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. "He's not working in the flow of the Warriors' glorious motion offense. He's hurting the team! He's the problem!"

Inevitably, the Warriors offense looked wobbly in Game 7, and there was Durant dazzling both within the confines of the offense and when stepping outside the system as a self-sufficient scorer.

NBA @NBA

Kevin Durant drops a game-high 34 PTS (21 in 2nd half) in Game 7 to help the @warriors earn a spot in the #NBAFinals He joins Wilt Chamberlain and Stephen Curry as the third GSW player to score 30 or more points in a Game 7 victory. #DubNation #NBAPlayoffs https://t.co/o4F6rHIV4L

Durant will score regardless, but his efficiency matters. If he's precise with his execution, the Dubs should have no trouble dismantling this season's 29th-ranked defense. If he becomes a volume shooter who doesn't help the players around him, Cleveland's fifth-ranked offense might have a puncher's chance.

Don't discount the importance of Durant's defense, either, especially if Andre Iguodala's leg contusion keeps him sidelined. Iguodala usually gets the lion's share of LeBron duties when these teams collide, but Durant could be one of the primary options if Iggy can't go.

                     

Cleveland's Key Player(s): The Shooters

Kevin Love feels like the easy answer here, given both his standing as de facto second scorer and his uncertain status (concussion protocol). But the Warriors are so good at neutralizing him (minus-35 in last year's Finals), the Cavs shouldn't be looking to him for consistency.

Of course, that's true of their entire supporting cast, so rather than an individual player, we're spotlighting the whole horde of shooters.

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 27: Kyle Korver #26 and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 27, 2017 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

As good as James can be on his own—in the last two games, he looked like the reason this sport was invented—he still needs a properly spaced floor to function. If Cleveland's anemic roster can support the King in any way, this is it.

Only two teams averaged more triples during the regular season than the Cavs' 12, and just five bettered their conversion rate of 37.2 percent. Cleveland hasn't carried either number over to the playoffs (10.3 makes, 33.9 percent), but at least the pedigree is there. Simply getting George Hill closer to his normal levels (38.3 percent for his career, 25.7 this postseason) could kick-start some positive regression.

Cleveland must maximize its offensive possessions because it will likely be looking to limit the total number.

Lacking the firepower to trade shots with the Warriors, the Cavs will instead employ a clock-killing strategy similar to the one that helped them swipe two games in the 2015 collision. Cleveland has played at the second-slowest speed in the playoffs while cutting more than six possessions per 48 minutes from its regular-season average (93.85 from 100.06).

The slower the Cavaliers play, the slimmer their margin for error becomes. If their methodical pace isn't matched by elite execution, their plan will prove fatally flawed.

                  

Series Predictions: Warriors in 5, Durant MVP

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12:  NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors speaks to the media after winning the NBA Championship in Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 12, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, Ca
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It's hard to find reasons to pick against Golden State or even predict a tight series.

When we last saw these teams in the title round, the Warriors waltzed to a 4-1 gentleman's sweep. Kyrie Irving was Cleveland's point guard and mostly sensational in the series (29.4 points on .472/.419/.900 shooting). Love hadn't closed the conference finals in concussion protocol. James was neither 33 years old, nor coming out of a seven-game series in which he'd played 288 of a possible 336 minutes.

So, while something—focus? fatigue? lack of depth?—seems a tad off about the Warriors, their worries pale in comparison to the Cavs' concerns.

In their last championship battle, we also saw Durant seize the MVP award with series averages of 35.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.6 blocks. Who knows if he'll approach those numbers again, but he has at least a decent shot at defending his award. He's been Golden State's most consistent scorer these playoffs, and he'll be among its most critical defenders if Iguodala is unavailable or hobbled.

                    

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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