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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.