Remember all the Cleveland Cavaliers regular-season drama? And how they overturned their roster at the February trade deadline? And how they were on the verge of losing to the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs? And how they fell behind 2-0 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals? And then 3-2?
Remember when the Golden State Warriors' regular-season disinterest was a problem? And how they didn't have Stephen Curry in the rotation until Game 2 of the second round? And how they lost Andre Iguodala for the rest of the Western Conference Finals after Game 3? And how they, too, were down 3-2? And then how they allowed the Houston Rockets to build 17- and 15-point leads, respectively, in Games 6 and 7?
Remember all of that? Remember how it looked like, how it felt like, the Cavaliers and Warriors wouldn't meet again in the NBA Finals, for the fourth consecutive year?
Yeah, that was all for nothing. Golden State and Cleveland are back at it, just like we all expected but also kind of didn't, in a matchup that is equal parts epic and ruining basketball as we know it.
Many will enter this latest best-of-seven set with limited expectations. Some will shift their sights entirely to the offseason. They (claim to) know how this will end.
The Warriors have a 2-1 Finals edge over the Cavaliers. And they're one 2016 collapse away from owning 3-0 bragging rights. By most measures, the NBA champion was crowned during the Western Conference Finals. But LeBron James is LeBron James, and until he isn't LeBron James, the Cavaliers have a chance.
When Do We Start?
Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals tips off on Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET in Oracle Arena. Here's the complete schedule breakdown:
- Game 1 in Oakland: Thursday, May 31, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
- Game 2 in Oakland: Sunday, June 3, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
- Game 3 in Cleveland: Wednesday, June 6, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
- Game 4 in Cleveland: Friday, June 8, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
- Game 5 in Oakland (if necessary): Monday, June 11, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
- Game 6 in Cleveland (if necessary): Thursday, June 14, 9 p.m. ET, ABC
- Game 7 in Oakland (if necessary): Sunday, June 17, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
How Did The Season Series Go?
Though the Warriors won both regular-season meetings with the Cavaliers, their victories carry minimal significance. Both matchups came before the trade deadline, on Dec. 25 and Jan. 15, so Golden State has yet to get a taste of Cleveland's renovated roster.
George Hill provides more defensive resistance than Isaiah Thomas (who only played in the Jan. 15 affair) and Jose Calderon (out of the rotation). Dwyane Wade no longer eats into Kyle Korver's playing time. Tristan Thompson is moving like an actual NBA player again. Larry Nance Jr., while inconsistently deployed, adds a layer of switchy rim protection.
Whether this face-lift better equips the Cavs to grapple with the reigning champs remains to be seen. They held leads in both regular-season clashes and never trailed by more than 14, but the Warriors still sort of coasted.
They didn't have Stephen Curry in uniform for the Christmas Day sparring, and their laissez-faire defense limited Cleveland's offense to 99.7 points per 100 possessions—almost 11 points below its overall average. And the Cavaliers could be worse for wear now. Not all of their newcomers have helped the cause. None of them have been remotely consistent.
Multiple sources confirm Rodney Hood remains a member of the team; he's just not playing. Jordan Clarkson has a lower assist percentage than Jeff Green. Nance meanders in and out of head coach Tyronn Lue's rotation. George Hill often seems to be under the impression he can attempt only four to six shots per game.
The Cavaliers may be deeper on paper, but they're maddeningly unpredictable in practice.
What Will The Rotations Look Like?
Cleveland's Starting Five: George Hill, Jeff Green, LeBron James, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith
Cleveland's Reserves: Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson
Good luck figuring out the Cavaliers' rotation. Lue has used eight different starting lineups across 18 postseason contests, and the minutes distribution among his reserves is in perpetual limbo.
Injuries haven't helped matters. Hill's health forced some changes earlier in the postseason, and Kevin Love's status remains up in the air as he continues going through the NBA's concussion protocol, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon.
Jeff Green will get the starting nod for Game 1 if Love isn't ready to rock. He might even stick no matter what. It depends on who the Warriors run out at opening tip. Thompson can stay put if Kevon Looney is jumping center, but Iguodala's return could coax Lue into subbing him out for Green or Kyle Korver and moving Love to the 5.
Reserve minutes will settle into place from there. Nance will be hard-pressed to see the court if Thompson is coming off the bench, since they cannot play together. Hood has fallen miles outside Lue's good graces, but a 6'8" wing should be a must-use against the Warriors. Clarkson's role will be directly related to how much Cleveland gets from Green, Hood and J.R. Smith.
Golden State's Starting Five: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Klay Thompson
Golden State's Reserves: Jordan Bell, Quinn Cook, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Nick Young
Golden State's rotation is in comparable flux to Cleveland's.
Iguodala sought a second opinion on his left knee injury and his availability for Game 1 is uncertain, according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes. He could reclaim his place among the starters upon return, but the Warriors may not want to rock the boat right away.
Playing him with the second unit for at least his first game back feels inevitable. Golden State did the same for Curry in the second round, and throwing a half-hobbled Iguodala into the "Go guard LeBron James" fire is just plain mean. He should get an outing or two to regain his bearings.
Iguodala's status and spot in the lineup will shape the rest of the rotation. Bringing him off the bench might result in less Nick Young, or the Warriors could bask in the extra wing depth. David West could also see run after spending two series in the shadows, if Cleveland commits to playing two bigs at the same time or head coach Steve Kerr doesn't trust Looney or Jordan Bell on the NBA Finals stage.
Biggest Factors Of The Series
Kevin Love's Role
Love will play at some point during the Finals, even if he's not good to go for Game 1. But figuring out how to use him once he's back poses some problems.
Rolling him out at the 5 seems like the safest play. The Cavaliers don't have much rim protection anyway, and using him at the 4 next to Thompson tempts the blowout gods. Plus, as Fear The Sword's Mike Zavagno noted, Cleveland parlayed Love-at-center lineups into some success last year:
Most of this data holds firm in the macro. The Cavaliers outscored opponents by 14.4 points per 100 possessions post-trade deadline with Love as their only big. The LeBron-Love frontcourt partnership remains an underutilized weapon. That combo anchored a plus-42.5 net rating during the regular season but saw under 200 possessions of action, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Cleveland has survived on the less glamorous end with Love jumping center in the playoffs, notching a defensive rating that would rank third overall (103.8). The Warriors are a different beast. They could turn Green, the primary frontcourt sidekick for Love-at-the-5 lineups, into a liability.
Golden State won't guard him on offense, and the Green-Love alliance is overdue for some defensive slippage. Cleveland is giving up just 94.1 points per 100 possessions in those minutes—an unsustainably low mark.
Countering whatever version of the Death Lineup the Warriors have on the court directly ties into Love's value. What do the Cavs do when Draymond Green shifts to the 5? Do they try getting by with Love? Do they turn to Nance or Thompson? Use Green or James as the de facto center?
Deeming Love a non-factor in this series understates his importance. He's the Cavaliers' second-best offensive player. They need him on the court. But the Warriors have the nightmare rotations to play him off it. The Cavs' response to their switch-everything arrangements will say a great deal about how long this series lasts.
Andre Iguodala's Left Knee Injury
Soldiering on without Iguodala wouldn't be the end of the world for the Warriors. They don't need him at full strength to nab their third Larry O'Brien Trophy in four years. They shouldn't need him at all. He is, however, someone who simplifies—i.e. potentially shortens—the series.
"We would have won the series in five if Iggy played," Kerr told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears after the Western Conference Finals.
Wing depth isn't a Warriors strength at the moment, so this sentiment shoulders merit. The Death Lineup is also pummeling opponents by more than 22 points per 100 possessions for the postseason. Iguodala's absence bilks Golden State of its ultimate cheat code.
Any time he isn't on the court at full strength jeopardizes the Warriors' approach to defending James as well. Kevin Durant spends more time than anyone on the four-time MVP these days—and he's done a damn good job. The Cavaliers averaged under 1.04 points per possession in the regular season on plays in which James was guarded by Durant. The lion's share of LeBron Duty will fall to him.
But Iguodala, along with Draymond Green, is supposed to pitch in. James will play more minutes than Durant. He'll see more time than anyone, period. The Warriors need Iguodala as a backup James defender during those brief stints when Durant is catching a breather.
Is LeBron James Gassed?
Um, yes. How could he not be?
James enters the Finals after appearing in all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career and having basically already played through the entire 2017 postseason all over again. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal pointed out:
Appropriate responses include:
- "Holy moly!"
- "That's...less than ideal"
- "LeBron is a robot sent from the future"
- "MJ better"
...And any profanity-packed epiphanies you can piece together.
Tired LeBron is better than no LeBron—and also between 99 and 100 percent of every player alive. But his turnovers started to get a wee bit out of control against the Celtics. He coughed up possession 13.7 percent of the time, a not-so-atrocious number, but one that would still rate as his second-worst for an entire postseason.
Making mistakes at an above-average clip is a non-option against the Warriors. They're tied for seventh on the year, through both the playoffs and regular season, in offensive efficiency off turnovers, according to Inpredictable.
More important, an exhausted James cannot do as much at the defensive end. His closeouts won't be as crisp, and he won't get back in transition as quickly after missed shots.
That's one thing when the Cavaliers are facing a Celtics squad without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward—or when they're playing the Postseason Toronto Raptors. It will be more damning against the Warriors, when James' assignments get tougher. He pestered Green more than anyone during the regular season and will have to see more time on Durant with Jae Crowder out of the picture.
James will be transcendent. He's always transcendent. He's mass-producing 40-point double-doubles like they're nothing. But he'll have to be even better for the Cavs to hang with the Warriors, a harrowing notion given the sheer enormity of his workload thus far.
The Supporting Cast Battle
Golden State's second-stringers own the postseason's top point differential per 100 possessions. The bench was, statistically, even better during the seven-game rock fight with Houston. It just doesn't feel that way.
Look beyond Curry, Durant, Green, Iguodala and Klay Thompson, and the Warriors don't have much—particularly if Iguodala misses time or is playing through injury.
Shaun Livingston is fine. Everyone else is a wild card. Bell and Looney have become integral to the center rotation. Nick Young received meaningful minutes in the Conference Finals. Worse: The Warriors actually needed them.
JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West have effectively been played out of the rotation. Even if the Cavaliers' seesaw lineup decisions let Kerr cater to experience over mobility at the 5, it doesn't deepen the Warriors' wing corps. Getting anything from the recently cleared Patrick McCaw would be huge.
As of a rule of thumb, though: Always worry more about the Cavaliers' supporting cast. It doesn't matter which team is on the other side. Cleveland's non-LeBron players are serial mysteries. As The Ringer's Paolo Uggetti wrote:
"Of course, the depth on Cleveland’s side isn’t exactly stellar, either. This may be the weakest supporting cast in LeBron’s career, and after so much midseason turnover, it doesn’t even have the benefit of continuity. The glass-half-full view is that George Hill will continue to improve as the Cavs go deeper into the playoffs, that Larry Nance Jr.’s resurgence and Tristan Thompson’s rebounding will give the Warriors’ big men trouble, and that Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith can catch fire from three with some degree of consistency.
"The glass-half-empty view is simple: The concussion-like symptoms that kept Kevin Love out of Game 7 will put his impact in question (if it wasn’t already before the injury), and trusting Nance and Smith seems like it could backfire quickly. Cleveland could barely survive a Game 7 against the Celtics with LeBron on the floor for every minute. How will they survive against the Warriors when he has to come off?"
Whereas the Warriors are at worst top-heavy, the Cavaliers don't enjoy the slightest bit of certainty beyond James. A healthy Love doesn't change that. He has ceded No. 2 status to Hill, Korver and, yes, Green on an uncomfortable, semi-regular basis.
Cleveland is minus-8.8 points per 100 possessions without James on the court. Not-LeBroners are shooting under 34 percent from beyond the arc and below 30 percent on pull-up jumpers. Neither Clarkson nor Hill nor Hood has established himself as that reliable, steadying ball-handler alternative.
For his part, Hill comes closest. He'll never be a high-volume pull-up maestro, but he gives the Cavaliers something resembling hope during those rare moments when James is on the sidelines. They've played opponents almost to a deadlock during Hill's solo minutes. He'll need to be a constant prober, not to mention a primary Stephen Curry defender, if the Cavaliers are going to overturn prevailing perception.
The Cavs are playing better defense in the playoffs. They've gone from allowing 109.5 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst mark of the regular season, to a more manageable 105.9. They were stingier in the Conference Finals, limiting the Celtics to 102.1 offensive rating.
Keeping these returns intact against the Warriors figures to be impossible. The Cavaliers have controlled the pace for most of the postseason. They're 15th in possessions used per 48 minutes, in front of only the Indiana Pacers, who they dispatched in the first round.
Operating in that wheelhouse isn't on the table against the Warriors. They didn't play at warp speed against the Rockets, but Houston has the like-sized switchers to stall Golden State in the half-court. Cleveland won't stand as strong in transition or convince Durant to attack mismatches on the block and above the break with dribble-drenched post-ups and sloggy isolations.
No team plays faster than the Warriors after grabbing a defensive rebound, according to Inpredictable. The Cavaliers, conversely, are at the bottom of the barrel when guarding sets after a missed shot.
More than a little bit of luck is also caked into Cleveland's defensive numbers. Opponents are shooting under 37 percent on wide-open threes after downing 40.2 percent in the regular season. Boston hit just 34 percent of its uncontested treys in the Conference Finals.
The Warriors won't do that. They're at 36.9 percent on unattended triples, but that's with both Durant and Green canning less than 29 percent of their own long-range bunnies. For Durant specifically, that shouldn't last.
Any Warriors-in-six predictions from last year's Finals swiftly became viewed as a coward's pick. They equated to a timid hedge—a refusal to admit the Cavaliers actually didn't stand a chance because it meant slighting LeBron.
Similar vibes are emanating from Warriors-in-five guesstimates now. The Cavaliers haven't done nearly enough to earn the benefit of the doubt for a single game.
Remove their shellacking of the Raptors from view, and they're a minus-17 with James on the court. They were a plus-11 against the Celtics when he played, and a minus-28 versus the Pacers. They have the best player in the league, and for the most part, they've either lost or just barely won the minutes he's spent on the court.
Think about that, and then consider everything else.
How will the Cavaliers respond to one of the Warriors' hallmark third-quarter runs? Those onslaughts spelled curtains for the Rockets, and Cleveland's defense doesn't hold a candle to theirs.
What inevitably happens when the Cavaliers' others no-show for an entire game? They won't go through a stretch in which they brick 27 consecutive three-pointers—no disrespect intended, Houston—but there will be nights when Korver or Green, rather than Hill or Love, transforms into James' No. 2.
Relative inconsistency on the margins nearly did in the Cavaliers against the plucky Pacers and Kyrie- and Hayward-less Celtics. That same duplicity stands to destroy them now. They cannot Jekyll-and-Hyde their way to more than a five-game battle with the Warriors.
Stealing one of the first two tilts is the Cavaliers' best bet at authoring a Cinderella story. The Warriors were a minus-16 in Conference Finals first quarters. Maybe Cleveland can get out in front early and stave off a second-half implosion.
Maybe Iguodala misses the first game or two of the series. Any time he's not on the floor arms Golden State with one fewer body to throw at James or to chase around Korver.
Maybe the Cavaliers' small-ball counters with Green at the 4 pan out. Maybe they're open to more James-at-the-5 minutes. Maybe Curry and Durant never detonate in the same game. Maybe James has another gear. (We'll call it "Jordan who?" mode if he does.)
Maybe, maybe, maybe. That's all the Cavaliers' viability in this series appears to be—a collection of maybes and hopefullys and probably-nots. They should win a game. James' one-man brilliance gets them that much. Against other teams, it would get—and has already gotten—them more.
Against the Warriors, James is just enough to talk yourself out of predicting a sweep.
Prediction: Warriors in 5