2017 NBA Finals — Four Things to Watch For (and Our Prediction)
The third time around with the Cavs and Warriors could be the best one yet.
When you reflect on it now, LeBron James's 2014 return to Cleveland feels as though it was scripted by the best of WWE story-line writers. Think about it — the conquering hero and former child prodigy from Akron returns to the city he once stabbed in the back in the most sports-heelish fashion possible, on national television in July 2010...
LeBron's return in 2014 was done in a far more subdued, adult fashion, with the announcement made in an SI.com article written by Lee Jenkins, and to be sure, this is a far more adult version of LeBron this time around in Cleveland than in his first act from 2003 through 2010.
Now let's add in the last three postseasons, in the first of which LeBron practically willed a team that had been deep in the lottery four straight seasons to within a couple of games of a title. In that 2015 NBA Finals, the other two Cavalier All-Stars (Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love) were injured and LeBron was so good in those Finals that there was actual chatter four games into the series that he could be the Finals MVP in a losing effort.
In 2016's Finals, LeBron broke through in the most historic way possible, winning his personal third NBA title by coming back in historic fashion from a 3-1 deficit, winning Game 7 on the road against a 73-win defending NBA champion, sealing the deal with a great defensive play, swatting the shot of the player who won Finals MVP the season before because, in large part, that player helped corral LeBron...
So the scriptwriters went back to the conference room this past offseason (seemingly), and asked, "How can we somehow make LeBron's next act even more noteworthy? How can we make his fourth title feel like Jordan's sixth title?"
I GOT IT! LET'S PUT KEVIN DURANT ON THAT 73-WIN WARRIORS TEAM!!
And that's now where we are, with the clear-cut two best teams in the league sporting a collective 24-1 postseason record, in a rubber match to see who is the greatest. There are plenty of story lines to intrigue us over the next couple of weeks. Here are four that intrigue me....
4. Mike Brown, "head coach"
Some will say that Golden State assistant Mike Brown's 12-0 record pinch-hitting for Steve Kerr this postseason — the same Mike Brown who was fired by the Lakers and fired not once, but TWICE by the Cavaliers — is proof that you can just plunk any ol' jabroni down on an NBA bench and a good team will still win. I prefer, in this instance, to look at it as a credit to Kerr, who will miss this series with the negative effects of a botched back surgery keeping him off the sidelines again. The sign of a good leader is his team's ability to continue running at optimum efficiency in his or her absence, and these Warriors embody that precision with Kerr, who gets full credit for fishing this franchise out of the purgatory that was the Mark Jackson era. One area to watch in this series with Kerr's absence is Draymond Green's composure (Kerr knows best how to handle Green), the lack thereof having possibly cost Golden State the series last year when Green was suspended for the pivotal Game 5, where the Cavs began their comeback.
3. Kevin Durant microscope
If you're asking, "Which player is under the most pressure?" I don't know how this isn't the easiest question of the series to answer. It's Durant, and it's not even close, right? Durant is the only player in this series whose legacy will be measured, in part, by players who don't HAVE a title yet. LeBron, Steph and to a lesser extent Irving, Thompson, Green — they all have titles. LeBron's legacy arguments are three strata above Durant's right now. If Golden State wins, then they're just doing what was expected. If they lose, then Durant couldn't even get it done with a team that was the most prohibitive favorite in playoff history.
2. The unwashed
In the two NBA Finals that LeBron has lost since he finally broke through and won his first 2012 — San Antonio in 2014, Golden State in 2015 — the Finals MVP was an off-the-radar wing who made his bones in that series, in large part, by checking LeBron. Kawhi Leonard was an 18/1 shot at Finals MVP in 2014 (Yes, there was a time when Leonard was a complimentary player to Duncan and Parker.) and Andre Iguodala wasn't even on the betting board when the Finals started in 2015. I bring this up not to say we will have a supporting actor win the MVP, but to illustrate that, oftentimes, the difference in this series comes down to a non-All Star, an X-factor. Role players to keep an eye on here: Tristan Thompson (controlling the boards against a Warriors team that would rather play small than big), Javale McGee (suddenly a valuable role player and not a YouTube joke!), Zaza Pachulia (designated dirty close out guy) and J.R. Smith (a safe bet to shoot 1 for 8 from downtown every night, except in that one game where he hits seven threes in a row).
1. Late and close
The 12-0 Warriors are operating with a postseason point differential of +16.3 points per game, and have won just twice by single single digits. The Cavaliers had a first-round series against Indiana that had a TOTAL point differential of 16 points in four games, and while all four wins against Boston were blowouts, the Cavaliers did lose a game. Comparing these résumés, the knee-jerk reaction is "Golden State is more impressive. They're better," and those are true statements. However, Golden State is also supremely comfortable playing in games where they're burying teams with their free-flowing style. In games that are close in the waning moments, I'm more inclined to take the team with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
And I think Cleveland can keep at least four of these games close...
PREDICTION: (GULP)...Cavaliers in 7
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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