Warriors in six games, and this time LeBron won’t be able to stop it

Nobody much cares to hear about it now, but I correctly predicted that the Cleveland Cavaliers would win the 2016 NBA Finals.

Not precisely, mind you, since my guess was Cleveland in six games over Golden State and not seven, as it turned out to be. Still, with LeBron James climbing out of a 3-1 hole in the series, the whole thing is fairly amazing. The Cavs winning, of course, and me actually being right for a change.

 

Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant prepares to shoot during practice on Wednesday in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors face the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, June 1. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

So with Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals upon us, let’s take another stab at it.

The pick is not so exotic this time. In fact, my call of Golden State in six games falls right in line with many others in the business.

Kevin Durant is the reason. He’s good to go for 30 points or more any night, and the Warriors were pretty great before he joined them last summer.

Russell Westbrook will get the 2017 MVP award later this month but until that happens it is fair to say that Golden State has all the MVP winners since LeBron’s last trophy in 2013  – Durant in 2014 and Steph Curry the last two years. That’s just too much firepower to overcome, though LeBron will bust a gut trying.

Add in the Warriors’ home-court advantage and the feeling gets stronger.

Could LeBron win a Game 7 at Oracle Arena? He did last year. Doing it twice in two years is asking too much of anyone, however, even with a teammate like Kyrie Irving, whose three-pointer in the final minute won the deciding game last June.

As for looking at the regular-season series between the Cavs and Warriors, a 1-1 split, there’s no much to glean from there. Last year Golden State won both regular-season matchups but it didn’t mean a thing in the Finals, when Cleveland’s aggressive defense limited Curry to 22.6 points per game and a severe loss of confidence.

Durant is the answer to that problem in these Finals. He also is deadly from any range and will sting the Cavs often enough to get Curry more open shots.

[LeBron was predicted to be this great the day he left high school]

[A clearer picture of the challenge Brad Kaaya faces in Detroit]

If any of this turns out to be wrong, we’ll try it again next year with the same two teams. The Warriors and Cavs are going to be an NBA Finals thing for a while longer. The only way that changes is if LeBron begins to fade noticeably and if somebody else in the East grows up. Not all that likely in either case.

The best news of all is that all the major players are healthy for this series. If that holds true, there should be enough electricity here to make up for an ultimately meaningless postseason so far.

LeBron and Cavs actually less competitive in Finals than they were in 2007

 

Would LeBron James actually leave Cleveland again for a team with better NBA title chances? Only now am I beginning to wonder, and for a couple of reasons.

For openers, the Cavs are actually less competitive in the NBA Finals right now than they were when LeBron initally dragged them to the championship round at the age of 22.

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving, from left, LeBron James, Dahntay Jones and J.R. Smith sit on the bench during the second half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
OAKLAND – Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving, from left, LeBron James, Dahntay Jones and J.R. Smith sit on the bench during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Yes, I know, that’s really saying something since San Antonio swept Cleveland in 2007. What’s more, LeBron had only two teammates who scored in double figures on average in that series, and the best of them was Drew Gooden at 12.8.

Looking back, however, the Spurs really had to scrap to win the last two games, 75-72 and 83-82. Overall, San Antonio’s average winning margin was six points per game.

The 2016 NBA Finals are off to a much more lopsided start with Golden State winning by an average of 24 points per game. That’s a record for the first two games and it breaks a mark that stood for 55 years.

Of course, the Warriors are to blame for most of this. They play at such a high efficiency level that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson haven’t even needed to score much yet and the games are still blowouts.

LeBron has, however, everything he wanted in Cleveland, right down to the head coach of his choice, Tyronn Lue. Never mind that Lue finished the regular season 27-14 after taking over for David Blatt, fired at 30-11. LeBron is the boss and Cleveland fans trust him to make good on his pledge to throw them a championship parade. The best he has done so far is an 0-2 record in the NBA Finals and a big hole to climb out of in another.

Kyrie Irving is no Dwyane Wade. Kevin Love is no Hall of Famer, either, plus he’s uncertain for Wednesday’s essential Game 3 in Cleveland because of concussion protocols. The cavalry, in other words, isn’t coming. LeBron, nearly averaging a triple-double in the Finals at 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, is more isolated than ever.

If he hasn’t started thinking about other options by now, in other places, with other stars as teammates, it would be a surprise. Winning it all in Cleveland may just not be possible, no matter how much LeBron wants it, and playing out the rest of his career with that notion in mind would be torture for so competitive a man.

[No such thing as a simple summer for Dwyane Wade]

[A last look back at all those great Doral moments]

[A modest proposal for spicing up Dolphins OTA workouts]

Here’s the second bit of historical context when it comes to the potential for another LeBron free-agency blockbuster this summer.

The last time LeBron leaped from Miami to Cleveland, it was coming off a demoralizing NBA Finals loss. San Antonio beat the Heat in five games and the last three victories were routs, with the Spurs winning those by an average of 19 points.

Either because he thought the run in Miami was over, or because he was compelled to make things right in Cleveland, or more likely a combination of both, LeBron said goodbye, burning bridges with Pat Riley on his way out the door. That was after a playoff blitz that included just three Heat losses on the way to the Finals.

What we’re looking at now is a Cavs team that lost two playoff games on an easy ride to the Finals but seems all set up for another quick knockout by a tougher team from the Western Conference.

If that’s not bad enough, this could make two straight losses in the Finals. That never happened to LeBron in Miami.

Put it all together and Wednesday’s Game 3 may come down to a referendum on how much more of playing in Cleveland can LeBron stand, and how much longer will Cavs fans believe they have Superman on their side.

If he blows town once more, no heartfelt letter to Sports Illustrated will make a difference. It will be an admission that nobody is ever going to strike gold in that market, and that would hurt more than all previous disappointments combined.

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I picked the Cavs to beat the Warriors in six games. So you’re saying there’s still a chance, right?

 

Alright, let’s get this NBA Finals prediction on the record

If LeBron James really is part of a new Big Three in Cleveland, it shouldn’t be impossible for them to add up to four.

That’s what Big Threes do. They win four games in the NBA Finals. They close the deal like LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did twice together in Miami.

FILE - In this June 16, 2015, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) hangs his head during the second half of Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Cleveland. This Cleveland-Golden State series will mark the 14th time that there's been a rematch in the NBA Finals. Good news for the Cavs: Six of the last seven teams coming off a Finals loss won the rematch. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
CLEVELAND – Cavaliers forward LeBron James hangs his head during the second half of Game 6 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

Now maybe you’re not convinced that LeBron and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love comprise a genuine “Big Three,” as in “unstoppable trio,” as in “prepare the trophy case for immediate arrivals.” I’ve got my doubts, too, based on Love’s inconsistency and his tendency to get hurt.

Have to pick LeBron’s bunch this time, however, in a Finals rematch with the amazing Golden State Warriors. It’s a guess based on the Cavaliers owning a 2-1 series lead last year before running out of gas, and that’s with Irving and Love playing just one game between them because of injuries. It’s a prediction soaked in compassion, too, because the Cleveland sports market has waited long enough for a championship.

Foolish to go against Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who made 62 three-pointers between them in the Western Conference final? Yeah, probably is. Golden State has only lost 14 games all year, and that includes the playoffs. They’re beyond stubborn and so much fun to watch.

The Oklahoma City Thunder really did have them on the ropes in the last round, however. Down 3-1. In need of a miracle, which is what Thompson’s 11 three-pointers represented in Game 6.

LeBron may be the only guy in the league capable of delivering a knockout punch the next time the Warriors start wobbling, and he’ll begin by trying to steal Game 1 tonight at Oakland.

Again, look at last year’s Finals, a series so competitive that two of the six games went into overtime.

LeBron alone made it competitive. He had two triple-doubles. He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists. He led both teams in all three categories, an NBA Finals first.

A little bit of help from Irving and Love and what have you got? We’ll find out this time, and with a healthy dose of 6-foot-11 Channing Frye’s scoring thrown in, too. Frye wasn’t with the Cavs last year. He’s making almost 58 percent of his three-point shots in the 2016 playoffs, and that’s splashier even than the Splash Brothers.

[After 54 golden years, Doral’s Blue Monster deserves better than this]

[There’s really no such thing as a simple summer for Dwyane Wade]

[First hard evidence of where Dolphins rookie Laremy Tunsil will play]

“They wanted to get back to this moment, Ky being out seven months and Kevin doing rehab for three-and-a-half months on his shoulder,” LeBron said earlier this week. “They just had so much built up, anxiety or rage or excitement or whatever the case may be, just to be back on the floor and to show why we were all put together.”

If it wasn’t to win a championship, what exactly is the point?

One other thing. Six of the last seven teams to lose an NBA Finals and earn an immediate rematch won the title the second time. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Cleveland in six. If they get stretched to seven, the Warriors are at home and that’s not going to work for any opponent, no matter how bullish its superstar.

And if all of this turns out to be wrong, we’ll just scrap this Big Three concept for a while, OK, at least until Pat Riley puts another one together some day.

 

If Stephen Curry makes anything at all, Warriors can still make quick work of this

Stephen Curry, league MVP, missed 13 three-point attempts in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, which is almost as many as the Cavaliers made (9).

Add in the airball that Curry launched with a few seconds left in overtime and it’s fair to say that the Golden State Warriors lost by a fingernail while getting as little as they ever will from their shooting star.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 07:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Two of the 2015 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 7, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 07: Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors reacts in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Two of the 2015 NBA Finals. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

LeBron James, on the other hand, was T-Rex ferocious during his triple-double effort, getting angrier as the game went on. Part of it was because the refs weren’t blowing the whistle on his full-contact sprints to the basket. Part of it was because a few of his shots were actually blocked, and his try to win at the end of regulation didn’t go.

This was competition so tight that it made it tough to sit down watching the game on television, much less in person at the arena. Somehow, though, it feels to me like the Warriors will get over their Finals funk, play a little looser and make it a short series after all.

[Astros looking a lot prettier as West Palm’s 2017 spring training dance partner]

[Stanley Cup Final awakens memories of Panthers and rats]

[Hiring Jennings closest thing to Loria managing Marlins himself]

Golden State has more depth and more talent. That’s got to kick in sooner or later, and tonight’s Game 3 is as logical a place as any.

On Sunday the Warriors’ Marreese Speights missed a runaway dunk, for crying out loud, while Andrew Bogut has been reduced to grabbing people by the hands and arms and torsos just to keep the Cavs’ big men from getting every rebound. Bogut is no A-lister but if he could just stop playing like a D-Leaguer, that would mean a lot.

Most of all, Curry can’t be this cold for long. He’s shooting every time there’s an inch of separation and sometimes when there’s not. It’s a picture of a special talent trying to make every possession extra special rather than letting the Warriors’ slick offense work. It really is a thing of beauty when  it’s clicking and Curry, unlike the King of the Cavs, isn’t actually required to do everything himself.

Overall, LeBron deserves all the praise he’s getting for lifting the Cavs much higher than anyone else could in the absence of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but I’m sticking with my prediction of Golden State in five. Crazy, I know, but we are talking about generations of deeply-ingrained Cleveland sports trauma here.

To go against that is almost crazier.

 

LeBron James needs more help than these crumpled Cavs can give him

LeBron James is back in the NBA Finals beginning tonight but I figure he won’t be there for long. Make it Golden State in five.

To me, this series shapes up a lot like LeBron’s first Finals trip with Cleveland way back when he was 22. San Antonio won it in a four-game sweep with LeBron desperately in need of support from a Cavs lineup short on supplemental stars.

Cleveland averaged just 80.1 points in the 2007 Finals and the Spurs even won Game 3 despite scoring only 75.

[Dwyane Wade was better than you thought last year]

[A greater appreciation for the Heat’s four-year cavalry charge]

[Bulls went to Iowa State for coach once before with poor results]

This time around it’s a high-octane Warriors team with MVP Stephen Curry in LeBron’s way. If the Cavs had all their players it might be a long series, but Kyrie Irving is hurting and Kevin Love can’t play at all. That means LeBron will need to do more than score 28 points a night. He’ll also need to rebound and defend at monster levels.

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 26:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 26, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Hawks 118-88.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH – MAY 26: LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Oh, plus he does most of the coaching, too. It’s a little too much to ask once you get out of the Eastern Conference and into the NBA’s fast lane.

Looking back on the 2007 Finals, there really wasn’t much more LeBron could have done. He didn’t have Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He had Sasha Pavlovic and Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. When LeBron had a 4-for-16 shooting night in Game 1, there was no one else to help.

LeBron pressed the whole way. The best game was the clincher for the Spurs, with LeBron scoring 24 points on 10-of-30 shooting and only two other Cavs in double figures. San Antonio won 83-82.

No matter what, two things will be different for LeBron this year.

First, he’s a much more versatile scorer at 30 and will shoot a higher percentage, with lots of assists to keep the Warriors defense scrambling.

Second, there will be a lot more interest in this series. The 2007 Finals were a bust for ABC, with the lowest television ratings to that point for a championship series.

Viewership numbers dropped 27 percent from the previous year’s Finals, and you’ll probably like this next part.

The 2006 Finals were a Miami showcase, with the Heat taking their first title in six games against Dallas. Dwyane Wade was the Finals MVP with a 34.7-point average. Pat Riley was the Heat’s coach.

Dwyane Wade with 2006 NBA Finals MVP trophy (Damon Higgins/Palm Beach Post photo)
Dwyane Wade with 2006 NBA Finals MVP trophy (Damon Higgins/Palm Beach Post photo)Heat’s coach.

For now, though, it’s time to see if LeBron can do more with this Cleveland team, which won 53 games during the regular season, than he did with the 2007 Cavs, who won 50.

If he manages somehow to win another championship in his first year back in Cleveland, it will be a greater achievement than the two he won in Miami. That’s how much of the load is on his shoulders alone.

Oh, by the way, the FiveThirtyEight website, where numbers are king, figures that LeBron’s current Cavs roster is better than the 2007 crew, but only by a hair.

And if you can make sense of anything in that deep bucket of data, thank your calculus teacher.

If you can’t, feel free to enjoy this crazy NBA Finals preview from Taiwainese animators: