The Golden State Warriors produced a sensational comeback to overwhelm Houston on Tuesday and set up an NBA Finals clash with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is the fourth season in a row that the Warriors and Cavs have contested the NBA Finals, and Steve Kerr’s men are heavy favourites to secure victory. They are the dominant team of the modern era and they have a strong recent record against Cleveland, plus a roster brimming with superstar talent. But they will have to be at their very best to see off a Cleveland team led by the irrepressible LeBron James, who is in devastating form right now.
The maestro put up 35 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and eight turnovers to guide his team to a rousing Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics on Monday. He has been on fire in the post-season, regularly dropping more than 40 points. He landed spine-tingling buzzer beaters against Indiana and Toronto, and he has essentially dragged a distinctly average team all the way to the Finals with his individual brilliance. With James in the line-up, the Cavs are always in with a chance.
In 2016, Cleveland trailed the Warriors 3-1 in the NBA Finals, but James went into overdrive and led his team to three straight victories, clinching a 4-3 series win. The Warriors’ response was emphatic. They secured the services of one of the world’s best players, Kevin Durant, adding him to a stellar line-up that already featured All-Stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the best shooting backcourt of all time, and two elite defenders in Draymond Green and Andre Iguodola. The result was thoroughly predictable: the Dubs posted the best regular season record and won the Western Conference without dropping a single game in the play-offs. They then routed Cleveland 4-1 in the Finals, gaining sweet revenge. They are now bidding to win a third NBA Championship in four years.
But the Warriors have certainly not been the unstoppable juggernaut that everyone anticipated at the start of the season. They finished below the Houston Rockets in the regular season standings, and laboured through the play-offs. Their Western Conference Finals series went to Game 7 against the Rockets, and they were losing heavily at half-time, staring down the barrel of elimination. Then Curry and Durant reminded everyone why they are ranked among the top three players in the world right now. They were both sensational as Dubs outscored the Warriors by 18 points in the third quarter, and they never relinquished the lead.
Whoever claimed the west was always going to be the heavy favourite in the NBA Finals as it is a far stronger conference. The Warriors are now well ahead of the Cavs in the NBA spread betting markets and there is value to be had in backing them for a comfortable victory. The Warriors are among the greatest teams of all time, if not the greatest, and they are up against an inconsistent and largely inferior bunch. The big question for most pundits is not whether Golden State will win this series, but what the winning scoreline will be.
One concern surrounds 2015 Finals MVP Iguodala, who is nursing a knee injury and may miss out on all or at least part of the series. That leaves the Dubs weakened defensively, and James could exploit that and will the Cavs to a victory or two. Kerr has rotated Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, Shaun Livingston and Nick Young in that spot, but the Dubs are not quite the same team without their Hamptons 5. A 4-1 win for the Warriors is the favourite in the correct score betting, followed closely by 4-2 and 4-0. No team has taken a 4-0 clean sweep since San Antonio in 2007, and the Cavs should be good for at least one victory as Golden State’s motivation levels are sometimes questionable. But it is extremely difficult to imagine this bunch of journeymen overwhelming a Golden State team that just beat the heavily fancied Rockets in such a confidence boosting fashion.
James is Cleveland’s only chance. If he carries his team to victory in this upcoming series, it will be the crowning achievement in his glorious career. It would give further fuel to those that herald him as the greatest of all time. But the supporting cast simply looks too weak. The Rockets, not the Cavs, had the best chance of usurping Golden State, and the Warriors brushed them aside with a grim sense of inevitability.
The NBA risks becoming predictable and boring due to the Golden State super-team’s domination, but it is hard to see Cleveland ending that this year. Perhaps James will move to the Rockets or the 76ers ahead of next season and level the playing field a little, but right now the Warriors are head and shoulders above the rest of the league.