To put things in the parlance that both the foodies and the sports junkies can appreciate: looking back on things, the 2016-2017 NBA season was the basketball equivalent of dining at a fancy steakhouse. The regular season was the basket of fresh bread you get when you sit down: something everyone enjoys, is eager to get started with, and is consumed in different amounts by different people. The playoffs was like the appetizer course: a small taste of some of the best the restaurant has to offer, tantalizing you just enough to where you’re eagerly anticipating the entrée to come.
And now, with the 2017 NBA Finals — pitting the Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Golden State Warriors for the third year in a row — set to tip off on Thursday evening, it’s finally time to dig in to the much-awaited main course.
While you’re not really supposed to have to wait more than 20 minutes between when you first sit down in a restaurant and when your entrée arrives, basketball fans in the San Francisco Bay area, northeast Ohio, and all over the world have been eagerly awaiting the Cavaliers-Warriors “rubber match” for the last 346 days. It was just over 49 weeks ago when Cleveland overcame a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals, thanks in large part to LeBron James’ triple-double (he became the first player to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals since James Worthy did it for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988), and Kyrie Irving’s iconic three-point dagger (drained in the face of reigning league MVP Stephen Curry), defeating a Golden State team that won the most regular season games in the history of the league.
As the confetti fell on James and the Cavaliers, and long before the Warriors bolstered their roster with perhaps the most startling free agent acquisition in this history of the Association, everyone — the players, coaches, fans, and anyone else in between — knew one thing: first the Warriors won one, then the Cavaliers won the next one, so another rematch — to split the tie — was inevitable. Then, when superstar forward Kevin Durant announced his plans to sign with the Warriors exactly two weeks after Cleveland defeated Golden State, the fiercest Cold War in NBA history officially began. Cleveland kept an eye on the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference, and Golden State did the same with the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets in the Western Conference, but that other eye was firmly locked in a staredown with each other, knowing they’d be seeing each other again, up close and very personal, sometime in June.
In an age where parity has come to be the norm in professional sports, we can’t wait to tear into this dish offered by the basketball gods — even if it’s the third year in a row it’s being served to us — because it features two teams that we’ve spent the past few years talking about, the past few weeks talking about, and likely many more years talking about. This is the modern day equivalent of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the 70’s, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 80’s, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers in the 90’s, and the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the 2000’s. They represent the pinnacle of their respective sports, and shape the conversations in which their sports are talked about.
Even after we spent much of the past two seasons talking about the juggernaut that the Warriors represent, we’d still be remiss not to discuss just how good they’ve been in the postseason so far. Curry is shooting over 43% from three-point range, and almost 60% from inside the arc. Durant is two missed free throws away from posting a 50-40-90 stat line in the postseason. Draymond Green built on a regular season in which he led the league in Defensive Win Shares per 48 minutes, as he’s simply been the best defensive player of any team throughout the playoffs. Even Klay Thompson, who’s coming off a shaky series against San Antonio, shot almost 40% from three-point range and averaged over 18 points per game in the Warriors opening round defeat of the Portland TrailBlazers.
So, it shouldn’t be any surprise that ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has given the Warriors a 93% chance of defeating the Cavaliers for the championship, with the most likeliest scenarios projected as the Warriors winning the series in five or six games. Further bolstered by the fact that Golden State won 67 or more regular season games for the third year in a row (something that’s never been accomplished in NBA history) and hasn’t lost a single game this postseason, it almost seems like a foregone conclusion to many people that the Warriors are the favorite to win this series.
But then again, is it really that simple? After all, aren’t we just one year removed from the Warriors winning a staggering 73 regular season games, and employing three of 25 best players that the league had to offer (including the back-to-back MVP), and still not being able to win the NBA championship? Aren’t we prematurely anointing the Warriors as a shoo-in to win, in large part because they signed a superstar player that has appeared in the NBA Finals exactly one time in his 10-year career? Aren’t we forgetting the fact that, as the legendary professional wrestler Ric Flair often stated: “to BE the man, you gotta BEAT the man?” And aren’t we forgetting the most important fact: that the Cleveland Cavaliers still have the greatest basketball player in the world — and one of the five greatest basketball players of all time — on their team?
As long as LeBron James is on the floor, defeating the team he plays for is nothing short of a Herculean task, even for a team as loaded as Golden State. James and the Cavaliers will be walking into Oracle Arena on Thursday with the proverbial championship belts around their waists, which they earned last year by beating what was supposed to be the greatest team in NBA history. So until Golden State is actually able to beat Cleveland four times in a seven-game series, the Warriors are nothing more than a formidable — if not historic — contender, and that’s it.
Needless to say, this series should be a feast for basketball gourmands everywhere.