The finale to an incredible 2017-18 NBA season tips off tonight from Oracle Arena. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet again in a lopsided clash of titans, but a latently exciting one nonetheless — if LeBron James has shown us anything this postseason, it’s that he will not get caught on the wrong end of a suspenseful series. Here are some series-defining elements to watch for in Game 1.
No Andre, No Problem?
Having four prime-era All-Stars on hand is hardly a hardship for the Golden State Warriors. But somehow, losing old head Andre Iguodala messed enough with the Dubs’ psychology for them to tiptoe the brink of elimination during the Western Conference Finals. In the 2018 postseason, Iguodala gradually shifted from sixth man to starting swingman, rounding out the mega-destroyer Death Lineup much like he did in the 2015 NBA Finals — when the Warriors beat the Cavs the first time.
But Iguodala hasn’t suited up since Game 3 of the Conference Finals after an unlucky collision with James Harden left him with a stubborn bone bruise to his left knee. The Warriors subsequently dropped Games 4 and 5, and were down by double digits at halftime in Games 6 and 7. According to Steve Kerr, losing Andre and losing games was less correlation than causation.
Iguodala will be sidelined at least for Game 1 of these Finals, which presents a noted weak spot the Cavs will look to exploit. The Warriors are simply, evidentially more vulnerable without him. Andre’s absence means a loss of box score-repellent little things that he brings to the Warriors: at Media Day Wednesday, LeBron made note of Iguodala’s “very, very quick hands”, “ability to read and react to the ball” in practically any situation, and the weaponized athleticism that allows him to defend the top perimeter players in the league. Also, of course, his ability to go toe-to-toe with the King.
Iguodala nabbed Finals MVP in 2015 as a reward for his suffocating defense on LeBron, lethally injecting an already depleted Cavs team that had already lost Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injury. While the success of the Death Lineup is largely predicated on its ability to defensively switch, Iguodala hardly ever switched off of LeBron that year. Andre focused on not allowing LeBron clean looks at the basket, contesting hard, and wearing Bron out by forcing him to play iso ball. Andre ultimately helped to keep LeBron under 40% shooting for the series.
Andre shadowed LeBron in the 2016 Finals too, but wasn’t nearly as effective with Irving and Love flanking the King at full strength. The Warriors had two other All-Stars to worry about, and ultimately they were overpowered.
In the 2017 Finals, Andre, recovering from left knee tendinitis, took a step back and let his new teammate Kevin Durant take a stab at stopping the King; last year, Iguodala ultimately played fewer minutes than he did in the two previous championship series, but with KD filling the holes, the Dubs managed just fine.
The Cavs look much different than they did a year ago, than they did even half a season ago when they last met the Warriors. And while they may appear weaker, the matchups will have to unfold and speak for themselves. For Golden State, the Kyrie burden has lifted. As if they needed more luck, Game 1 will be Love’s first outing since sustaining a head injury in the Eastern Conference Finals; in general this postseason, his play has been off the mark (to say the least). The Warriors have no choice but to throw everything they have at LeBron and LeBron only.
If Andre were healthy, it’d be in the Warriors’ best interest (based on history) to let him focus on shutting down a considerably helpless Bron to make the series as short and sweet as possible. Instead, according to Kerr, the Dubs will employ a “by committee” defensive strategy on the bionic man. Durant guarded LeBron more than any teammate in two meetings this season; if this trend were to keep up, KD would expend far too much energy chasing the unassailable 2018 version of LeBron around the court. The Dubs need their 2017 Finals MVP to optimize offensively.
Look for Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Shaun Livingston to take on the King equilaterally. No one defender — neither Iguodala nor Marcus Morris — is LeBron’s kryptonite. The Warriors will have to sacrifice anyway. They’ll dare J.R. Smith and George Hill to have their way. They’ll pray that LeBron’s 101st game of the season begins to manifest itself physically. Because Year 15 LeBron has made us believers: he will not go down easily. If Andre and his bag of tricks don’t return before long, the Dubs will have far more to worry about than just contesting Bron’s shot — their rings could be on the line.
Dodging the Third Quarter Death Star
Honestly, it would probably suit LeBron, Ty Lue, and the Cavs best to just orchestrate their game plan around the third quarter. The Warriors have proven time and again that 80% of the time, nothing that happens before halftime ultimately matters. Their notorious scheduled avalanche is a transcendent insurance policy.
In the two closing games of the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets managed 10- and 11-point halftime leads, respectively. They had help, though: in the first halves of those games, particularly Game 7, the Warriors often looked as if they were assaulted by Nerdlucks; Steve Kerr even peddled the idea of quitting his job. But in the third quarters of those games, the Dubs went on to outscore Houston by an average of 17.5 points; their resilience and subsequent demoralization of the Rockets ultimately put them in the better position to win the series. It’s unclear whether the Dubs drink an elixir at halftime or if they simply choose not to exert effort until after the 24th minute, but their league-leading third-quarter plus-minus margin is just one reason why they’re (arguably) the greatest team ever assembled.
LeBron knows all of this. He also happens to be a master at conserving energy for when his dominance matters most. Look for him to facilitate for his teammates in the first half. Look for him to read his opponents like a book. Look for him to use the third quarter not just to make his offensive presence felt, but also to rally his team of misfits into playing their best 12 minutes of defense. One huge Warriors weakness is their clutch-time execution; if the Cavs can keep the game close down the stretch, it becomes a game of chess. At the end of the day, they’ve got this postseason’s most clutch performer on their side.
It’s a Rivalry!!!
We may be trapped in the malaise of a fourth consecutive Finals matchup with an almost-certain winner, but even if the games themselves may be insufferable, the games within the games shan’t be slept on. These players — including three of the best in the world — have (circumstantial) beef! They live to beat each other! And the NBA universe lives equally for when these teams get under each other’s skin.
The pinnacle of the tension between these two teams can be found in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals. After a signature flop by Draymond, LeBron stepped over him as if he were a puddle on the sidewalk. Draymond’s response? The now-notorious swipe at LeBron’s groin. Oh, the masculinity! The ego-induced “altercation” culminated in Draymond’s series-swinging Game 5 suspension.
Klay even felt some type of way about the Dray/Bron extracurriculars, accusing LeBron of having gotten his feelings hurt. It’s a man’s league!
LeBron and Steph aren’t just rival All-Star team captains. They, for all intents and purposes, hated each other in the 2016 Finals. In the latter half of the legendary series, LeBron pushed Steph to the edge of sanity en route to erasing that fabled 3-1 deficit. In Game 6, when Bron put up 41 points and 11 assists, he tantalized the Warriors with his dominance; this block — cushioned with a classic disrespect only LeBron can dish out — was the cherry on top.
Seconds after LeBron’s condescending defensive sequence, Steph fouled out (for the first time in two and a half years) after Bron overpowered his attempt at a steal. Steph’s frustration boiled over. He threw his beloved mouthpiece, hit a spectator, and was ejected. The Cavs had, at that point, bought all the real estate in the Dubs’ heads faster than Oakland gentrifiers.
Here's what Ayesha Curry posted at the end of the game…then deleted, but only after tens of thousands of retweets: pic.twitter.com/dO83u456iX
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) June 17, 2016
The whole sequence led to the infamous Ayesha Curry tweet.
During their 2017 MLK Day matchup, Dray and Bron had another go at it. LeBron’s dramatization may have done him more damage than Draymond’s hard(-ish) foul, but I digress. Richard Jefferson makes a cameo.
In Game 4 of the 2017 Finals, otherwise known as the Cavs’ insane, relentless offensive barrage that guaranteed them a modest gentlemen’s sweep, KD and Bron got into it. Kind of. After KD called for refs to review a potential flagrant foul committed by Kevin Love, Bron took exception with his mentee. You could hardly call it an argument, but the jawing between the two greatest players on earth became a lasting image of the evolution of the Dubs/Cavs rivalry.
With the Cavs down 15 in the third quarter of Game 5, tension bubbled between Tristan Thompson-Kardashian and… David West? The unlikely pair turned a scramble for a loose ball into an angry kiss.
Look forward to the rivalry, if nothing else. It’s history before our eyes.