The defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers enter Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors with an unfavorable outlook from computer algorithms and Las Vegas odds makers. Yet they are the decided underdog according to both in this historic series, as it will be the first time in NBA history two teams have faced each other in the Finals three consecutive seasons.
For some it is hard to reconcile how a team that has a nine-game playoff road winning streak and is 12-1 this postseason is given little chance of defeating the Warriors. Many quantitative analyses give the Cavaliers less than a 10 percent chance of beating the Warriors in the best-of-seven series while Vegas’ opening odds of Golden State winning, -320 versus the Cavaliers +260, were astronomical.
The reasons are evident. Basketball is a game of match-ups. And the Warriors hold distinct match-up advantages over the Cavaliers despite the singular brilliance of LeBron James, the world’s best player.
Last season, the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 series deficit to earn a 4-3 victory. No team had ever come back to take the Finals after falling 3-1. Several factors contributed to the Cavaliers’ resurrection, including the NBA suspending Warriors volatile forward Draymond Green for Game 5 after Green was assessed a flagrant-1 foul for hitting James in the groin in Game 4.
Additionally, and very much understated, was the left knee bone bruise sustained by former Warriors starting center Andrew Bogut in the third quarter of Game 5, which sidelined him for Games 6 and 7. No doubt James was otherworldly and Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving sensational, yet the absences of Green and Bogut were profound.
This season, the Warriors, the top seed in the Western Conference, are deeper and better than they were a season ago, even in the face of their win total dropping from an NBA record 73 in 2016 to 67 this season.
Adding Kevin Durant, arguably the world’s second best player, has tremendously bolstered the Warriors’ lineup on both ends of the court and will make it nearly impossible for the Cavaliers to consistently double team Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as they did in the 2016 Finals without paying a severe price.
It’ll be Durant and not erstwhile Warrior Harrison Barnes attacking the Cavaliers from all angles. And if Thompson, whose shot has been uncharacteristically erratic during this postseason, rediscovers his stroke, the Cavaliers may be in for a short series.
It is a given that James will continue to play at a level few have ever experienced. So it is incumbent on Irving, guard J.R. Smith and forward Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, to aid James in somehow offsetting the potent Warriors’ offense. The Cavaliers, the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 51-31, have been much better defensively this postseason than they were during the regular season. But in dismissing the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics in order, they faced three teams that were demonstrably offensively challenged.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, neither the algorithms or odds makers are wrong. The Warriors will avenge last season Finals disappointment with a 4-2 series win this time around.