After all that, we're right back where we finished last season, with the Cavaliers heading to the Bay area to open the NBA Finals against the Warriors. Will this year's result be any different? Tom Ziller and Paul Flannery discuss in their F+Z Finals preview.
ZILLER: All that drama to end up with an NBA Finals rematch. The Warriors survived their near-death experience and face the Cavaliers again. Like last year, Cleveland waltzed through the East. Golden State had a tougher time, but looks healthy and ready.
This series should be much different than the 2015 vintage, though, because of the presence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. I'm not convinced the duo's health will be a net positive for Cleveland -- not against this team.
What do you think about Kyrie and K-Love against the Warriors?
FLANNERY: It will be a much different series, but I don't think the outcome will be any different. I'll get to my prediction later, but on paper this sets up really well for Golden State. The Dubs love to attack weak defenders, and in Love and Kyrie, the Cavs offer two prime targets. Whether it was due to the trade speculation or whatever, the Warriors seem to take extra delight in roasting Love on the pick-and-roll. Throw in Channing Frye in small-ball configurations, and this could get messy.
Two caveats to all of this. One, the Cavs are better rested and fresher. (I'd throw healthier into that mix as well, but people get touchy about that one. How dare you say the guy who missed a half-dozen playoff games is not 100 percent.) And two, if any team can go toe-to-toe with Golden State in a shootout, it's these Cleveland Cavaliers. The Finals could get super fun, but that will only magnify the defensive difference between these two squads.
You think Andre Iguodala will start on LeBron?
ZILLER: I do think Iguodala will start and draw the LeBron assignment. How could he not after winning Finals MVP on the strength of his defense a year ago and getting the Game 7 start on Monday to check Kevin Durant? I don't think Steve Kerr has necessarily lost confidence in Harrison Barnes; it's just that you need Iguodala on James as much as possible. It's not worth conceding the first six minutes to LeBron.
Love has to punish Draymond Green to justify minutes. The Warriors had some serious rebounding woes against Oklahoma City, but they won't have Russell Westbrook or Andre Roberson to worry about. Love was once a preternatural offensive board crasher, but that's impossible out on the perimeter. It's imperative that Tristan Thompson gets some second-chance buckets to keep Kerr from going small early and often.
I'm intrigued by the concept this could be a shootout given the slogfest we had last year and on Christmas Day.
FLANNERY: You can throw that game out of the proverbial window. I don't want to say that everything changed when Ty Lue took over, but a lot of things did and the big stuff has happened offensively. That Cavs team from Christmas and this Cavs team are way, way different. Not quite as different as last year to this one, but different enough that I don't think a lot of their head-to-head stuff matters that much.
You're right about Tristan Thompson. I wasn't enamored with his work in the conference finals, but he killed Atlanta in the second round and he can make those Golden State bigs work. The role players are going to be a fascinating subplot with J.R. Smith and Frye providing offense and Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova doing the defensive work. Who else do you think needs to show up big to tilt the scales in these Finals?
ZILLER: We saw Westbrook wear Curry down with the ball in the middle of that series. Kyrie plays much, much differently than Westbrook, but he's a stud scorer and should be able to make his defender work. If this is going to be less of a grinding affair, the Cavs need numbers from Irving. He probably needs to be as good as Klay Thompson at minimum for Cleveland to survive.
I don't know about Love, so I won't pretend otherwise. He's been excellent through much of the postseason, but Green's combination of agility and strength are worrisome. I think the Cavaliers have a shot at winning even if Love's not making a major impact. That's not the case for Irving or, obviously, LeBron.
Do you think this is going to be a small-ball fest, or is there a place for Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and (gulp) Timofey Mozgov? Channing Frye is a large human, but feels like an exception.
FLANNERY: I think it's going to start small and stay that way. Going off what we've seen so far, it looks like Steve Kerr will try to steal minutes with his bigs because of the stress the death lineup puts on Draymond Green. (Underrated subplot: Can Draymond avoid picking up technicals and/or a flagrant that would warrant a suspension?) By and large I think we'll see both teams' small lineups, and for the Cavs, that means Love, Thompson and Frye in a big man rotation.
Here's another one to watch: How will the Warriors match up with the LeBron + four reserves lineups that Ty Lue has been rolling out at the start of quarters? Those few minutes without Steph, Klay and Green on the court feel dicey even under the best of circumstances. We're going to be talking a lot about lineups and adjustments and so forth as this series moves along.
It's interesting that my initial thought after Game 7 was that the Warriors were in great shape here, but the more we suss this out, I think it can go six or even the distance. Am I just talking myself into this or do you see an epic?
ZILLER: I try my best to not put anything past a team that has LeBron James and at least one other star. In that respect, two wins for Cleveland seems mighty attainable. Winning three seems plausible. Taking four is not a stretch. The Warriors are better, but as the Thunder ALMOST proved, anything can happen in the playoffs. That "anything" could also cover a Golden State blowout. Seventy-three wins don't lie.
We all hope for a compelling series because that makes for better games. The bottomless potential for tactical adjustments feeds that. We want something mentally stimulating and emotionally resonant because we're human and otherwise neutral. So yeah, I'm talking myself into an epic, too, because that would be way more interesting.
I wonder how playoff drama will reflect on this Warriors season, even if they win.
FLANNERY: My general sense is that a) no one will remember the details in time and b) it will only add to their legend if they win. For example, the '96 Bulls were up 3-0 on the Sonics and lost two straight. That was weird, but no one really cared in the grand scheme of things. As you say, 73 wins don't lie. Add a repeat on top of that and their legacy will be secure forever.
Prediction time? I think it's prediction time. Who ya got?
ZILLER: I predicted the Cavs to win the title both before the season (over the Thunder, natch) and before the postseason (over the beaten-up Warriors, having expected tough battles with L.A. and San Antonio, alas). I'll stick with it. There's something dangerous and different about LeBron right now, something on top of the usual excellence. He's been focused on this opportunity for a year now and I don't think he's going to throw away his shot. Cavs in six. You?
FLANNERY: I'm riding with the Warriors in six, seven if Draymond gets suspended along the way. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if it went down exactly the same way, with a split in Oakland and Golden State down 2-1 heading into Game 4 in Cleveland. I just think it will be a much different ride.