The best time of the NBA season has arrived (after much waiting), as the much-anticipated NBA Finals return matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers begins this evening (8 pm, ABC).
Though this is a third go-around for these two franchises in the deciding series, this year has the feel of a once-in-a-lifetime collision.
First, there’s the now widely-known fact that this is the first time two franchises are meeting in three straight Finals. Secondly, there’s the unprecedented combined play by the Eastern and Western Conference representatives: the Warriors have made the first undefeated 12-0 run into a Finals series while the Cavs are 11-1 after dominating the East. Throughout this tie-breaking Finals series, I am looking at four specific pairings to make the difference in deciding who are the true heavyweights of this era.
The first match to keep a lookout for is the battle of the shooting guards: J.R. Smith vs. Klay Thompson. Thompson has been struggling shooting the ball so far in these playoffs, only averaging 14 points a game and shooting 31 percent from the 3-point line compared to last year’s 24 point and 42 percent average in the postseason.
If the Warriors want to keep an advantage on the offensive end, Thompson, presumably one of the best two-way players in the league, is going to have to be very efficient on both ends of the floor, but most importantly on the offensive end.
Smith has been consistent in shooting the ball, averaging 45 percent from the 3-point stripe and 48 percent overall, but he is only averaging six points a contest. Not to mention that his most lethal option is when he drives to the basket aggressively to create opportunities for his teammates. The Cavs are going to need more offensive production with the continued offensive efficiency Smith has been providing all playoffs long in order to increase the Cavs’ chances at winning.
Our second key match-up is in the power forwards department: Kevin Love vs. Draymond Green. Love has seemed to found his groove after playing in his first Finals last season. He has increased his offensive production and efficiency, currently averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds and shooting 48 percent from the three, compared to 14 points, nine rebounds and 41 percent from the three in 2016.
Love, as the third piece to the Cavs’ triangle, has to continue to thrive offensively if the team wants to have a choice. Green is not the main focal point on the Warriors when it comes to scoring the ball, but he is the heartbeat of the team, his energy and aggression sets the tone. Green puts pressure on you mentally, along with the ability to be a point guard when it comes to him running the fast break. Love has to make his presence known in order for the team to keep some form of a check on Green.
The third match-up is between point guards Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry, as elite and interesting a point guard match as you can have in an NBA filled with greatness at the position.
Irving, who is averaging 25 points a game, has also increased his assist average to 6 a game this postseason. Curry has been consistent in the playoffs, picking up where he left off last year averaging 29 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists a game so far. However, the key to Curry’s continued success is his decreased amount of turnovers, he is only averaging 3 turnovers a game, compared to 5 a game last postseason. Both players will come ready to play, but it will become a game of who can better protect the ball in order to win that competitive contest.
And last but not least, our most important match-up, that of the two best players in the league: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. These two live for the playoffs, with Durant and James each averaging 28 points a game throughout their postseason careers.
However, this one-on-one battle will not be just entertainment, but a revenge opportunity: an opportunity for Durant to overthrow the King (who stifled Durant’s first planned insurrection against him in 2012 while with Oklahoma City) and take his crown as an NBA champion, not just to defeat, but to standout, maybe win the NBA Finals MVP and solidify his decision to leave OKC for the best team in the NBA, the team that both beat him and valued him as the last piece needed to formally challenge LeBron.
We know the King will come with vengeance to add a fourth ring to his collection as he is in mid-quest to chase the GOAT, Michael Jordan, but Durant is the only one with the ability to derail that narrative. The Cavs are very strong this year, but I think KD will prevail as the best in this series.
I expect this to be a hard fought 7-game series with the Warriors taking the championship… and Durant taking the Finals MVP.
Joshua M. Hicks is a sports writer and broadcaster and a recent graduate of Roosevelt University