OAKLAND — Three rounds of the NBA playoffs have culminated in a couple of incontrovertible, and seemingly mutually exclusive, facts. LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, end of sentence. And his Cleveland Cavaliers are massive underdogs in the NBA Finals.
It will pit the same two teams against each other for the fourth straight season, but this is a final that is a like a laboratory experiment set up to test the old NBA maxim that the team with the best player in a series will win.
It also feels at least a little like this series was decided a couple of nights ago, when the Houston Rockets bricked their way to a Game 7 loss at home and set up the Golden State-Cleveland four-peat.
But back to those incontrovertible facts. James, in dragging the Cavaliers this far to reach the last step personally for the eighth straight year, has made the regular-season MVP award utterly moot. He has proven that he’s the best player in the league, no matter what might happen over the course of the 82 games he treats as a warm-up act. It’s like he’s workshopping his material in a dingy theatre before he takes it to the main stage. This year he even switched out half his supporting cast in mid-season for a bunch of new understudies and is still performing like a maestro.
LeBron is leading the NBA playoffs in points, assists, minutes, free throws, and field goals made and attempted. He’s done that kind of thing a few times in this ridiculous dominance of the Eastern Conference, but this season he has hoisted the Cavaliers on his shoulders to an even more silly degree. Over the past eight playoff seasons, there have been 72 40-point games. LeBron accounts for 17 of those; seven have come this season.
But as good as he has been, he comes into this series universally expected to lose. The Cavaliers are 10-1 underdogs, the second-largest NBA Finals underdog in the past 30 seasons, according to ESPN. (The Sixers were 20-1 underdogs to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in 2000.) The last five Finals teams to be at least 7½-to-1 underdogs have all lost, ESPN notes, and none even managed to force a Game 7.
Jeff Van Gundy, the former coach who will be one of the analysts on ABC’s broadcasts, said on Monday that the Cavaliers will have to have an extraordinary three-point shooting night just to win a game. One game.
“This is the biggest difference that I remember between two teams heading into the Finals in my time in the NBA,” Van Gundy said. “I can’t — I can’t think of a bigger gap from a team perspective.”
It’s a fairly simple conclusion to reach: these same Warriors dusted off the Cavaliers in five games last season, and that Cleveland squad included Kyrie Irving as a second superstar and a number of role players who were part of Cleveland’s 2016 upset of Golden State. Irving is gone and many of those bench guys were dumped mid-season for a new supporting cast that has been largely a non-factor for Cleveland.
Van Gundy, blunt as ever, said this Finals matchup was “a letdown” after Golden State and Houston bashed each other’s heads in for seven games in the West final.
“To me, Houston wasn’t just one half away from advancing to the Finals,” he said. “They were one half away from winning a championship.”
“So it will be interesting to see how competitive LeBron James can make this Finals, but any game they get in this Finals would be a huge upset, to me.”
That the result feels preordained has kicked off another round of speculation on whether the NBA would be better served by ditching the conference format at playoff time and seeding the teams one through 16. That format would have resulted in a Houston-Golden State final, assuming both made it through three series. Such a system has logistical problems related to cross-country travel, and it would make for some odd matchups in the early rounds, but in an era where James seems to be able to take a half-dozen random fellows and win the East, one can see the merit of it.
Kevin Durant, last year’s Finals MVP, said he had no problem with a system that has produced the same two teams at the ends for four years. “I think it’s great,” he said, a little deadpan. Durant also said he didn’t mind if it took a little of the drama and unpredictability out of the league.
“That’s what you have movies and music for,” he said.
Van Gundy, for one, said he likes the idea of 1-to-16 seeding, to make it more likely that the two best teams meet in the Finals. But he also noted that there was one other way to break the Warriors-Cavaliers repetitiveness.
“I think it’s up it other teams,” he said. “If we want to see a different Finals, then we’ve got to have other teams win.”
The other teams will have to try again next year.
Warriors forward Andre Iguodala will miss at least Game 1 of the NBA Finals, meaning Golden State will be without its primary LeBron-stopper.
Iguodala, who missed the last four games of the Western Conference final with a bone bruise in his left leg, was evaluated by team doctors on Tuesday, the Warriors said on Wednesday. While the injured leg is “making progress,” the team said, “the pain that accompanies the bone bruise persists,” and the tissue around the knee remains inflamed.
The Warriors struggled to put away the Rockets in the last round without Iguodala, a former Finals MVP, and head coach Steve Kerr called him a “huge component” of what Golden State tries to do at both ends of the floor. He said he would be missed as the primary defender on James, but that trying to stop LeBron “is a group effort anyway.”
The Warriors said the forward will be evaluated again before Game 2 on Sunday.
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