With a win in Game 6 in Toronto on Friday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers booked their place in a second straight NBA Finals. Oklahoma City or Golden State await them in the final series of seven, which will be LeBron’s sixth consecutive trip there.
Cleveland’s chemistry issues are a thing of the past and they have emerged as one of the best performers of the postseason. They started by sweeping Detroit and Atlanta, shooting historic numbers and dominating any combination of five players put on the court to oppose them. As it was in the regular season, the Toronto Raptors were the only team that came close to challenging the Cavs but they did not have enough to win.
Now, the men in Wine and Gold will face either the Thunder or the Warriors in the finals and we are left wondering if the representatives of the Eastern Conference can compete with the cream of the crop from its percieved superior Western counterpart.
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The Thunder have proven to be surprisingly strong in these playoffs, seeing off the seasoned Spurs, who went 67-15 in the regular season and taking a 3-1 lead against the Warriors- it feels like it might be their time. The Warriors had an unprecedented season, going 73-9 and bettering the record of Jordan’s Bulls in 1995-96. So, how will the Cavs fare against either of these teams in the Finals?
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are an unbelievably good team. Even when they were 3-1 down to the Thunder, no one wrote them off and for good reason. The Dubs have won back-to-back games at home and away to force a game seven and they have the momentum for this deciding game.
The Warriors are a team with few weaknesses and the Cavs probably don’t want them to progress. After all, Golden State smashed Cleveland in six games in last year’s Finals and won both of their regular-season games this year.
Behind coach Kerr, the Dubs are a team to be feared. Steph Curry is a back-to-back MVP and is arguably the best game changer in the league with his ridiculous accuracy and range from behind the arc. His backcourt partner and fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, is also a brilliant shooter and can add shutdown defender to his list of talents.
Draymond Green is a triple-double threat every game. His defence knows few equals and he can also shoot and pass like few others at the four. They have great depth, with Bogut, Ezeli, and Varejao at center alone, and reigning Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes rotating at the three. They are a well-oiled machine and, make no mistake about it, they are the best team of all time - that is a fact.
But they are not invincible, as Oklahoma has proved. Houston and Portland could only snatch one game each from the Dubs but the Thunder have pushed them as far as they can go and exposed the Warriors’ troubles at the same time.
Oklahoma City managed to rout the Warriors at home and snatch the first game in Oakland as well. How? Well, besides Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s excellent game plans, Curry’s fitness has been questioned, with a source telling Adrian Wojnarowski that the Chef has been playing at “70 percent at best.”
The Warriors couldn’t cover for Curry during these bad games, where he was “a shell of himself,” and things just weren’t going right, just ask Draymond who somehow escaped a suspension for a kick at Steven Adams’ precious area.
Suddenly, 3-1 down in the series, Golden State looked worryingly vulnerable and they fought on as the underdog for the first time all season.
The Cavs will have to hope they can rattle the Warriors as much as the Thunder have, should the Dubs emerge victorious from game seven. LeBron James will have to overcome the defence of Green or Iguodala and power his team onwards and the other two parts of the big three, Kyrie and Kevin Love, will both have to be up to the task.
There is little reason to doubt them of late, though. Other than two games against Toronto, the Cavs have been flawless this postseason thanks in large part to improve team performances from their stars and a new team spirit.
Should they meet the Warriors, the always confident Cavaliers should fancy their chances. After all, they took two games in last year’s Finals with only LeBron fully fit to play.
This year, they should have all three of their stars, an improved bench, and a much superior team chemistry. They should easily be able to better their record in last year’s Finals.
For as strong a team as Golden State is, this is a series Cleveland could win, have no doubt about that. With two well-matched teams, it would probably go all the way, but both teams could win it.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Hands up who expected the Thunder to be here? No one? Good. The Thunder have upset the odds to even get in the conversation. As the third seed with a 55-27 record, Oklahoma City’s journey to the Finals saw them face a foe few thought they would beat.
After comfortably dispatching the Mavericks in five, the Thunder faced Spurs, who, with their 67-15 record, were expected by most to win this series, having just swept the Grizzlies. Popovich and his team were understandably one of the favourites for the NBA Championship but the Thunder had other things in mind, defeating the Spurs in six games.
The Thunder have two big strengths: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The duo are two of the top five players in the NBA and are complete game changers. Russ “tosses up triple-doubles like they’re habit,” according to Royce Young of ESPN and had a record-tying 18 triple-doubles during the regular season.
Westbrook is a player who can take over a game in a frighteningly short amount of time and there is literally, like really literally nothing he cannot do. KD is possibly the most talented scorer in the business. There is no way of scoring that he cannot master.
He can shoot from behind the arc. He can drive to the bucket. He can work in the post. KD can dribble and pass. KD can rebound. KD can ball. These two are greats. No defence scare them.
Still, Oklahoma City have found more this postseason. Coach Billy Donovan has impressed the league with his game plans, putting out a small ball rotation that seldom played before this series and has worked.
They have also found more from their bench players. Steven Adams has become an integral part of their rotation and their bench, as a whole, has really been a boost.
"KD didn't play well last night to KD's standards. Russ didn't play well last night to Russ' standards. And yet they won the game,” Draymond Green said to Tim McMahon of ESPN, “That's because the other guys are playing better."
Still, the Thunder have obvious weaknesses. Westbrook and Durant do not always seem to be on the same page and when they do not play well, the Thunder will lose. On top of that, their depth does not always prove itself as it has this series. They have weaknesses: there is a reason the Cavs took both games against the Thunder this year.
Let’s not lie. We all want the Thunder to win game seven. We all want to watch Durant and LeBron duelling in the Finals and a series between the two could go either way. Russ could dominate against Kyrie and if he does well, so do the Thunder - they did not lose a game in which Westbrook posted a triple-double.
Durant-LeBron could go either way, maybe very slightly in favour of the King, and Love is in better form than Ibaka but Serge is a good defender to matchup against him. The rest of the battles seem pretty even and the benches should provide similar impacts.
This is the matchup we want and it is one that could go either way, depending on Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. If either team successfully shuts down the opposition’s key man, the series is theirs.
No matter how game seven falls in the West, the Cavaliers have a chance to win it all and for LeBron to finally bring the NBA Championship to Ohio. Still, we want to see the Thunder-Cavaliers rematch and Cleveland probably wants that too.