The Warriors struggled to dispatch the Rockets in the Western Conference finals, but according to Jeff Van Gundy, Golden State should have no such issues against the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. In fact, the former coach, set to work his 12th Finals for ABC/ESPN, would be surprised if LeBron James and Co. win even a single game against the defending champions.
“This is the biggest difference that I remember between two teams heading into the Finals in my time in the NBA,” Van Gundy told reporters Tuesday while on a conference call. “I can’t think of a bigger gap from a team perspective.”
“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,” Van Gundy said, adding that Cleveland would “have to be lights-out from the three-point line to have a chance to win a game.”
It’s unclear how Van Gundy’s comments went over with ABC executives, given their presumed interest in having as many viewers as possible tune into the Finals, which begin Thursday and will be televised entirely by that network, but they certainly furthered his reputation for being blunt-spoken. The remarks also were in accord with what oddsmakers are thinking, as the Warriors have been installed as the biggest Finals favorite in at least 16 years, with a 12-point spread for Game 1 equaled just once over the past quarter-century in the championship round.
“We’re all going to try to paint a picture of there’s a chance that Cleveland could win, and when you get to the Finals, and that’s really, really hard to picture in your own mind how a team could win, it’s a letdown,” Van Gundy said. “To me, Houston wasn’t just one half away from advancing to the Finals. They were one half away from winning a championship.”
The former Rockets and Knicks coach repeatedly returned to the notion that the Western Conference finals were, in effect, a contest for the NBA title. “I think no matter who came out of the West and who came out of the East, the Western Conference winner would have been the prohibitive favorite, for many different reasons,” he said.
“If we want to see a different Finals, then we’ve got to have other teams win or we’ve got to set up a different system and not make it Eastern Conference and Western Conference, but make it based upon the records,” Van Gundy asserted at another point. Earlier in the media session, he had advocated just such a reworking of the playoffs — something that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has also considered — telling reporters, “I’ve always been for the top 16 records should be in the playoffs, and I would be absolutely fine if you then seeded one through 16, regardless of what conference you played in during the regular season.”
Van Gundy’s longtime co-analyst, Mark Jackson, was also on the conference call, and he gave the Cavs more of a puncher’s chance. “I’m not going to say zero percent chance — they have the best player in the world,” he said, referring to James.
Jackson, a former coach of the Warriors, went on to acknowledge that Golden State is “clearly the favorite, without question,” and that “it would be a major upset if the Cleveland Cavaliers were to win the NBA championship.”
“With that being said,” Jackson continued, “I think we are not giving the Cavs and [Coach] Ty Lue, LeBron James and the supporting cast enough credit. They marched through the Eastern Conference. I’m not so sure that they are not the second-best team in the business, and we’ll see how it plays out.”
The widely held belief that Golden State has a far better team than Cleveland had reporters wondering how Van Gundy could “sell this thing coming out of the gates and get people excited about this.” With the two squads squaring off in the Finals for a fourth straight time, he was asked, “What do you say to people that are saying, ‘Oh my God, here we go again?’ ”
“I don’t think it’s up to us to try to excite people,” Van Gundy replied. “The games will either excite people, the results will either excite people. If James and the Cavaliers win Game 1, you know, the interest is going to skyrocket because they are going to have done what very few except for them, maybe, think they can do, which is win at Golden State.
“If they get blown out both games, it doesn’t matter what we say. People aren’t going to be as excited. To me, it’s all about — it’s not about what we say, it’s about what happens on the floor and the results that the teams get.”
However, as Van Gundy noted, the Finals will feature plenty of star power, which should be enough to ensure viewer interest, even if the series turns out to be as lopsided as many expect. “LeBron James being in the Finals is never bad for business,” he said, “and obviously the Warriors are such a team of superior talent that Durant, Curry, Thompson, you know, they are going to always be a big draw.”
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