OAKLAND, Calif. — What once was is again.
For the fourth year in a row — a first in American professional sports history — the same teams will meet in a sport’s championship round, when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet for Game 1 of the NBA Finals here Thursday night.
But just because these two teams have met the past three years, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about heading into this series. Here are five things to watch:
The all-star power forward gets foolishly underrated because of the flaws in his game, but he’s still a terrific scorer and rebounder, and the clear second option next to LeBron James. It’s yet another credit to James that he was able to win the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals with Love sidelined after colliding with Boston Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum in the opening minutes of Game 6.
Love remains in the concussion protocol ahead of the NBA Finals, with no word as to when he will be cleared. Cleveland has reason to be cautious with Love, given his history of concussions. But any chance Cleveland has to win rests on the Cavaliers’ ability to keep up with Golden State’s scoring. To do that, Cleveland needs Love healthy and playing well. His status will be closely monitored by everyone leading up to Game 1 and beyond.
The Warriors looked like a completely different team without Iguodala for the final four games of the Western Conference finals, as he sat out with a bone bruise in his knee. This was mocked by some, but Iguodala is a smart, savvy player who fits perfectly with the team’s four all-stars to form one of the greatest lineups ever.
Without him, the Warriors struggled to find a usable fifth player and barely survived Houston — and then only thanks to some individual brilliance by their stars, as well as the Rockets missing a stunning 27 three-pointers in a row, and 29 of their final 30.
Iguodala’s status remains up in the air, and it seems unlikely he’ll play in the first couple games of the NBA Finals. It should be noted, as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out, that Golden State was plus-60 in 141 minutes Iguodala played against the Cavaliers in last year’s Finals. In the 99 minutes he sat? The Cavaliers were plus-26.
Hill’s up-and-down play during the playoffs has become a microcosm for Cleveland’s wild swings in the postseason. The Cavaliers look like a great team when Hill is engaged, as he’s the only quality two-way player on the roster besides James.
When he’s not? The Cavaliers look like a lottery team, despite James’s brilliance. Without Hill serving as an effective shot creator and floor spacer, there is an even bigger burden placed on James — as well as players such as Jordan Clarkson getting the ball far more than they should.
Simply put, Cleveland needs the good version of Hill to have any hope of making this a series.
Even with Iguodala sidelined, Golden State has a preponderance of talent. That’s especially true if Love remains out.
This puts the Warriors in a familiar position. How have they usually responded? By seeming not to care about the game in which they are playing, regardless of the opponent or the time of year.
That’s why Golden State had bafflingly bad performances in the first halves of both Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals — with only their talent allowing the Warriors to escape in the end.
Will that carry over to the NBA Finals, giving James and Cleveland a chance? Or will this finally be the time Golden State puts the hammer down and takes care of business?
For all of its flaws, Cleveland can generally be governed by one thing: If the Cavaliers are making threes, they have a chance to be competitive. If they aren’t, they don’t.
That will be especially true in this series against Golden State’s firepower. J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Hill and Love will all have to be burying shots for Cleveland to keep up.
If they don’t, the Cavaliers will be heading home quickly.