In NBA Finals, Pick the Cavaliers Because the Warriors are Softer

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LeBron James led the Cavaliers to their first NBA championship last June. USA TODAY SPORTS

Finally, after a full week without professional basketball—ESPN was thisclose to launching another Stephen A. Smith show titled Pardon The Intermission—the NBA Finals will commence Thursday night in Oakland. For the third consecutive year, it will be the Cleveland Cavaliers facing the Golden State Warriors.

Who will win is at best an educated guess (Las Vegas likes the Dubs), but what is certain is that in this trilogy, the past is not prologue. The Warriors defeated Cleveland in six games in 2015, but the Cavaliers were without Kevin Love (dislocated shoulder) the entire series and lost Kyrie Irving (fractured kneecap) in overtime of Game 1 at Oracle Arena. He would miss the remainder of the series. Minus his two All-Star sidekicks, LeBron James would average nearly 36 points and more than 13 rebounds per game, but the Warriors won the final three games and the series.

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Irving's presence in last year's NBA Finals made a huge difference for the Cavs USA TODAY SPORTS

Last year, the situation was nearly reversed. After taking a 3-1 series lead, Golden State lost forward Draymond Green to a one-game suspension (multiple technical fouls) in Game 5, and then center Andrew Bogut to injury in Games 6 and 7. As the Warriors had done the previous year, Cleveland capitalized on the absence of two injured Golden State starters and won the final three games of the Finals.

(An aside: the NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball each have one instance of two teams meeting for the championship three consecutive years: Detroit and Montreal, 1954-1956, in hockey; Detroit and Cleveland, 1952-1954, in football; the New York Giants and Yankees, 1921-1923, in baseball. For the NBA, though, this is unprecedented.)

This year? The Warriors are undefeated in the playoffs, at 12-0, but they were trailing by 25 points at home in the second half to San Antonio in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals before the west's LeBron James doppelganger, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, suffered an ankle injury. Leonard was lost for the remainder of the series. Would the Warriors be playing tonight if Leonard had not gotten hurt? No one will ever know, but probably nobody along San Antonio's Riverwalk believes so.

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Curry is pacing the Warriors this postseason with a 28.6 points per game average USA TODAY SPORTS

Cleveland has been more mercurial than the Warriors this spring. The Cavs destroyed the Boston Celtics by 44 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, then lost two days later after squandering a 21-point third-quarter lead. It was their only loss of the postseason, making the two teams' combined records during these playoffs 24-1 (which, coincidentally, was Golden State's record over the first 25 games of last season and is their record in their past 25 games).

Is there anything to glean from such overwhelming dominance by both franchises this postseason? The Warriors failed to match or even eclipse last season's record-breaking 73-9 record, but they added Kevin Durant, one of, at worst, the NBA's five best players. The Cavaliers also failed to win as many regular season games as they did a year ago, but for them, as with the Dubs, the playoffs thus far have been akin to Usain Bolt's qualifying heats. These are two teams that have been waiting all spring, with the exception of a fully healthy Spurs squad, for someone to test them.

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Will the acquisition of Kevin Durant give the Warriors that tiny extra edge over Cleveland? USA TODAY SPORTS

Last June, in the closing moments of Game 7, LeBron made a career-defining block from behind on Andre Iguodala (2015 NBA Finals MVP), Irving drained the go-ahead three and Curry attempted and failed to break down the seven-footer Love off the dribble for a potential game-tying bucket. The Cavs won, 93-89.

This June? Golden State has added 2014 NBA MVP Durant, so at tipoff on Thursday seven of the past eight MVP awards (with the exception of Derrick Rose, 2011) will be represented on the court in the persons of James, Stephen Curry and Durant. It will mark the first time since 1983 that three former MVPs (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Moses Malone) will appear in the same NBA Finals. The Warriors have barely been tested these playoffs, they have superior shooting from beyond the arc and they also have home-court advantage.

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The pick here, however, is Cleveland. In game-, series- and even career-defining moments, they have in Irving and James two of the best closers the NBA Finals has seen. Last Christmas Day, Cleveland trailed Golden State by 14 in the fourth quarter, but came back to win. There is a sense, and it is little more than that, that the Dubs are the more proficient team but also the softer one...which, granted, is a remarkable thing to say about a club that has won 24 of its past 25 games.

This is a legacy series: two outstanding franchises with at least two future Hall of Famers per side who each have won an NBA Finals when the opponent was at less than full strength. Assuming that neither team is victimized by injury this next fortnight, this should be the series between Cleveland and Golden State that will be most vividly remembered. It's difficult to believe that in a Finals with that much at stake, LeBron James will not succeed. Stephen Curry may be the best shooter the NBA has ever seen, but LeBron James is its toughest competitor since Michael Jordan.

Cavaliers in seven. Again.

In NBA Finals, Pick the Cavaliers Because the Warriors are Softer | Sports