While LeBron prepared his new cast for prime time, a new kind of star emerged, a California water bug with a mouth guard who has changed every rule we thought we knew about scoring.
They eye each other from across the country. Previous generations had Magic vs. Bird, the Lakers vs. the Celtics, Showtime’s short shorts vs. Bird’s French Lick mustache. This is our rivalry. LeBron vs. Steph, power vs. quickness, the Rust Belt vs. Silicon Valley.
The first two installments of the trilogy were so good that the story line consumed the N.B.A., turning the regular season into an endless movie trailer. The trilogy’s high points have been chiseled into stone. The 73 wins. The 3-1 collapse. The Block.
The trilogy has included big-screen swagger. “I feel confident,” LeBron declared during the 2015 finals, “because I’m the best player in the world.” You can picture Jason Bourne saying something similar as he steps over a pile of vanquished bad guys.
And now we reach the next installment, but with a bit of trepidation. The third one is always the hardest — the “Return of the Jedi,” with the too cute Ewoks, was the weakest of the original “Star Wars” films. The third Godfather film couldn’t live up to the others.
The third Cavs-Warriors finals has the makings of a letdown as well. The addition of Kevin Durant feels like one of those twists concocted by nervous producers desperate for a big opening weekend.
The balance is off. The Warriors overflow with brand-name stars. They are likely to reclaim the trophy, but at what cost? The Cavs-Warriors trilogy, the greatest story in basketball, may end with a fizzle. Warriors in five.
The Warriors will win, of course, but I say that every year — and I mean every year. I am a casual N.B.A. fan who has rooted blindly for Golden State for more than a quarter-century. I reflexively point this out all the time now so nobody will call me a bandwagon Warriors fan. I earned this seat on the ride.
My hometown team, the Philadelphia 76ers, made some stupid trades when I was 11. I went searching for a new team and eventually fell in love with the Run TMC Warriors of the early 1990s: T for Tim Hardaway, M for Mitch Richmond, C for Chris Mullin. It was the perfect team for a baseball-crazy teenager who would not recognize the subtleties of basketball. Those Warriors ran and ran and ran, scored and scored and scored. They had cool uniforms, they used to play in Philly, their name was fun to say. I was in.
The novelty of cheering for an out-of-town team never wore off. The Warriors were my choice, and I would not admit I had chosen poorly. They lost many games for many years. They seemed to be run ineptly. But their fans — out in that magical land called Golden State — also seemed unusually devoted.
So I kept hoping, checking the Warriors’ box scores, reading up on the team, buying merchandise, catching their games on the road here and there. I stayed optimistic, maybe because I didn’t study the league enough to know better.
Now, of course, the Warriors — the Dubs! — are pretty much the perfect team, justifiably popular with fans everywhere. It’s strange to see, having cared so long for a team without a national following. The Warriors are so likable that they even gave Cleveland a gift last June, a long-awaited championship for a city steeped in losing. What a great bunch of guys.
We’ll take it back now, though. In four games. Did I mention I always think the Warriors will win? TYLER KEPNER
Keep It Simple
The Warriors won 67 games in the regular season, 16 more than the Cavaliers despite seeming to play at half-speed at times. They are 12-0 in the playoffs.
The Warriors took one of the best teams in N.B.A. history last year and added Kevin Durant. They scored 5 more points a game than the Cavs did this season and surrendered 3 fewer. They led the league in shooting percentage, and assists, and steals, and blocked shots. Defense? Teams shot only .435 against them and .324 from 3-point range. Both numbers were the best in the league.
This one’s simple, folks. LeBron James wills the Cavaliers to one win, maybe. Warriors in five.
A Lesson From Lawn Bowling
Who’s going to win this series? I have no idea. I can barely wrap my head around the fact that this is the third time in a row that these two teams are meeting in the finals. This has never happened in the history of the N.B.A. It’s not exactly common in the other major team sports, either.
This, however, is the first instance of a “three match” in which the two teams split the first two. So this matchup is going to be the rubber match to end all rubber matches. (In case you’re wondering, the term “rubber match” apparently dates to 16th century English lawn bowling, with the rubber referring to an eraser. Thus, the winner took the series and erased everything prior.)
The N.B.A. is also the one league in which two teams meeting in the finals for the third straight year will generate enormous excitement. Can you imagine if the Super Bowl featured the same two teams three years in a row? I don’t think we’d be as intrigued as we are now.
So who is going to win? Well, I see that ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has incorrectly picked the last six N.B.A. finals. That’s pretty remarkable, in its own way. Who does he pick this year? The Warriors in seven. O.K., I’ll take the Cavs in six. FRED BIERMAN
Forget Wishful Thinking
I want to believe. I want to believe that this Cavs team, which has treated defensive rotation as optional for the last five months, will be able to maintain its focus. That LeBron James will treat Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala like the various Pacers, Raptors and Celtics defenders before them. That Kyrie Irving will be at his best. That Kevin Love can stay on the floor. That J. R. Smith will be locked in. That they can make a series out of this.
But here’s the thing: Last year’s Warriors team, who were the best, the most fun and the easiest to root for team that I’ve seen, should never have blown a 3-1 finals lead to the Cavs. But Stephen Curry was not himself, and the rest of the Warriors were tired after winning 73 games during the regular season.
Even then, however, the Cavs needed Green to be suspended and Irving and James to go for 41 each in Game 6 to have a chance.
Here’s another thing: The Warriors added Kevin Durant, and Curry, Klay Thompson and Green are still there. The Cavs added Deron Williams. A fine player now that he’s back in shape, but come now.
And one more thing: Curry is healthy this time around. Sure, the Cavs can try last year’s tactic and run him through endless screens, try to tire him out. Go for it. This year, he can take some plays off on offense and know that Durant will do his thing.
I want to believe. But it feels the Cavs aren’t playing for the title. They’re playing to stop the Warriors from sweeping the playoffs. DAN GENDLER
Passing to Victory
For nearly his entire career, LeBron James has had general managers trying to build the perfect team around him. The best player of his generation, James cannot quite do it all by himself, so he has shuffled through teammates rapidly, with things never seeming perfect.
This year, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both clicking, Tristan Thompson doing his best impression of a poor man’s Moses Malone on the offensive glass, Kyle Korver knocking down 3-pointers and Deron Williams taking some of the burden off James in terms of playmaking, he may finally have his ideal set of complementary players.
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