I wouldn’t say the regular season was entirely meaningless, but the Cavaliers and Warriors are here once again to make you feel like it is. After more than seven months of basketball and two tumultuous seven-game conference finals, we are back to the beginning again. Cleveland and Golden State are set to face off in the NBA Finals for the fourth time in a row. Here are three immediate questions before we get on this roller-coaster ride one more time:
How Much Does LeBron James Have Left?
When we last saw LeBron, he was either lying on the floor while Ty Lue accepted the East championship trophy, or sitting at his locker with ice affixed to his knees while his teammates celebrated in the locker room. LeBron’s had a long day at work that’s lasted seven months. And it’s not over yet.
The Cavs superstar is coming off a stretch in which he played 46 minutes and 48 minutes back to back. He’s coming off two seven-game series with a sweep of Toronto in between and having played 743 of a possible 864 playoff minutes. And he’s coming off a regular season in which he played all 82 games. He is 33 years old and has played 54,168 career minutes. Just listing off LeBron’s workload this season is exhausting, but it hasn’t become a deterrent—yet.
Everything about James’s workload points to a Finals decline, but his playoff production is among the best in history (his 33.1 PER would rank fourth all-time). My guess is that won’t change unless the Warriors sell out to stop him and force the Cavs’ ragtag supporting cast to beat them. Then again, the Rockets showed in Monday’s Game 7 loss what can happen against the Warriors if the perimeter shots stop falling (27 missed 3s in a row!) and your star player is too spent to pick up the slack.
Can the Cavs Learn Anything From the Rockets?
The Cavs cannot add Chris Paul to their roster, so no. But if we’re here to entertain Cleveland’s chances in a series against a team that has four future Hall of Fame players, the Rockets actually made the Warriors feel beatable. A dent in the armor can maybe inspire some belief.
Houston’s defense and overall strategy threw Golden State out of rhythm for three and a half games, bringing forth a discombobulation from the Warriors that hadn’t been seen in the playoffs since, well, they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Cavaliers in 2016.
“This is a situation we’ve never been in before,” Curry said Monday night after edging out the Rockets in Game 7. “We even had a moment in the first half when guys started to get a little edgy.” Cleveland has to find a way to replicate that angst and hope that it affects the Warriors from the inside out. Whether by getting hot from deep—which the Cavs did well in the regular season (37.2 percent) but haven’t done so well in the playoffs (33.9 percent)—forcing Golden State into an iso-heavy offense, or simply getting in Draymond Green’s head, there’s room to create some chaos in a series that once again appears lopsided from the start.
Do the Warriors Have a Worse Bench? Does It Matter?
The advantage the Warriors have at the top is obvious. But look beyond Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, and things are dicier than usual. Andre Iguodala has missed four straight games with a lower left leg contusion, and his absence has exposed some holes in Golden State’s roster. Steve Kerr has been forced to play Kevon Looney, rookie Jordan Bell, and Nick Freakin’ Young more minutes than anyone should. Meanwhile, Quinn Cook, David West, JaVale McGee, and Zaza Pachulia have gone from rotation players to cheerleaders. A lack of wings almost cost the Warriors a fourth West title.
Of course, the depth on Cleveland’s side isn’t exactly stellar, either. This may be the weakest supporting cast in LeBron’s career, and after so much midseason turnover, it doesn’t even have the benefit of continuity. The glass-half-full view is that George Hill will continue to improve as the Cavs go deeper into the playoffs, that Larry Nance Jr.’s resurgence and Tristan Thompson’s rebounding will give the Warriors’ big men trouble, and that Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith can catch fire from 3 with some degree of consistency. The glass-half-empty view is simple: The concussion-like symptoms that kept Kevin Love out of Game 7 will put his impact in question (if it wasn’t already before the injury), and trusting Nance and Smith seems like it could backfire quickly. Cleveland could barely survive a Game 7 against the Celtics with LeBron on the floor for every minute. How will they survive against the Warriors when he has to come off?
But given how well LeBron is playing, the supporting cast’s production in the precious few minutes when he checks out can be the difference between losing by 20 and giving LeBron a chance to win a game in crunch time.