As we get ready for the Finals, let’s take a look at why we are so excited for Warriors-Cavs pt. III.
The idea of a rivalry in sports can often be hard to define; it’s something where we know it when we see it, because there’s a feeling that comes with it. A normal game is elevated into something much more. As the Warriors and Cavaliers tip off for their third consecutive Finals tonight, there’s no question that they have reached the peak level of rivalries.
The only person who might dispute the legitimacy of the rivalry is LeBron James himself, who earlier this year denied that he looked at Golden State as his rivals. Whether he was just posturing for fans or trying to downplay the importance of the regular season meeting that next week, I doubt even LeBron believed what he was saying.
If you wanted to truly learn how the Cleveland felt about the Warriors all you had to do was walk across the locker room and ask Iman Shumpert. Or, if you wanted to know how the Warriors feel about Cleveland, just be around Draymond Green and he will let you know how he feels whether or not you ask him. While LeBron may keep up that façade for his own reasons, it is clear that everyone else has recognized that this rivalry has entered the upper echelon in NBA history.
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It’s the differences in rivalries that make them great, and the Warriors and Cavs have innumerable distinctions that only add to the rivalry. It’s Cleveland’s wine red vs. the Warrior’s royal blue. It’s the Rust Belt vs. Silicon Valley. It’s Cleveland’s number one picks vs. Golden State’s overachievers. Obviously when you add second overall pick Kevin Durant to the mix it muddies it up a little bit, but why let facts get in the way of a good narrative?
All those details that have kept Twitter alive over the past week are fun, but without the talent behind it they would be meaningless. But, with the best forward ever in LeBron, one of the best small forwards ever in Durant, the best shooter ever in Curry, and eight other former or current All-Stars divided among the rosters, it is hard to imagine a better collection of talent.
Over the past two seasons, what started out as a relatively cordial matchup has developed into real animosity. The ever-increasing tensions between the two sides since the relatively peaceful 2015 Finals have elevated every game into must-see TV.
There’s no precise point where tensions exploded, but more a gradual dissent into dislike. The first break likely was back in January 2016 when Curry remarked that he hoped Cleveland’s locker-room still smelled of the champagne he popped eight months earlier. That comment plus the 73 wins and a unanimous MVP for Curry for good measure certainly didn’t go over smoothly in Cleveland.
Then in the Finals there was Draymond’s contact with LeBron’s groin leading to his suspension for Game Five, Curry fouling out of Game Six, and the culmination of the Cavs completing the 3-1 comeback. Even this season there was LeBron’s Halloween party, the Cavs’ comeback and Kyrie’s game-winner on Christmas, and Draymond’s foul on LeBron in Oakland.
You still following? Every time you think you have a grasp on the nuances of this rivalry, you find another layer that you have to pull back. But that’s what makes it truly great. In today’s social media-driven, banana boat-riding league, true dislike between the best teams in the league is refreshing.
The best part is that as these teams have started to dislike each other more and more, the basketball has only gotten better. The back and forth starting at about 1:34 from the Christmas Day game is about as exciting a 20-second regular season sequence as you will ever see.
These teams so clearly want to destroy each other that they both put their regular season sleepwalking on hold for 48 minutes to actually try their hardest. We might not see quite as many uncovered leak-outs over the next week, but now that both teams are completely healthy we will see the highest level basketball these teams have to offer.
Since 2015, the Cavs and Warriors have met 11 times when both teams have been mostly healthy. In those 11 games, the Warriors hold the slight edge 6-5 and have outscored Cleveland on average 105-98.
In those games, there have been six different leading scorers: LeBron three times, Curry and Draymond each twice, Kyrie, Durant, and Thompson all once, and one time where LeBron and Kyrie tied for the lead. There have only been two instances (1981 and 2005) since the NBA-ABA merger that a Finals has had five different leading scorers, but it really wouldn’t be surprising to see that happen again this year.
It is hard to imagine these Finals living up to last year’s classic, but we may very well be headed in that direction. Both teams have combined for a playoff record 24-1 start to their playoffs going into the Finals. Cleveland’s playoff offensive rating of 122.7 is the highest in league history, as is the Warrior’s playoff net rating of +16.3.
Last year’s series has become legendary for the storylines and the Warriors’ collapse more than the actual basketball on the court. The addition of Durant with a completely healthy Curry and Love greatly increases the chances that the quality of the games matches our expectations going in. Regardless of team affiliation, I think we can all hope that Warriors-Cavs III will become the series that we all believe it can be.
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