2017-06-01 11:50:04
Sorry, Cavaliers. It’s Warriors (in Four, Five, Six or Seven).

11:50, June 01 270 0

For the third time in three years, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers will go at it in the N.B.A. finals, which begin Thursday night. We asked more than a dozen writers and editors at The New York Times for their take on the series. While most of them picked the Warriors, there were dissenters, too. Their thoughts:

As we tiptoe toward an N.B.A. finals matchup that we can only hope revives an otherwise comatose trip through the playoffs — and trust me, I’ve already sat through my share of snoozers in Toronto, San Antonio and Oakland — let’s revisit some recent history.

About this time last year, the Warriors had built a three-games-to-one lead against the Cavaliers in the finals and appeared to be closing in on their second straight championship. Reacquainting themselves with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy seemed like a foregone conclusion for the Warriors. It was time to chill the Champagne, right? Wrong.

We all know what happened next. Cleveland won the next three games in a stunner. The autopsy revealed a number of contributing causes. There was the subpar play of Stephen Curry, who had sustained ankle and knee injuries in the first round. There was the one-game suspension served by Draymond Green, who had struck too many opponents in the groin. And there was the Warriors’ general fatigue, brought on by their pursuit of a record-setting 73 victories in the regular season. Just think: All of those problems, and yet they were still on the cusp of winning a championship.

The Warriors are blissfully free of such problems this time around. No injuries. No fatigue. No shots to the groin, at least to date. And they now employ Kevin Durant, one of the best players in the world.

We should pause for a moment to throw the obligatory playoff laurels at LeBron James, who is brilliant at basketball. His performance in the finals last year was nothing short of extraordinary. But he still needed to summon all his sorcery to overcome a broken-down, K.D.-free version of the Warriors.

The Warriors are a better team now than they were a year ago, and not even James is capable of stopping them. Warriors in five. SCOTT CACCIOLA

This year’s N.B.A. finals could be the rubber match for the basketball ages. Both the Cavaliers and the Warriors are marvels to behold, often combining the truisms of the game — move without the ball, find the open man, pick and roll, pick and roll — with refreshing audacity and panache.

Both teams also have players so dominant that at times it seems almost unfair. Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving toy with their defenders like cats with balls of yarn, while Kevin Durant and, especially, LeBron James often seem to be playing against a quivering squad of eighth graders from the Our Lady of Perpetual Help parochial school.

Yes, it will be an epic series, with future Hall of Famers battling it out in ways that will have hacks scrambling for metaphors from classical myth. But my instincts tell me that it will be some lesser god who will provide the key defensive play or the and-one basket that makes the difference. In other words, it will not come down to Zeus or Poseidon, but rather some player at the far end of the Olympian table. A Kyle Korver or a Richard Jefferson, a David West or, yes, a JaVale McGee.

Last summer, the Dallas Mavericks waived McGee, and it looked as though the much-maligned center’s N.B.A. career was near its end. But the Warriors came to his rescue, signing him, embracing him and making him feel integral to the team’s success.

McGee might have been distracted recently by a former landlord’s lawsuit claiming that he had caused damage to his Dallas apartment, been late on payments and flouted a no-pet rule by harboring a nearly hairless cat named Raja. But the athlete has just settled the matter, meaning that his focus, his heart — and his gratitude — are all in.

The Warriors, McGee and Raja, in six. DAN BARRY

The greatest sports trilogy of my lifetime was Ali-Frazier, and we know about the physical toll that the decisive fight — the Thrilla in Manila — took on both noble combatants. Expect the loser of Warriors-Cavs III to suffer a more psychological blow, especially its two most heralded stars — LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Losing the series would drop James’s record to 3-5 in N.B.A. finals, allowing the cranky critics to load up on more ammunition to fire at him. A defeat for Durant — who has already fallen in one championship showdown with James (and the Miami Heat) — would be devastating in that his free-agent leap from Oklahoma City to Golden State was pegged as a virtual championship guarantee.

Casting teams as individuals may be a stretch, but let’s go ahead and equate the Warriors to Ali, dazzling observers and opponents with speed, style, charisma and Draymond Green’s mouth. The Cavaliers must be Frazier, the pride of Philadelphia, because they are also from a gritty milieu, northeast Ohio. And while an underdog, they always have a puncher’s chance, thanks to LeBron.

James is the figurative Frazier left hook, primed to rearrange the facial features of any anticipated series dynamic. But with Durant replacing Harrison Barnes, who averaged just 9.3 points on 35 percent shooting in last year’s epic seven-game final between these same two teams, James will have to carry an exhausting load at both ends.

That is unless Coach Tyronn Lue can find other mildly effective defenders (Tristan Thompson, Richard Jefferson) to allow James a less taxing chore for at least some of his 40 or so minutes per game.

The problem is, there is nowhere to cheat against the Warriors when they go small. Can the Cavs make them pay enough of a price for doing so by pounding them to the body, à la Frazier, on the offensive glass? The hunch is no. The pick is Golden State, floating, stinging and winning in six. HARVEY ARATON

When in the ditch deep, there’s no point in trying to crawl out. Just keep on digging. …

A month ago, for this newspaper, I picked the Cavaliers to take another title, and I’m doubling down in the face of much available data to the contrary. N.B.A. hoop is our beautiful game, and the Warriors play it beautifully. They have All-Stars at nearly every position, and they pass and pass and shoot the prettiest of jump shots. Durant to Thompson to Curry beats Tinker to Evers to Chance. They even play sterling defense.

And they are well coached, or the players are so intelligent that the team has become the N.B.A. version of the driverless car.

Yet the Cavaliers will win. (The key to prognostication is to sound certain when you know very little.) The Cavs have several All-Stars, although I would have to chew a tab of something before I could argue without giggling that Kyrie Irving is more well rounded than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, or that Kevin Love outstrips Draymond Green. And then there’s Durant, that 7-foot freak of nature with the soft touch from anywhere in the Oakland ZIP code.

No, the difference is that Cleveland has the God of Basketball, and his multiple layers of skill and will edge into the other world.

Last year, LeBron James raised his team from the N.B.A. finals crypt. The Warriors were up, three games to one, and planning celebratory excursions to Napa and noodling with the latest toys coughed up by Silicon Valley sycophants. James simply put his wounded team on his shoulders and won, and won, and won.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site forecasts the Cavaliers have a 10 percent chance of winning this time around. Of course, he also forecast that we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton right now.

Just like last year: Cavs in seven. MICHAEL POWELL

This trilogy has had too many plot twists, like an overstuffed blockbuster franchise straining to outdo itself.

It began with the most outlandish premise of all: The biggest star in the world shuts down his speedboat-and-sunglasses buddy films to “come home” to a group of Cleveland misfits straight out of an oddball indie ensemble.

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. SAM DOLNICK

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

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.VICTOR MATHER

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

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

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.

The problem for James is that while the Cavs were improving, Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors were hardly standing still. Stephen Curry, winner of the last two Most Valuable Player Awards, took last year’s collapse in the finals to heart and signed off on the team bringing in Kevin Durant, an elite player whose impact predictably ended Curry’s M.V.P. streak.

Thanks to the addition of Durant, Kerr was able to further refine Golden State’s offense, and 30-assist games became the norm for the Warriors, who accomplished the feat 50 times this season, with Denver way back in second with 19. Curry, Durant and Draymond Green took solid hits in their personal scoring numbers, but the entire team played with such intensity on both ends of the court that once you adjusted for pace they had the best offense in the N.B.A. and the second-best defense.

And that was before the playoffs, where they found an even higher gear and steamrollered to the finals with a 12-0 record.

This series is likely to carry huge implications for both teams, with legacies being shifted significantly. While James is too good to be swept aside by the Warriors, the Cavaliers simply cannot stand up to the onslaught that the Warriors are poised to deliver. Warriors in five. BENJAMIN HOFFMAN

The Cavaliers actually have two advantages in this series: first, the best player in the league in LeBron James and second, a rebounding advantage in the frontcourt with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love (and James, for that matter).

The Cavaliers weren’t a particularly good rebounding team as a whole during the regular season. But Love and Thompson are excellent on the boards, and that will be a critical factor in a series in which everything is at stake.

Which, in turn, makes the Warriors’ center, Zaza Pachulia, a crucial player. If he is getting punished the way the Celtics’ frontcourt was in the conference finals against Cleveland, it will give the Warriors’ small-ball lineup fits. And while I can’t believe I’m typing this, 7-foot JaVale McGee is suddenly going to be essential for the Warriors off the bench. He needs to play well.

But the flip side to this is that the elite and versatile offensive weaponry that the Warriors possess in their small-ball lineup will be very difficult for the Cavaliers — a weak defensive team — to guard.

I find it hard to believe that Love will be able to effectively guard the Kevin Durants and Draymond Greens of the world, especially on the perimeter. I presume there will be a lot of switching by the Cavaliers to try to limit the damage — but the potential for consistent mismatches is high. And these Warriors move the ball extremely well to exploit those mismatches.

The Warriors led the league by a wide margin in percentage of baskets off an assist. When Cleveland defenders leave their man, even for a second, that’s all the window that the Warriors will need to find the open player. And the entire starting lineup for Golden State, except for Pachulia, is stacked with ballhandlers.

James had to put in a superhuman performance for the Cavaliers to win last year. It was improbable. And even then it came down to the final minute of Game 7. He may be superhuman again this time, but I don’t think he will be good enough. Warriors in six. SOPAN DEB

Was it that long ago that the Cavs were down, three games to one, to the Warriors and still went on to win the N.B.A. championship?

A year later, both teams still have superstars in their starting lineups, but I think it will come down to the bench. And I believe the Cavs have the edge in that department, with Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver.

As for defense, I defer to LeBron James’s remarkable ability to produce come-from-behind blocks that will rattle the Warriors, just as they did a year ago. Both teams are healthy, both have had plenty of rest, but the Cavs will prevail. EARL WILSON

I have a prediction, which is that the Warriors will win Game 7 by 20 points. That puts me with the large majority of our other forecasters. Still, more interesting to me is how the Cavaliers seem to have less at stake than the Warriors do in this series. If LeBron doesn’t win another title, he will face criticism, but there may be nothing James and his team can do that will really change their overall narrative.

If the Cavs lose, all it says is that Golden State, having added Kevin Durant to last season’s 73-win squad, is the better team. If the Cavs win, good for them, but it probably means that Golden State choked again after (stop me if you’ve heard this) blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s finals.

What I see as this year’s lack of Cleveland drama is partly a function of last year’s bounty of it, with James tidily completing his championship arc. At 32, he would doubtlessly love a fourth title to hasten his ascent up Mount Jordan (elevation: six rings). But this may be James’s lowest-stakes playoff series in a decade.

By contrast, the Warriors are the protagonist, with something clearly to lose.

There is, for instance, a lot riding on Durant’s quest for his first championship. And there is also the Golden State majority owner, Joe Lacob, and his forever war with his own ego. He does not want to be shown up again by the Cavs.

But for me, the most intriguing issue concerns Draymond Green. Will he restrain himself from chastising a Warriors teammate to the news media? Can he refrain from kneeing an opponent where it hurts most? Do the Warriors paradoxically need him to do all those things? As in every tragedy — but a few comedies, too — character is fate. MARC TRACY