NBA Finals: Cavs vs Warriors – what’s different this year?

The regular season has come and gone, the playoffs have finished and now the NBA finals are upon us. And no, there’s no need to ask yourself if you’re experiencing déjà vu. We’re just in the same position that we were in last year. As in, we’re doing 2016 over again – in 2017. The exact same nervous energy we had last year around this time, we have again now. I’ll explain.

Last year, the Golden State Warriors were undeniably phenomenal, breaking records left, right and centre, regular and postseason. Their most shining accomplishment being that they secured 73 wins to 9 losses in the regular season – a ratio that had never before been achieved in the history of the NBA. The previous record holders were the 1995/96 Chicago Bulls, led by G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan, who secured 72 wins to 10 losses. Also part of that legendary team was shooting and point guard Steve Kerr who has been head coach of the Warriors since 2014. Suffice to say it was a special year for Golden State.

Playing with incredible dexterity, consistency, cohesion, underdog spirit but top-dog skillfulness, the Warriors became a favourite team to watch – supporter or not – and it was not difficult to see why they became the team to hop onto for bandwagon supporters. 

A few years back, bandwagoners were falling over themselves to follow Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James to whichever team he moved to, last year they were scrambling to Golden State chanting MVP Stephen Curry’s name, wearing his #30 jersey which became the top-selling NBA jersey and remains so today (James’ #23 holds the number two spot).

The NBA finals came around and thrilling game after thrilling game, the Warriors lead the Cavaliers 3-1 in what would seem to end in a convincing 4-1 close-out in last year’s finals. However, when Game 4 rolled around, the Cavaliers managed to break out of their startlingly uncharacteristic slump by winning the game and the following three games to close out the seven-game series with a 4-3 win. King Cavalier James and his team became the first in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals and, devastatingly, Chef Curry and his team became the first in NBA history to lose a finals series in that manner. Cue the “Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the finals” memes and t-shirts. Yes, actual t-shirts. Absolutely heart-breaking.

Fast forward to today and, amazingly, the Golden State community and diaspora not only survived the devastation but made it all the way back to where they were last year – top of the Western Conference and ready to tackle the Eastern Conference winners. And in true Warriors fashion, they sealed their top spot by breaking a record. They are now the first NBA team to go 12-0 in the postseason. That means they were undefeated in their playoff games, for all you rookie basketball fans.

Now that the Cavaliers have officially got rid of the Boston Celtics to claim championship of the East – officially because despite the Celtics valiant effort it was bound to happen, no offence – we wait with insurmountable anticipation for June 1st (that’s June 2nd at 3am for us on South African soil) for a three-peat meeting between the “Cavs” and the “Dubs” which is another NBA first.

Last year the Cavaliers’ finals win was pretty much sealed by a show-stopping performance by Kyrie Irving. Just the other night, Irving, whom many consider to be virtually “unguardable”, hit a career playoff high of 42 points. This being just one illustration that the point guard has not slowed down in any way and will again be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming finals series.

Now right back where we were last year with both teams in good health, both with stellar shooters and defenders, and both feeling confident and validated by their respective Conference wins, it’s fair for us as spectators to ask ourselves what the difference is and will be in these finals and what it is that one team needs to have over the other to secure the coveted NBA championship title and the backing to utter the phrase “Kiss the ring” with vindication.

On the upcoming finals, Curry said: “We’ve got four more [games] to go and we’ve gotta take it one step at a time. We’ve been through it all … we’re prepared for pretty much anything. It’s gonna be fun. This group’s gonna be confident, ready to go. We’ve just gotta get the job done.” Facing his seventh consecutive NBA final, James said: “It’s not promised every year, for sure, we all know that it takes hard work and dedication … we’ve just all gotta live in the moment and I think we’re all looking forward to it … we’ll prepare the best way we can.”

Personally, I think none of the competing teams can be faulted on their numbers or capability. What has proven to be shaky is the ability to maintain composure while playing with aggression and confidence – consistently throughout the finals series and especially when not on homecourt. Both these teams want it and both deserve it. But who will manage to one-up the other and how? We shall see. 

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Refiloe Seiboko
Subeditor at Mail & Guardian

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