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Cavaliers vs Warriors: past, present and future

What events helped create the buzz for this year’s Finals, and what its result will mean moving forward.

Golden State Warriors v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The past

It’s July 11, 2014. LeBron James, the best player of his generation, is a free agent. As proven the last time he tested the free agency waters, he is capable of shaping the face of the NBA for years to come with his Decision. Over the last few days the rumors have been swirling: reports of Dan Gilbert taking his private jet to secretly meet with LeBron; whispers among local reporters with connections inside the Cavs organization. Is it for real? Is it possible? The internet is abuzz with excitement, but also a hint of reservation knowing all too well the disappointment of four years ago. But then it drops: LeBron James has officially announced his Return to Cleveland. He apologized for the way he left four years ago, and showed how important Northeast Ohio really was to him. A team that finished at or near the top of the lottery every year of LeBron’s absence instantly became the team to beat in the conference. More than that, they became a contender. A team with zero championships since it’s inception would be among the best teams in the NBA.

While the Cavaliers were quickly establishing themselves as the Eastern Conference favorites, the Western Conference wasn’t nearly as clear a picture. The San Antonio Spurs had met LeBron in the last two NBA Finals, splitting the decisions 1-1 with him. The Oklahoma City Thunder had the most star power of any team in the conference. The Los Angeles Clippers were establishing themselves as a power, and the Houston Rockets seemed to be on the way up as well. While some considered the back-to-back sixth-seed Golden State Warriors a dark horse challenger in the conference, even the most homerish of fans weren’t expecting them to reel off a 67-win campaign and become the odds-on favorite to take home the title. A series of key events helped transform them from a middling playoff team into the Western Conference power they are today: the sign-and-trade for Andre Iguodala in the summer of 2013, the hire of Steve Kerr in May 2014 and the training camp injury to former All-Star David Lee that promoted Draymond Green to the starting lineup. Kerr would proceed transform the Warriors’ identity, while Green was on his way to becoming a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Iguodala accepted the sixth-man role as the veteran glue guy on this up-and-coming power.

Looking back, that 2014 offseason transformed the face of both franchises, and moving forward their respective places in NBA history would become inextricably linked.

2015 NBA Finals: the lead-up

The Warriors sprinted out of the gate to start the season. An early 16-game win streak captured national attention, and Stephen Curry dazzled with deep pull-up threes en route to winning the MVP award. The Warriors never lost more than two games in a row during the season, finishing with the No. 2 offense and No. 1 defense. They made it through the Western Conference playoffs relatively unscathed with a 12-3 record. The Memphis Grizzlies proved to be a small road bump in round two, but after trailing the series 2-1 the Warriors reeled off three straight double digit victories to take the series.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, struggled out of the gate. A 19-20 record early in January signaled the need to make some changes, and GM David Griffin made a pair of deals that would impact the team down to this day. He acquired guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, as well as big man Timofey Mozgov; the latter two becoming starters for the remainder of the season. From January 15, 2015 to the eve of the NBA Finals the Cavaliers posted a 46-11 record, equivalent to a 66-win pace over a full season, that included a double-digit win over the Warriors.

The teams appeared to be very evenly matched entering the postseason and throughout their respective first round sweeps - that is, until the mid-first quarter in the fourth and final game of Cavs versus Celtics. With the Celtics down 3-0 in the series and 18-10 on the scoreboard, Kelly Olynyk grabbed hold of Kevin Love’s arm and pulled it out of socket. Love’s shoulder would require surgery, and the Cavs’ title hopes dimmed. Without Love the second round series against the Chicago Bulls was a struggle at first, though the Cavaliers prevailed 4-2 after the team adapted to the absence of their star power forward. They followed that up with an impressive sweep of the 60-win Atlanta Hawks and entered the NBA Finals in good form despite being down a man.

2015 NBA Finals: the games

The first game was closely contested. The teams exchanged big runs in the first half: the Cavs struck first with a 17-2 run but the Warriors struck back with an 18-5 run of their own. The Cavs entered the break with a 51-48 lead. After leading most of the third quarter by one to two possessions an Iguodala layup would tie the game at 73 to close the quarter. The fourth quarter was a furious back-and-fourth battle with six lead changes and four ties. A clutch triple by LeBron tied the game at 96 with 2:38 remaining. A mid-range splash by Curry gave the Warriors a lead with 54 seconds on the clock. Mozgov sank a pair of clutch free throws to tie it back up with 32 seconds left - just enough time for each team to run one more play.

The Warriors had the first chance: Curry, working off ball, received a screen from Harrison Barnes near the left elbow that left Kyrie trailing the play. Iguodala entered the ball to Curry on the right wing and he jetted toward an unprotected rim. Kyrie, a step behind the whole way but not giving up, managed to close the gap as Curry slowed down slightly as he attempted a potential game-winning layup. His chase-down block saved the game for the Cavaliers:

Next the Cavaliers had their chance: LeBron James, who already poured in 42 points that night, would get the ball with the game on the line. A few weeks prior he hit a game-winner at the buzzer to win a crucial Game 4 against the Chicago Bulls. Jimmy Butler was his opponent on that shot; this time Iguodala would be his counterpart - a savvy veteran with experience battling players like Kobe Bryant at the end of games. A disciplined defender and a student of the game, Iguodala no doubt had a clear idea what LeBron wanted to do in this situation. Isolated on the left wing, he sensed that LeBron would try to drive left, and he cut off the angle before LeBron could build up any steam, forcing LeBron to launch an off-balance shot from the left break. A lucky bounce gave Iman Shumpert a chance for a put-back that came about an inch short:

In overtime the Cavs struggled to make anything from the field, while Curry drew a pair of fouls on mid-range jumpers to give the Warriors a 102-98 lead. Sensing the game start to slip away, Kyrie tried to make a play with two and half minutes left in the frame. But as he did so his knee banged against Klay Thompson’s and his kneecap fractured, ending his season. The Warriors cruised to victory after nailing a 3-pointer with Irving on the deck, and went on to win 108-100. Many thought the Warriors, already favored entering the series, would now cruise to a four game sweep.

Underestimate LeBron James at your own peril. The ‘Big Three’ had been whittled down to just one, but the Chosen One was about to make a statement. The opponent was a 67-win juggernaut with a 47-3 record in their own house. His team was broken. Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert were role players getting the type of minutes that only stars typically play. Matthew Dellavedova was averaged 9 MPG off the bench against Boston, but played a combined 81 minutes in Games 2 and 3. James Jones was barely getting off the bench at the outset of the postseason; now he was getting nearly 20 MPG. Even Mike Miller was getting minutes out now. It was a team without enough bodies and almost no shot creation outside LeBron. A blowout seemed inevitable.

Golden State tried to make it happen. They jumped out to a 20-12 lead early, but LeBron engineered an 8-0 run to tie it up less than two minutes later. The Warriors again tried to pull away, building a 31-25 lead. Four minutes and a 17-4 run later the Cavs were up 42-35. Every time the Warriors made a run the Cavs would answer back. LeBron James would only take three short breaks in the game, each less than one minutes of game time. He imposed his will on every facet of the game, never allowing the Warriors to feel in control. A strong start to the fourth quarter had the Cavs up 79-68 lead with five minutes remaining. The impossible seemed to be happening before our eyes; what was left of the Cavaliers were beating the best team in the league in an arena where they almost never lost. Could it really happen? The Warriors buckled down and fought back. Back-to-back threes by Iguodala and Curry cut it to 84-78 with 2:45 remaining. A Klay Thompson layup made it a one possession game with two minutes left. With the clock winding down Curry split a double team and drove to the rim unopposed to tie the game at 87 with eight seconds on the clock. The game seemed to be slipping away; the Cavs had just one last chance in regulation.

With five seconds left LeBron made his move at the top of the key. Guarded by Iguodala with help defense ready to swarm from every angle, he faked right and got Iguodala leaning the wrong way. A crisp between the legs crossover allowed him to get a step on Iggy and drive toward the rim. Iggy stayed on his hip but LeBron had a clear line of sight to the rim. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green desperately raced to the paint to contest. As he elevated Green was directly in front of him, Thompson on his left and Iguodala on his right - six arms reaching out to contest his shot. LeBron pulled the ball back down and shifted it to his left hand as his body split the gap between Green and Thompson. In the blink of an eye a seemingly hopeless situation had turned into an open layup. The ball bounced off the glass, on the back of the rim then the front of the rim - a heartbreaking miss. But then Tristan Thompson appeared. A perfectly timed jump had him ready for a tip as soon as the ball cleared the rim. The tip attempt went wide left, however, and the game headed to overtime:

For Cleveland fans it felt like the game was already lost. The Warriors had just dominated the last five minutes of regulation, and the Cavs were seemingly spent. LeBron and his teammates weren’t giving up, though. LeBron set Shumpert up for a triple and drained a pair of free throws to make it 92-87. The Warriors fought back and took the lead with 30 seconds left on a pair of Curry free throws, 93-92. With time running out an unlikely hero would then rise - Matthew Dellavedova crashed the boards on a missed three and drew a foul on the putback attempt. After draining a pair of clutch free throws, he then hassled Curry into a miss on the other end. LeBron drained one of two free throws to make it 95-93, and the Warriors, out of timeouts, were unable to get off a shot in the remaining four seconds. Against all odds the Cavs had found a way to win. LeBron scored 39 points, grabbed 16 boards and dished 11 assists while playing 50 minutes and 20 seconds. He wasn’t very efficient, but he controlled the tempo - using his post game to simultaneously kill the Warriors transition offense and allow his teammates to get easy looks and crash the boards hard. Despite being down two stars, no role player had to dramatically increase their usage or be tasked with playmaking responsibilities. LeBron simply did it all so that his teammates could play within themselves on offense and work hard on the other end.

Was it a one-game fluke? Were the Cavaliers really still in this series, or would the Warriors cruise through the next three games after LeBron snatched a game with his Herculean effort?

The Warriors would never hold a lead in Game 3. A wire-to-wire victory with leads peaking at 19 points, the Cavaliers let the world know they were for real. LeBron bested his Game 2 effort with a line of 40 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and two blocks. Dellavedova somehow managed to score 20 points and dish 4 assists playing the role of Robin for a game. Despite the Warriors dominating the boards the Cavs controlled the game. A late run by the Warriors cut it to one possession with 17 seconds left, but LeBron iced the game at the free throw line for a 96-91 win.

The Warriors, of course, would go on to win the next three games. In Game 4 they entered the fourth quarter down just two possessions, 76-70, but they ran out of gas and only scored 12 in the final frame en route to a 103-82 loss. Game 5 followed a similar script, with a LeBron James triple giving the Cavs a brief 80-79 lead with 7:47 remaining, but the Warriors closed the game out strong winning by 13 points in the end. In Game 6 a strong third quarter by the Warriors seemed to end the series, leading by 12 at the end of the frame. The lead stayed in that ballpark most of the fourth quarter: the margin was 13 with just under two minutes remaining, and a pair of free throws by Curry put the lead at 9 with 1:01 left. The Cavs wouldn’t quit, however. A LeBron layup and a pair of J.R. Smith triples made it a four point game just 28 seconds later, 101-97. The next couple threes missed, however, and with 11 seconds left LeBron decided it was time to shake hands. The final margin was 105-97, and while the Warriors held big leads during portions of the last three games, each time the Cavs were within two possessions at some point in the fourth quarter. The team never quit, merely ran out of gas against a deeper Warriors team.

2015 NBA Finals: the aftermath

What had begun as a fun match between two teams with championship-starved fan bases quickly turned into a heated rivalry with no love lost on either side. From Green’s “they suck” at the championship parade to the 24-game win streak to open the next season to Curry’s champagne comments, #ArrogantSZN had begun. Despite the fact that was the Warriors first championship in 40 years or that they won it by beating four teams with ailing point guards, they were the cockiest team in the NBA. If you’re going to talk the talk you have to walk the walk - which, honestly, they did pretty darn well for a while. Whether you consider it the best regular season in NBA history or not, 73 wins is a darn impressive figure.

2016 NBA Finals: the lead-up

The Cavs, meanwhile, weren’t too happy about the disrespect - keeping those comments stored away in the memory banks as motivation. After cruising to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference the Cavs opened the postseason 10-0 before a couple blemishes on the road against Toronto. But they recovered immediately and blew out the Raptors in the last two games, entering the Finals in excellent form.

In the meantime the Warriors began to hit some road bumps. Curry suffered an MCL sprain in round one, Draymond Green was picking up technical and flagrant fouls left and right and the Warriors finally ran into a worthy opponent in the Western Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder blitzed them with suffocating defense and staked out a 3-1 lead. But a return to form for Curry and a miraculous Game 6 by Klay Thompson saved the Warriors from crushing defeat and brought back #ArrogantSZN after the brief interruption.

2016 NBA Finals: the games

The Cavs were on a roll entering the Finals, while the Warriors had barely escaped their previous series. Would the Cavs momentum carry them to an early lead? Not so much, it turns out. In Game 1 the Warriors obliterated the Cavalier bench unit that had been playing so well. The Cavs Big Three shot just 23-60 from the field while Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa shot a combined 18-24 for 43 points. Despite off nights for both Curry and Klay the Warriors won by 15.

Game 2 was even worse for the Cavs. The eFG% margin was +0.25 for the Warriors: .636 to .386, and they dominated the boards to boot. It was the worst playoff game for the Cavs since the Return. And to make matters worse, Kevin Love suffered a concussion in the second quarter, putting his health in question for the remainder of the series. The final score was 110-77.

Returning home for Game 3 the Cavaliers faced a must-win situation. Kevin Love was out, and Richard Jefferson started in his place. This smaller, faster lineup seemed to pose more problems for the Warriors on both ends of the floor, and the Cavs were up 33-16 after one quarter. The Warriors cut it down to an eight point deficit at the half, but the Cavs dominated the final two frames for a 120-90 blowout win. At this point, neither Curry nor Klay had scored 20 points in a game during the Finals.

Love returned for Game 4 but would play off the bench in his first game back. This game was closely contested most of the way, with it tied at 81 early in the fourth quarter. But as had happened so often the year before, the Warriors put the game away with a fourth quarter burst - Curry put up 13 in the final frame (and 38 in the game) and the Warriors cruised to a 108-97 win.

Despite the Warriors’ win, this game proved to be a turning point in the series. Late in the game an incident between Green and LeBron resulted in the NBA assessing Green a flagrant-1 the next day. This put him over the limit for flagrant fouls in the postseason, resulting in an automatic one-game suspension. Further, Klay Thompson prodded LeBron James, saying ‘it’s a man’s game’ and ‘I guess his feelings just got hurt.’ The Cavaliers had their opening, and they wouldn’t let it go to waste.

In Game 5 there were a trio of sublime performances, each worthy of a highlight reel.

Klay Thompson was fantastic:

He finished with 37 points on .772 true shooting. The man he was guarding, Kyrie Irving, was even better:

Kyrie finished with 41 points while shooting over 70 percent from the field - a feat only Wilt Chamberlain ever matched in a Finals game. But best of all was LeBron James:

He finished with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks with just two turnovers - a monster on both ends of the court. He notched the second-best game score in NBA Finals history.

The game itself began as a shootout - both teams scored 61 in the first half. But Thompson couldn’t find any help from his teammates in the second half, and the Cavs ran away with the game behind the brilliance of Kyrie and LeBron. The game LeBron played was simply the best basketball I’d ever seen...

...until the next game. I can’t find any words to adequately to describe LeBron’s Game 6. I recommend watching the highlight reel on a loop for the next hour - it’s absolutely breathtaking. You’ll think it’s a full game worth of highlights before it’s even halfway through:

41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks and just one turnover. Nearly flawless basketball. The highest game score in NBA Finals history. Destroying the Warriors defense on one end, then blowing up pick-and-rolls constantly on the other. No player has ever dominated as many facets of the game as LeBron did in these two games.

All of this led up to a grand climax: Game 7. The two teams had scored exactly the same number of points in the series. Each had two home wins and one road win. The air was filled with tension. The first quarter was a back-and-forth battle. The Warriors managed to build a seven point lead to close out the first half - would they pull away? The Cavs answered back quickly, tying the game at 54 just three minutes into the second half. A 7-0 run from Kyrie Irving gave them a 68-61 lead, but the Warriors hit back and tied it up three minutes later. Every bucket in the fourth quarter was a struggle. Tied at 83 with seven minutes to play. Klay drains a mid-range and Dray a lay-up. LeBron baits Ezeli into a three-shot foul then splashes a three in his face the next possession. Klay answers back with a lay-up to tie it at 89. We’ll pick it up from there:

A stunning reversal - never in the history of the NBA had a team led the Finals 3-1 and lost. And this wasn’t just any team - it was the team that had just broken the record for regular season wins, the defending champions. The Cavaliers had completed the most improbable comeback in NBA history, and brought the fans the first championship in franchise history; the first title in any major sport for a Cleveland team in 57 years.

2016 Finals: the aftermath

Warriors fans cried foul, claiming the league mettled with the series by assessing the flagrant foul to Draymond Green after the fact. Meanwhile the Cavs drank up all the hate, with LeBron touting his Kermit hat and Ultimate Warrior t-shirt:

The petty didn’t stop there, with pictures leaking out about LeBron’s Halloween party:

Then the Cavs stormed back to take the Christmas day game, with Richard Jefferson yamming on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving going for game at Klay Thompson this time:

Two day later this incredible detail leaked out about LeBron’s Halloween party:

Report: LeBron James made guests step over a Steph Curry dummy at his Halloween party.

2017 NBA Finals: the lead-up

Of course, just days after losing the Finals in devastating fashion the Warriors inked superstar Kevin Durant to a contract. Adding a player of that caliber to a 73-win team seemed almost unfair, and from that moment on there was never much doubt that we’d be watching Cavs-Warriors Round 3 in the Finals. The Warriors proceeded to have another extraordinary regular season, and they avenged their loss to the Cavs on Christmas day with a blowout on Martin Luther King day. Not even a late season injury to Kevin Durant could slow them down - they won 67 games then swept the Western Conference playoffs.

It took longer for the Cavs season to come together. Injuries to J.R. Smith and Kevin Love, various rest days for the Big Three and a general apathy toward the regular season contributed to a 51-win season that netted the No. 2 seed in the East. But the switch flipped for the postseason, and they dominated the Eastern Conference to the tune of a 12-1 record and 120+ ORtg. Both teams seem to be peaking leading up to the series we’ve all been waiting for.

The present

I’m not going to preview the match-ups or make any predictions in this space. Plenty of digital ink has been spent on those topics already by people more qualified than I am. Any guess I’d make would no doubt be incorrect - in fact, there isn’t much that would surprise me in this series. Either team is capable of blowing out the other, whether on their home court or on the road. Never before have I felt like there is such a wide spectrum of realistic results before a series. The fact is I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I’m content to let the story write itself. Instead, I’m going to devote this section to what’s at stake in these Finals.

For the Warriors, winning is expected. They have the arguably the most talented roster in NBA history. The Vegas lines put them at around 70 percent to take the series, and various statistical models have that figure closer to 90 percent. Moreover, the moment they signed Kevin Durant (in turn signing up for a huge luxury tax bill starting next year and likely breaking records set by the Nets and Cavs soon after) the expectation was that they would win more championships than they’d lose. Losing this series likely wouldn’t break up the team or anything like that - it’s just one season. However it would put them in a deficit that’d be hard to crawl out of. Two titles in three years and three in five years are both reasonable expectations given their roster. Losing the first title would require them to win two in a row and three of four to hit those goals. It also might impact how much ownership is willing to spend this summer on guys that make a difference on the margins like Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston.

For the Cavs, LeBron’s legacy is at stake. A year ago, even after bringing Cleveland its first ever championship, it seemed like the distance between LeBron and Michael Jordan might be insurmountable in the eyes of public perception. Michael was 6-0 in the Finals, while LeBron was just 3-4. The comeback from 3-1 against a 73-win team certainly helped, but a large gap remained in the eyes of most. Durant signing with the Warriors provided an opportunity, however. Defeating them again this year when they are so clearly stronger than the team that won 73 would be an accomplishment unrivaled in NBA history. It would make LeBron unique. It might just be enough to change the prevailing narrative on LeBron versus Michael.

The future

How this story plays out will have significant consequences for both teams, and in turn the entire league. Right now there’s the Warriors, the Cavs and 28 also-rans. There is no semblance of parity, even if parity in the NBA has largely been an illusion over the decades. But if either side is blown out it could begin to divert their path back towards the rest of the pack. It could provide an opening for another team to make the Finals, something that’s difficult to picture in either conference right now. On the other hand, a very close, tightly contested series could strengthen the resolve of each team to keep paying the price for winning and we could see Cavs-Warriors rounds 4, 5, 6 in future seasons.

Beyond a team level, it could have a significant impact on many individual players. If Durant dominates the Finals will he really want to take a $4 million pay cut to accommodate some role players that hardly showed up? If Durant plays badly and the Warriors lose, how will Steph Curry feel about the team deciding they needed Durant when Curry had been the engine behind a 73-win team. Will the Cavs consider trading Kevin Love if they lose? Will the Warriors consider trading Klay Thompson if they fall short? Would LeBron entertain the idea of playing somewhere else if he decided his current supporting cast wasn’t enough to beat the Warriors?

While none of the above scenarios are particularly likely, they are within the realm of possibility. Winning or losing a title can make decisions like these either very easy or very hard. And what these two franchises and the individual players on them decide to do moving forward will have major consequences for the entire league. It could impact whether Boston uses the No. 1 pick or trades it. It could impact whether San Antonio makes a win-now move for a veteran like Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry, or if they try to build a team that will peak a few years down the road. Milwaukee, Utah, Los Angeles (C), Toronto, Indiana and Chicago are among teams that have big decisions to make this summer. What happens next will impact the decisions those teams make.

In a couple weeks we may have a new greatest player of all time, or a new greatest team. We might see this match-up several more times, or never again. We might see other teams rise to power, or see them wait a while before they even try. This NBA Finals will be historic one way or another - the legacy of the Warriors and the Cavaliers hangs in the balance. I, for one, can’t wait to see how the story ends.