Neither conference got the premier match-up most fans wanted. We didn't get LeBron going up against his old team in the East. You remember, the team LeBron left his current team for in 2010, the latest dramatic embarrassment on the national stage for Cleveland*. We didn't get a match-up of the 2 best teams (and arguably 2 of the best teams of all time) in the West between Golden State and San Antonio. But what we got, we're good with. For the following reasons:
*At the time. Sad, sad Cleveland.
Steph is Healthy
Steph Curry made his return from the MCL sprain that sidelined him for 6 games and he did so with a vengeance, pouring in 40 points (in 38 minutes) including an NBA record 17 in overtime. Now the doubt lingers as to whether Curry will remain healthy with his history of leg problems, but when he's on, he's the best show in sports. And it's always a plus for the NBA when the first unanimous MVP in league history is able to play in your most important games.
Russell Westbrook is Russell Westbrook
The 2 biggest reasons why the Thunder are perennial contenders are: 1A. Kevin Durant and 1B. Russell Westbrook. They have the luxury of having 2 of the best 5 players in the league on the same team. We'll get to Durant later but Westbrook will be the most scrutinized and criticized player of the series, whether he deserves to be or not. Here's a point guard that recorded the most triple doubles since Magic in 1981-82 with 18. But he's also going to say things like this about Steph Curry, "He's not nothing I haven't seen," which won't make sense the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd time you read it. Triple doubles and triple negatives. Never change, Russ.
Kevin Durant's last Thunder run?
Kevin Durant is kind of a good basketball player. Until Steph Curry shot his way into our hearts., he was widely considered the 2nd best player on Earth after LeBron James. And after spending all 9 years of his career in Oklahoma City, Durant will test free agency this summer. I, for one, don't see him returning. There's even rumors that he'd consider signing with Golden State or San Antonio. For now, the former still stands on his path back to the Finals and the latter was just vanquished by his team. It's a shame that he doesn't still play in Seattle, but when it comes to Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant is the iconic image of that franchise. This may be the end of an era and I have a feeling that Durant will play like it.
Will Cleveland continue it's stellar run or will tragedy strike?
On one hand, Cleveland has dominated the Eastern Conference playoffs, going undefeated and setting records with its 3-point prowess. But on the other hand, it is the said Eastern Conference and the competition is, let's say, pitiful. We all watched (okay, most of us didn't) the Heat-Raptors series that went 7 games, featured 3 overtimes, and still didn't garner much interest. I don't see much that we'll learn from this series except for those that will discover that Toronto has an NBA team. The Cavs will want to keep improving and increasing hopes that it can win the title, all the while hoping that injury doesn't strike. You can't really discuss Cleveland sports without acknowledging the past. The strongest case the casual fan can make is that Cleveland took Golden State to 6 games last year without their 2nd and 3rd best player. But the very fact that they lost both of those players in the playoffs is just another chapter in a long history of hope extinguished.
These are the 2 best offensive teams over the course of the regular season, so expect shots to be attempted. As usual in the playoffs, the team that wins will be the team that makes the big shots and the big stops. Although we didn't get the match-up of the 2 best teams over the regular season, we did get the team that many contend have the best shot to dethrone Golden State. Having said that, Golden State did beat them in all 3 games played this year. Despite KD averaging 35 ppg, 12rpg, and 6 apg. The Thunder have athleticism and some potential advantages in the front court but it's more about the defense for OKC. Russell Westbrook is a good defender but Steph Curry did average 35.0 ppg of his own against them. It will be interesting to see the chess match between Oklahoma City's use of big men Enes Kanter and Steven Adams and if they can be forces down low, and how Golden State employs their small ball lineup. In the end, despite some heroic efforts by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Golden State will just be too much to handle. Warriors in 6.
There is some evidence that Toronto can challenge Cleveland, mainly rooted in the fact that they won the regular season series and had the 2nd best record in the East by 1 game. But the evidence pointing in the other direction is overwhelming. The Raptors were taken to 7 games by both of their playoff opponents and will be missing perhaps their most consistent postseason performer for at least the beginning of the series in Jonas Valanciunas. And the Cavs are on fire! Cleveland cannot look past Toronto and they'll need to play smart. If they do so, this series will serve as a good tune-up for whoever they will face out of the West. But the upgrade in competition is going to be telling. The main thing for Cleveland is to continue staying healthy and keeping their shooters hot. Sometimes a layoff can do more harm than good so Lue will have to figure that out. Cavs in 5.