The Basketball Gods have blessed us with a series between a transcendent talent on a quest for history (LeBron James) and a singular team (the Golden State Warriors) on a quest for basketball immortality.
The 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is like an Elizabethan drama with 3-pointers — lots of 3-pointers. This series, which starts Thursday in Oakland at Oracle Arena, centers on redemption, supremacy, legacy, history, and long-range shooting.
These Finals are going to be framed by the arc of history and the 3-point arc. Cleveland doesn’t want to add another chapter to its city’s torturous list of ignominious failures and near-misses since 1964, the last year a Cleveland club won a major professional sports championship. The Warriors are trying to burnish their record-setting 73-win regular season with a second straight NBA title.
They’re two great American sports stories, but only one can have a happy ending.
Any Golden State victory in the Finals will be a three-peat of sorts because of the Warriors’ historic ability to hit the long ball.
If the Cavaliers are going to make the 2015 Finals rematch a remix, they’re going to have to outshoot the Warriors. The LeBrons might be the only team capable of doing it. The Cavaliers are shooting an NBA-best 43.4 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. Golden State is connecting at a 40.3 percent clip. Despite taking 61 fewer threes, Cleveland is just 10 shy of Golden State’s 212 this postseason.
Here are a few more deep thoughts on a series that will hinge on deep shots:
■ The Warriors rallying from a 3-1 series deficit and 13-point deficits in Game 6 and Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City was a sharp riposte to those who doubted the Dubs and portrayed Golden State’s game as a gimmick. (The Warriors shot an incredible 38 of 82 on threes in those two games.)
For those who deem the NBA regular-season meaningless, Golden State acquired a measure of the fortitude needed for that comeback by pushing for 73 wins. The Warriors had to win their final four games of the regular season to set the record.
■ It’s a remarkable accomplishment that James has been to six straight Finals. But to cement his legacy, he has to win one with Cleveland and make good on the promise of bringing the Cavaliers to the promised land when he returned from Miami. Winning one title in Cleveland and breaking that city’s championship curse is worth more than both of his titles in Miami from a legacy standpoint.
James had no shot in his first NBA Finals against San Antonio in 2007. That was LeBron and a bunch of basketball bystanders. Last year, James was handicapped by Kevin Love’s injury and losing Kyrie Irving in Game 1 of the Finals. But this time, he has a full complement of Cleveland talent and his hand-picked coach, Tyronn Lue. Like the shoe company paying him a billion dollars says, just do it.
■ Call me crazy, but I think Cleveland isn’t outgunned by Golden State. The Cavaliers don’t have shooters the caliber of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Thompson’s otherworldly 41-point performance in Game 6 produced a playoff-record 11 3-pointers. He hit shots from the International Space Station. Curry’s 36-point effort in the clincher featured a Game 7-record seven threes.
However, Cleveland has strength in numbers. J.R. Smith is shooting 46.2 percent from 3-point range. His 49 threes trail only Thompson in the playoffs. Irving is shooting 45.6 percent. Love is shooting 44.6 percent. All have higher 3-point shooting percentages this postseason than Curry (40.7 percent). All of them rank in the top 10 in 3-pointers made.
Much was made of the fact that Golden State made a record 90 3-pointers against OKC. However, Cleveland drained 77 threes in its four-game sweep of Atlanta.
■ One of the subplots of this series is going to be the tug-of-war for face of the league between James and Curry. You get the sense that LeBron is slightly offended and annoyed by the notion that Curry has supplanted him as the league’s marquee attraction.
James’s comments about Curry being named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history betrayed that. James lauded Curry, who claimed back-to-back MVPs, but then took a passive-aggressive swipe at the Warriors guard, saying most valuable and best player of the year are “a different conversation.”
Curry responded that he has “gotten really good at ignoring people.”
Whoever wins the Finals gets the last word.
■ If this series comes down to the boards, it’s Cleveland’s. Golden State struggled to keep the Thunder off the glass. The Cavaliers have allowed the fewest opponents rebounds per game in the playoffs at 37.1 and the fewest offensive rebounds at 7.9. Cleveland is averaging 43 rebounds per game. Golden State has allowed 46.6 rebounds and 12.8 offensive rebounds per game in the playoffs.
■ If you’re looking for an unsung hero for the Cavs, keep an eye on power forward (in name only) Channing Frye. A classic stretch-4 in NBA parlance, Frye does his posting up at the 3-point line. He is shooting a scorching 57.8 percent on 3-pointers (26 of 45) and is Cleveland’s fifth-leading scorer in the postseason, while averaging only 15.7 minutes per game.
■ Who knows where Golden State will ultimately stand in the annals of NBA history? We’ll need a larger sample size. But by just making it back to the Finals, Curry & Co. have done something the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich Spurs haven’t: return to the Finals the year after winning the title. The fastidious Spurs have won five NBA titles, but never defended one.
■ Who is going to win? The heartstrings pull for Cleveland. But the brain says Golden State in seven. Sorry, Cleveland. Your shot at glory is going to fall just short, again.