Golden State and Cleveland were the favourites to make the NBA Finals when the season started. The pair have met in the season-ending series for the last three seasons, and there was no reason to expect much different this season given their respective dominance of each conference.
The Warriors suffered injuries throughout the season, most notably to their point guard, two-time MVP, Steph Curry. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson had niggles too, while Draymond Green was a little short of his usual standards during the regular season. A dangerous blend of low motivation and questionable health made people suspect Golden State’s invincibility.
Cleveland have been doubted, too. Despite having LeBron James – who had perhaps his greatest ever season – the Cavaliers’ have been a shadow of their former selves. The disastrous trade that saw Kyrie Irving leave for Boston played a part in that, but the issues ran deeper. The roster had to be rebuilt twice, Kevin Love struggled for form and health, and the rest of LeBron’s accomplices were showing signs of age.
Neither team got the number one seed in their conference. Golden State still had a superb record, but Cleveland were down in fourth in the East. Not that any of that mattered, as the Cavs swept the number one seed Raptors in the second round. The Warriors, even with Curry only returning from injury in the semi-finals, have cruised to the Conference Finals.
Everything in the 82-game marathon is forgotten. The playoffs have seen the best team in each conference dominate. LeBron was superhuman (unsurprisingly) to carry his team past the Pacers, but the return to form of Love, Kyle Korver and others has the Cavaliers looking like themselves again. Golden State have played like the team we know they are. That’s the four All-Star, two-time champion Warriors.
Houston and Boston have been good this season. Spectacular in some moments, but their regular season work fades towards irrelevance now. They are still the challengers, the definitive underdogs in the Conference Finals.
There is no shame in that. Golden State will go down as one of, if not the, best NBA teams of all-time. Cleveland have LeBron James.
The regular season was a tease. It was easy to be lured into the idea of a changing guard at the top of the NBA. The Rockets and Celtics have done a lot right in the last 12 months, but even after all that has gone before, it would still be a major shock to see either compete in the NBA Finals.
Playoffs focus the mind. LeBron James steps up another level in the postseason. The Warriors season of relative disinterest has been put behind them. Cleveland and Golden State have had months of questioning about their weaknesses, almost to the point that their strengths, and massive successes, have been forgotten.