The MVP has been all but locked up by Warriors’ Steph Curry, despite one of the greatest seasons ever by the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, and with the award basically guaranteed to travel back to Oakland, people believe that the championship will be too. Especially after the dominating win over San Antonio on Thursday night. Unfortunately for Golden State and their fans it might not be the simple. And it won’t be that simple for Cleveland to make their way through the East this year either.
But led by the best player in basketball and already tallying 70 wins on the season, how can the Warriors be anything but a lock as the Western Conference champions? Well believe it or not the 95’-96’ Bulls have something to do with it. Chasing the historic Michael Jordan led team and their record 72 wins has had quite the impact on the Golden State’s season. Definitely more than they are letting on.
With the Warriors trying to get to 73 wins they have been playing their superstars more than other playoff bound teams have. Steph Curry, who sat out the 4th quarter of multiple blowout games early in the season has seen his minutes rise dramatically as of late. Through March Curry had only played 33.5 minutes a game while the last 5 games have seen the All-Star point guard average more than 5 more minutes per contest with 38.8 minutes played per game. Klay Thompson has also had a significant rise in minutes per game since the chase for 73 got more serious (the last 5 games he is averaging 37.7 mpg as opposed to the 32.8 mpg prior), as did the team’s real MVP Draymond Green who saw his minutes jump from 33.7 per game to logging 38.2 minutes each contest. All of this while Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and each of the Spurs’ “Big 3” have spent multiple games the past two weeks resting up for the brutal playoff stretch. As for Green, Thompson, and Curry’s nights off, they have been rested a combined 1 game since the All-Star break in mid-February. And it is definitely taking a toll, as heading into Thursday’s showdown with the Spurs, the Warriors were only 7-3 in their last 10 games, with all 3 superstars struggling mightily in their most recent loss against the lowly Timberwolves.
And where will these depleted and tired Golden State Warriors be come mid-April? Most likely at the Oracle Arena against a Jazz team that currently sits at the 8th spot in the West. A Jazz team that gave the Warriors quite a bit of trouble in their last matchup. Despite the 103-96 loss, the young Utah team was able to force overtime from Steph Curry and Co., and earlier in the year it was the same Jazz team that forced a valiant 4th quarter comeback from the Warriors to stay unbeaten. So despite the 4-0 record Golden State holds over the Utah team this season, don’t expect your usual 1-seed walking all over an 8-seed in a 4-game sweep. Instead, expect a tired Warriors team to show at least some struggle in putting away a tough minded and troublesome Jazz squad in the 1st round.
And it doesn’t get easier from there, as the Warriors would have to finish off two more series against strong Western Conference foes. Most likely the Spurs or the Thunder in the Conference Finals, both teams giving Golden State their run for their money in nearly every matchup this season. And as Steph, Klay, and Draymond log even more minutes, and probably play an extra game or two in Utah while their opponents rest, it will be Billy Donovan or Gregg Popovich that leads a fresh team instead of Steve Kerr.
But of course these coaches will be leading their rested teams into the Oracle Arena, where the Warriors play extremely well, right? Well yeah, but that home court advantage might not be as big a deal as people believe. The Warriors have only lost 2 games at home this season, but both of them came last week, to lower ranked teams, showing that either Golden State is feeling the fatigue of dealing with trying to enter the record books, or their home court might not be as strong as it seems. Either way, if Steve Kerr’s squad is looking to get past the Spurs in the Western Conference Playoffs they will need to be perfect at home, because the Spurs have been so far. And losing even one home game in the series could be fatal considering no team this year including the Warriors have been able to beat the Spurs in San Antonio.
And still throughout the many pitfalls that face the Warriors chase for back to back conference and world championships, they are easily the favorite to win it all. They have the best collection of starters in the league and an unrivaled bench all being led by a coach who knows what it takes to win it all, because he did so last year. Still they face serious problems in their quest, the same way the Cavaliers do in chasing their return to the NBA Finals.
But the Cavs are not chasing any kind of record, and don’t have a 65-win Spurs team chasing them, so why wouldn’t they win the East again? Well, for Cleveland the problems facing the team are less from fatigued players chasing history like the Warriors, and more about a much improved Eastern Conference causing trouble for a team that is really all about one man carrying the load.
Despite the untrue opinion that there are a “Big 3” in Cleveland, it is well known that there is one true leader on the team, and that is Lebron James. And while the other two “superstars”, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, are definitely great players in their own right, they are far from good enough to carry the team through the playoffs without their obvious alpha-dog. Don’t believe they are that bad without James? Neither Love nor Irving could take their teams to the playoffs in their combined 11 seasons prior to their team up with King James. Still think the Cavs are more than just Lebron? Thursday night while James was taking a rest day instead of suiting up for their game, Cleveland lost Indiana 123-109. And that is just 1 of the 14 games the Cavaliers have lost without Lebron since the King’s return to Cleveland. How many wins do they have in those games Lebron misses? Four.
Anytime a player means that much to his team there is fear that an injury or a bad series from that star could take the whole team down. And with the Eastern Conference having multiple teams this season that could actually challenge a one-dimensional team it is very important that the Cavs’ other star players fulfill their strong potential. Last season Cleveland made it all the way to the Finals without Love or Irving due to injury, and even that took an all-time great playoff run by James. This season, where the Raptors are a serious threat to the Cavaliers, shown by their 2-2 record against the defending Eastern Conference Champs, Cleveland needs multiple players to step up. And it’s not just Toronto that is a threat to Cleveland’s hold on the East. The Hawks, Celtics, Heat, and even the Pistons loom large in the playoffs, especially when you realize that those teams are a combined 6-6 against Cleveland this season. And these teams aren’t the only reason the Cavs aren’t a sure thing to repeat in the East. As a matter of fact one of the biggest threats in the chase to repeat might not be from another team at all.
Earlier I stated that there was one true leader in Cleveland, and it was Lebron James. Well unfortunately that does that does not bode well for 1st year head coach Tyronn Lue. The former NBA point guard is trying to become just the 2nd coach in the past 30+ years to win an NBA title in their 1st season as head coach. And the past two coaches to do so, Pat Riley with the 82’ Lakers, and Steve Kerr last season with the Warriors, both had teams that were balanced and well rounded. Instead, Lue’s team is a true one man show and hardly Riley’s Showtime Lakers or the most well-balanced team in history that Kerr was handed last year.
But Lue and his team are heading into the postseason as the top seed and the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. But still, a 1st year coach with a one-man team in a tougher East is not the dream scenario for a team trying to repeat as conference champs. And with it, the Cavaliers, much like the Warriors have a tough ride back to the Finals as Golden State fights through fatigue and some tough competition in the West and Cleveland tries to beat much better Eastern Conference teams with one true playmaker and a 1st year head coach. Either way, it will be a tough road for the favorites as they are far from locks to meet in the Finals.