After what’s been a disappointingly lopsided and predictable playoffs, basketball fans hope the NBA has saved its best for last.
That may be what it looks like, with the Golden State Warriors meeting the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals for the third year in a row. The Dubs have been the best of the West in each of those three seasons, while the Cavs finished in the top two in the East the past three years.
However, oddsmakers aren’t so sure that we’re going to get that competitive NBA Finals showdown that we so desperately crave for. According to BetOnline, Golden State is a -265 favorite to claim NBA supremacy for the second time in 3 years, while Cleveland pays +225 to repeat.
The Cavaliers stunned the world last season as underdogs, coming off the mat to become the first team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win the NBA Finals. But in a league where the better team always seems to win, how likely is another upset in the NBA Finals?
Upsets In NBA Finals Are Actually Pretty Common
Actually, based on recent history, an upset in the NBA Finals isn’t out of the question. It might even be likely.
Going back to 2004 (which is as far back as I could find pre-series odds for the NBA Finals), favorites in the NBA Finals have won just 7 of the last 13 championship series. That includes last year, when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors as +170 underdogs.
Other upsets in the last 13 years include the 2012 Miami Heat (beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games as +140 underdogs), the 2011 Dallas Mavericks (surprised the Heat in 6 games as +160 dogs), the 2008 Boston Celtics (defeated the LA Lakers in 6 games to cash at even money), and the 2006 Heat (paid +125 odds in their 6-game victory over the Mavs.)
However, only one of those upsets since 2004 involved a bigger underdog than the Cavaliers are in this year’s final: The 2004 Detroit Pistons, who were +400 dogs to the LA Lakers but whipped Kobe and company in 5 games.
One other fact for you: This year’s Cavaliers own the worst regular-season winning percentage of any NBA finalist during that span (1 less win than the 2006 champion Heat and 2 less than the 2004 Pistons).
However, Cleveland’s 51-31 record this season is misleading. The Cavs coasted to the finish line this year, clearly putting a greater emphasis on resting up for the playoffs. In the postseason, they’re 12-1.
So Can The Cavaliers Pull Off The Upset?
Cleveland has its hands full in this series, there’s no question about it.
The Cavs have the best player in the series on their team (it’s a joke that LeBron James doesn’t win the MVP award every year), but the Warriors clearly have the second- and third-best in Steph Curry and Kevin Durant (the order of those two is up for debate).
Golden State’s supporting cast is also much better. You can make the argument that Draymond Green and Klay Thompson outweigh what Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love bring to the table, but even if you call that a wash, the benches are no contest.
The Warriors were absolutely humiliated by last year’s collapse to the Cavaliers. It turned them from possibly the best-ever team in the NBA to a laughingstock. Golden State players, and even their owner, publicly proclaimed that they wanted to face Cleveland in this year’s Finals.
But here are 3 reasons the Cavaliers might just upset the Warriors for the second straight year.
1. LeBron looks amazing
Other than a bizarre Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, when he scored just 11 points and shot 4 of 11 from the field, LeBron has been historically great in these playoffs.
He’s also doing it while averaging nearly 40 minutes per game, often in blowouts. And by the way, that Game 3 dud against Boston has since been explained by the fact that he had the flu.
With James playing at this level, the Cavaliers are capable of anything.
2. The Cavaliers are healthy
Cleveland might be shooting for its third straight NBA title year if the Cavs hadn’t been decimated by injury two years ago.
Don’t forget, Kevin Love missed the final three rounds of the 2015 playoffs – including the Finals against Golden State – after hurting his shoulder, and Irving missed nearly all of the championship series that year due to a knee injury.
LeBron still managed to will the Cavaliers to a pair of wins in that series. When he’s got his normal complement of support around him, like he does this year, James has lost just one playoff series since 2011.
3. All the pressure is on Golden State, especially Durant
Yeah, the Warriors wanted the Cavaliers again. Now they’ve got them.
Imagine how much egg Golden State will have on its face if it falls to Cleveland in the Finals for the second straight year. Especially after the Warriors have continued to insist they were the better team last season.
If that’s not enough pressure for the Warriors to deal with, try to put yourself in Kevin Durant’s shoes. He couldn’t win a title in Oklahoma City so he joined a team that had won the most-ever regular season games last season. He’s already shown himself to be sensitive to criticism, suggesting to fans “if you don’t like it, don’t watch” when asked about complaints about blowouts in the playoffs.
LeBron’s legacy is secure. He and the Cavaliers brought that long-awaited championship back to Cleveland last spring.
Even though the Warriors won an NBA title themselves two years ago, just one championship will be viewed as a failure for three years of regular-season dominance. And Durant will inherit the dreaded ‘best active player never to win a championship’ mantra, if he doesn’t hold it already.
The longer that this series is competitive, the more the Warriors will feel it.
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