The question facing us: Which participants in the 2018 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will matter most in the series ahead?
In the interest of providing guidance to Yahoo’s readership in a trying time, I submit to a trusting public a new installment of Dan Devine’s Inarguable Power Rankings. In this episode: Dan Devine’s Inarguable Who Matters Most in the 2018 NBA Finals Power Rankings.
Let’s dig in and weigh in. And please remember, as always, that the list is the list.
Those who barely matter
30. Okaro White. Played a decent chunk for last year’s second-half-surging Miami Heat, wound up on the scrap heap midway through this season, caught on with Cleveland one week before the end of the regular season, and hasn’t gotten on the court since. As short-term contract work goes, a two-month no-show gig that lands you in the NBA Finals doesn’t sound half bad.
29. Kendrick Perkins. The Cavs signed Perk mere days before the end of the season, gave him 15 minutes of run in their finale, and since, he has mostly sat on the bench and looked like a combination of a strength coach and a bouncer. He rises out of the bottom spot for going from out of the league to the G League to back to the league in time to mean-mug his way through the playoffs and beef with Drake long before Pusha T cracked the mic.
28. Damian Jones. In theory, an athletic 7-footer might make some sense as a spot-minutes option to try to keep the Cavs’ big bodies off the boards and set some screens to free up Steph and Klay. In practice, he hasn’t played since Game 1 against the Pelicans and sits behind maybe seven other potential Warriors centers. Sorry, my guy.
27. Ante Zizic. The Croatian rookie has logged 18 total minutes in the playoffs, and is the fourth-string center in a series where things will likely get smaller as the series wears on. But there’s something to be said for being the last man standing from the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas megatrade, so dammit, we’re going to say it. You’re the 27th-most important player in the NBA Finals, Ante. Nobody can ever take that away.
Those who could conceivably matter a bit
26. JaVale McGee. McGee’s 10 nightly minutes of lob finishing and shot contesting helped Golden State get through the regular season, and his length helped bother LaMarcus Aldridge in Round 1. But as the opposition gets tougher and smarter, McGee’s minutes evaporate. Steve Kerr stapled him to the bench for all but three minutes of garbage time against Houston because he knew he couldn’t expose McGee to the fangs of James Harden and Chris Paul in pick-and-roll coverage; he will likely do the same against Cleveland, because LeBron James doesn’t refuse gifts.
25. Jose Calderon. Still careful with the rock (a 2.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this year) and still capable of stroking it from deep (44.1 percent on 3-pointers), you could make a case that Calderon would be a preferable option to flighty trick-or-treat guard Jordan Clarkson for stretches. But the younger man at least has the benefit of young legs, and against an opponent with so many dangerous scoring threats, you’d imagine the 36-year-old Spaniard will spend most of his time watching, his thoughts idly drifting — as they do for so many of us — toward ham.
24. Quinn Cook. The three-time D-League/G League All-Star stepped into a key role for the Warriors after Stephen Curry suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his left MCL less than a month before the start of the playoffs. While his minutes have waned since Curry’s return to health, Kerr clearly trusts the Duke product, putting him on the floor for key possessions in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. He won’t be a top choice for major minutes in this series — Golden State’s coaching staff just saw how LeBron spent last series hunting another 6-foot-2 point guard every chance he got — but if the Warriors need some more shooting on the floor, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kerr call Cook’s number. (He’ll just hope for better results.)
23. Rodney Hood. At the trade deadline, Hood seemed like a hand-in-glove fit for what the sagging Cavs needed — a 6-foot-8 swingman who could handle the ball, shoot off the dribble, get to the rim, spot up opposite pick-and-rolls, and generally provide some versatility and spice to a one-note offensive attack. He has since essentially fallen off a cliff, going from the starting lineup all the way to the far-flung fringes of Cleveland’s rotation due in part to an inability to consistently do virtually anything positive on the court — the Cavs have been outscored by 79 points in Hood’s 203 minutes of floor time in the playoffs, the worst plus-minus mark of any player in the postseason — and in part to an unwillingness to get off the bench when summoned.
Hood becomes an unrestricted free agent in July; he has cost himself many millions of dollars over the last 3 1/2 months. I’m not betting he’ll get a chance to earn much of it back here.
22. Cedi Osman. The rookie has barely played this postseason, save for extended garbage time in the Game 4 dismissal of the Raptors, so maybe this is too high a spot for him. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that at some point Tyronn Lue is going to feel frustrated by his team’s inability to match the quickness and energy of the Warriors on the wing, and is going to remember he’s got a 6-foot-8 forward with long arms who can shoot 3s, switch screens, and sprint everywhere sitting on his bench. I’m not saying he’ll be able to replicate the success the stronger, cagier Richard Jefferson had against Golden State in the last two Finals, but it wouldn’t stun me if he got a chance to try.
21. Zaza Pachulia. On one hand, you can envision a scenario in which Tristan Thompson is bulldozing his way to the offensive glass without impediment, resulting in Kerr calling on the 6-foot-11, 270-pound bruiser to throw his body around and make life tough on Cleveland’s possession-extending energizer. On the other, the “Kerr doesn’t want to give the opponent an easy pick-and-roll target” idea plays out here, too.
After the Cavs scored a whopping 125.1 points per 100 possessions against the Warriors in last year’s Finals when slow-footed Zaza was on the court, he didn’t see a second of floor time against Cleveland during their two regular-season meetings, and he’s played all of 20 minutes in this year’s playoffs. Pachulia was a regular-season innings eater, and now Kerr’s handing things off to his young bullpen.
20. David West. Ditto, for the most part. There’s a lot to love about the veteran big man — his physicality, his touch on pick-and-pop jumpers from just inside the 3-point arc, his playmaking out of the high and low posts, the locker-room leadership that’s made him such a valued part of the Warriors these past couple of years — but the playoffs are about matchups. The 37-year-old is a defensive liability against teams that draw opposing big men out into deep water, which is why we barely saw him against Houston, and figures to be why we won’t see him much against Cleveland.
19. Patrick McCaw. We can’t expect too much from the 22-year-old, less than one week after his return to the Warriors lineup following nearly two months on the shelf healing up from a bone bruise in his back suffered in a frightening fall. But he’s active and available, and with Andre Iguodala’s status very much in question and Golden State painfully thin on the wing, the 6-foot-7 swingman who opened eyes as a second-round pick-turned-rotation player last season could get pressed into action to a greater degree than anticipated.
Those who could matter
18. Jordan Clarkson. There’s really no way to sugarcoat this: Clarkson has been galactically bad in his first career postseason action. The 25-year-old combo guard is jacking — LeBron’s the only Cavalier getting shots up more frequently on a per-minute and per-possession basis than Clarkson in the playoffs — despite shooting 30.9 percent from the field and just 25.6 percent from 3-point range. He’s also a major defensive negative; Cleveland’s allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court this postseason. The state of the Cavs roster, though, means he’ll keep getting chances, though. Lue will have to hope he gets hot at the right time to help steal a game.
17. Shaun Livingston. To some degree, the story here is the same as it’s been for the past couple of postseasons. When he takes advantage of opportunities to attack off the dribble and get his shot off against smaller defenders, the 6-foot-7 vet becomes a second-unit weapon for the Warriors. When he recedes into his natural point-guard predilection toward passing the ball and looks unwilling to make himself a threat away from the action, he can damage Golden State’s offensive flow by giving the opponent a place to hide weaker defenders (even big ones, like Kevin Love) or by allowing a defender an effort-free assignment that allows him to sag deep into the paint to choke off passing lanes and freelance for double-teams and late help against dangerous shooters (see: P.J. Tucker, last round).
With Iguodala off the menu and so many of the Warriors’ big men virtually unplayable, Kerr will lean hard on Livingston to use his smarts, length, playmaking skill and defensive versatility to impact the game. He’s able to do it, but he has to be willing, too.
16. Jordan Bell. After a productive start to his first season as a pro was derailed by a nasty mid-January ankle injury, and after a “humbling” conversation with Kevin Durant helped halt his post-return slide out of the rotation, Bell logged significant minutes against the Rockets, and showed flashes of being the sort of valuable and versatile frontcourt defender Golden State paid handsomely for the right to select in the 2017 draft’s second round. As a green rookie with just 70 pro games under his belt, he’ll be in LeBron’s crosshairs as Cleveland looks for places to attack the Warriors’ defense. But the 23-year-old’s combination of quickness and athleticism will earn him the chance to prove he belongs on the court on the game’s grandest stage, matched up against its grandest player.
15. Larry Nance Jr. To have a prayer of pulling off a historic upset, the Cavaliers will need to limit mistakes, create additional opportunities, take advantage of the ones they get, and outwork the defending champs all over the court. Enter Nance, whose minutes have come and gone this postseason, but who finishes everything he gets his hands on (76.2 percent from the field in the playoffs), who gets his hands on a lot (26 combined blocks and steals in the postseason, plus offensive rebounds on 10.2 percent of Cleveland’s missed shots during his time on the court) and who should have chances to wreak havoc against a Warriors club that struggled mightily to wall off the rim against Houston.
Nance plays within himself, goes extremely hard, and doesn’t make a ton of unforced errors. Guys like that can change games, and the Cavs have to have that kind of effort from Nance.
14. Nick Young. Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are, but here we are. Iguodala’s hurt, Livingston hardly every shoots out beyond 15 feet, McCaw just got back from a terrifying back injury, and that’s about all the Warriors have in the cupboard on the perimeter … except for your man Swaggy P.
Young’s style of play can still make you think he’s 32 going on 17. But he’s 6-foot-7, he’s a credible, and very willing, threat to shoot from beyond the arc, and he can be useful in small doses. (A lot of us might have forgotten that he hit a transition corner 3 to get the Warriors within five of Houston in the third quarter of Game 7 before Steph went off, but I bet Kerr doesn’t.) Superior talent just about everywhere else gives the Warriors a bigger margin for error than most, but they still need to survive when they go to the bench on the wing. If Young can hold up — not even excel, but just not die — Golden State’s in great shape. If he can’t, Cleveland’s chances increase.
Those who will matter, for good or for ill
13. Kevon Looney. It took a couple of years of rehabilitation after hip surgeries and fighting his way through a crowded frontcourt, but the former UCLA standout finally broke through into Kerr’s rotation around the beginning of March. He earned the right to stay there with his defensive activity, and grabbed the job as Golden State’s starting center after Iguodala went down midway through the conference finals.
Looney held up about as well as anyone could’ve asked against Harden and Paul in isolation last series. He will have to do the same here against James, while also working to keep Tristan Thompson, Nance and company off the offensive glass; Golden State grabbed a significantly higher share of available defensive rebounds with Looney on the floor during the regular season, but that has flipped in the playoffs. The Cavs will ignore him on offense whenever possible, so he’ll have to make his presence felt as a screener, with off-ball cuts to the paint, and on the offensive boards, where he’s grabbed 12.2 percent of his teammates’ misses during the playoffs, a big number. Especially without Iguodala, the Warriors can’t play small all the time. Looney’s got to be able to give Kerr solid, reliable minutes in the middle.
12. Jeff Green. A couple of years back, during one of those games that all but sew up his next NBA contract — 16 points, seven rebounds, four assists and some decisive moves in a Memphis Grizzlies win over the Miami Heat — I came up with a nickname for Green:
Jeff Green: The Occasional Superhero
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) December 30, 2015
It hasn’t exactly spread like wildfire, but I still like it. Green will go through stretches where he either looks unplayable or you straight-up forget he’s on the court. And then, all of a sudden, he speaks the word that wizard taught him and he’s posterizing dudes, knocking down 3s, defending multiple positions and looking like the kind of difference-maker who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with LeBron to stave off elimination … which he did, going for 19-and-8 in 42 minutes of floor time as Cleveland knocked off Boston to earn a trip to the Finals.
At 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds with quick feet and long arms, Green figures to see a lot of time on his old teammate KD, hopefully providing the kind of tough, physical defense that Jefferson gave Cleveland last year and that Trevor Ariza offered for Houston last round. He’ll also need to finish in transition when the Cavs are able to get out and run, and knock down the open looks James creates for him with the attention he draws, or at least beat a closeout to get to the rim. (Similarly: when Golden State plays a traditional center, Lue might be able to create some mismatches by playing Green at the five for a spell, betting his quickness will allow him to beat a bigger man off the bounce.)
Handicapping the likelihood of Green stringing together several great games seems like a fool’s errand, but a lot of people — present company included — probably wouldn’t have predicted Uncle Jeff being a net positive playing 42 minutes in a Game 7 victory. If he can be Captain Marvel more often than he’s Billy Batson, Cleveland’s chances improve.
11. George Hill. At the risk of being reductive …
Hill in Cleveland wins, regular- and postseason: 10.9 points on 48.9/34.3/81.7 shooting splits, 2.9 assists vs. 1.1 turnovers, 2.7 rebounds in 29.9 minutes per game; +282 in 687 total minutes
Hill in Cleveland losses, regular- and postseason: 7.3 points on 41.1/27/75 shooting splits, 2.1 assists vs. 1.1 turnovers, 2.1 rebounds in 26.9 minutes per game; -101 in 377 total minutes
When Hill is good — when he is aggressive looking to make plays, for himself and in two-man actions with Kyle Korver and Kevin Love; when he steps confidently into catch-and-shoot looks; when he pushes tempo in transition and takes personally the challenge of slowing an opposing scorer like Steph — Cleveland can knock off just about anybody. When he disappears, or when he’s slowed by back spasms, then LeBron has to do absolutely everything, and the Cavs start to look like the kind of team that can get knocked off by the upstart Pacers and Celtics.
It’s easy to forget, stamped as he is with the San Antonio pedigree, but the Spurs never made the Finals in his three years in Texas; this is Hill’s first chance to play for a championship. It would be a really good time for him to show he can be consistently impactful against elite opposition.
Those who inarguably matter a great deal
10. Kyle Korver. Despite playing through harrowing tragedy, Korver has been Cleveland’s third-best player this postseason. He’s drilling just under 45 percent of his 3-point shots in the playoffs, and has often served as Cleveland’s lone reliable source of second-unit scoring during the rare occasions that LeBron gets a breather.
Opponents just don’t leave Korver away from the ball, making him a valuable magnet to pull defenders away from the paint and primary offensive actions, which gives James, Hill and Love more room to operate. When they do lose sight of him, the Cavs’ playmakers instantly find him to fire away; he’s bombing 11.7 3s per 100 playoff possessions, the highest 3-point launch rate of his postseason career. Cleveland desperately needs his shooting, and the threat of his shooting, to open doors against Golden State’s defense.
The issue is whether the 37-year-old can hold up to the Warriors’ questioning on the other end. He’s big, standing 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-9-1/2 wingspan, and smart, and he can answer the call when singled up against a younger, stronger player from time to time. (Just ask Jaylen Brown.) But the Warriors will hunt him, try to attack him and lean on him, and hope they can both exploit mismatches for buckets and sap his legs to keep him from providing LeBron the air support he needs. If they’re successful, the Cavs probably won’t have enough firepower to make this into much more than a skirmish.
9. J.R. Smith. We know that it’s in J.R. to be genuinely helpful on the biggest stage imaginable; we saw him lock in, lock up, drill huge shots and answer the bell in Game 7 on the road at Oracle Arena. We just haven’t seen a lot of that lately.
The Cavs reach another level when Smith contributes, when he’s knocking down shots and digging in on the defensive end. He’s got every physical tool you’d ask for in a shooting guard on both ends of the floor, and can deploy them to great effect in making life difficult on even players as good as Curry and Klay Thompson. That focus tends to dip, though, and that’s death against a team that forces you to navigate a hedge-maze of off-ball screens. After a largely excellent series against the Raptors, J.R. was flat-out abysmal in Boston, damaging the Cavs’ chances with errant shots on offense and missed assignments on defense.
He is an X-factor. He cannot suck.
8. Tristan Thompson. As has been the case since we first started this dance four years ago, the Cavs’ best chance of beating the Warriors is grinding down the pace and keeping them out of transition. The best way to do that: make shots. When you can’t do that? Make more possessions.
Enter Tristan Thompson, whose earned a looooooooot of money with the brand of relentlessness he showed against Golden State in the 2016 Finals, whom opposing players and coaches once described as one of the “deflating” players in the league to line up against, and who — after an injury- and off-court-controversy-plagued season that saw his role reduced — has re-emerged in the playoffs as Cleveland’s premier frontcourt workhorse.
He’s back to bullying opponents on the glass, pulling down offensive rebounds on 13.6 percent of Cleveland’s misses, third-best in the postseason among players to log at least 100 minutes. Having to account for him on the boards means the Warriors can’t leak out and run rampant in transition; him successfully extending possessions gives LeBron more bites at the apple. Boston had some success in the conference finals at neutralizing Thompson by playing bigger with Aron Baynes alongside Al Horford, and while Golden State’s better equipped to do that with the center-heavy reserve corps they’ve got, that also puts another target on the court for LeBron to aim at in the pick-and-roll.
Thompson’s not quite what he’s been in years past when it comes to holding up in space when switched onto a perimeter ball-handler, but he’s still Cleveland’s best option in that regard. He’s also worked his way into some screen-and-roll chemistry with Hill, which could be vital as the Cavs look for non-LeBron sources of offense. He’s got to play big minutes, and be an absolute wrecking ball in them, to shake the Warriors up.
The most significant wild card
7. Andre Iguodala. We know he’s not going to be on the floor for Game 1, as he continues to work his way back from the left leg bone bruise that cost him the final four games of the Western Conference finals. What we don’t know, though, is when he’ll back, how effective he’ll be once he returns … and what his absence might do to unleash LeBron.
As my colleague Ben Rohrbach notes, the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 60 points in the 141 minutes Iguodala was on the floor in last year’s Finals, and got outscored by 26 points in the 99 minutes he was on the bench. That doesn’t necessarily mean Cleveland’s about to boat-race the Dubs in Iguodala’s absence — as Mike Zavagno of Fear the Sword points out, Kyrie Irving played nearly all of those non-Iguodala minutes to give the Cavs another creator, and he won’t be doing that in this series — but it does mean that the Warriors have a problem to solve, here.
As he did in last year’s Finals, Durant will see the bulk of the LeBron matchup, with Draymond Green stepping in, too, and young bigs Looney and Bell likely seeing time in the matchup. (Provided, of course, Golden State’s able to keep LeBron from picking out exactly who he wants whenever he wants them.) None of them will stop LeBron, of course; nobody’s been able to do that yet. But they should be able to hold up well enough, provided the rest of the Warriors are able to keep the rest of the Cavs more or less under wraps. You can live with LeBron scoring 50 as long as he’s not also assisting on 30.
If that doesn’t come to pass, though — because LeBron can play that kind of game — the Warriors will have issues, and Iguodala’s one of Kerr’s preferred solutions when his team needs to settle down. Even now, at 34, he’s a Swiss Army knife whose all-around gifts unlock the Warriors’ best lineups, a two-way tone-setter capable of toggling between running the show, making himself a threat against defenses tilted toward Golden State’s stars, and defending elite players. Losing him last round made the Warriors sweat. Not having him at full strength — or not having him at all — would go a long way toward giving the Cavs a path to making things competitive.
Those who matter on a Hall of Fame level
In the past two Finals, he’s matched up against Irving, using his length, balance and frame to try to match one of the game’s premier one-on-one magicians; with Kyrie gone and Cleveland’s perimeter crop often hit-or-miss, it’ll be interesting to see how Kerr deploys him defensively in this series. As much as they’d obviously love it, the Warriors don’t need Klay to drill nine 3s a night. If he can keep moving on offense, stick the catch-and-shoot looks he gets, and keep whichever secondary threat Kerr least wants to get going from finding a scoring touch, Golden State should be in great shape.
5. Kevin Love. It’s been a rough postseason for Love, one marked by injuries, offensive ineffectiveness, inconsistency and, late in the conference finals, a concussion that kept him out for almost all of Game 6 and all of Game 7 against Boston. He’s been cleared to play in Game 1, but how effective he’ll be in his return promises to be one of the most important questions facing the Cavs in this series.
No matter how well he has played when healthy and in form, the story remains the same for Love: he’s the defender the Warriors will most look to exploit and, with Irving gone, the sole All-Star-level source of secondary offense who can help reduce the burden on James’ shoulders. Whether he can meet those challenges consistently will determine whether or not the Cavs’ doors get blown off early, or whether they stick around for a while.
He’ll defend Golden State’s centers and try to stay near the rim, where he can clear the defensive glass and kickstart the fast break. When Golden State goes small, he’ll try to hide on whichever wing looks least threatening. When he’s drawn into pick-and-rolls, he’s basically got pray for help, because while he’ll chop his feet and do the work, Curry and Durant are just too tough of covers for him to be able to handle on a consistent basis.
He also has to be a source of baskets and drawn fouls on the block, and a reliable high-percentage high-volume 3-point shooter. And he’ll have to do all of that having just cleared the cobwebs from a third stint in the concussion protocol.
It’s a lot to ask, but there’s no one else. It’s got to be Love, if it’s going to be anybody.
4. Draymond Green. The Rockets dared Green to shoot, and he either wouldn’t, halting rather than pulling the trigger on good looks in pursuit of passes that Houston had totally snuffed out, or couldn’t, going just 2-for-17 from 3-point range in the conference finals with a couple of memorable missed dunks. He doesn’t have to be a high scorer for Golden State’s offense to work — he shot 42 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep through the first two rounds, with the Warriors going 8-2 — but if he’s that bad again, the Dubs could face problems.
As always, though, Green’s biggest task will come on the other end. He’s Golden State’s best defensive rebounder, and will have to have a large hand in keeping Tristan Thompson off the glass. He’s got to be the captain of the back-line defense when LeBron’s orchestrating in the pick-and-roll, ready to help when needed and still recover back out to his man on the perimeter in time to erase an open 3-point look and force a drive against an on-balance closeout. He’s got to avoid foul trouble and the side-tracking head games into which longtime nemesis James will surely try to pull him to try to get the Warriors off-kilter.
In 2016, he burned too hot, cost his team a game, and opened the door for the greatest comeback in NBA history. He redeemed himself last summer, and has spent the bulk of this postseason just focusing on being the best defensive player and playmaker on the floor whenever possible. If he can stay locked into that pursuit — and if he can still act as the fulcrum of small-ball lineups even with Iguodala out — he can give the Warriors everything they need, and the Cavs more than they can handle.
3. Kevin Durant. We learned last year that KD can go mano a mano with LeBron and come away the victor. With Iguodala compromised, he’ll be called on to an even greater degree in the defensive matchup against James, while still needing to attack LeBron with the ball, making him work overtime every opportunity he gets.
He’ll take that assignment coming off the first real sustained rough patch of his Golden State tenure, a mid-conference finals identity crisis that saw the Rockets defense force the Warriors to lean on Durant’s impossible isolation skills as the centerpiece of their offense rather than as the sport’s gaudiest and most galling luxury. Things swung back the other way in Games 6 and 7, as Steph took back the keys. Both Durant and his teammates spoke after the series of the value of having that kind of test, being put through that kind of challenge to who and what they want to be, and coming out the other side.
One wonders whether the vibe in the Bay will turn dark once more if Cleveland can find similar success grinding out the Warriors’ off-ball movement and forcing Golden State to start running everything through KD in the mid-post again. One also wonders, though, just how the hell this Cavaliers defense might go about doing that.
2. Stephen Curry. I don’t think Steph cares about winning the first Finals MVP of his career; I think he got exactly what he wanted when Iguodala earned the honors in 2015, and when KD got it last year. I think he’s totally cool with just being the reason the Warriors are so freaking dominant, even if he doesn’t get a second little trophy to go with the big ones he’s already got.
We know how Cleveland will attack him. Much as they’ve done in the past few Finals, and much as Houston did last round, the Cavs will try to hunt him down, forcing him to bear the full weight and brutality of LeBron in the pick-and-roll and in isolations. They will get as physical as possible with him off the ball, with screeners looking to clutch, grab, bump, jostle and dislodge him from both his path and his right mind, trying to wear him down mentally and physically, because they know that everything Golden State is and can be comes back to him.
He’s got to be prepared for that, to stay the course and keep fighting on every defensive switch, and give back twice as good as he gets on the other end. He must dust big men on switches to get to the rim and finish, and use his handle and his lateral movement to create the distance to drop bombs from deep. He’s got to take the reins of the offense early and often, forcing Cleveland to prove that it can stop him from doing what he does — and which he did as well as ever in the final few games of the Western finals, now more than two months removed from his MCL strain — best four times in seven games. The odds are in his favor.
The one who matters most
1. LeBron James. Fifteen years, 54,000-plus combined regular- and postseason minutes, and 100 games of season deep, he is still the most dominant individual force in the sport. His team might be a gigantic underdog, but LeBron never is: he will reach places few, and perhaps none, have ever reached. It’s just a matter of whether he can do it often enough to overcome your head start.
He has been devastating this postseason, producing as totally and efficiently as he ever has, alternating between slicing defenses open and just flat-out incinerating them. The Cavaliers offense has scored 94 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor in these playoffs. He is the Cavaliers offense, and he will not be off the floor very much in this series.
He has to control the pace of the game, reducing the number of possessions played and wringing maximum value out of each and every last Cleveland trip, whether by marauding to the rim or forcing Golden State help that leaves a shooter open, because he’s always going to trust the pass. He’s got to hit jumpers — the 3s they’ll sink back to give him, the late-shot-clock flaming bags, those remarkable right-to-left running fadeaways along free-throw-line extended — to keep the Warriors honest, and from walling off the paint. He has to find a way to defend elite opponents without burning too much energy, and to protect the rim, and to locate the energy to push in transition when possible.
He has to problem-solve on the fly with limited materials. This is “Apollo 13.” LeBron’s got to find a way to fit this into that, using nothing but this, and then he’s got to land the friggin’ module.
In all likelihood, he won’t. There’s beauty, though, in watching him try, in watching the best player of his generation push the limits of possibility against unbreakable barriers. That struggle, the shape of it, is important. In a series where we’re all pretty sure we know how things’ll end, it might be the most important thing this season’s got left to offer.
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