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NBA Finals: In a Matchup of Great Player vs. Great Team, LeBron Can’t Win

Cleveland vs. Golden State Part IV begins Thursday night with Game 1 in Oakland. And why not? Let’s do it again.

The NBA’s greatest player, Cleveland’s LeBron James, is surrounded by teammates who would lose 63 games and skunk their way into the NBA Draft Lottery if he wasn’t there to give ’em a ride.

James had to push, drag, carry, cajole and perform superhuman feats of legerdemain just to get this pile of junky, misshapen parts through three Eastern Conference playoff rounds and into the NBA Finals.

And now here’s LBJ, already pushed to the brink of exhaustion by an incredible volume of minutes played, trying to lead the Cadavaliers to the most profound NBA Finals upset since … since … well, I don’t know. But we do know that Cleveland enters the series as the biggest betting-line underdog since the Philadelphia Sixers were blasted out of the 2001 NBA Finals by the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Warriors are the NBA’s resident greatest team, led by four All-Star players, all of whom would rate a spot among the Top 25 in this league: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Over the last four years Golden State has gone 265-63 during the regular season for a league-leading winning percentage of .808. The last four postseasons have produced 59 wins (and counting) and a .747 winning percentage. With a triumph over Cleveland, the Warriors would hoist their third NBA Championship trophy in the last four seasons.

Cleveland would need two LeBrons to pull this one off.  Because a great player cannot conquer a great team by himself.

That’s your custom made storyline, brought to you by our sponsor, The Cliche Factory.

“We have an opportunity to play for a championship,” James told a media congregation after the Cavaliers defeated Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. “It doesn’t matter what the storyline is going to be. It doesn’t matter if we’re picked to win or not.”

Here’s my collection of Random Stats, Thoughts and Opinions on the 2018 NBA Finals:

1. According to Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post, Golden State is outscoring opponents by 10.3 net points per 100 possessions during the postseason. Cleveland’s net rating is a modest 1.2. Based on what metrics models tell us about likely outcomes, the Warriors would prevail over the Cavaliers 86% of the time at home and 66% of the time on the road. And that computes to a 96 percent probability of Golden State winning this series.

2. By the time you see this, we may know more about Kevin Love’s status for Game 1. The Cavaliers have said that if Love clears the NBA’s concussion protocol on Thursday, he’ll start. Love has his minuses; defense being one. But when Love is on his game offensively, he’s the reliable co-scorer that James needs. If Cleveland has any chance at all, Love has to be in the lineup and playing heavy minutes for as long as this series lasts. The Cavs need as many scorers as possible against an opponent that scores more than any team.

3. Another key to Cleveland’s minor possibility of staging an upset is point guard George Hill. I’ve watched all of the Cavs’ games this postseason, and I have no idea what to expect from Hill from game to game … he’s one of the most perplexing players out there. Will compete and stay engaged and provide consistent two-way value as an offensive facilitator and a dogged defender that can hound Steph Curry? When Hill is interested, he can create shots and improve Cleveland’s spacing. And he would be, in theory, the most logical defender to assign to Curry. But will Hill go all in … or just sort of be there? I dunno. LeBron doesn’t know. Coach Ty Lue doesn’t know. And maybe that says it all about this Cleveland team. LeBron will show up and get 40 points, or perhaps a triple double. But as for the other guys on this team… we just don’t know if they’ll show.

4. Can the Warriors drain LeBron’s energy? James made the playoffs for the first time in the 2005-2006 season. He’s competing in the postseason for the 13th consecutive year. I did the math, combining his regular-season minutes and postseason minutes since that ‘05-06 season. James has played a total of 47,659 minutes … so many minutes that the No. 2 player on the list for most playing time is Joe Johnson … and LeBron James has played — I kid you not — 10,421 more minutes than Johnson. That means James, based on his annual average of minutes played, has played the equivalent of three more seasons of basketball than any NBA player since 2005-2006. James is 33. He hasn’t missed a game this season. Entering this series, James has logged 3,759 minutes in 2017-2018, playoffs included. The Golden State player who comes closest to that really isn’t close at at all; Klay Thompson has played 3,151 minutes — or 618 fewer than LeBron.

5. If  Andre Iguodala is unavailable or limited in the NBA Finals by the bone bruise in his knee, how much does that impact Golden State? Probably more than many people think. Iguodala missed the final four games of the Western Conference Finals vs. Houston, and he won’t play in Game 1. The Warriors were not the same when “Iggy” couldn’t go against Houston. He’s been a highly effective fifth player, and in many ways the ideal complement to the Warriors’ fantastic four. With Iguodala out, Golden State had a hard time filling that void. There was no appealing bench option for the fifth-starter role. And keep in mind that Iguodala has a history of playing tough defense on James, and that’s a factor if Iggy sits. NBA.com had this telling stat: in the 2017 NBA Finals, the Warriors were a plus-60 in their 141 minutes with Iguodala playing against the Cavaliers. And when he wasn’t playing, a total of 99 minutes, the Warriors were a minus 26.

6. Unlike last year’s Finals, Cleveland has bodies to run at Kevin Durant on the defensive end. Jeff Green, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman. The Cavaliers can’t put LeBron on Durant. They tried that in the ‘17 Finals and Durant swooped in for an easy series MVP award after scoring between 31 and points in all five games and shooting 56 percent from the floor. James was so wiped out from chasing Durant around defensively, he didn’t have the energy to give the Cavaliers the prolific scoring they needed from James in every game.

7. For Cleveland, the best way to win the Finals is to have Golden State  lose  the Finals. I don’t think there’s much of a chance of the Warriors self destructing, but they were awfully erratic against Houston, unable to close out the Rockets in a short series. Golden State won Game 1 on the road, then got blown out by 22 points in Game 2. The Warriors came home and routed the Rockets by 41 points in Game 3, only to lose Game 4 by four points. The Warriors had an excellent opportunity to go up 3-2 in Game 5, but couldn’t score in the final 1 minute and 15 seconds and lost 98-94. Houston lost guard Chris Paul to a hamstring injury late in Game 5, and he’d go on to miss the final two games as the Warriors rallied from a 3-2 deficit to win in seven.

8. If you’re a Cavaliers or LeBron fan, you should be very worried about this stat: During the regular season Cleveland was a weak +6 in the third quarter of its 82 games; that third-quarter performance is even worse through 17 postseason games at minus 1. And this would be a so-freaking-what number if the Cavaliers were playing Houston, or Utah or something. But the Warriors …. whey’ve inflicted a lot of pain and suffering on opponents during the third quarter. Golden State was a preposterous +371 in 82 third quarters (reg season) and are just as berserk and unreasonable with a +130 through 17 postseason games … add it up, and that’s a +501 for Golden State in the third quarter of all games this season.

9. For the Cavaliers to have a prayer, they’ll have to fling in many prayers from long distance during the series. To defeat Golden State, in a postseason game, it’s advisable to win the 3-point shooting contest. As the Washington Post pointed out: since Steve Kerr became the GS coach in 2014 the Warriors have lost 20 postseason games; in 16 of the 20 their opponent had a superior shooting percentage from behind the three-point line. In their postseason victories over the last four seasons, the Warriors have averaged 40 percent shooting accuracy on threes; opponents made 30 percent. But those percentages flip when Golden State loses a playoff game: Warriors 32% from three, opponent 40%.

10. Prediction: Golden State in 5 games. Too much offensive firepower. And the Warriors have a legacy to defend. Beat Cleveland and LeBron for the third time in four seasons, that’s special. But lose this series as a heavy favorite and come away from this four-year basketball war with a 2-2 split in the NBA Finals, and that’s a serious downgrade in the “greatest team” rankings. If LeBron James can take the Warriors down, then it’s time to end the debate about the Greatest Player of All Time in NBA history.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie