Share this article

print logo

Jerry Sullivan: Warriors a heavy favorite, but never count out LeBron

As far as Jeff Van Gundy is concerned, they might as well hand over the O'Brien Trophy to the Warriors and be done with it, sparing everyone the burden of staying up late to watch NBA playoff games into the middle of June.

"Golden State is your champion," Gundy, an ESPN analyst, said on Thursday. "It won't be close. No one is going to push them. It's over. It's over."

I don't imagine Van Gundy's superiors were too thrilled to hear him crown the Warriors before the postseason even began. TV folks like exciting finishes, seventh games, the drama of uncertainy. But the former Knicks and Rockets coach was simply stating a logical, if a bit extreme, opinion.

The Warriors, who open the playoffs Sunday against Portland, are a huge favorite to win it all. Oddsmakers in Vegas have them at 5-to-11 to go all the way. The defending champion Cavaliers are 19-to-5. The Spurs are at 9-to-1. The Celtics, the top seed in the East, are 20-1.

People are even speculating on whether Golden State could sweep through the playoffs unbeaten. They're a scary team, better than the one that won the championship two years ago or the one that set a regular-season record with 73 wins last season before losing in seven games to Cleveland in the NBA Finals.

Last year, the big story was the record. It seemed more important than defending their title at times. But after the Finals collapse, the Warriors were determined to reclaim their title. Oh, they also signed Kevin Durant, one of the top five players in the game.

Not surprisingly, they got better. The Warriors went 67-15, the same record as two years ago in their title year. They outscored their opponents by 11.6 points a game, the fourth-highest differential in NBA history.

It was even better with Durant in the lineup. In the 60 games he played, the Warriors had a 12.3-point margin, which would have been the best ever. Of course, it's not as if they unraveled when Durant was nursing his knee injury late in the year. They won 13 straight games without him.

The Warriors have lost 39 games combined over the last three regular seasons. Think of that. Memphis and Atlanta are in the playoffs with 39 losses. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, Golden State is 238-53, counting playoffs.

They're slightly ahead of the pace that Michael Jordan and the Bulls set while winning three straight titles from 1995-96 through 1997-98. That's the best three-year record of any team in league history.

Golden State isn't gunning for a third straight O'Brien Trophy, however.  They collapsed after building a 3-1 lead in the Finals last year, as LeBron James willed the Cavs from behind with an astonishing individual effort.

The Warriors have been burning for atonement ever since. Durant was widely criticized for gravy-training with a bunch of stars. Well, James did it, too. Steph Curry and Co. aren't apologizing. They have a hungry, indomitable look about them, the look of a killer.

They lead the NBA in scoring, field-goal percentage and assists. They were supposed to be vulnerable on defense without Andrew Bogut. But they lead the league in field-goal percentage defense and blocks.

Fans think of them as shooting stars, an offensive machine, which is true. But they never get enough credit for their defense. Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are premier defenders at the forwards and big guard. Defending multiple positions is critical in the playoffs. They're all very capable, especially Green, whose one-game suspension set the collapse in motion last June.

I'd like to think the Spurs have a chance. It's amazing what Gregg Popovich did this season, winning 61 games in the first year post-Tim Duncan, and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili shuffling toward retirement. But if they couldn't beat Durant with the Thunder last year, they're not beating him in Golden State.

So Van Gundy might be right as far as the West. I don't see anyone pushing the Warriors beyond six games. It wouldn't shock me if they went 12-1 in the West. That doesn't mean the playoffs will be a bore.

The league has become a guard-oriented, three-point shooting show. The matchup of the Warriors' Curry and Thompson against Portland's Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who combined for 50.0 points, should be entertaining, to the extent Portland's shooters can keep up.

The Houston-Oklahoma City matchup is a TV executive's dream, pitting the league's top two scorers and MVP candidates, James Harden of the Rockets and the Thunder's Russell Westbrook. Expect three-point records to be shattered, and triple-doubles galore as the superstars  play 40-plus minutes.

The question is, who can beat Golden State? The answer is, check out film of LeBron in last year's Finals. As the oddsmakers suggest, we're likely in store for a third installment of the Warriors and Cavaliers.

It would be gold for the networks, and it would be unprecedented. There have been 14 instances of teams meeting in consecutive years in the Finals, going all the way back to those Minneapolis Lakers-New York Knicks clashes in 1952-53.

But teams have never met three years in a row in the NBA Finals. The Celtics and Lakers played in back-to-back Finals three different times in the 1960s, again in 1984-85, but never three years in a row.

The Cavs are far from a lock. They're not even the top seed. Boston nudged them out by two games. So Cleveland, which opens defense of its championship against Indiana at 3 p.m. Saturday, would face Toronto in the second round this year, rather than the conference finals a year ago.

Cleveland battled injuries and internal issues all year long. They seemed often joyless. They were criticized for resting players late in the season. James and Tristan Thompson had an on-court argument that spilled into the locker room after a win. Their defense was ordinary, brutal at times. They're last in the NBA in blocks, 26th in steals.

James said the Cavs lacked camaraderie off the court and cohesion on it. But never underestimate him. Last year, with the Cavs down 3-1 and written off against Golden State, James averaged 36 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and three blocks to lead them back.

Bet against him in the East at your peril. James has been in six straight East finals and won them all. He hasn't lost a conference series since the Cavs fell to the Celtics in his first tour in Cleveland in May of 2010.

James has won 18 straight playoff series in the Eastern Conference. His teams are 72-20 in that stretch. That's more impressive than a team going 72-10 in the regular season. Only two of those 18 series went seven games -- against the Pacers in 2013 and the Celtics the year before.

The Cavs went 10-14 down the stretch, raising questions about their ability to make it through the East again. But on April 5, they went into Boston for a game that was expected to decide the No. 1 seed. James took the game over and the Cavs blew out the Celtics by 23.

They lost their next four. But it was a reminder that home court doesn't always matter in the playoffs. When the stakes are high, that's when James is at his best. The playoffs are a different animal. Beating the Warriors will be a tall order for anyone this year. Maybe Van Gundy's right when he says it's over.

But didn't people say the same thing when the Warriors went up 3-1 against the Cavs in the Finals?

There are no comments - be the first to comment