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NBA Finals 2017 Prediction

LeBron James, Cleveland
Even though the 2016-2017 NBA season gave us plenty of different surprises and storylines (Russell Westbrook and James Harden's triple-doubles, Boston getting the one seed out East, etc.), it is coming to its end the way many people predicted: a third straight Golden State-Cleveland finale. The last two series between the two have treated us to not only great basketball but some legendary moments, and things should get even more intriguing with Kevin Durant in the fold, still searching for his elusive first ring. Both teams bring their own set of superstars to the equation, along with some of the deepest lineups we've seen in NBA history. But, which won will come out on top in the third part of the trilogy, and forever imprint their name in history? Things should be close either way, but a closer look into each team should tell the story.

This March and April, there appeared to be legitimate concerns about Cleveland's chances of a repeat title. At one point, Cleveland had lost of six of ten, and were throttled by San Antonio by nearly 30 to cap off a terrible March stretch. There is no denying the Cavaliers have recovered in a dominating fashion, going 12-1 in their first three series out East. Many could argue their competition in the perennially-weak Eastern Conference contributed to their success, but there is still something to be said about the resiliency and focus of this Cleveland team, and LeBron James. James has put together one of the best Playoffs of his life to this point, and seems to have a chip on his shoulder about the Warriors being such a dynasty and the "greatest team ever", despite beating them in the thrilling seven game series in '16. Joining James has been point guard Kyrie Irving, who had a dominating series against Boston in the ECF, and outplayed Steph Curry in the Finals last season. Long known as a flashy player that couldn't really win, Kyrie has shredded that label, and his impressive playmaking abilities should be on full display here. Beyond that, the Cavaliers' recent success has been fueled by a bench that has stepped up at the right time. Unheralded names like Deron Williams and Kyle Korver (both acquired mid-season) have given Cleveland's second unit as much pop as ever. Overall, the Cavaliers are riding a huge wave of momentum, and seem to appreciate the "underdog" label that has been handed to them. When this team plays like they've been disrespected or wronged, they play so well and confident, and I could certainly see that being the case as they enter their third straight Finals.

While Cleveland has looked near unstoppable in their conquest of the Eastern Conference, Golden State has been even better out West. Despite the fact the Western Conference is deeper and tougher than the East, the Warriors haven't lost a single game in the post-season. It isn't too difficult to understand why; their offensive firepower is absolutely staggering, and their toughest competition, San Antonio, watched as their star player went down with injury. It's the same old story for Golden State in many ways; they spread the ball out extremely well, share it at an incredible rate and let their stars hit the shots. It isn't a super complex formula, but it works super well when you have four Top 15 players in the NBA and a coach that innovative and confident. That formula has helped Golden State to the best three-year stretch in NBA history (in terms of wins), and one title. There isn't much doubt it could certainly yield another crown.

For anybody facing a team like Golden State, finding weaknesses to exploit is next to impossible. That means that you have to find and maintain your strengths, and hope that it works out for the better. The good news for the Cavs is that they have three distinct advantages in the series: depth, size and the best player in the world today. For as scary good as the Warriors' first unit is, they did lose some quality bench options to land Kevin Durant. You can't argue that is wasn't a great trade-off, but what made the Warriors so tough to beat over the past few years has been their energy off the bench, with guys like Leandro Barbossa and Mareese Speights. Shaun Livingston is still a match-up nightmare, and long-time veteran David West can still score. But, beyond that, Golden State's bench is thinner than last season, and that could be a huge factor, particularly if the series goes seven, which many assume it will. Steve Kerr (who is currently out due to illness, assistant Mike Brown is running the team) and the entire Warriors' organization will be creative with how they solve that particular problem, but Cleveland should try and get out and run, which is where they are at their best anyways. Another huge advantage for the Cavaliers has to be their size underneath. Tristian Thompson didn't get much recognition for what he did last season in the Finals, but the big man is an X-Factor for Cleveland. His ability to relentlessly pound the glass gives the Cavs plenty of extra possessions, which are obviously key if you want to beat a team with an offense such as Golden State's. Paired with other key frontcourt pieces such as Kevin Love and underrated Channing Frye, expect Cleveland to pound the ball down low often, as they did in 2016. Golden State is going to be running small-ball quite frequently, so the Cavaliers should be able to control the paint and play it to their strengths.

What is the key for Golden State to win this series? It starts with defense, which isn't something you would think about when you look at this offensive-minded roster. LeBron took over games often towards the end of the series last year, which can't happen again. It may be impossible to completely stop the King but forcing him into jumpers or contested shots has to be of top priority. The issue is that beyond the rugged Draymond Green, the Warriors don't have any great on-ball defenders to stop him. Andre Igoudala did such a good job in 2015 he won Finals MVP, but Iggy has aged significantly over the past two seasons, and could be focused on other tasks. Because of this, the Warriors will have to play smart, expertly communicated defense to help neutralize LeBron (and his sidekick Kyrie). Outside of that, the mental game has to be important for Golden State. There was more than just one reason for the Warriors' loss last season, but a big part of it was their lost composure. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson looked flustered too often, and the edge Golden State had for so long disappeared. When you're facing a team as deep and balanced as Cleveland, you cannot afford for that to be the case. Maintaining that mental edge will be key, but perhaps in a different sense. The Warriors have gotten a lot of hate this season for their constant complaints to refs and more than a few teams and players have accused them of being dirty. The Warriors can't let that outside noise get to them and must also control their game, not let the refs dictate how they feel they're doing.

While many people assumed it would be a Golden State-Cleveland, third edition, entering the year, most are split on just who will take home a ring. On one hand, Golden State has four guys that can take over the game at any moment, but Cleveland seems to be more balanced and deeper. I don't think there is any doubt this series will go six to seven games, and I think it should be thrilling all the way through, much like the 2016 edition. I think it should also end quite similarly to last year's special series. The Cavaliers have the depth, the coaching and a transcendent superstar aiming for his fourth ring. They win the series.

Cavaliers in seven

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