(Photo Courtesy of Sporting News – Getty Images)
The Butter Lamb is back!
After a long layoff, two of The Butter Lamb’s NBA enthusiasts (Zac Hirschbeck and Jim Doyle) return to share their thoughts on “The Trilogy.”
Zac: Jim! It’s me Zac!
While those pesky obligations (family, life, paid employment, etc.) have prevented us from formalizing our NBA discussions via The Butter Lamb over the last several months, I couldn’t be happier to exchange a few profoundly eloquent emails with you in this public space. Seeing as the Sabres and Bills are still attempting to get their shit together (It Starts With One Jim!), I’ve found myself increasingly attentive and intrigued by the day-to-day happenings of the NBA. While the playoffs to date have certainly lacked unpredictability (with all respect to your beloved Spurs of San Antonio), neutral fans (like myself) will be satisfied with a matchup that seemed predestined even in spite of defensive struggles and injuries to star players during the regular season. Now, after consecutive NBA Finals appearances yielded incredibly entertaining basketball, The Trilogy is upon us.
2015 was Golden State’s year. After season-ending injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, LeBron James, in what may be one of his more low-key incredible postseason efforts, somehow pushed the Warriors to six games. However, James’ lowly supporting cast (Timofey Mozgov was Cleveland’s second-leading scorer during the Finals) gave way to the Warriors’ abundance of shooting and versatility and provided Golden State with it’s first title in four decades.
2016 was Cleveland’s year. After Golden State set the NBA’s regular season wins record (73) and jumped out to a 3-1 series lead, the Cavs made history of their own as they became the first team in Finals history to successfully overcome a 3-1 deficit. With a far healthier supporting cast, James orchestrated an incredible comeback and solidified his standing among the game’s all-time greats.
That brings us to 2017.
Despite the best efforts of would-be contenders, Cleveland and Golden State dominated their respective conferences through three rounds. The Cavs swept aside Indiana and Toronto before suffering a single (bizarre) loss to an Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics team in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. On the other side, the Warriors swept Portland and Utah before easily discarding the Spurs in four games thanks in large part to a season-ending injury to Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. As a result, the subsequent matchup between two powerhouse franchises seems as enticing as ever.
Golden State has assembled what is likely the most talented roster in NBA history. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are arguably two of the best five players in the league. Draymond Green remains the most selfless player in the league on offense, and the most versatile player in the league on defense. Despite dips in efficiency during this year’s postseason, Klay Thompson remains as lethal as ever and is plenty capable of single-handedly sinking an opponent’s defensive efforts. Even the Warriors’ bench, which was supposed to take a hit in production due to the offseason recruitment of Durant, looks plenty deep. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Patrick McCaw, Ian Clark, David West, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee all provide Golden State with efficient minutes and the ability to manipulate their rotation based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent.
If there were any team in the league that could keep up with such a talented and deep team, it’d be the Cavs. James remains the best player on the planet, and Irving and Love have long settled into their roles within Cleveland’s offense. Tristan Thompson continues to relish his underrated and understated role on both ends of the floor, and the Cavs boast a collection of bench scorers (JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye) and valuable contributors (Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson) that all are capable of helping push a game in Cleveland’s favor.
Although my brief introductory foray into the NBA’s heavyweight fight doesn’t quite do justice to the many potential and underlying storylines worth mentioning, I want to stop talking now.
Jim, please answer me one wildly important question that will forever define your basketball livelihood and reputation…
WHO YA GOT?!?
Jim: Zac, my man! *Christopher Walken voice*
As an avid, perhaps rabid at times, NBA fan, I appreciate you reaching out and giving me the opportunity to trade opinions as this Tim Duncan-less season winds down. I’m not even going to touch Buffalo sports, although I did go see David Price get rocked by some D-Leaguers a few weeks ago downtown. Oh what? That was the Houston Rockets you say? My bad. The draft lottery was cool. It was nice to reflect on the Celtics absolutely FLEECING the Brooklyn Nets with a historically poor trade, which led to the best team in the East landing the top pick in this summer’s draft. Enough about that though, let’s stick to the task at hand.
But first! Let me just jump right in here and say that the Spurs would have given the Golden State Warriors a run for their money had a certain MVP candidate not gotten (re)injured…
That being said, I am thrilled for this Trilogy to conclude. Speaking of Trilogy, has the Big 3 summer league caught your eye yet? Looks pretty sweet. Anyway, I guess I can get around to answering your question. This could be the greatest clash we may consciously witness as sports fans, and although we have to wait through what seems like a Super Bowl media week, it should certainly live up to the hype. Golden State got off easy in 2015, no doubt. Last year was wacky and won’t ever happen again, so this year should be the best series we get (in terms of competitiveness not getting lost in injuries, suspensions, and blown-lead jokes).
The more I wait and think about this matchup, the more I find myself believing in Cleveland. Let me follow that statement by saying that I do not care for the Cavs. Why root for the Yankees to win every year? Why root for one figure to dominate his league? I was cool when the Spurs didn’t win every year of Duncan’s career. Well beside 2013. Fate tends to run its course (see the 2011 Dallas Mavericks), and at the end of the day, things work out.
But in all seriousness, why should you root for the favorite? Oh they aren’t the favorite you say? The Cavs are the defending champs, they have the best player in the world, and have a tuned-up supporting cast. Pardon The Interruption put it beautifully: “When was Michael Jordon the underdog?” LeBron is quite obviously our generation’s “Jordan” and should be favored to win any series. You presented the Cavs’ squad wonderfully and I couldn’t agree more. Love is my X-factor and I can’t wait to see Kyrie go at Steph every time on offense; you know Kyrie wants to own Curry.
Now, what’s that saying about misdirection? Oh yeah, it goes: The Golden State Warriors will win the NBA Finals in six games.
Yeah, I’m going there. I’m picking the “bad guys.” I see similarities between the Kansas City Royals and Warriors. Both franchises were largely inept for quite some time. However, they started slowly moving the needle toward success and quickly became fan favorites. Then, within a blink of an eye, poof! Villains. Go ahead and hate on the Dubs and KD for joining them, but don’t you dare say LeBron didn’t skip town and do the same exact thing for his first ring. That is a rabbit hole we can save for another day. Say what you want, but I am so down for what the Dubs did here. How many times will a team come across such a cap scenario where they can retain a unanimous MVP while signing an MVP caliber player to a max deal? It’s fascinating how a 73-win team may have gotten better. Aside from KD, Golden State is largely homegrown. They draft and develop players well, and possess a great supporting cast of veteran role players, but let me tell you why they will win…
Draymond Green will continue to prove he is the best defender in the game. While I think Kawhi does the best job on LeBron (LeBron admittedly does too), if I had to pick a second best, it’s Dray. All day. Hell, Iggy was damn good in the past at slowing down the King, too. But let me say his name again: Draymond Green, a better-in-every-aspect player than Tristan Thompson (besides maybe offensive rebounding). Last year’s Game 7 performance from Green was outstanding and perhaps forever forgotten, appropriately so. I really feel he can help stop the pick and roll game (which Cleveland uses in attempt to get the offense going and expose Steph) and anchor the Dubs lineup at the five. You add in Klay (who you rightfully mentioned is struggling yet capable), two former MVP’s, a slew of effective rotation players, and you’ve got yourself a championship squad.
People will say Curry and KD have not played well when they’ve reached the Finals previously, but I think this year will be different. KD surely has to be sick of continuously being overlooked and labeled No. 2 his entire career, and his teammates are desperately eager to get over last year’s collapse. The Dubs are going to win (what they should have a year ago) on the Cavs home court, and then hopefully blow it all up and make the NBA a tad deeper and more interesting.
One last storyline I would love to mention, and it kind of works two-fold. Steve Kerr falls off the San Antonio coaching tree so he’s got my support. He has done a stellar job as a head coach and I want nothing more than for him to be able to coach his team to victory. Should Kerr not be able to coach, Mike Brown gets the chance to beat LeBron, his former player on his former teams’ court in front of his former teams’ fans. That is pretty cool.
I’ll be at Game 4 rocking my mid-2000s Jason Richardson jersey so keep your eyes peeled for me. Before I end this long-winded answer to such a simple question, let me ask YOU something:
WHO DO YOU GOT?
If The Golden State Warriors win, do you think KD has added to his legacy? Does he have to win Finals MVP or slow down LeBron to really elevate himself from the other really great players that never got a ring?
I’m curious as to what you think.
Zac: Before sharing my own Finals prediction and attempting to answer your inquiry into Durant’s legacy, I’d first like to address three items that are largely unrelated to this series.
First, what the fuck happened to James Harden and the Houston Rockets?!? Although my knowledge of basketball history is admittedly a bit limited, Harden’s Game 6 effort at home against the Spurs has to be one of (if not THE) worst performances by a star player in a big game. 37 minutes. 10 points on 2-11 (including 2-9 from three) shooting. 6 fouls and 6 turnovers. It was baffling to the point where Stephen A. Smith’s assertion that Harden looked like he was drugged seems somewhat conceivable. While I hesitate to ever agree with a man that used a national platform to circuitously suggest that Ray Rice’s fiancée was at fault for being knocked unconscious in an elevator, Smith’s HOT TAKE doesn’t seem wildly far-fetched. For a player that deservedly received MVP buzz, Harden’s performance was truly a bizarre one.
Second, in this Royals-Warriors metaphor of yours, I really want to flush out some player-to-player comparisons. Who is the Warriors equivalent to KC legend Kendrys Morales? Who on Golden State represents the Royals’ diminutive fireballer Greg Holland? And who the hell will ever compare to the light-hitting scappy ways of Omar Infante?!?
Thirdly, I thoroughly appreciate your decision to rock J-Rich in Cleveland in Game 4. Although J-Rich’s time in the Bay Area was more memorable for his dunk contest displays than his team’s on-court successes, he played a role on one of my favorite teams in history. Between 2006 and 2008, the Warriors played incredibly entertaining basketball. Baron Davis. Stephen Jackson. A young Monta Ellis. “Medium” Al Harrington. Latvian dynamo Andris Biedrins! Every home game saw that team bring the fans at Oracle Arena to their feet. While they weren’t remotely close (in terms of success or efficiency) to the team that exists today, they were so very enjoyable. In fact, to this day, my favorite game that I ever witnessed in person was an early 2008 matchup between Golden State and San Antonio…
That game had it all. The lovable chucking of Davis and Jackson. The ruthless efficiency of Duncan and Tony Parker. The typical 100% shooting efforts of Kelenna Azubuike. And perhaps most important of all, the always modest contributions of Nigerian sensation Ime Udoka… What a night.
As far as my prediction for the series, I’ll go with Cleveland in 7. Though that largely stems from my interest in making this exchange more interesting by disagreeing with you, it’s hard to bet against the best player in the world. Setting aside his wonky output against the Celtics in Game 3, James has been at his best during this year’s postseason run. 32.5 points per game on nearly 57% shooting from the field. 8 rebounds and 7 assists per game. 1.4 blocks and 2.2 steals per game. Even his jumper, which has long been his lone flaw, is falling. Through 13 postseason games, James is shooting just over 42% on 5.8 three-point attempts per game. With plenty of time to rest, two top-end sidekicks at his side, and a collection of effective chess-pieces at his disposal, LeBron will have every opportunity to “solve” Golden State’s plan for him. Whether that’s beating the shit out of Curry with one screen after another like last year, or James playing small-ball five with four shooters around him, LeBron seemingly always finds a way to manipulate the floor to his liking. Although Green, Durant, Iguodala (his balky knee is certainly worth monitoring), Thompson, and Livingston will all present a more challenging matchup for James than any foe encountered in the East, I struggle to bet against the King when he and his team are at full strength.
I think two other quick storylines that will significantly define this series will be the defensive efforts of Curry and Love. Both offenses will likely target each star on the defensive end. Cleveland will screen Curry and attempt to wear him down on a nightly basis. Meanwhile, Golden State will surely find Love’s defender, and routinely have him screen for Curry and Durant. Although he will likely struggle keeping up with the former MVPs, Love looks as locked in on both ends of the floor as he ever has in a Cavs uniform. While it’s entirely possible that Cleveland will shuffle Love into a peripheral role and instead opt for a four-five combination of James and Thompson, I think Love will play a pivotal role in a Cleveland triumph. On the other side, Curry will constantly be looking over his shoulder as he attempts to avoid legal beatings from Khloe Kardashian’s boyfriend. He also may have to deal with the Cavs consistent use of a James-Irving pick and roll. If the Cavs can effectively tire out the best shooter in NBA history at his own end of the floor, Cleveland could reap the benefits if the series heads toward seven games.
The last storyline worth following will be the intriguing coaching decisions that come as a product of two incredibly deep teams. Will Golden State truly unleash their “Death Lineup”? Will Cleveland answer with a similarly offensively-potent (but defensively-deficient) small-ball lineup? And between James Michael McAdoo and Dahntay Jones, who will score more garbage-time points??
As far as Durant’s legacy, a title would certainly solidify his place among the all-time greats. Though I think he certainly has several quality prime-level seasons remaining, this Warriors group represents his best chance to date at nabbing a championship ring. With that in mind, can we all collectively acknowledge that Durant made the right decision in leaving Oklahoma City? Between watching Russ Westbrook take thinly-veiled jabs at KD through his “wacky” pregame outfits and Instagram cupcake musings, and, more importantly, witnessing Westbrook commit ball-hoggery of truly epic proportions, can anyone blame KD for opting to enjoy his job within a locker room full of selfless stars and contributors rather than staying put? I’m Team KD all day.
I think your interest in defining legacies is very relevant in this series. Though Durant’s quiet (has any star player gone more under the radar heading into a Finals matchup) quest for vindication will be a plotline worth monitoring, I think James’ legacy is becoming an increasingly fun debate.
Personally, I think LeBron is already the second-best player in history. However, if he manages to defeat the 73-win Warriors, and then takes down what is arguably the mostly talented team ever assembled this year, we have to start talking about him rising above the forever presumptive G.O.A.T…
Take us home Jim!
Jim: Zac. Wow. You’re giving me a lot to work with here. I guess I’ll attack your three items in corresponding order. I’m really going to enjoy this first one…
SO. The Rockets. We certainly witnessed what happens when a team truly relies on one player. I found it interesting how the Rockets knocked off a team that depends on one player, just before getting bounced the very next round for similar reasons. Of course I’m referencing the regular season MVP in my book, Russell Westbrook, and his Oklahoma City Thunder. Houston is a better team than Oklahoma City; it would be interesting to switch Harden and Russ and see how the teams do, my guess is quite similar. But Houston too needs Harden to be great and make them go. There are no other real attackers on his squad, which is perfect for Harden, but not necessarily perfect for winning. Houston had no other dribble-drive penetrators to make things go and move the defense. That is their game and has been Mike D’Antoni’s game for years. Spread the floor with shooters and pick and roll teams to death.
I’ll tell you what really happened. Harden was exhausted. You could tell in Game 5 toward the end of regulation and in overtime. Harden stood 30 feet away from the cup and often settled for deep threes instead of attacking or giving it up. It probably would’ve been nice to have a second fiddle (instead of a short bench rotating 7 guys after Nene went down). He was tired, not drugged. Remember how he bragged about not missing a game or practice? Yeah, that’s why guys like LeBron rest throughout the year. They know the grind of the game takes its toll, and sitting from time to time is the most sustainable approach to postseason success. I found it hilarious how Mike D’Antoni came right out and said Harden will rest more next year (Way to be ahead of the curve Mike!). Houston is a lovely, dangerous team, but they must find one other penetrator. They have weapons all around the court to knock down threes. Clint Capela seems to be coming along nicely, and Mike D is having a coaching resurgence there. Houston could potentially have this season’s regular season MVP, Sixth Man of the Year (between Eric Gordon, who is my pick, or Lou Williams), and Coach of the Year. They not only lived and died by the three, they also lived and died by Harden. Now I will give the Spurs some credit.
Ginobili was brilliant late in the series. He did not want Game 5 to potentially be his last in San Antonio and that block on Harden was pure magic. LaMarcus Aldridge had a massive performance in a closeout Game 6 as well. Houston’s woes, paired with a San Antonio team (minus an MVP of their own) that runs a moving system where anyone can get open and be a threat, led to Houston’s demise. I will largely blame Harden for not being the best player on the court, but San Antonio had something to prove (just look at what Jonathon Simmons did!) Lastly, POP OWNS D’ANTONI.
Well that was fun! I do have to admit that drawing player-to-player comparisons between the Royals and Warriors may be difficult, but I’ll take a stab at it. How’s Iguodala as Morales? Bit of a journey man, crowd loves him. I wanted to say Steph just because Morales was a big hitter of sorts much like Curry’s bombs. Draymond is Holland. Undersized (Holland is around 6’, tad short for a dominate reliever), reliable, and versatile. Holland can throw the occasional splitter much like Green can knock down a three (fastball), be a defensive menace (slider), or drop 30 in a Game 7 (occasional splitter). May be a bit of a stretch, but Shaun Livingston as Infante? Would a turnaround jumper from the elbow be the equivalent of an infield single or grounder up the middle? I think so. Infante can play every position except first, catcher, and pitcher, much like Livingston can play every position but center…
I’d love to talk about those mid-2000s Warriors now. HOW GREAT WAS BARON DAVIS?!? People really only remember THAT JAM he had on AK47 in the playoffs, but he was a beast. Hell, he dropped 30+ and made some huge shots in that video you dropped above. Remember the 2006 series between Golden State and Dallas? Golden State’s first playoff appearance in 13 years and they took down the top-seeded Mavs. It was brilliant. Fans adored them across the NBA. I have to admit, I forgot about Biedrins. He was a great piece on those teams. Great finisher around the bucket, nimble, good pick and roll guy for Davis. Man, getting me all nostalgic with these throwbacks. I’m gonna have to fire up NBA Courtside on the GameCube. There are certainly some names on the court throughout the 4+ minutes from that OT thriller. Remember Michael Finely played on the Spurs? And how about Robert Horry? Dude was a cold-blooded shooter and looks just like Will Smith. Go ahead, look him up. Can we talk about how Matt Barnes was CAPTAIN with Davis, and Stephen Jackson? Good times man. Don Nelson was ahead of his time and did some great things in two stints with the Dubs. Good ol’ Nelly.
Lastly, I respect your prediction. This series is going at least six games; I’d be stunned if it didn’t. It’s hard to pick against LeBron after this postseason he is having, but if there’s a team in the league that could knock him off, it’s the Dubs (or the Spurs!). I agree that Curry and Love are the two defensive liabilities to watch for as they will most definitely be targeted. Curry has to stay out of foul trouble and Love has to simply stay with his man. Love could have his hands full as the Warriors regularly throw out guys like Zaza, McGee and West. Those fresh bodies being rotated with a steady dose of Draymond could take a toll on Love, and that’s something to certainly watch for late in games. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the Delly is closed and can no longer rattle Curry. I’d be interested to see whom Curry starts out checking and vice-versa. Not that it really matters a ton for the Warriors because they tend to switch a whole hell of a lot on defense, but game-to-game matchups will likely vary.
Golden State’s “Death Lineup” has to make an appearance and score in bunches. You know the Cavs will consistently score in the 90s and both clubs are sharp on the defensive end. This could lead to some really close games with hopefully minimal blowouts. Unless one team really figures it out on a given night, I believe these games will be very tight heading into crunch time. I totally agree that KD made the right move. I too am Team KD. Nothing against Russ, but he was a bit petty and immature. Plus, if you can play with a group of guys that are considered one of the greatest teams ever, wouldn’t you? KD didn’t announce his signing through a national press conference or anything of the sort, so I’m totally cool with the move. Interestingly enough, a report came out today saying KD would take less than the max in attempt to keep the roster intact. This could be scary…
I too think LeBron is an all-time great, perhaps No. 2. His legacy cannot truly be diminished should they lose, and with a win, I think he surpasses guys like Bird and Magic, and places him right there with MJ. G.O.A.T. conversations can certainly be held upon hoisting some hardware come mid-June for LeBron; I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.
While I’m sure we’ll trade a few emails as this series rolls along, how about this: The Dubs win, drinks on you. The Cavs win, drinks on me.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is tonight at Oracle Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 PM ET on ABC.