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Submitted by: Immanuel Canicosa
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Barring an upset by the Boston Celtics or the Houston Rockets, we are on our way to having another Finals showdown between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year.
And yet, this year was supposed to be different.
The league had one of its busiest offseasons last summer, with teams either blowing up their lineups to rebuild through the draft or adding more stars to try to take down the Cavaliers or the Warriors.
LeBron James is supposed to start showing decline in his play this season. He was still The King, yes, but the sun was supposed to start setting on his empire at this point. And yet he played all 82 games in the regular season for the first time in his career, was an MVP contender, and is presently having one of the greatest postseason runs of his career.
Drama followed the Cavaliers all season, and a stunning series of moves at the trade deadline had the team integrating several new players and starting almost from scratch in terms of chemistry. And yet, here they are, a few wins away from a fourth straight Finals appearance.
Things were also supposed to be different out West.
New superteams were assembled to try to beat the Warriors at their own game. The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to challenge them for supremacy. With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining reigning MVP Russell Westbrook in OKC, the Thunder were supposed to make some noise again since Durant left to join the Warriors. The Thunder showed flashes of brilliance in wins over contenders but also suffered head-scratching losses to also-rans. And in the playoffs, where there stars were supposed to count most, Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell ran rings around them, and they were out in six games.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, with head coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm and stars Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague joining their den, were also supposed to be one of these challengers. They had promising young talent in Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and veterans in Butler, Teague, Jamal Crawford, and Taj Gibson. But with Butler suffering an injury towards the end of the regular season, the Wolves stumbled to the finish line and were paired with the red-hot Houston Rockets in the first round.
The Warriors were said to be more vulnerable than ever. Stephen Curry missed more than a month of action due to a Grade 2 MCL sprain. So did Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. Yet when Curry returned in Game 2 of their second round series against the New Orleans Pelicans, the first thing he did was come off a pick and drill a 32-foot three-pointer, as if to say that the Warriors will now resume regular programming. The Warriors, to borrow a term from the Galactic Empire, are now fully operational.
But for people hoping to see something different this year, all is not lost. For all we know, Brad Stevens can continue to conjure magic and lead a Celtics team missing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving past the Cavaliers. The Houston Rockets were rebuilt in the offseason for the sole purpose of defeating the Warriors, and there’s a chance that they could actually do it.
But the Cavaliers defeated the Celtics in five games in the Conference Finals last season. The Warriors, meanwhile, dismissed the Rockets in 2015 and 2016. They’ve defeated these teams before, and they’ll likely do it again.
The Celtics may have young stars in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier, but they don’t have a player who can guard LeBron. One of the things to watch out for in that series is how Stevens will try to guard James. After all, he did a commendable job in guarding Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round and Philadelphia 76ers stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the Conference Semifinals.
The Warriors, meanwhile, still have four stars to the Rockets’ two point guards in MVP frontrunner James Harden and Chris Paul. If you squint really hard, Clint Capela and maybe Eric Gordon can be those other stars for the Rockets, but as Diane Nguyen said on BoJack Horseman, squinting gets tiring after a while.
Just look at the faces of Toronto Raptors stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry at the postgame press conferences following their losses to the Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals. There was a sense of resignation and inevitability as they answered question after question on the podium. They were doing everything in their power to try to stop LeBron. They were right there in Game 1 and Game 3. And yet, one ended in a stunning overtime loss, and the other ended in what was probably James’ greatest postseason game-winner (so far).
A fourth showdown between the Warriors and the Cavaliers might not actually be a bad thing. Some sequels do end up surpassing the originals, and that could also be the case here. It’s always fun to see the world’s best played take on the world’s most talented team. James has even shown that he can overcome the odds and defeat the Warriors, although having Durant instead of Harrison Barnes in their Death Lineup certainly changes things.
So while the rest of the league scrambles to either retool their rosters to try to fight these two powerhouses or rebuild through the draft to try to find the next stars through the draft, the Warriors and Cavaliers are still here, still hurtling toward another inevitable Finals clash.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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