Kevin Durant

Mismatches abound in Warriors-Cavaliers IV that (probably) not even LeBron can overcome

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USA TODAY

Mismatches abound in Warriors-Cavaliers IV that (probably) not even LeBron can overcome

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet yet again for the Larry O’Brien trophy, the fourth installation in what has become the most decorated rivalry in the NBA.

While each of the last three matchups were highly anticipated, this year’s series seems to be met with a collective yawn—even after compelling, if not unfulfilling, seven-game conference finals series for both finalists.

The storylines have been exhausted since 2015, even though each series took on a different life on its own compared to the pre-series expectation. Even LeBron James’ unheard of streak, reaching the Finals eight straight years, hasn’t been celebrated as much as it has been scrutinized for the lack of competition within his conference.

And the perceived mismatch between the two clubs makes it feel even more anticlimactic with a less-than-stellar bunch James dragged through the East, along with Kevin Love’s status due to a concussion he suffered in Game 6 of the East Finals.

The Warriors, battered and perhaps a bit vulnerable after a tough series against the Houston Rockets, are still rightfully heavy favorites even as Andre Iguodala doesn’t appear to be ready to return from a bone bruise in his left knee.

Iguodala and Draymond Green put the “Death” in the Warriors’ famed “Death Lineup” and now with Kevin Durant, the “Hamptons 5” crew that can switch everything defensively, shoot and create mismatches on the offensive end.

Perhaps it’s a bit fitting because James looks like he’s leading the “Jackson Five” into Oracle Arena for the series opener, and not even having a wingman as talented as Jermaine to help shoulder the load.

Four of the five best players in this series play for the Warriors, even without Iguodala in play, and usually that’s a recipe for a stinky, unfulfilling quick series. But then again, the Boston Celtics had an even greater advantage, with six of the seven best players in their series, home court advantage and a wizard for a coach in Brad Stevens.

It still didn’t matter as James made sure Game 7 was played at his pace, an ugly finish as the Celtics’ threw up brick after brick with the weight of such a game choking off their oxygen.

No such thing will happen to the Warriors, as they watched the Rockets, a team built to beat them, miss 3-pointer after 3-pointer to lose a Game 7 at home while the champions killed them with a third-quarter surge and title-styled poise.

Short of complacency or another critical injury from the Warriors, it looks like a quick series. Kevin Durant gets juiced whenever he sees James on the other side, and even though last June’s triumph didn’t seem to give him the validation he so craved, going against his lone competitive equal has to bring out the best in him.

Stephen Curry nearly averaged a triple-double in last year’s Finals but nobody noticed due to the singular brilliance of James, and Durant’s MVP performance.

He was one rebound short of the feat in Game 7 on Memorial Day, and has the greatest talent disparity in his matchup against George Hill. If he needs individual motivation, putting his stamp on a Finals series could be it although last year’s numbers (26.8 points, 9.4 assists, 8.0 rebounds) were stellar.

For James, all the superlatives have been used to describe his playoff performances and almost all of them apply. The game-winners his critics said he was mentally incapable of producing has only added to his lore.

If there's one way the Warriors have enhanced James' current standing, their rocky road to the Finals, battling lulls and bouts of boredom, illustrates the concentration James has exerted mostly every day for nine months just to get to the Finals. The Warriors have been fixtures since 2015, changing rosters and adding a supernova in Durant that almost feels unfair in the way of competitive balance. 

James has owned the decade, being a contender in his presence alone, carrying all types of franchises into June.

And while some of the mythmaking and rewriting of history can be a bit extra, any series with James gives him and his team a chance—and they know there is zero margin for error.

The Warriors, even though history will look at them as one of the best teams ever, have a tendency to play around with the game. They create openings with their laissez faire approach, giving away a Game 4 against the Rockets that started the downhill spiral nearly costing them that series.

And let’s not forget, a 3-1 lead blown to a James-led team is in their history, a stain only remedied by their acquisition of Durant weeks later.

As undermanned as this Cavaliers team is, it is resilient. Coach Tyronn Lue battled a health scare that prompted a temporary leave of absence, the roster underwent a massive overhaul at midseason and had been left for dead multiple times over the last four months.

But here the Cavs are, here James is, standing at the precipice of history.

They can make it ugly, they can make it interesting.

They could make it look competitive…if they had Kyrie Irving.

They don’t.

They won’t.

Warriors in 5 (or 6).

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson scored 10 of 12 points for the Bulls during a fourth quarter run in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the series clincher, and famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch that series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls dance with Warriors

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls dance with Warriors

Is there any better way to break in your new Black Friday television than Bulls-Warriors tonight? We think not. Coverage starts at 9 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live, and the game is also available to stream via the NBC Sports app

Here are three things to keep your eye on: 

1. Not the score. Let's be honest: the Bulls probably won't sneak out a win at the Oracle. In fact, ESPN's matchup predictor only gives Fred Hoiberg's young squad a 2.9 percent chance to come up victorious. UIC has three times better odds against juggernaut Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Sunday, in case you needed some context.  

With the talent gap in mind, though, it will be important for the Bulls to come out with high energy. The Warriors will likely take the contest lightly in the first half, so starting off strong reflects well on the coaching staff and starters. Stay within 10 points by the half, and that's considered a massive triumph. 

2. Lauri Markkanen vs. Warriors defense. Even though Draymond Green and Kevin Durant will sit tonight, the Warriors defense has more than enough to challenge the prized rookie. The Dubs' team defense is among the best in the NBA, thanks to their physicality, attention to detail and speed. 

Markkanen is coming off two duds on the West Coast trip, but his aggressiveness hasn't wavered. It'll be important for him to continue to attack even with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year hounding him. 

3. Steph and Klay doin' work. The Bulls offense hasn't exactly been a thing of beauty through the first 16 games. Their offensive rating is a brutal 94.4, ranked last in the NBA. Golden State, on the other hand, sits at the top with a rating of 113.1. 

Take some time to admire the skills of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson because when it comes to working cohesively on offense, they've set the gold standard.