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Intrigue, Dynasty, Sub-Plots: The Cavs-Warriors Are Back

Ronald Martinez
Getty Images

For NBA fans, grumbly and otherwise, the wait is almost over. The Finals, finally, begin tonight.

The grumbling has accompanied the Cleveland Cavaliers' and Golden State Warriors' respective romps through the postseason. Golden State is 12-0 and has won those 12 playoff games by an average of more than 16 points. Cleveland is 12-1 ... and has annihilated opponents at a slightly lower clip – a 15 point average margin of victory.


So goes the argument heard throughout the 2017 playoffs.

Sure, there's been a John Wall highlight here:

Or a Giannis Antetokounmpo highlight there:

But those were moments – and no players, nor teams came close to stringing enough moments together to threaten Cleveland and Golden State.

So here they are. And for the next two weeks, or however long it takes to decide which superteam is super-er, the caterwauling is bound to turn to purring, frequently interrupted by howls of joy. The Cavs and Warriors are about to engage in a best four-out-of-seven series that is both historic and rich in subplots.

History, And Stardom

This is the first time in NBA history that two teams have faced each other in the Finals, three straight years. "I think everybody [on the two teams] knows each other pretty well," laughs Cleveland guard Iman Shumpert. "It's definitely going to be good for the people to watch."

It's a star-studded final – there are seven players who were all-stars this season, and 11 players who've been all-stars in their careers. There haven't been that many in a Finals since 1983.

But the intrigue and beauty of this matchup goes beyond the considerable talents of Cleveland's Lebron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love ... and Golden State's Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It's how that talent has been woven into two dynamic teams that owe their success as much to sharing the ball, moving on offense and prioritizing the unglamorous act of playing defense.

But if watching great basketball isn't enough, consider the subplots.

Quote Unquote Champions

When asked recently about the Finals matchup, Golden State's jump-shooting wizard Steph Curry referred to Cleveland as the "quote unquote" NBA champions.

That comment sent the "ooooo-meter" into the red.

Golden State, it seems, has a bit of an issue, and a score to settle, with the defending champ Cavs. For Cleveland, there was nothing "quote unquote" about its historic comeback in last year's Finals – down 1-3, the Cavs roared back to win in seven games. For Golden State, the feeling is it was a giveaway. Up 3-1 and cruising to a second straight title (the Warriors won the first matchup in 2015), Golden State fell victim to one too many boneheaded actions by the otherwise tremendous Draymond Green. His suspension in Game 5 provided an opening for Cleveland which the Cavs gladly went through and kept on going.

But if anyone on the Warriors should have a chip on the shoulder, it's acting head coach Mike Brown. Not because of last year's finals. But because of his past that had nothing to do with Golden State.

And everything to do with Cleveland.

Brown has twice been the head coach of the Cavaliers. And he was fired by the Cavs both times.

Giving us subplot two: the Mike Brown revenge finals.

Here he is, an assistant coach thrown into the head coaching job for the Warriors because real head coach Steve Kerr is still not feeling well enough to be on the bench during games. More on that coming up.

And here he is thrown in against his old team.

But Mike Brown couldn't be less interested in revenge.

"Maybe I'm made up differently," Brown said yesterday at media day in Oakland. "Cleveland fired me twice, this is a time to get back at 'em ... extra incentive. But no! I just want to win. I don't care who it is."

Brown does acknowledge the matchup against Cleveland is a little ironic. He said in a recent interview he was talking to his sons about it, "and [I said] it's just one of those things, especially in the NBA. it's like 'The Lion King.' It's just the circle of life."

Not on the Bench, But Still Present

Being philosophical comes naturally for a man like Steve Kerr. Good thing. Nearly two years ago he had routine back surgery and lingering complications from the procedure have rendered him unable to do what he's done masterfully since joining the Warriors in 2014 – coach from the bench.

The intrigue of will he or won't he coach in the Finals was building in the run up to tonight's opening game. Whatever he decides, the consensus from both teams is that either way the Warriors will be ok.

"I think that the foundation that's he's laid on that team and influence he's had on that team, stays with them," says Cleveland's Shumpert. "We [the Cavs] aren't heading into [the Finals} thinking that they're missing out on their x's and o's."

Indeed, Mike Brown has done well leading the Warriors through the playoffs since Kerr stepped aside midway through Golden State's first round series. Warriors players talk about gaining confidence in Brown – his game management, his substitution patterns. Brown says he's better understanding Golden State's unique culture that blends play calling with intuition on the court.

It helps, says Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams, that there's a tight knit coaching staff to help Brown, along with a roster of very smart players.

But Adams says they've missed Kerr's special leadership style, and will miss it if he's not on the bench for the Finals, when the pressure is most intense. And against a very good Cleveland team.

"He's a very mindful person," Adams says about Kerr, "who has the ability to not overuse language. [Kerr] gets to his point. Through Kerr's "vast experiences," as an NBA player, executive, and TV broadcaster, Adams says, "he's able to paint these very thoughtful pictures and I think he's a very calming influence [on] our team. He always has been. This is his strength."

Kerr has still been able to do all that behind the scenes before and during games. He'll talk to the team in the locker room. He talks to Mike Brown constantly — on the phone when not in person.

"I think we have great rapport with one another," says Brown. "At the end of the day, this is his team, he's the head coach and I'm just doing my job."

And so it will be for everyone involved in this hardcourt drama. Players and coaches, on the bench and off, will try to do their jobs. For those who do them better, a victory in the rubber match. For those who don't, a promise that may very well come true in this time of Super Teams - see you next year in the Finals.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.