We are one Cleveland Cavaliers win away from the NBA Finals rematch we all expected.
Barring something extraordinary, Cavs-Warriors III will tip off on June 1 in Oakland. And as the Eastern Conference finals wind down, we're looking back on the semifinals of the 2017 NBA playoffs to try to project how the Finals could play out.
Here are the five biggest lessons we've learned about this upcoming rubber match from Golden State's dominance of the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland's unexpectedly competitive series against the Boston Celtics.
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Stephen Curry is ready to play whatever role the Warriors need
Curry has five games this postseason with 23 or fewer points — games in which he took a backseat to Kevin Durant and acted as a facilitator for the Golden State offense. He also has five games of 30 or more points — games in which he roasted the opposing defense as it tried to corral the rest of his Warriors teammates.
Then in the Western Conference finals, he toed the line between those two modes with expert precision, sometimes flipping from one to the other and back again on consecutive possessions.
To some extent, that's unremarkable. Playing point guard is Curry's job. But he and Durant figured out how to maximize each other's talents in an impressive amount of time, and that's excellent news for Golden State.
The Warriors haven't been tested this postseason. They don't know for a fact how they'll operate in the clutch or which superstar will carry the load. But with Curry switching between playmaker and cold-blooded assassin with such ease, Golden State has nothing to worry about.
He'll gladly let Durant shoot over the top of the Cleveland defense if that's the best play — and unlike LeBron James, he won't be criticized for passing.
Kevin Love has to be the X-factor for Cleveland to make this a series
Outside of a 22-point Game 2 outburst, Love got off to a slow start in the first round, and it's no coincidence the Cavaliers struggled (relative to their standards, anyway) against the Pacers.
By now, the Cavs know Kyrie Irving is going to be his clutch self in the Finals, and they're relatively sure they can count on LeBron James to be the best player in the series — although the past few games have been a little bit concerning.
Love is the X-factor. He rarely forces the issue, for better or for worse, letting the game come to him instead. He's the Cavaliers' glue guy, and he's excellent at playing the part.
To challenge the Warriors, though, Cleveland needs the aggressive Love who's averaging 24.5 points per game against the Celtics. When he's playing like this — creating from the high post, rebounding like a menace and spreading the court — the Cavs are borderline unstoppable offensively.
And given the state of Cleveland's defense, winning four shootouts might be the only way the Cavaliers repeat as champions.
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Klay Thompson is an afterthought, which should concern the Cavs
Averaging 11.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, Thompson played more like the 2016-17 version of Trevor Ariza than himself against the Spurs.
That speaks to Golden State's relative lack of adversity in the 2017 playoffs, as Thompson is so often the Warriors' safety valve if an opponent snuffs out their first or second plan of attack.
Since Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have managed to get theirs with such regularity, Thompson is left in the wings (not to mention how many open shots he's missed when he has had the ball). Against Cleveland, we're assuming Golden State will have to work slightly harder on offense, which should spell a bigger role for Thompson in the Finals.
Paradoxically, then, the Cavaliers' best-case scenario might be a good-but-not-great series from Thompson. If he's red-hot, Cleveland is going to have a hard time keeping up. If he's too quiet, it means the Warriors didn't need his services.
LeBron James will have to be a basketball god to win another title
Everyone is allowed to have a bad game or two, of course, but the conference finals have shown just how big the talent gap is between the Cavs' and Warriors' star cores: Both teams faced opponents missing their best player. One rolled to a sweep. The other still has to finish business.
Or to put it even more simply, a Big Four beats a Big Three every time — unless your Big Three includes the best player of all time, playing at the peak of his abilities.
While Cleveland does have more depth than Golden State, the only way the Cavs' role players can affect this series is if LeBron puts them in position to succeed. He has to orchestrate Cleveland's defense like his name is Kevin Garnett, run the offense like he's Michael Jordan, and get in the Warriors' heads like a modern-day Kobe Bryant.
There's no reason to expect an entertaining, all-time Finals series
We're all hoping the Finals can save what's been an otherwise mediocre postseason — and in all likelihood, we'll end up disappointed.
There are just too many ways this series can end in disaster, whether it's the Warriors turning the Cavaliers into mincemeat, the two teams trading blowout victories back and forth, a catastrophic injury, or some other, unforeseen calamity.
After all, a soul-crushing, lopsided NBA Finals would be the perfectly unfortunate ending to the least competitive playoffs in modern history.
That potential for letdown makes the possibility of an all-time series all the more tantalizing, though. Golden State-Cleveland III features all the talent, the emotion, the drama, and the stakes to top last year's epic 3-1 comeback from the Cavs.