When Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals ended Sunday night and the Golden State Warriors had beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers by 20 points, there were generally two ways to look at the situation. One way was to look at the first two games, acknowledge how well Golden State was playing and tell whoever was listening that the series looked like it was over.
The other way was to look back at last year’s Finals.
In 2016 the Cavs lost the first two games of the Finals by a combined margin of 48 points (this year they’ve lost the first two games by a total of 42 points.) Just like this year, the first two games of the 2016 Finals were played in Oakland and for Game 3, the series shifted to Cleveland. In Game 3, the Cavs came alive. Led by LeBron James (32 points) and Kyrie Irving (30 points) Cleveland made their mark on the series, winning 120 to 90.
Golden State would take Game 4, but the rest of the series belonged to the Cavs. They beat the Warriors in seven games, giving the city of Cleveland their first championship since 1964 when the Browns won the NFL Championship Game.
We are frequently told not to ignore the past, to listen to history, and to learn from those that have gone before us. That line of thinking would then make it entirely defensible to agree when Sports Illustrated tweets out that Cavs aren’t done. It’s sports, anything is possible. For as much as Golden State has dominated so far, it wouldn’t be necessarily be mind-blowing if the Cavs suddenly turned things around, much like they did in 2016. They still have LeBron and Irving is playing like a top-tier superstar. They can’t be counted out yet.
However, there is one slight difference between the 2016 NBA Finals and the 2017 NBA Finals that can’t be ignored. And once that difference is acknowledged, it all but throws last year out the window.
Kevin Durant is on the Warriors.
That’s a pretty big difference. Durant is one of the best players in the game and specifically, is a massive upgrade over Harrison Barnes, who he replaced in the Warriors’ starting lineup. It’s also why any argument that says in one way or another that the Cavs shouldn’t be counted out because they came back last year from being down 0-2 and could do it again this year is inherently flawed. In general, historical comparisons only work if the situations being compared are similar. That is not the case here.
Let’s start with the difference in Durant’s first two Finals’ games in 2017 and Barnes first two Finals’ games in 2016. In Game 1 Durant had 38 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. He followed that up in Game 2 with 33 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists. Now as far as Barnes goes, last year in Game 1 he had 13 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists. In Game 2 Barnes had 5 points, 5 rebounds and 1 assist. I’m not the best at math, but there definitely seems to be a slight discrepancy between the two.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, before Game 2 was over Durant had already surpassed Barnes’ entire point total for all seven games of the 2016 series.
Barnes actually had a fairly decent Game 3 last year. He scored 18 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. Yet in the 2016-17 regular season Durant only had seven games where he scored 18 points or fewer and so far throughout the playoffs, he’s only had four games out of 14 where he scored 18 points or fewer. The 18 points Barnes had was the most he had in any game of the 2016 playoffs. Respectable, yes. But it’s also 20 points less than Durant scored in Game 1.
Through two games Durant is averaging 35.5 points per game in this year’s Finals. It’s reasonable to expect somewhat of a drop in Game 3, but based on how he’s played so far, a drop of 17.5 points seems a little bit far-fetched. Even if Durant did only score 18 points, the Warriors are so deep offensively that it wouldn’t mean the team was doomed and would ensure a Cavs’ victory. If anything, Durant only scoring 18 would probably be a result of Steph Curry or Klay Thompson having big nights. The last time Durant scored 18 was in Game 4 of the Warriors’ second round series versus the Utah Jazz. Curry had 30 points, Thompson had 21 and Draymond Green had a triple double. The Warriors won the game 121-95.
Ultimately this comparison between Durant and Barnes isn’t even fair. When Barnes was with the Warriors, he was the team’s fourth option. Durant and Curry go back and forth when it comes to being this year’s team’s first option and even then, it’s more of a 1A/1B situation. Durant is also the more prolific scorer; way more of an offensive force than Barnes. Durant’s career average for points per game (27.2) more than doubles Barnes’ average (11.9.) Yes, Durant has played twice as many seasons as Barnes and that can’t be ignored, but with that being said, Durant having over 19,000 points compared to Barnes not yet having 5,000 also can’t be ignored.
Oh and on top of all that, Curry was injured last year and had an uneven Finals, averaging 22.5 points for the series. As for this year, Curry had 28 points in Game 1 and 32 in Game 2.
So in addition to bringing on Durant, the Warriors are also playing with a healthy Curry – two things they didn’t have last year. Factor in Green being able to control himself so as to avoid being suspended for a game and Thompson finding his stroke and the 2016-17 Warriors look a lot better, a lot more dangerous, and a lot less likely to suffer the same fate as the 2015-16 Warriors. James has the ability to win a game by himself, so I can’t see a sweep happening. But I also can’t see a comeback like the one the Cavs had last year happening as well. Not with Durant getting Barnes’ minutes.
Things change in life. They change for the better, they change for the worst. For the Golden State Warriors, things definitely changed for the better. Unfortunately for the Cavs, the opposite looks to be true.