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BASKETBALL Will the NBA Finals be a walkover?

By Jamie Goodwin, Web News Editor

May 29, 2015

Image Credit: Agencies

It wouldn’t be the NBA Finals without LeBron James.

By leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 4-0 series sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, the world’s best player clinched a fifth consecutive trip to professional basketball’s biggest show, which begins on June 4.

No huge surprise, even if this is the first time a player has reached five successive finals since Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics in 1966.

But great players do great things — and James is his generation’s greatest.

The Hawks, a 60-win team in the regular season, were no match for the Cavs, even with Cleveland missing two of their three best players. Forward Kevin Love is out for the play-offs with a shoulder injury and guard Kyrie Irving missed most of the series with leg injuries. Luckily for the Cavs, the third member of their ‘Big Three’ is James, who has averaged an other-worldly 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the post-season.

So the stage is set for the third championship that would bring James level with the title totals of legendary forwards Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, and former Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade.

But is it a given?

Well, probably not. The Cavs navigated the Eastern Conference with relative ease. Their dismissal of the Hawks followed a 4-2 series win against the Chicago Bulls and a 4-0 trouncing of the Boston Celtics.

‘Ease’ is not the operative word here, ‘relative’ is.

The Eastern — or Leastern — Conference is by far the poorer half of the NBA. Pitching a team featuring James against the best squads on the right side of the NBA map is like asking your dad to play for your school football team in the cup final. The talent disparity is borderline unfair (and that’s why the clever James will never appear in the jersey of a Western Conference team).

So yes, the Cavs achieved what was expected of them, but the NBA Finals are a completely different proposition.

The Golden State Warriors, the Cavs’ finals opponents after a

4-1 series win against the Houston Rockets, are a juggernaut. They won a league-best 67 games in the regular season, the joint-sixth-highest in NBA history, and finished the regular season in the top two in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

They are led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry, fresh from breaking the NBA record for most three-pointers in a play-off campaign and now widely considered the best shooter the game has ever seen.

Behind Curry is an army of 6ft 7in defensive aces who can force the best coaches in the league to rip up their offensive schemes. Most teams don’t have a single player who can slow James — the Warriors start Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, and have Andre Iguodala coming off the bench.

The Warriors navigated a much tougher conference and still lost just three games. Of the play-off opponents, only the New Orleans Pelicans, their first-round 4-0 victims, had a worse regular-season record than Cleveland’s 53-29 mark.

This is not to say the Cavs can’t win — if you have James, you have a chance in any series — but the odds are against a first Cleveland title.

No one knows better than James how tough it is to win the NBA Finals. From his previous five finals appearances, he has won two championship rings. In 2007, he led a similarly talent-sparse Cavs team to the finals, where they were swept in four games by the San Antonio Spurs.

Back then, James’s most talented teammates were non-stars Larry Hughes, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The 2015 version features J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov.

The Conference Finals lasted just a combined nine games, the joint-fewest since 1970-71, so the nine-day break will ensure All-Star MVP Irving is well rested, but his health remains questionable.

What James wouldn’t give for a Chris Bosh and a Dwyane Wade, the play-off-hardened teammates who flanked him to two titles in Miami.

James couldn’t do it alone in 2007 and, with Love out and Irving hobbled, he can’t do it now. Superstars win games, but super teams win titles.

Holding Court’s NBA Finals prediction: Warriors win 4-2.

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