I hardly find it surprising that, leading up to the third straight NBA Finals matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the latter team seems to be the overwhelming favorite. Golden State owned the best record in the league this season, and has yet to lose a single game in these playoffs. Having Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in the starting lineup already made the Warriors a difficult out, and the addition of Kevin Durant only made things more imposing.
In fact, ever since the former Oklahoma City Thunder star joined the Warriors last summer, everyone penciled this team in as the 2017 champions regardless of who it ended up playing. Common belief was there was simply no other club which could pose a threat to a team starting four All-Stars, two of which are former MVPs. Now just two days away from the Finals, this thought process hasn’t changed.
Some might see this as disrespectful to the Cavs, especially since they’re the defending champs. Many Cleveland supporters are surprised by the amount of Finals predictions favoring Golden State. Despite the fact the Cavs have only lost once this postseason, they are almost unanimously seen as overwhelming underdogs in this series.
I’ll admit to being a little thrown off any time a team with LeBron James on the roster is seen as a long-shot to win a title. However, I in no way see this as a bad thing. In fact, I think the Cavs being counted out since the second Durant signed with the Warriors is the best thing going for them in the Finals.
For the most part, Cleveland players have appeared diplomatic when addressing the fact their opponents are heavy favorites. Within the locker room, though, it’s tough to believe hearing everyone count the Cavs out before tip-off of Game 1 isn’t seen as motivation. How could it not be? This team isn’t even a full year removed from winning the NBA Championship, yet is being discussed with the same “it’s great you were able to make it this far” tone you’d hear when describing an eight seed.
You’re crazy if you don’t think this is all the whiteboard material Cleveland needs in this series.
Remember, from the start of last season all the way up to Golden State building its 3-1 Finals lead, the Cavs were seen as inferior. Now, even after overcoming said deficit to win the title, even after making quick work of every opponent they faced en route to another Eastern Conference Championship, even with James in the middle of one of his most impressive postseasons to date, they aren’t getting a lick of respect against the Warriors. Heck, despite all of this, some pundits don’t even think Cleveland can win two games in this series.
And that’s perfectly fine. By all means, keep telling these Cavs they don’t stand a chance against Golden State.
The fact is Cleveland plays far better when being discounted. When expected to win, the players tend to ease up a little bit. Look no further than the Cavs’ lone playoff loss against the Boston Celtics as proof of this. Having just posted two blowout wins and hearing star Isaiah Thomas was out for the year, Cleveland understandably eased off the gas pedal.
Any threat of this occurring in the Finals has likely been dashed by the world predicting a convincing Warriors victory. Instead of the Cavs coming into this series over-confident due to the fact they’re the defending champs, they’re now being asked repeatedly how they expect to beat a superior Golden State team. Nobody is singing Cleveland’s praises, instead people are writing its playoff eulogy.
Likewise, while James has once again closed himself off from the world of social media, you better believe he heard everyone start planning the Warriors’ parade route as soon as the ink dried on Durant’s contract.
There initially might’ve been some concern James would no longer play with a chip on his shoulder after bringing a title home to Cleveland last year. In telling him there’s no way he and his team can beat Golden State now that Durant’s on board, well, I’d like to think we won’t need to worry about any lack of motivation.
So, sure, it’s a bit surprising to see everyone write off the Cavs regardless of how well they’re playing heading into the Finals. Additionally, it makes sense for people to favor Golden State’s impressive lineup in this series.
However, don’t for one second see Cleveland’s status as the underdog as a bad thing. Instead, consider it fuel for what might be one of the most overlooked defending champions we’ve seen in a long time.