By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Cleveland Cavaliers are the defending NBA champions and just finished up one of the most dominant runs ever through the Eastern Conference playoffs. All of that doesn’t matter much in the eyes of the handicappers, as Cleveland remains a heavy underdog (2-to-1) to the Golden State Warriors as the 2017 NBA Finals get ready to kick off on Thursday night.
While most of the experts aren’t giving the Cavs a chance, I expect this series to be much closer to a tossup that should go the distance. With that in mind, I examined three reasons why the Cavs have a legitimate chance to repeat:
1. The Warriors still don’t have an answer for Tristan Thompson on the glass
The Cavs big man is playing some of the best basketball of his career right now. He’s the fifth wheel in the Cavs offense, but he does his job exceptionally well by wreaking havoc on the offensive glass. Last year, Thompson grabbed 27 offensive rebounds in the NBA Finals against the Warriors. It’s hard to envision centers like Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee slowing him down too much on that front this time around. He’s simply stronger and more athletic than both of those players. No one else on the Warriors has the size to effectively box him out either, which should make Golden State very vulnerable on the defensive boards.
On top of his rebounding prowess, Thompson has improved his free throw shooting as well (66.7 percent this postseason), making the hack-a-Thompson option no longer a concern. The 26-year-old should be able to provide the Cavs with easy points all series and that should help Cleveland keep pace with Golden State’s high-powered offense.
2. Kevin Love is playing the best basketball of his Cavs career
Kyrie Irving and LeBron James may get all the headlines, but Love has quietly been a dominant force during the Cavs postseason. The veteran power forward is shooting 47.5 percent from 3-point range and posted five straight double-doubles against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s punishing defenses as the trailer on transition opportunities or in the post against smaller defenders.
Love will have a bigger challenge during these NBA Finals as he is covered by the likes of Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, but his offensive efficiency is matching his Minnesota days. That type of production will give the Cavs a fighting chance.
3. The continuity factor
The Warriors may have amassed one of the greatest super teams that we’ve ever seen, but this is still their first year playing together on a team with a lot of roster overhaul. The Warriors had to say goodbye to a number of role players (Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, etc.) in order to sign Durant, all decisions that were obviously worth it. However, this is a group that hasn’t been thrown into the fire together yet in the postseason. They’ve barely played any close games in the first three rounds after facing off with overmatched Utah and San Antonio teams that were dealing with too many injuries to stand a chance. The Cavs have had a similarly easy road in their postseason, but this is a starting five that have been playing together for three years together now. Everyone knows their role and their stars in LeBron, Irving and Love just look better with age at this point.
With the NBA Finals bound to produce some close games, the continuity edge goes to the Cavs in terms of personnel. It may not be the difference in this series, but it should be an asset in crunch time. Throw in the possibility that interim coach Mike Brown could be drawing up plays for the Warriors (if Steve Kerr can’t go) and that’s a big advantage in Cleveland’s quest to repeat.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.