Jeff Van Gundy never has seen the likes of this apparent Finals mismatch in three decades coaching and broadcasting NBA games.
“This is the biggest difference that I remember between two teams heading into the Finals in my time in the NBA,” he said of the Cavaliers-Warriors series that begins on Thursday. “I can’t think of a bigger gap from a team perspective.”
If Van Gundy were a neutral fan or bookmaker, that opinion would not be surprising. But the fact that he is an ESPN / ABC analyst and expressed it Tuesday on a call with reporters designed to promote the Finals illustrated two things:
First, Van Gundy is paid to deliver blunt opinions, and often does, regardless of marketing considerations. Second, there is no point denying the obvious.
When he spoke of how the Cavaliers need LeBron James to be great and must shoot “lights out” from the three-point line, he meant that was what they would require “to have a chance to win a game.”
That’s “a” as in one, if you’re scoring at home.
Van Gundy added he would like to see a format in which teams are seeded 1 through 16 regardless of regular-season conference so as to avoid situations such as this.
“We’re all going to try to paint a picture of there’s a chance that Cleveland could win, and when you get to the Finals and that’s really, really hard to picture in your own mind how a team could win, it’s a letdown,” he said.
“To me Houston wasn’t just one half away from advancing to the Finals, they were one half away from winning a championship. So it will be interesting to see how competitive LeBron James can make this Finals. But any game they get in this Finals would be a huge upset to me.”
Again, this is not the way the public relations people would have drawn up the game plan for a promotional call, but Van Gundy and his colleagues would love it if he were underestimating the Cavs and they made a series of it.
His fellow analyst, Mark Jackson, was a bit less gloomy about the Cavaliers’ chances. “I’m not going to say zero-percent chance,” he said. “They have the best player in the world.”
The analysts agreed Cleveland must avoid turnovers, keep the score in the low-to-moderate range rather than get into a shootout and somehow avoid getting caught in defensive switches that exploit physical mismatches. All easier said than done.
The fact that this is the fourth year in a row in which the teams are meeting in the final — an unprecedented streak in major North American pro sports — can be looked at either way.
Fans might have appreciated some new blood. But the old blood is familiar and loaded with star power.
“If James and the Cavaliers win Game 1, the interest is going to skyrocket, because they’re going to have done what very few except for them, maybe, think they can do, which is win in Golden State,” Van Gundy said.
“If they get blown out in both games [in Oakland] it doesn’t matter what we say, people aren’t going to be as excited.”
At least fans will not require much studying of rosters to get up to speed, nor will the announcers.
“It’s a tremendous story,” Jackson said. “I think it’s awesome for the league to have tremendous star power on the biggest, brightest stage.”
Said Van Gundy, “LeBron James being in the Finals is never bad for business, and obviously the Warriors are such a team of superior talent that [Kevin] Durant, Curry, [Klay] Thompson, they’re going to always be a big draw.”
The question is: Will it be for only four games, or more?
Notes & quotes
Jackson, who grew up in Queens, was among the candidates for the Knicks coaching job that went to David Fizdale. He declined to get into detail about the process, other than to say, “They have an outstanding coach in Fizdale, quality guys, class guys, running it in Steve [Mills] and Scott [Perry] and I wish them nothing but the very best. It was a heck of an opportunity and I wish them nothing but the very best.” . . . In light of the Rockets’ 27 consecutive misses on three-pointers in Game 7 of the Western Conference final, Van Gundy was asked to reflect on Game 7 of the 1994 Finals, when he was a Knicks assistant on the night John Starks shot 0-for-11 on three-pointers. He said he “never regretted coach [Pat] Riley’s decision to leave him in. To this day I still believe that gave us our best chance to win.”
Cavs’ Love still in concussion protocol
Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love remains in concussion protocol and his status for Game 1 of the NBA Finals is still unclear.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue gave an update Tuesday before the team flew to San Francisco for Thursday’s opener. The Cavs are playing the Golden State Warriors in the finals for the fourth straight year.
Love missed Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at Boston after banging heads with Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum in the previous game. Jeff Green started for Love in Game 7 and finished with 19 points with eight rebounds in Cleveland’s 87-79 victory.
Love has played center and forward this season and is averaging 13.9 points and 10.0 rebounds this postseason. He sat out the 2015 finals with a separated shoulder. — AP