INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Everywhere from the Las Vegas sportsbooks to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index to even LeBron James’ framing of the 2017 NBA Finals has the Cleveland Cavaliers as heavy underdogs against the Golden State Warriors.
But Kevin Love doesn’t buy it.
“The whole underdog thing is funny to me, because, yeah, at the end of the day we are defending our title,” Love said Saturday after the Cavs’ first practice in preparation for the Warriors since clinching a spot in the Finals. “We’re trying to repeat, which is so hard to do. I think we will use it as fuel, we will use it as motivation, but the idea of playing into it? It’s tough for me to say that is the case. I don’t feel like we’re underdogs. We match up well with them, and I think they’d say the same about us.”
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has Golden State as a -260 favorite compared with Cleveland at +220. ESPN’s BPI says the Warriors have a 93 percent chance of winning the series. James himself twice said the Warriors have been the best team in the league for the past three years and referred to them as both a “beast” and a “juggernaut.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said the idea that the Cavs need the underdog title as a linchpin to get ready for the Finals is off base.
“We’re not going to use that as motivation,” Lue said. “It’s like, we’re in the NBA Finals. That’s enough motivation alone. Not worry about what it says in Vegas or what people are saying about underdogs. We’re not using that as an excuse. We’ve got to come out and play. Our goals were set at the beginning of the season, and that’s to win a championship. So that’s what we’re focused on.”
The Warriors’ goal, of course, is also to win the rubber match with Cleveland and earn a second title in three years. Golden State forward Draymond Green put it in much stronger words when he told NBA.com’s David Aldridge in October that he wanted to “destroy” and “annihilate” the Cavs if they meet with a championship on the line again.
“He’s competitive,” Love said of Green. “I mean, he’s one of the most competitive players in the league, and he kind of spoke this into existence. He’s a guy who said he wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday, and you know he’s a guy who brings it every single night. So now, with the way the Finals went down last year, if I were in his shoes, I would want the same thing.”
Lue said his players “probably already have seen and heard” Green’s comments before, and he chalked it up to Green “speaking out of emotion.” He added, “I like guys like that. … Says what he really wants.”
The Green-Love matchup was the last thing the Cavs wanted last June. Along with the concussion that Love suffered in Game 2, the versatile Green was the root of Love’s troubles as a less mobile big man. Love averaged just 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in the six games he played, but he capped the series with nine points, 14 rebounds, two steals and a crucial stop on the perimeter against Steph Curry in Game 7.
Love comes into the Finals this year playing at a much higher level. He averaged 22.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks in the Eastern Conference finals versus the Boston Celtics. The Cavs wrapped the series up with a win Thursday in Game 5.
After playing so well in the conference finals, is Love so confident that he prefers the matchup against the Warriors over playing the San Antonio Spurs?
“Want the Warriors? Like Bron said in his postgame presser, they’ve been right at the top, best team in the league for three years straight now. They’ve been super-impressive,” Love said. “It’s kind of in our minds that that’s who we were going to see. They played great basketball this year. Obviously, adding an MVP to a team that already has a two-time MVP, that makes them even more impressive. It’s tough to say that we didn’t expect it. We knew they’d be right there.”
Both teams have compared favorably with one another this postseason. The Warriors are 12-0 overall through the first three rounds; the Cavs are 12-1. Cleveland has the No. 1 offensive efficiency in the playoffs with 120.7 points per 100 possessions; Golden State is No. 2 at 115.8. The Warriors have the No. 1 defensive efficiency at 99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions; the Cavs are No. 3 at 104.6.
On Friday, Green discussed looking forward to facing the Cavaliers again and highlighted that it should be another competitive series, like last year’s Finals that came down to Game 7.
“I expect it to be a competitive series, absolutely,” Green said. “But at the same time, if we play our game of basketball, who knows what will happen?”
Lue said Saturday that he expects each team to continue to try to one-up the other.
“I think throughout the course of the playoffs, I think each team wasn’t going to be outdone, until we lost that game to Boston,” Lue said, referring to the Cavs’ loss in Game 3 of the conference finals. “But we did something, and then they come back, they’ll do something. They do something, we come back and do something. So I think on both sides, they’re kind of looking and watching and trying to outdo each other.
“And I saw Draymond said [Friday] night, he just talked about just two great teams. And Steph said, ‘It wasn’t easy.’ Like, ‘We put in the work, we came in every single day and put in the work to get to this point to play in June. It wasn’t given to us. We had to earn it.’ And both teams had to do the same thing. So having that team like Golden State over there who is always pushing us, I know from on this side, it’s great for us and it’s great for the game.”