What to watch in Cavs-Warriors, plus a prediction

We got here, through meaningless first-round series and embarrassing blowouts and the lamest conference finals ever, and now a lot of people are telling us the hyped endgame will be anticlimactic.

Our own Basketball Power Index gives Golden State, a 67-win super-team that could have sniffed 73 again had it wanted, a 93 percent chance of avenging last season’s humiliation. The same system says Golden State has a 64 percent chance of stomping the Cavs in four or five games. The esteemed Kevin Pelton went so far as to calculate the Warriors’ odds of completing the first undefeated 16-game postseason in modern NBA history.

The Cavs are 12-1 in the playoffs with a point differential nearly equal to Golden State’s all-time-best figure, and an offense scoring at a ludicrous rate that looks like a typo. As Pelton notes, they compiled that dossier against competition only slightly worse than Golden State’s Glass Joes once you consider injuries. I don’t care about the particulars, you don’t paste a 53-win team by 40-ish points twice — on the road, and once in just a single half — without carrying the capability of historic greatness.

LeBron James is the best player. Kevin Love is playing perhaps the best basketball of his Cleveland tenure, and when he produces like this, the talent gap between Cleveland’s Big Three and Golden State’s three best players — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — isn’t insurmountable. This Love can hang defending Zaza Pachulia when the starters match up, and slide over to Andre Iguodala when the Warriors shift Green to center in various Death Lineups — the only groups that have reliably outscored Cleveland over the past three seasons.

Klay Thompson has the edge on Tristan Thompson in the No. 4 spot, but the latter excels at dirty work no one else on the Cavs really does.

The Cavs are healthy. They are trying on defense again. LeBron is rested. They are riding a perfectly timed crescendo into an epic trilogy against the juggernaut they’ve been eying all season. Iguodala, the key that unlocks Golden State’s scariest lineups and its best James bulwark, is 3-of-27 from deep in the playoffs, and we have no idea how far he is from 100 percent health.

If Cleveland regresses to somewhere between its current form and its desultory regular-season play, this is a walkover. If the Warriors have another gear in reserve, this is a walkover.

If neither of those things prove true, this is not a walkover. The Cavs have a fighting chance.

Cleveland spent the first two games of last year’s Finals messing up a switch-heavy scheme with which they were unfamiliar, and overthinking different ways to attack Golden State’s impenetrable defense. Some with the Warriors privately remarked those two blowouts felt like regular-season games.

By Game 3, the Cavs had the switching thing down well enough to win, and settled on a single, ruthless strategy they could use in every half-court possession: find Curry’s man, and have him screen for LeBron. It wore Curry down, mentally and physically. He picked up cheap fouls, and even minor foul trouble to Curry and Green — one of the league’s handsiest defenders — could flip a game.

Some wild stuff happened, of course. Green’s suspension, earned after weeks of groin kicks and one foolish body slam, provides an unanswerable what-if. Love’s concussion in Game 2 forced LeBron to guard Green, and made it easier for Cleveland to switch every Curry-Green pick-and-roll. Curry wasn’t 100 percent.

The Cavs won, and Golden State swapped out Harrison Barnes for Kevin Durant.

Even so, the terms of engagement feel set. That’s what makes this series so exciting: These teams know each other. They understand what is coming, and how to respond, and the responses to the responses. Now it’s about execution, and mettle, and a little bit of luck.

The central question is whether Cleveland’s ho-hum defense can get enough stops, because the Cavs are going to score. They will run selectively, just as they did in nearly doubling up Golden State in fast-break points last time around.

And when they don’t, they are going to pull Curry into uncomfortable situations that require extra help away from Cleveland’s long-range snipers.

Curry takes pride in his defense. He probably wants to guard Kyrie Irving, as he did over the first two-plus games of last year’s Finals before the Warriors slid Klay Thompson into that role. I’d bet on Golden State starting with Thompson on Irving. If Cleveland is determined to yank Curry into LeBron’s orbit, the Warriors will make them use less dangerous wings — J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver — to do it.

This is one of the only pick-and-roll combinations the ultra-switchy Warriors don’t want to switch. Doing so leaves Curry at LeBron’s mercy, a runt about to have his lunch box snatched away. They prefer Curry lunge at LeBron to cut him off, and then scurry back to Smith: