Don’t Etch ‘Cavs-Warriors III’ In Stone Just Yet

Heading into the 1986 Conference Finals, Lakers-Celtics III looked as inevitable as this year’s presumed rubber-match between the Cavs and Warriors …You know what happened next.

We’ve been planning for Cavs-Warriors III so long that it’s easy to forget we still have to get through the Conference Finals. While the rubber-match has looked inevitable since the pre-season, Durant’s injury and the Cavs’ lackluster performance in the regular-season’s final two months made us re-assess the NBA landscape, even if just for a moment.

One month into the Postseason, the Cavs and Warriors are both undefeated. In the first Two rounds, Golden State found itself in a close contest heading into the fourth quarter twice (Game 3’s against Portland and Utah); While Cleveland was involved in four barn-burners (Game’s 1, 3 & 4 vs. Indiana; Game 4 in Toronto).

With that said, neither team has looked vulnerable. Last week, while awaiting the winner of Spurs-Rockets, Draymond appeared to be looking ahead to a re-match with Cleveland, claiming that the Cavs had an easier route to the Finals. The comment perfectly exemplified the inevitability of these NBA Playoffs. Although each team still has to get through one more opponent, Draymond has already kickstarted the shit-talk between his nemesis, LeBron.

Barring an injury to one of the Warriors’ Big 4 or the Cavs’ Big 3, we’re two weeks away from one of the most anticipated NBA Finals in recent history. Even so, the NBA has a reputation of surprising us when we least expect it. Over the last decade, heading into the Conference Finals we’ve seen three inevitable NBA Finals matchups go up in flames. In 2007, we wrote in Pistons-Spurs, before the Pistons got overpowered by LeBron and the Cavs; In 2009, Cavs-Lakers seemed like a fore-gone conclusion until LeBron disappeared against Dwight and Orlando; And in 2014, we assumed we were getting a Thunder-Heat re-match, before the veteran Spurs turned into a buzz-saw.

That being said, none of the three “upsets” are on the level of a hypothetical ousting of Cleveland or Golden State in the upcoming Third Round. In NBA history, only one expected Finals match-up was halted by an astonishingly wacky Conference Finals — 1986. Looking back, the 1986 Conference Finals, and the narrative surrounding the previous two NBA champions — Celtics and Lakers — is a mirror image of this week’s upcoming series, and the league’s current juggernauts.

Before the 1986 season tipped off, the NBA was at the peak of its newfound popularity. In consecutive NBA Finals, the Celtics and Lakers had established their superiority compared to the rest of the league. In 1984, the Celtics outlasted the Lakers in seven games to win the championship. The following year, the Lakers, like the Cavs last year, got revenge in beating the Celtics in the NBA Finals.

In 1986, both teams continued their dominance, with the Celtics winning 67 games to the Lakers 62. Heading into the playoffs, an NBA Finals rubber-match was written in stone. After sweeping through the First Round, both teams dropped a game before winning their Second Round series in five games. Looking back, the Celtics were this year’s Warriors — a historic offensive team that steam-rolled through everyone while looking unbeatable. Meanwhile, the Lakers were like the 2017 Cavs — defending champions who spent the regular season looking vulnerable despite possessing a transcendent superstar at the peak of his powers (Magic a la LeBron).

In the Conference Finals, the Celtics swept the Bucks, while the Lakers went up against a young up-and-coming team — Houston. In five close games, the Rockets ousted the heavily favored Lakers. Granted, Houston was led by one of the top-ten greatest players in league history — Hakeem — and a transcendent big-man whose legacy was hindered by injuries — Ralph Sampson. And so, the Cavs ECF opponent — either the Celtics or Wizards — may not be on Houston’s level, but like the 1987 Lakers, the Cavs induce some form of doubt in the minds of most NBA fans.

Sure, it’s unwarranted considering they are 8–0. But their sweep of the Pacers overlooks the fact that three of the four games were up for grabs in the fourth quarter; while NBA have seemed to diminish the impact Kyle Lowry’s injury had on their series against the Raptors. I say all that to say this: if one team is losing in the Conference Finals, it’s not Golden State.

Then again, the last time LeBron lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Steph Curry was a rookie; Draymond and Isiah Thomas were college sophomores; Kyrie had just graduated high-school; And Tyron Lue was in his first year of retirement. Do you remember who the last team to beat LeBron was? That’s right, the Celtics. If the stars align, we’ll get a Celtics-Cavs ECF. What better way for the NBA to come full circle than Boston bookending LeBron’s six-straight Finals with trips of their own in 2010 and 2017.

There’s a 99 percent chance this won’t happen, but that 1% is what the 1987 Rockets used to usurp the Lakers. All I’m saying is — You. Never. Know.