The moments when Cavaliers-Warriors IV seemed inevitable ... and when it didn't

ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The speculation about a fourth NBA Finals meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors began mere seconds after JR Smith made a relatively meaningless 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the Cavs' Game 5 loss a year ago (relatively, because it did give LeBron James the final assist he needed to average a triple-double for the series).

The confetti hadn't even begun to fall in Oakland, California, when the questions began: Would anyone be able to stop these teams from meeting again? What could possibly derail two of the most unstoppable freight trains in their respective conferences in NBA history? Why even bother playing the 2017-18 season? Why not just skip to May 31, 2018, for the start of another inevitable Cavaliers-Warriors Finals?

To be fair, last postseason gave critics little reason to believe that this year would be any different. Entering last year's Finals, the Warriors were a perfect 12-0 in the postseason and the Cavaliers were 12-1, leading many to believe their conference dominance would go unchecked for another season. Even after a wild offseason that saw the Cavaliers part ways with general manager David Griffin and star point guard Kyrie Irving and saw Kevin Durant re-up with the Warriors at a significant discount, both teams were considered the favorites to return to the Finals at the end of what some feared would be a "boring" season.

While the end result -- a fourth consecutive NBA Finals pitting the Cavaliers against the Warriors -- came to pass as expected, the journey there was anything but boring.

Oct. 17, 2017 -- Opening night

Both Cleveland and Golden State opened the season at home as the favorites to win the East and West, respectively. The Cavs got 34 of a possible 44 first-place votes as eventual Eastern Conference champs from the ESPN Forecast panel, and the Warriors were a unanimous selection. On this night, both teams faced their top challenger and eventual conference finals opponent. Cleveland won by three points in a game that was overshadowed by Boston losing Gordon Hayward for the season just six minutes into his Celtics debut, while the Rockets topped the Warriors when Durant's apparent game-winning shot was waved off for coming just a fraction of a second after the buzzer.

Oct. 29, 2017 -- Pistons 115, Warriors 107

Warriors: 4-3, sixth in West

Key takeaway: Worst start since 2013-14

Trending: Down

The Warriors had started 16-2 in Durant's first season with the team in 2016-17, and famously ripped off 24 consecutive wins to open the 2015-16 season, so it was something of a shock to see them suffer a third loss before Halloween. Despite their uncharacteristically slow start, BPI still had the Warriors as the overwhelming favorite to eventually emerge from the West (64 percent).

Nov. 9, 2017 -- Rockets 117, Cavaliers 113

Cavaliers: 5-7, 10th in East

Key takeaway: Tied for second-worst start for any LeBron team

Trending: Down

While the Warriors quickly turned things around after their bumpy October, the Cavaliers couldn't say the same, as their malaise stretched into November. BPI had practically given up on the team that was starting Iman Shumpert and Jae Crowder and bringing Dwyane Wade and Channing Frye off the bench, dropping the Cavaliers' chances of reaching the Finals to just 1 percent.

The loss to the Rockets was also the first of 32 consecutive games missed by former MVP Derrick Rose, who had started seven of the Cavs' first 11 games of the season. Rose was first sidelined by an ankle injury, then took a leave of absence from the team while he contemplated his basketball future. He eventually returned Jan. 18, but played just nine more games in a Cavaliers uniform.

Dec. 17, 2017 -- Cavaliers 106, Wizards 99

Cavaliers: 23-8, second in East

Key takeaway: 18th win in 19-game span

Trending: Up

With another James triple-double (20 points, 11 rebounds, 15 assists), all was right with the Cavaliers' season. Though BPI still gave Cleveland just an 11 percent chance of reaching the Finals, the victory over Washington capped the Cavs' most dominant stretch of the regular season. The run of success put the Cavs back into second place in the East standings, just 1 games behind the Celtics -- the same margin by which the Warriors trailed the Rockets in the West at the time.

Dec. 22, 2017 -- Warriors 113, Lakers 106

Warriors: 26-6, first in West

Key takeaway: Warriors find success even with Steph sidelined

Trending: Up

Even without Stephen Curry, the Warriors had no trouble dispatching the Lakers to cap an 11-game win streak -- their longest of the season -- and move back into first place in the Western Conference. At this point, they had improved their projected chances of reaching the Finals from 67 percent on opening night to 69 percent, three days before facing (and beating) their longtime Finals rivals again on Christmas Day.

Jan. 2, 2018 -- Cavaliers 127, Blazers 110

Cavaliers: 25-12, third in East

Key takeaway: Isaiah Thomas plays first game for Cavaliers

Trending: Neutral

After missing the first 36 games of the season due to the slow grind of rehab for his injured hip, All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas finally made his Cavaliers debut, scoring 17 points in 19 minutes to help power Cleveland to a 17-point win over Portland.

"It's going to be a special year," Thomas said after the game.

Jan. 15, 2018 -- Warriors 118, Cavaliers 108

Cavaliers: 26-17, third in East | Warriors 36-9, first in West

Key takeaway: Warriors beat Cavs for sixth time in past seven meetings

Trending: Warriors up, Cavs down

It has become an annual tradition: The Warriors and Cavaliers meet on Christmas, then again on MLK Day, then again in the Finals. The Warriors winning in blowout fashion on the holiday Monday has also become a tradition, with Golden State beating Cleveland by 34 in 2016, 35 in 2017 and "only" 10 in 2018. After that loss, the Cavs found themselves in third place, 7 games out of the top spot in the East, with a pack of teams close behind and ready to push Cleveland lower.

"The teams have met in the Finals each of the past three years. And while there's no guarantee there will be a fourth matchup, at this point only one of them looks prepared in January for June," the Associated Press wrote in its recap of the game.

Jan. 20, 2018 -- Thunder 148, Cavaliers 124

Cavaliers: 27-18, third in East

Key takeaway: Kevin Love leaves game, leading to team meeting

Trending: Down

Kevin Love played just three minutes in this blowout loss, leaving the game early with an illness -- one that was reportedly questioned by some of his teammates at a contentious team meeting two days later. It was at that meeting that Love disclosed to the rest of the team that he had suffered a panic attack during a Nov. 5 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, which led to Love eventually taking his battle with anxiety public in a piece for The Players' Tribune.

At the time, however, it seemed as though a rift had formed in the Cavs locker room, and newcomer Thomas was put firmly in the middle of it. Later in the season, reported that while Thomas had been upset with Love's absence from the Thunder game and practice the next day, it was Wade who made an issue of it at the team meeting.

Jan. 26, 2018 -- Cavaliers 115, Pacers 108

Cavaliers: 28-19, third in East

Key takeaway: IT says don't blame me for Cavs' problems

Trending: Neutral

A win over Indiana ended a stretch during which Cleveland lost 10 of its previous 13 games -- a slump that coincided with Thomas' return from injury. Thomas himself had warned that his hot start in his first two games back -- both Cavaliers victories, surrounding a loss to the Celtics in which Thomas didn't play -- were "fool's gold."

However, Thomas didn't make any friends in Cleveland when he said he wasn't to blame for the Cavs' January struggles, since the team had played just as poorly in November without him.

"I just laugh at those things because I know in this circle and this team, everybody believes in each other, and everybody's in here for it to work and for us to be playing in June," Thomas said, not knowing at the time that, while the Cavaliers would be playing in June, he wouldn't be. "That's the ultimate goal."

Jan. 30, 2018 -- Pistons 125, Cavaliers 114

Cavaliers: 29-20, third in East

Key takeaway: Love breaks hand, out six to eight weeks

Trending: Neutral

Cleveland suffered two losses on this day. The first, an 11-point defeat in Detroit, left the Cavs just a half-game up on the Heat for third place in the East. The second was much worse, as Love suffered a broken left hand, which kept him out of the lineup for the next 20 games. By the time he returned, the Cavs' chances of reaching the Finals, according to BPI, had been cut in half -- and nearly half the Cavs' roster had turned over.

Feb. 7, 2018 -- Cavaliers 140, Timberwolves 138

Cavaliers: 31-22, third in East

Key takeaway: LeBron beats buzzer, then Cavs revamp roster

Trending: Up

Savvy observers couldn't help but notice that when James went to celebrate his overtime buzzer-beater, he blew right past Thomas to bump chests with Cedi Osman instead. What wasn't known at the time -- but would quickly become the dominant story the next day -- was that Thomas was on his way out of Cleveland as part of a massive trade-deadline overhaul of Cleveland's roster that would reshape the team and reset expectations.

Gone were Thomas and Crowder, who had come over in the Irving trade in the summer, along with free-agent signees Rose and Wade, and Shumpert and Frye, two key contributors to the Cavs' 2016 title team.

In their place, Cleveland added George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., getting younger and more athletic across the board.

Feb. 18, 2018 -- Team LeBron 148, Team Stephen 145

All-Star Weekend was all about the Cavaliers and Warriors, though neither entered the break leading their respective conferences. As the leading vote-getters in fan balloting, James and Curry served as captains for the revamped All-Star format, drafting their respective All-Star teams -- though on a conference call rather than in a televised event.

Then, in the game itself, James teamed up with Curry's Warriors teammate Durant to help shut down Curry on the final possession, preserving his squad's three-point win.

March 1, 2018 -- 76ers 108, Cavaliers 97

Cavaliers: 36-25, third in East

Key takeaway: Soup is better for eating than for throwing

Trending: Down

The loss was the Cavaliers' third in five games, but the game itself was hardly the story. Shortly before tipoff, the team announced that Smith had been suspended one game for detrimental conduct. "Something happened after shootaround," coach Tyronn Lue said at the time.

As it turned out, that "something" was Smith throwing soup at Cavaliers assistant coach Damon Jones. Really. The jokes flew almost as quickly as the soup itself, and it seemed the Cavaliers' chances of reaching the Finals were flying out the door with them.

March 8, 2018 -- Warriors 110, Spurs 107

Warriors: 51-14, second in West

Key takeaway: Curry suffers first of two key late-season injuries

Trending: Down

Golden State came from behind to pick up a three-point win over San Antonio, but all of Dub Nation was holding its breath after watching Curry limp off with an injured ankle. He missed only six games, but things got worse when, in his first game back from the ankle injury, he suffered a sprained MCL that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season. All told, Curry missed 17 of the Warriors' final 18 games, and Golden State went just 6-11 in his absence.

March 19, 2018 -- Cavaliers 124, Bucks 117

Cavaliers: 41-29, third in East

Key takeaway: Cavs step up as Lue steps away

Trending: Neutral

Before Cleveland beat Milwaukee to stay a half-game ahead of the Pacers in the East standings, the team announced that Lue would be taking a leave of absence for health reasons. Lue had been experiencing chest pains, which worsened during the Cavs' game against the Bulls two days earlier, so he stepped aside and Larry Drew coached the team for the next nine games. Cleveland went 8-1 in Lue's absence but couldn't make any headway in the standings.

"If it's not one thing, it's another," James said the day Lue's leave was announced, a statement that could just about sum up the Cavs' season.

March 29, 2018 -- Bucks 116, Warriors 107

Warriors: 54-21, second in West

Key takeaway: Durant's brief return can't stop Dubs' skid

Trending: Down

As if playing without Curry wasn't hard enough, the Warriors also lost Durant for a six-game stretch in March when he suffered a rib-cartilage fracture. Thanks to a first-half ejection, Durant played just 17 minutes in his return against the Bucks, which was the Warriors' seventh loss in a 10-game span, dropping them seven games behind the Rockets in the standings. At this point, BPI gave the Warriors just a 32 percent chance of returning to a fourth consecutive Finals.

"We're struggling right now," head coach Steve Kerr said after the loss to the Bucks.

April 11, 2018 -- Knicks 110, Cavaliers 98

Cavaliers: 50-32, fourth in East

Key takeaway: LeBron ends season with lowest seed since 2008

Trending: Down

With a season-ending loss to the Knicks in what was mostly a meaningless game, the Cavaliers finished the season in fourth place in the East -- the lowest playoff position for a LeBron-led team since 2008. The Warriors' season had ended a day earlier with a loss to the Jazz, and they headed into the playoffs without home-court advantage throughout for the first time in the Kerr era. Their 31 percent chance of returning to the Finals still dwarfed the 4 percent chance the computers gave the Cavaliers.

Even two months after the trade deadline, the Cavaliers still lacked a true idea of who they were as a team as they headed into the postseason.

April 29, 2018 -- Cavaliers 105, Pacers 101

Cavaliers win series 4-3

Key takeaway: Cavs survive, advance to second round

Trending: Up

It had been almost five years since James had faced elimination in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and he had never been in this situation before: forced to play a winner-take-all Game 7 in the first round. But James did what he has done so many times before, putting the team on his back and finishing with 45 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists to get the Cavaliers into the second round and keep his perfect 13-0 record in first-round series intact.

May 1, 2018 -- Warriors 121, Pelicans 116

Warriors lead series 2-0

Key takeaway: "Hamptons 5" all play for first time since March 6

Trending: Up

After missing 16 games -- the final 10 of the regular season and the first six of the postseason -- Curry made his triumphant return, scoring 28 points in 27 minutes off the bench to give the Warriors a 2-0 lead over the Pelicans in their second-round series. While the Rockets were still seen as the favorites at this point, the Warriors having their team intact for the first time since March 6 gave their Finals chances a big boost, at least in the eyes of experts, if not the computer systems.

May 5, 2018 -- Cavaliers 105, Raptors 103

Cavaliers lead series 3-0

Key takeaway: LeBron is still the King in the North

Trending: Up

All the hand-wringing over the Cavaliers' struggles in the first round seemed to go away in an instant, when James banked in a fadeaway runner at the buzzer to, as Raptors team ambassador Drake would put it, "turn the 0-2 to the 0-3." Cleveland's dominance in a sweep of Toronto re-established the Cavs as the favorites heading into the Eastern Conference finals. The ESPN Forecast panel gave the Cavs a 65 percent chance of winning the conference finals, and 19 of ESPN's 22 experts picked Cleveland.

May 23, 2018 -- Celtics 96, Cavaliers 83

Cavaliers trail series 3-2

Key takeaway: Cavs on the brink of elimination again

Trending: Down

With another disappointing performance in Boston -- their third of the series -- the Cavaliers put themselves in the precarious position of needing to win two elimination games, including one on the road, to advance to the Finals.

"LeBron James is going to need a miracle if he's to reach the NBA Finals for the eighth straight time," Jerry Bembry of The Undefeated wrote the day after the game, with Cleveland's conference title hopes on the ropes again.

May 24, 2018 -- Rockets 98, Warriors 94

Warriors trail series 3-2

Key takeaway: Warriors facing elimination, but not facing CP3

Trending: Neutral

A day after the Cavs fell behind 3-2 in the conference finals, the Warriors joined them in that situation, though in much different circumstances. The talk after Game 5 wasn't how Houston was a game away from the Finals, but rather if the Rockets would have any chance to beat the Warriors without star point guard Chris Paul, who suffered a strained hamstring in the final minutes of Houston's four-point win.

"This is the worst situation we've been in since Kevin [Durant]'s been here, and we're two wins from making the NBA Finals," Kerr said after the game. "So that's a pretty good worst situation to be in."

We know how things played out from there. Both the Cavaliers and Warriors won Game 6 at home followed by Game 7 on the road -- both erasing double-digit deficits in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year.

Related Video