The NBA Finals rubber match between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers tips off this week, delivering on the anticipation which began last June after the two teams engaged an unbelievable seven-game thriller.

Behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Cleveland battled back from a 3-1 series deficit to upend Golden State. The Warriors then stunned the league in the offseason by adding 2014 MVP Kevin Durant. Even James himself was forced to recently call the Warriors a “juggernaut” after they built a dominating 12-0 record in sweeping all three of their Western Conference playoff series.

In this Jan. 18, 2016, file photo, Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) knocks the ball loose from Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

But Cleveland enters next week’s series with a 12-1 record of their own after tearing through the Eastern Conference playoffs for the third consecutive year. Who wins the rubber match? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate this vital question for an answer. 

Riley: The Cavs might not be as top-heavy as the Warriors, but their depth of quality role players should give them the edge. Cleveland is two-deep at every position except small forward, where they have the top player in the NBA on their side. James and Irving made mincemeat of Golden State’s defense over the last three games in the 2016 Finals, and they’re both in the groove again. Durant will score his points, but his volume only minimizes Klay Thompson’s input and Draymond Green’s offensive involvement. The continuity from last year’s Cleveland team should serve them well against a Golden State squad that had to sacrifice some of its depth to add Durant. 

Green: The Warriors’ bench doesn’t get enough credit. And the Golden State coaching staff, whether its Steve Kerr or Mike Brown on the bench, does a good job mixing in starters with reserves. With four All-Stars in the starting five, the Warriors can afford to rest two at a time for extended periods while rotating their reserves in, keeping an All-Star caliber player or two on the court at all times. The odds will be against Cleveland surviving a starting five packed with players who are at the top of their positions. The Warriors can spread any defense thin with their buffet of options. 

Still, I say the Cavs will win it all in six games. Cleveland found a way to beat Golden State last June, and all the Warriors did in response was add a player who LeBron has owned during his career. James is 14-4 against Durant when the two have faced off over the years.  

Riley: Cleveland doesn’t possess that fourth All-Star like Golden State does, but you can almost count James as two superstars in one because of the flexibility he brings to the Cavs. Visions of him dominating the court in last summer’s Finals are still fresh in the heads of many. If James comes out of the gate in the same groove he exited 2016 with, then no one in the current NBA will stop Cleveland from winning its second consecutive title—not even adding a former MVP to a 73-9 team. 

Green: Perhaps the scariest difference for this year’s Warriors is that they play lockdown defense of their own. Thompson, Green and Durant are just the highlights of a quick, athletic and fast defense. But I’m still picking the Cavs to win simply because of the psychological hold I believe LeBron James and his crew have on the Warriors. Ever since they pulled off that impossible 3-1 comeback in last year’s Finals, LeBron’s confidence has been on another level. I believe he knows he’s better than Kevin Durant. I also believe his best teammate, Kyrie Irving, thinks he’s better than GS’s Steph Curry.  The Warriors may be the better team, but try convincing the Cavs of that.

Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley

AFRO Sports Desk