By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – Carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers to this year’s NBA Finals is among the most impressive feats of LeBron James’ career but the challenge that now awaits the game’s greatest player may be more than even he can handle.
Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, who are part of the ABC/ESPN broadcast team for the NBA Finals that start on Thursday at the home of the defending champion Golden States Warriors, are not convinced Cleveland can even win a game in the series.
“It will be interesting to see how competitive LeBron James can make this Finals, but any game they get in this Finals would be a huge upset,” former NBA coach Van Gundy told a conference call on Tuesday.
“This is the biggest difference that I remember between two teams heading into the Finals in my time in the NBA. I can’t think of a bigger gap from a team perspective.”
The Cavs are the lowest playoff seed, No. 4, for a James-led team in a decade. They barely escaped a seven-game, first-round series against Indiana and then, after cruising past Toronto in four games, upset Boston in seven.
Next up is a Warriors team that have won two of the last three NBA Finals and boast riches few teams have ever claimed and can shoot the lights out most any night.
“The Warriors make you pay the price for making mistakes,” said former coach and player Jackson.
“So if you are to have any chance of beating them at all, you have to make sure that defensively you’re one accord.
“But they are clearly the favourite, without question, but the luxury of having the best player in the world in that situation, anything can happen.”
The Cavs and Warriors are meeting for the fourth straight year for the right to be crowned NBA champions while it marks the eighth consecutive Finals appearance for James as part of a stretch that dates back to his stint in Miami.
When the two teams met for the title in 2016, James used a superhuman effort to lead Cleveland back from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship, marking the first time an NBA team had pulled off such a comeback.
James is playing some of the best basketball of his 15-year NBA career, but that might not be enough considering he does not have much of a supporting cast going up against a perennial powerhouse like Golden State in a best-of-seven series.
“Obviously James is going to have to be great … and they are going to have to be lights out from the three-point line to have a chance to win a game,” said Van Gundy.
He added that the only chance the Cavaliers have is if they can keep the high-scoring Warriors from reaching 100 points. That is a tall order considering the defending champions have scored at least 100 points in 13 of their 17 playoff games.
“I just don’t think Cleveland has the firepower to win shootuts,” said Van Gundy. “So it’s going to have to be grind-it-out games where the tempo is controlled and to do that you have got to have smart, tough guys on the floor.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; editing by Ken Ferris)