What I’m Watching for in the NBA Finals

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Dee Gordon, Second Baseman / Miami Marlins - The Players' Tribune

I know what you’re thinking. This guy plays baseball. What does he know about hoops? Well when I was growing up, I didn’t even really play baseball. I played one season of Little League and then didn’t play again until high school.

I was a basketball player, first and foremost.

I played basketball in rec leagues and I played AAU ball, but in high school at Avon Park outside of Orlando, Florida was when I really turned the corner and became one of the best players in the state. I didn’t think I had much of a future in baseball, so I was preparing myself to play college basketball.

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When I was young, I played against a couple of guys you’ve probably heard of, like Kevin Durant and Mike Conley. I also saw Greg Oden play when we were young. He was on Mike Conley’s team, but when I played against them, Greg was hurt, so I didn’t get to actually play against him.

When I was 12 years old, I was at this basketball tournament in Orlando, and everybody was talking about this LeBron James guy, who was a couple of years older than me. Everywhere you turned, you heard LeBron James. There were even Division-I scouts hanging around. And I’m thinking, What is goin’ on here?

The gym was packed, overflowing with people who came to see LeBron James, and he didn’t disappoint. He came out and scored 40.

I’ve been a LeBron James fan ever since.

I always thought I was gonna play college basketball. Pursuing baseball wasn’t really on my mind.

I always thought I was gonna play college basketball. Pursuing baseball wasn’t really on my mind, even though my dad, Tom Gordon, pitched in the Major Leagues for over 20 years.

Then, graduation day. I had just come from hooping at an open gym. I walked into my grandmother’s house, looked around and saw my dad and my uncles sitting together at the kitchen table. When that happens, it’s usually not good.

They sat me down and told me that they decided I needed to play baseball in college, not basketball.

I was like, What? You guys gotta be kidding me… And they said they weren’t. They thought playing baseball was in my best interest.

I didn’t have any schools looking at me to play baseball in college, but I had several scholarship offers from schools to play basketball. But my dad and my uncles wanted me to play baseball? I thought they were crazy. But I trusted them.

And it’s paying off, thank God.

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Truthfully, it wasn’t until 2013, my third year in the Majors, that I was really convinced that I was good at baseball. I used to wonder how my basketball career would have turned out and how good I could’ve been, but now that I’ve found success in baseball, I’m totally committed to the game. I don’t think about “what could’ve been” anymore.

Growing up outside of Orlando back in the days of Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal, I was a big Magic fan. But these days, I don’t really have a favorite basketball team. I’m just a fan of great players and I like to see good basketball.

And that’s why I’m excited for the NBA Finals. It’s a great matchup, complete with all-time greats like LeBron James and Steph Curry. It’s sure to be some good basketball.

So as a Major League baseball player who still has love for the hardcourt, here’s what I’m watching for in these NBA Finals:

The Superstars

It’s the MVP vs. the best player on the planet.

I’m surprised there isn’t more talk about LeBron heading into these Finals. I think we get spoiled with his numbers because he always puts up big numbers, so it’s hard for him to outdo himself. He put up an absurd 25-7-6 this year, but he does that every year, so we just think, Same old LeBron.

Don’t get me wrong, Steph deserved the MVP this year. He led the Warriors to the best record in the NBA and he’s easily the most valuable player on that team. But LeBron is still LeBron. When he’s on your team, you go to the Finals. When he leaves your team, you miss the playoffs or end up in the lottery. Both the Heat and the Cavs know about that.

Without LeBron this season, the Cavs went 3-10. There’s just nobody more valuable.

LeBron

I expect LeBron to lead his team and to play his best basketball, as he tends to do in the biggest moments. On the other side, Steph is gonna gonna score and facilitate. In a lot of ways, this series isn’t really about LeBron vs. Steph. It’s more important for the Cavs to make sure they don’t let the other guys around Steph beat them.

Steph is gonna get his, but I’ll give the edge to LeBron.

The X-Factors

LeBron James and Steph Curry are gonna get all the attention, but the power forwards could determine the outcome of this series.

Tristan Thompson does so many little things that don’t show up in the box score.

Tristan Thompson does so many little things that don’t show up in the box score, like setting screens on and off the ball to get shooters open. On the other side, Draymond Green has been killing it in these playoffs. His quickness inside helps him control the paint. But I don’t think he’ll have that same success against Thompson, who’s active off the ball and dominates the offensive boards. And Draymond Green is the Warriors’ best defender, so you know he’s gonna be guarding LeBron at some point, which means he won’t be banging with Thompson on the boards as much. If Thompson out-rebounds Green — especially giving the Cavs second chances on offense — that’s a big advantage for the Cavs.

Klay Will Play

Without Klay Thompson in Game 1, I would have said to give the series to the Cavs right off the bat. I don’t think the Warriors could have taken Game 1 without Klay, and the last thing they want to do is fall behind in a series 1-0 to a LeBron-led team.

KLAY

But now that he’s been cleared to play in Game 1, he could be a huge factor, especially from the three-point line. If he can shoulder some of the scoring load so it’s not all on Steph Curry, things could really open up for the Warriors.

(In)Experience

A lot of people are talking about the matchup between the rookie coaches, David Blatt vs. Steve Kerr. But I don’t think the coaching matchup is going to be much of a factor. LeBron has helped coach this Cavs team in his own right, and Steve Kerr has five rings as a player (though he’s never coached in the Finals) and he’s a guy that lets his guys play. On both sides, I think the players are gonna play their games and the coaches won’t be much of a factor.

It’s so hard just to get to the NBA Finals, and LeBron has done it six times now (his fifth in a row, which is just crazy). But after LeBron, the Cavs don’t have much experience when it comes to guys who’ll be playing a lot of minutes. James Jones was in Miami with LeBron for their Finals runs, but he’s the only other guy on that team with playoff experience who’ll play meaningful minutes in this series. So the fact that the Warriors have no Finals experience doesn’t put them at much of a disadvantage. After LeBron and James Jones, pretty much every player in this series is new to the NBA Finals.

I think the Warriors are confident enough to come out and play their game and that the moment won’t be too big for them, and I think LeBron’s experience will help lead the Cavs, but we’ll definitely learn a lot about some of these players in this series.

Some guys play well when the spotlight gets big. Some don’t. We’ll see.

Who Wins?

Cavs in 6.

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