When the Cleveland Cavaliers beat a key rival, the Wizards, in Washington in overtime on Monday night, they tightened their grip on the Eastern Conference. And with the Golden State Warriors continuing to fly high in the West, a rematch of last year’s N.B.A. finals feels more and more inevitable.
The Cavaliers are 35-15, two and a half games ahead of their nearest rival, the Celtics. The 43-8 Warriors, although they are behind last year’s absurd pace, are still four games ahead of the Spurs. Those margins are about the same as last year on this date, when one team was two games up and the other three and a half.
The news media this season has also been confident about a Cavaliers-Warriors showdown in June. Before the season, 13 of 15 experts polled by NBA.com picked a Cavaliers-Warriors finals. (The other two picked the Cavaliers to face the Spurs or the Clippers.) So did all three of The New York Times’s prognosticators.
In December, the statistical-minded site FiveThirtyEight.com, citing the teams’ youth, wrote the headline “The Cavs and Warriors Might Be Doing This Finals Thing for a Long Time.” Fox Sports suggested that only a “cataclysmic event” could derail the matchup.
Bookmakers now have both teams as comfortable favorites to make the finals: Ladbrokes has the Cavaliers’ odds at 4-11 and the Warriors’ at 3-10. Those may seem like prohibitive odds, but factoring in the bookmakers’ margin, they translate to only about 61 percent and 65 percent chances — or about 40 percent that both teams will advance.
And although the expected finals matchup came through last year, it was not always easy. The Cavaliers advanced by winning their series by 4-0, 4-0 and 4-2, but the Warriors got all they could handle from the third-seeded Thunder and had to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to advance, with the final three games each decided by fewer than 10 points.
The challenges of the N.B.A. playoffs mean that No. 1 versus No. 1 matchups are far from a given, happening only twice since the turn of the century: Celtics-Lakers in 2008 and Lakers-Pacers in 2000.
The recent Cavaliers-Warriors dominance harks back to two eras. The Bulls’ three consecutive titles from 1996 to 1998 all came in 1 vs. 1 matchups (against the Sonics and twice against the Jazz). And in the mid-1980s, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry produced 1 vs. 1 finals in 1984, 1985 and 1987.
In all, a little less than a third of seasons since the N.B.A.-A.B.A. merger have ended with 1 vs. 1 finals (13 in 40 years).
In contrast, the more unpredictable N.H.L. playoffs have given us a 6-8 matchup (Devils-Kings, 2012) more recently than a 1-1 (the last was Avalanche-Devils, in 2001).
The Cavaliers and the Warriors have played their two regular-season games this season: The Cavaliers won by 1 on Dec. 25, and the Warriors won by 35 three weeks later. Most fans and pundits have penciled in four to seven more games between the teams in the spring.
On Monday night, when Kevin Love heaved a floor-length pass and LeBron James banked in an improbable 3-pointer to force overtime, it seemed still more evidence that the Cavaliers and the Warriors were destined to meet.
But it might not take a cataclysmic event, just a reasonable upset, to derail the dream matchup.