The jerseys, arenas, and fervid crowds will be exactly the same, but the 2016 NBA Finals won’t be a rematch. The best-of-seven series will be billed as an exciting retread of the defending champion Golden State Warriors taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers, yet these aren’t the same two squads that met over six games a year ago.
Instead, the Cavaliers and a rested LeBron James enter their third NBA Finals with a fully and healthy stacked deck while the 73-win Warriors don’t appear nearly as invincible as they did during the regular season or even during last year’s run to the title.
Led by two-time MVP Stephen Curry and fellow superstars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, as well as one of the best benches in the league, the Warriors are the clear favorites after overcoming a 3-1 Western Conference finals deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Warriors enter with -210 odds to win the title, compared to the Cavs' +175.
But Golden State’s “Big Three” showed several signs of weakness throughout the postseason, and much of it starts with Curry’s health. The 28-year-old sharpshooter missed six games due to a sprained knee, and at times hasn’t looked like the same player who sunk more than 400 three-pointers during Golden State’s record-setting regular season.
And as Curry goes, so do the Warriors. In two of Golden State’s three losses to Oklahoma City, Curry shot worse than 28 percent from three-point range and didn’t seem to have the same focus that made him the most feared offensive player in the league. Curry’s health should be a running story throughout the series, and even a slight tweak to an ankle or that same knee may put the Warriors hopes of repeating in peril.
When head coach Steve Kerr needed a boost in production from someone other than Curry, Thompson stepped up. The less-heralded "Splash Brother" set a new playoff record with 11 three-pointers and scored 41 points in Golden State’s vital 108-101 Game 6 victory over the Thunder.
For the playoffs, Thompson’s hitting 45 percent of his three-point shots and averaging 26.2 points and 1.1 steals per game. That’s nearly eight points better than his output in last season’s championship blitz.
Meanwhile, Green, the energetic and oft-labeled “heart” of the team, has suffered through mental mistakes and questionable play during stretches of the postseason. While getting tangled up with Thunder big man Steven Adams on multiple occasions, Green’s field-goal percentage plummeted to 35.4 against Oklahoma City and he averaged nearly three turnovers a game in the conference finals.
The Warriors averaged 114.9 points per game in the regular season, but were held to just 106.1 against the Thunder. Golden State will face a Cleveland squad that has held playoff opponents to an average of 94.3 points per game, and have defended the three-point shot well (34.0 percent).
The Cavs have looked far sharper and healthier than the Warriors this go-round. Seeking the city’s first major sports title in more than 50 years, Tyronn Lue's squad went a blistering 12-2 in its charge to the finals and largely didn’t rely on James.
The four-time MVP is still a dominant force with 24.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game, on top of an astounding 54.6 success rate from the field, but he’s done so at only 37.9 minutes a contest, by far the fewest minutes logged by James in any postseason throughout his career. Over 192 playoff games, James has averaged 42.1 minutes.
The 31-year-old, who almost single-handedly kept his team afloat against the Warriors with 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in last year’s finals, has instead enjoyed overall stellar play from his “Big Three” counterparts, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Both were hurt and missed huge chunks of Cleveland’s finals run last season, resulting in James’ inflated line, the emergence of reserve guard Matthew Dellavedova, and increased minutes and shots for guard J.R. Smith.
Instead, Love and Irving’s play have allowed James to save some energy for the finals. Irving has scored 20 or more points in 12 of Cleveland’s 14 playoff games and shot 48 percent from the field, with 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals a game. Irving’s play, coupled with how much or how little he’s tasked with guarding Curry, will be a key matchup for both squads.
Love, appearing in the finals for the first time and likely remembering what it was like to sit on the bench in last year’s series, plowed through poor shooting performances in Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals to total 45 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists in the last two games of the series. He also converted on seven of his 12 three-point shots.
In fact, knocking down three-pointers has proven to be a major boost for Cleveland. It’s the Cavs, not Golden State, who have led all postseason teams in three-point shooting this year at 43.4 percent and they’re taking a whopping 33.2 a game. The Warriors, however, aren’t too far off, nailing 40.3 percent of their 30.9 attempts.
But with Love and Irving healthy, and shooting 45.6 and 44.6 percent from long range, respectively, as well as Smith and reserve forward Channing Frye enjoying hot streaks, Cleveland appears to have the firepower to keep up with Golden State this time around. Last year, the Cavs had two players hitting better than 40 percent from three-point range in the postseason, Love and Irving. This year they have six.
Indeed, Golden State's defense will be called upon to step up again. Assistant head coach Ron Adams is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and he may need to dig into his bag of tricks to slow down Cleveland's potent offense in the same way his mixing schemes often stymied the Thunder. Containing Dellavedova and James Jones last year will no doubt prove much easier than slowing down Irving and Frye.
Prediction: The Warriors showed incredible resiliency in their comeback over the Thunder, but they face a tougher, more balanced test in the finals. Golden State’s bench and outside shooting will make sure they are never out of any game, but this appears to Cleveland's year. James has the right cast around him this time, and his teammates are healthy, rested, and hungry to win an NBA title.
Cleveland in 6.