The Cleveland Cavaliers are underdogs in the 2016 NBA Finals, starting the series on the road against the team that won more regular-season games than any other in league history. But despite the uphill battle they face against unanimous MVP Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James and the Cavs don’t feel like a team that is expected to lose.
Cleveland has been here before. The Warriors had home-court advantage against the Cavs in last year’s finals, eventually winning in six games. Cleveland was overmatched, starting the series without Kevin Love and losing Kyrie Irving in Game 1, and it came as little surprise when the Warriors came back from a 2-1 series deficit.
But the Cavs did steal home-court advantage last year with a win at Oracle Arena in Game 2 without Love or Irving. The Warriors are better than they were last year, but so is Cleveland.
“We’re better built to start the finals than we were last year. It doesn’t matter who it’s against. That’s not a headline, that’s obvious,” James said.
“We have another year under our belt. There’s more chemistry, but health-wise, we’re healthy.”
Golden State might not be fatigued, having rested for two days before Game 1. There’s no doubt, though, that Cleveland is as rested as can be. The Cavs needed just 14 games to get through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and they haven’t played since Friday.
Thursday night marks the third matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers this season. Golden State blew out Cleveland in their last meeting, winning a 34-point drubbing on the road. Their Christmas Day meeting in Oakland, an 89-83 Golden State victory, was much closer.
Game 1 could go the same way, with the Warriors favored by six points, according to VegasInsider, though it’s hard to believe neither team will crack 90 points. The over/under is 210, and Golden State hasn’t scored fewer than 94 points in any game this postseason.
The Warriors have the overall edge in the series, but the Cavs have what it takes to steal one of the first two games at Oracle Arena. Curry outperformed James in the regular season, but the two-time champion might still be the NBA’s best player when it counts the most.
James averaged 26.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game in the Eastern Conference finals, shooting 62.2 percent from the field. He basically won Game 2 of last year’s finals by himself, scoring 39 points as he posted a triple-double, and he’ll have a lot more help this time around. In addition to Love and Irving being healthy, the team added Channing Frye before the trade deadline, and he’s been a key contributor in the playoffs, making 57.8 percent of his threes.
Golden State is the best three-point shooting team of all time, and Curry and Klay Thompson are often times seem unguardable along the perimeter. But Cleveland’s ability to score from behind the arc can also alter games, and they even set a playoff record with 25 threes in Game 2 of their second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
If the Cavs get hot, they are almost as hard to stop as the Warriors. Cleveland’s defense has been terrific this postseason, allowing more than 100 points on just three occasions, holding the Raptors to an average of 84.5 points in their four conference finals wins.
Curry can change any game with his shooting, but he's shown in the postseason that he is indeed fallible. He shot just 30 percent from the field in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, and he missed 18 of his 23 shots in Game 2 of the 2015 NBA Finals against Cleveland.
The Oklahoma City Thunder stole Game 1 from the Warriors, and Cleveland might be able to do the same.
Prediction: Cleveland over Golden State, 103-100
Start Time: 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Online Stream: WatchESPN