Here we go again.
LeBron James has become a fixture in the NBA Finals, leading his teams to the championship round for six consecutive years. The Cavaliers will face a familiar opponent after Steph Curry and Klay Thompson drove the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors to the Finals for the second straight year.
The Warriors held off the undermanned Cavaliers last year in six games. Cleveland is at full strength this time with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy. But the Warriors may be even stronger after what they had to go through to get to this round — they erased a 3-1 hole and eliminated the Thunder in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
“We never lost confidence, and every game just played with fearlessness and that confidence that we could get back to the Finals however we had to get it done,” Curry said. “Now we’re four wins away from our goal, and that’s a pretty special accomplishment.”
Game 1 is Thursday night at Golden State.
— James is trying to deliver Cleveland’s first professional sports championship since 1964, and improve his overall Finals record to 3-4. A fifth loss in the championship round, and third in a row, would lead to the many James’ critics burying him for not lifting his team to more titles.
— The Warriors want to end this historic season with back-to-back championships. They set an NBA record by winning 73 regular-season games and became just the 10th team to win a series after trailing 3-1. Will they have a magical finish?
The Warriors have the best guard tandem in the league with Curry, the two-time MVP, and Thompson, who may own the sweetest stroke in the game. Curry is a shot-maker supreme and a wizard with the basketball. When Thompson gets going, he’s hard to stop as the Thunder can attest with his 19-point fourth quarter in Game 6.
The Cavaliers counter with Irving and J.R. Smith — two guards who can make difficult shots also. But they’re more streaky, especially Smith. Irving can flat-out score and will make things more difficult for Warriors than it was last year when Matthew Dellavedova was running the point
As great as Curry has been, James is still the best all-around player in the NBA and can control games in many different ways. Last year, he had to do too much, particularly on offense, to keep the Cavaliers in the series. James doesn’t like shooting as much as he did when he averaged 32.7 shots per game and 35.8 points in last year’s Finals. He welcomes the help from Irving and Love.
Love will help spread the floor and gives the Cavaliers more rebounding. But he has to find a way to hold his own defensively, especially in pick-and-roll action if he’s matched up against the Golden State guards on the perimeter. Love totaled just 13 points in two regular season games against the Warriors, and played just 21 minutes in one of them. Tristan Thompson was a key player last year with his offensive rebounding and will be needed to provide that inside presence again.
Draymond Green’s versatility on both ends is critical to Golden State’s success. He can do it all, and allows the Warriors to go small effectively. But they could start big with Andrew Bogut, a good rim protector and rebounder. Last year’s Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala is a wild card. A strong defender, Iguodala could start for Harrison Barnes — as he did in Game 7 against the Thunder — or alongside him and guard James.
The Warriors have one of the best second units in the NBA. Iguodala, Shawn Livingston, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa and Festus Ezeli give Golden State offense, defense, and clutch shooting, and they can open up close games as they did against the Thunder.
But the Cavaliers have a pretty solid set of reserves that this postseason has been led by one-time Knick Channing Frye. He’s shooting 57.8 percent from three-point range in the playoffs. Dellavedova is a pesky player who has improved his shooting. Ex-Knick Iman Shumpert can be a strong defender when he puts his mind to it, and veteran Richard Jefferson has given the Cavs experience and some scoring when needed
First-time head coach Tyronn Lue has pushed all the right buttons in these playoffs, guiding the Cavaliers to a 12-2 mark. But this will be his toughest challenge as a coach: trying to slow Curry, Thompson and the Warriors’ offense.
Kerr was the NBA Coach of the Year, and already has proven he can navigate his way through tough series. His team doesn’t get rattled, and that’s because of his demeanor. He made an important lineup change in the Finals last year, and has made similar moves this year, tweaking the starting five and changing the rotations. The Warriors force teams to match up with them, and take advantage of the mismatches they create.
The bottom line
James has looked as business-like as ever during this march to the Finals, and his teammates have followed his lead. The Cavaliers barely had an on-court celebration after beating Toronto in the conference finals. Their mission wasn’t accomplished.
The next four wins will be the toughest for the Cavaliers to get. It will take that continued professional approach, extreme focus on defense and big production from players other than James. The Cavs have been too three-point oriented in the playoffs.
They’re shooting 33.2 per game — 2.3 more than Golden State. It looks good when they’re going in, but it’s going to be hard to beat the Warriors at their game.
Make their guards work on defense, but also apply pressure inside and try to draw fouls to put some of their key players on the bench and slow down the game. The Warriors’ transition offense with Curry and Thompson pulling up from three can be devastating and demoralizing.
The Warriors are going to play their game. It’s worked for them 85 times thus far this season.
Everything points to the Warriors winning their second consecutive title, but James is going to do everything to avoid losing in the Finals for a third straight time. The Cavaliers are more rested and peaked at the right time. They’re healthy, and they’re as hungry as the Warriors, if not more, for different reasons.
Cavaliers in six