The Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2 to win the NBA title last season, but that doesn’t necessarily give them the edge in the NBA Finals rematch that begins Thursday in Oakland.
The Cavaliers aren’t the same team that lost to the Warriors. They again have a first-year coach after Tyronn Lue replaced David Blatt in January. They’re much healthier – remember, they didn’t have an injured Kevin Love last season, and Kyrie Irving was hurt in Game 1 – and the addition of Channing Frye has bolstered their bench. Timofey Mozgov gave the Warriors fits last season, but now he’s not even in the Cavaliers’ rotation. And Cleveland is a threat from three-point range, which wasn’t the case last season.
The Warriors, of course, broke the Chicago Bulls’ record for wins in a season, 73, while Stephen Curry elevated his game even more, Klay Thompson became a superstar and Draymond Green made his first All-Star team.
Here are five keys to this year’s NBA Finals:
1. Who owns the paint?
The Warriors and Cavaliers have different ways of getting easy baskets in the lane. Golden State usually does it in transition or off penetration. Cleveland can do the same but can post up LeBron James or Love. If James and Love use a power game to control the lane and slow the game, the Cavaliers would have an advantage. Green and Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP, need to keep James and Love out of the paint. Cleveland needs to limit turnovers that lead to easy baskets.
2. Falling in love with the three
It would have been unthinkable last season, but the Cavaliers are attempting 33.2 three-point shots per game this postseason and making 43.4 percent, surpassing the sharpshooting Warriors (30.9, 40.3 percent). Still, Cleveland can’t expect to outshoot Golden State, which excels at making ridiculous, contested three-pointers look easy. Curry and Thompson are two of the best perimeter shooters in NBA history. If they’re on, they’d welcome the Cavaliers trying to beat them at that game, especially James, who’s shooting 32.2 percent from three-point range this postseason.
3. Who can play big?
Last season’s Finals turned in the Warriors’ favor when coach Steve Kerr benched center Andrew Bogut and put Iguodala in the starting lineup. The Cavaliers lacked the depth to match up with the smaller lineup and lost the series. With Love, Frye and starting center Tristan Thompson, Cleveland likes its ability to play big this season and dare Golden State to go small again. Love is the key; if he thrives in the post, the Warriors might not be able to go small, which would give Cleveland a rebounding advantage.
4. Perimeter defense
Irving has been criticized for his defense, but he’s a lethal offensive player who will draw the Warriors’ focus. If Golden State gives Thompson the primary defensive assignment on Irving, Cleveland’s J.R. Smith needs to be aggressive and attack the rim so Curry doesn’t get a break on defense. Of Smith’s 123 shots in the playoffs, 106 have been from three-point range. He’s been potent from beyond the arc, shooting 46.2 percent, but the Warriors are better than any team the Cavaliers have faced in the playoffs. So Cleveland must make Golden State expend energy playing defense.
5. Keep it simple
The Warriors are flashy and fun to watch, but they can’t let their flair for entertaining lead to careless turnovers. Golden State also must stick to the fundamentals and not rely on its big men to grab rebounds. If the Warriors limit their turnovers and execute, they’ll have a great chance to repeat as champions. But if they make the mistakes that helped create a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals, Cleveland could win its first NBA championship.