In any case, while the finals will be a rematch of last season’s triumph by the Warriors, both teams have grown. Expecting a shot-for-shot remake would be unwise.
Getting the Band Back Together
The most obvious change for the Cavaliers is the return of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. They played a total of 44 minutes in the N.B.A. finals last year, with Love hampered by a shoulder dislocation and Irving dropping out after Game 1 with an injured knee.
Getting back a pair of All-Stars takes some of the burden off James, who single-handedly prevented the Warriors from having a cakewalk to a championship last year but was outdone by the defensive tenacity of Andre Iguodala and the overall offensive excellence of the Warriors.
Love and Irving seemed to coexist better with James this season, accepting their roles while occasionally being asked to supply star power on nights when James was not at his best.
Love averaged 16 points and 9.9 rebounds a game while shooting 36 percent from 3-point range, and while he is not known as an effective defender, most advanced defensive statistics showed him holding his own this season.
Irving averaged 19.6 points and 4.7 assists a game while growing accustomed to the idea of being a point guard who gives up the ball-handling duties in crunchtime to James.
The Cavaliers still probably use J. R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova more than they would prefer, but Channing Frye proved to be a brilliant in-season acquisition, capitalizing on the wide-open looks he gets when James is double-teamed.
Genesis of the Death Lineup
There is an argument to be made that the Cavaliers are to blame for the Warriors’ record-breaking 73-win season. With his team looking overmatched and down by two games to one in last year’s N.B.A. finals, Kerr listened to an unorthodox suggestion from Nick U’Ren, his manager of advanced scouting, and deployed a starting lineup of Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Iguodala, Thompson and Curry. Playing a center who is generously listed at 6 feet 7 inches, a power forward who is a slight 6-8 and three guards would seem crazy in nearly any era of basketball, but the group, which came to be known as the Death Lineup, proved to be among the most effective units ever put together.
The misconception about the lineup is that it is strictly an offensive ploy to run teams into the ground. While that is certainly a part of the equation, the lineup also features three tremendous defenders in Green, Iguodala and Thompson, and they are a nightmare on both ends of the court. Kerr tends to limit their minutes together to protect Green, who takes abuse from larger centers.
Before Curry and Thompson went supernova and saved the Western Conference finals for the Warriors, the Thunder overwhelmed Golden State’s approach with the size and ferocious attitude of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter and Kevin Durant. But the Cavaliers do not have the personnel to pull that off. Tristan Thompson is an undersize power forward who is expected to handle the bulk of the rebounding duties. Love, who is listed at 6-10 but was measured at 6-7 at the N.B.A. draft combine, is unlikely to be much of a threat inside against Green.
The Cavaliers responded to the Death Lineup last season by essentially burying Timofey Mozgov on the bench, but they may want to give Mozgov, a Russian 7-footer, a second look this time. The Warriors struggle with size, and Green is two technical fouls or one flagrant foul away from a mandatory suspension, meaning his typical strategy of physically assaulting opposing big men will not be in play.
The Warriors beat the Cavaliers both times they played this season, but it was the second game, a brutal 132-98 shellacking, that might have cost David Blatt his job as coach. In that game, Curry went off for 35 points, and Iguodala, the Cavaliers’ nemesis, had 20 points while shooting 7 for 8 and playing his typical stellar defense.
If Blatt was fired for not being able to beat the Warriors, that is somewhat understandable. But it was certainly unusual to see a coach with an 83-40 regular-season record over two seasons fired midway through a campaign in which his team was on track to be the top seed in its conference.
Arizona Connections Abound
The University of Arizona may not be considered a typical N.B.A. feeder program, but this series is an excellent advertisement for what it produced in the Lute Olson era. The 2002-3 Wildcats featured Luke Walton, the Warriors’ top assistant, along with Iguodala and Frye. Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ coach, was a four-year player at Arizona, teaming with Bruce Fraser, who in his capacity as Golden State’s player-development coach serves as Curry’s shot doctor. The Cavaliers’ Richard Jefferson joined Walton on the 2001 team that lost the national championship game to Duke, and Bret Brielmaier, a Cavaliers assistant, was a four-year player for the Wildcats.
How It Will All Play Out
Both teams have efficient offenses, with a heavy reliance on 3-pointers. The big difference between them is pace. The Warriors want to move as quickly as possible while the Cavaliers, regardless of what Coach Tyronn Lue may have wanted when he started coaching them, tend to grind out games at a snail’s pace.
If Cleveland allows Golden State to dictate the speed of the game, the series could be a serious mismatch. The Warriors have a far deeper roster and are more balanced on the defensive side. While Klay Thompson, Green and Iguodala are likely to pose a defensive challenge to Irving, Love and James, it is hard to see anyone on the Cavaliers other than James being much of a threat to the Golden State offense.
There is a path to victory for Cleveland that involves turning the series into a slugfest. The hyper-emotional Green is on thin ice with the league and can be temporarily removed as a threat by getting him to lash out just once. Thompson can also be drawn into foul trouble if Cleveland plays things correctly, and Golden State can be exploited with intentional fouls on Festus Ezeli, a comically bad free-throw shooter.
The problem, as so many teams have found out, is that the shooting of Curry and Thompson means that almost no lead is safe and that a team must press for all 48 minutes to secure a victory. It sounds simple enough, but Golden State’s record of 168-34 over the last two seasons, including the playoffs, indicates it is a daunting task.
Pick: Warriors in five games