The Golden State Warriors face the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday at Oracle Arena after the Warriors' Game 7 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night, capping their comeback after falling behind 3-1.
The Finals represent a rematch of last year's championship round, only this time the Cavaliers are fully healthy with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on board, plus an improved bench with the addition of Channing Frye. The Warriors have had their struggles, but have answered the call at every turn. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers slammed through the Eastern Conference in impressive fashion, but showed just enough warts vs. the Raptors to give people pause.
Stephen Curry looks to cap the best individual regular season in history, while LeBron James faces falling to 2-5 in the Finals. His six straight Finals appearances will not hold up against that record, and a loss could create major changes to a Cavs roster expected to be the heavy title favorite when James returned home two years ago.
Here are five quick things to know as the Cavaliers and Warriors get set for the 2016 NBA Finals.
1. This year's matchup is way different
As already noted, the Cavaliers have Irving and Love, and that has impacts beyond just "those guys are good players and help the offense." Their presence takes usage away from James, which means he may not be as completely run down as he was at points last June, which impacted his efficiency. It will be more difficult for the Warriors to throw triple teams at James.
Irving and Love also improve the Cavs' depth, so they can more effectively manage minutes.
The Cavaliers also have better chemistry and an improved perimeter attack. Whether they can keep pace in that category with the Warriors will be key. They made 49 threes last year without Love and Irving in their six-game loss to the Dubs, but Golden State put up an NBA Finals record 67. Be ready for these two to smash the 2013 Finals which saw 125 combined 3-pointers between the Spurs and Heat.
While the Cavs are not the same team ...
2. ... There are still huge problems for Cleveland in this matchup
The Warriors swept the season series 2-0, and after the Cavaliers talked a lot of noise about feeling disrespected in their second matchup in Cleveland, they got housed by Golden State. (Also, J.R. Smith showed up late for the game; good times.) The Warriors have shown they can exploit Love defensively, and that's a problem. Irving's defense on Curry was terrific in Game 1 last year, but he's been inconsistent-to-bad throughout these playoffs on that end.
The Cavaliers have also adopted a more small-ball approach with this roster, as opposed to their massive Tristan Thompson/Timofey Mozgov lineup which was effective vs. the Warriors last year. Going small is great vs. the Hawks or Raptors, but vs. the Warriors, it's going right into the teeth of what Golden State does best.
3. Love is going to have to play out of his mind
He has to win his matchups, and has to contain defensively. Enes Kanter showed in spurts that limited defenders can survive vs. the Warriors, but Kanter's size makes up for some of his limitations. The same is not true for Love.
Meanwhile, his offense has come and gone as well. He would show up and thrive vs. the Raptors, then vanish the next game. The Cavaliers need big games from him consistently. He presents a problem for the Warriors, who would rather ignore him and let Draymond Green float off his man to disrupt, but Love's too much of a threat from the perimeter to ignore.
But to make that impact Love has to be able to stay on the floor defensively. This is the biggest series of Love's career (not a particularly high bar considering it's his fifth playoff series, but still).
4. Steph's health remains an issue
Curry bounced back in emphatic fashion after struggling in the first four games vs. OKC, and he was phenomenal in Game 7, so we might really be completely past any lingering knee issues. But he often looked a step slow in the WCF, prompting questions of how hurt he really was. But every time, Curry would respond with a flurry. It seems a little unfair to other players working through injury to effectively say that if Curry struggles that he's hurt and if he dominates he's healthy or "playing through it," but that's kind of where the narrative is.
However, his health is a bit of a question mark. If Curry tweaks his ankle again, takes another twist on the knee, or just continues to suffer with soreness as he plays on a sprained MCL with little rest, his status will of course could force adjustments for the Warriors. They obviously need Curry splashing.
5. Shooting guard may be the swing position in this series
Last year in the Finals, Klay Thompson cooked Smith on the perimeter. Smith has been a much better defender this year, but he'll have his hands full with Thompson, who has been the Warriors' best player in the playoffs.
Smith has tried to rewrite his career story. A strong performance, knocking down 3-pointers, could finally change the way he's perceived. But until then, people will still wait for him to not show up, or hurt his team with a suspension or off-court entertainment escapades. For Thompson, he'll likely have opportunities to get loose because of the attention on Curry, the way he did in Game 6 vs. OKC. Whoever wins this perimeter battle will give his team a significant edge in reaching the title.