It was pretty obvious to basketball fans around the country that the 2016 NBA Finals would be a rematch between the 2015 NBA finalists. Despite firing former head coach David Blatt midway through the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were already well on their way to being named the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Golden State Warriors were dubbed to make a repeat visit since the fourth game of the regular season. Even though head coach Steve Kerr wasn’t on the sidelines for the first 43 games of the season, his team worked its way to a 39-4 start.
Golden State was named champion after six games in 2015, but don’t expect the 2016 series to go down the same way.
The 2016 Cleveland team is not the same team the Warriors beat a year ago. In 2015, the Cavaliers were playing without two of their stars: Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Love was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder. Irving’s season came to a close after suffering a broken kneecap in Game 1 of the finals.
The outcome of the 2016 finals will be greatly dictated by these two stars’ performances. LeBron James put up a fight with a much weaker support staff last year, and it still took the Warriors six games to take them down. Love and Irving should add difficulty to the Warriors looking to cap their best season in history.
In the two regular-season matchups against Golden State, Love and Irving were ineffective, but they have risen to the occasion this postseason.
These two really need to excel in defense. James is the only true two-way player for the Cavs and defensively is one surefire way that the Cavaliers could manage a win. With a strong defense, Oklahoma City was able to push Golden State like no way before.
Cleveland will have to play defense like we haven’t seen this season. In the playoffs alone, with Irving on the court Cleveland is surrendering 107 points per 100 possessions. Love isn’t much better with 105.6 points per 100 possessions. The one thing Love and Irving confidently provide are buckets on the other end of the floor, but will it be enough?
J.R. Smith and Channing Frye add a little to the Cleveland lineup. Frye could be just the wrinkle needed if he can continue his dominance from beyond the arc. Smith has the ability to provide on the defensive front, having shown improvement all season. He has also proven he can get the job done offensively and is another player currently hot from the 3. Cleveland holds the record for most 3-pointers in a game both playoff and regular games. Threes could prove to be the secret against an equally hot 3-pointer team in Golden State.
Golden State seems to be peaking at the right time. That might seem like a crazy statement for a team that is 73-9, but it’s not. The team faced its toughest obstacle in the Western Conference final. The playoffs have been a rough time for the defending champions that have included injuries, potential suspensions, overcoming an improbable deficit. If you ask me, they are finally hitting their stride.
The key to the Warriors pulling off the greatest season in NBA history will be to stay healthy and to avoid pushing the limits. Stephen Curry’s ankle injury followed by a knee injury was the first bump in the road. People questioned the Warriors’ ability to get things done without the two-time MVP, but they got it done time and time again, and in Game 7 against Oklahoma, Curry finally started to look himself again.
One way the Cavaliers could pull off a win would be to push Golden State’s Draymond Green. Following the incident with Oklahoma’ Steven Adams in the last round, Green is just one flagrant foul or two technical fouls way from suffering a one-game suspension. If that happens, the timing could prove fatal to the Warriors. Klay Thompson is another Golden State player who can be easily drawn into foul trouble if played correctly.
Golden State beat Cleveland in both regular-season matchups, including the dominating Jan. 18 132-98.
PREDICTION: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS IN SEVEN
I think it would be very bad judgment on my part to bet against Golden State again. I was definitely a part of the majority when I predicted Oklahoma City would deliver Golden State’s season conclusion. A 3-1 deficit is extremely hard to overcome. But the Warriors hushed everyone’s doubts when they became just the third team in history to come out on top in a conference final after such a deficit.
Despite the Cavaliers having rest on their side, a complete week at that, Golden State is on a high right now. Perhaps being tested by Oklahoma was the best thing that could have happened to the Warriors. If there was any sense of underestimating their opponents in the conference final, the Warriors won’t make that mistake again. They’ve figured out how they need to play and to what level in order to win the matchup.
Golden State will be Cleveland’s first true opponent. The West is still stronger than the East, and going 12-2 to make the finals means nothing when it was up against opponents that were overall just happy to make it to that point, such as the Pistons, Hawks and Raptors.
The Cavaliers will put up a strong fight, but it won’t be enough. Be prepared for the most entertaining matchup of the postseason.
NBA FINAL FUN FACTS
1. The year 2016 is the first time in history that the coaches standing on the sideline during the finals were not the coaches on the sideline to start the season.
2. If Cleveland wins, it will be the city’s first sports championship since 1964.
3. This is James’ sixth consecutive year to play in the NBA Finals.
4. The University of Arizona has the most ties to the finals out of all other American universities. Seven players and coaches have suited up in a Wildcats uniform.
5. With a win, the Golden State team will have the same number of rings as James, who is in search of his third.