NBA Finals 2016: Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors - The Rematch
It's that time of the year. The NBA Finals are upon us once again. The long, gruelling season comes down to this moment as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet at the summit once more. Will the Warriors repeat or will the elusive championship finally make its way to Cleveland?
Both teams have had different routes to this stage and neither has been plain sailing. The Dubs rolled into the postseason on the back of securing an NBA regular season record 73 wins - surpassing the mark set by Michael Jordan's dominant 1995-96 Chicago Bulls - and were the overwhelming favourites to make it this far and compete for the championship for the second consecutive year. The road through the playoffs, however, has featured more bumps along the way.
Since Steve Kerr took charge in 2014, the Oakland-based outfit has been very fortunate with health, but that all changed in the first round against the Houston Rockets. Back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry went down in game one with an ankle injury and though it only kept him out for one game, things were to get worse in game three. The point guard suffered a nasty slip on a wet spot at the Toyota Center and was ruled out for two weeks with an MCL sprain.
He missed the remainder of the series and was ruled out for the first three games of the conference semi-finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, but returned to devastating effect in game four as he dropped a record 17 points in overtime helping the Warriors make it to the conference finals. Oklahoma City Thunder were the opponents and behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they handed the defending champions their toughest series in the last two years.
OKC took a commanding 3-1 lead and twice blew their opponents off the Chesapeake Energy Arena floor as the Warriors stared elimination in the face - an unfamiliar feeling under Kerr. They're the champions for a reason, though, and showed their quality and resilience by becoming only the tenth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the playoffs - and only the third team to do so in the conference finals - to defeat the Thunder in seven games.
The Cavaliers' campaign, on the other hand, has almost worked in reverse. Despite being the number one team in the Eastern Conference throughout the year, the season didn't go as smoothly as they would've liked. David Blatt was fired as head coach in January, even though the team had a 30-11 record. General manager David Griffin said the Cavs were not "connected after wins as they need to be" and they needed to "build a collective spirit, a strength of spirit, a collective will".
Assistant coach Tyronn Lue was the man tasked with making that happen as he was promoted to take the reigns. He led the Ohio-based franchise to a 27-14 record under his tenure to end the regular season and clinch the top seed in the east.
Cleveland was made the favourites prior to the 2015/16 campaign but that tag diminished as the year went on due to their problems on and off the court and the dominance of Golden State. But, after an inconsistent 82 games, the Cavs have been anything but in the postseason. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love have found chemistry and are playing at the level that everybody expected to see when they came together as a big three two years ago.
The Wine and Gold have only lost two games en route to a second straight NBA Finals appearance and the third in the organisation's history. The entire team is healthy and they've had the luxury of extended periods of rest due to the manner of their series wins - they swept both the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds. The decision to fire Blatt and bring in Lue didn't appear to have made much of a difference during the regular season, but it looks like the right choice now as the Cavaliers look like a completely different team heading into a rematch against the Warriors.
So they meet again. It is the matchup that many expected and wanted as the number one teams in the east and west lock horns for what promises to be a classic encounter. An asterisk was somewhat placed on the Dubs' championship-winning year as they came up against a Cavs team that were without Love - who suffered a dislocated shoulder in the first round against the Boston Celtics - and Irving - who was hurt in game one of the finals as he fractured a kneecap at the Oracle Arena.
LeBron averaged 35.8 points, 8.8 assists and 13.3 rebounds per game without his fellow All-Stars but he and the injury-hit Cavaliers fell short as the men from the Bay Area had too much and eventually closed the series out 4-2. The fact that James had led his team to two wins with his running mates out prompted some experts to say that the outcome would've been different if Cleveland had a healthy roster. This rematch offers the Cavs a chance to prove that theory correct, and the Warriors the opportunity to set the record straight. According to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, that's exactly what the Dubs have wanted all year.
Speaking on ESPN's Sportscenter earlier this month he said: "The team they've wanted is the Cleveland Cavaliers, that's what they've been telling me all along. I've spoken to them on several occasions this year and they were just offended by the fact that they were the reigning defending champions and they had to walk into this season with questions about whether or not their title was fraudulent because the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James didn't have Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving at their disposal.
“I can tell you for a fact, they want Cleveland and they want Cleveland badly. They feel that so many people that have been questioning the legitimacy of their title was something that put that chip on their shoulders. It had a lot to do with why they started off the season 24-0 and finished the season 73-9. They want Cleveland and they want them fully loaded."
The Pacific Division franchise has got their wish and is on a mission to prove to their doubters once and for all that they're the best basketball team on the planet. They have already gone down as the greatest regular season team of all time, but as former Bulls guard Ron Harper said when they set the record previously, "it don't mean a thing without the ring". Of course, the Windy City franchise went on to claim the Larry O'Brien trophy and confirmed their greatness, which is what the Warriors are aspiring to do now.
Standing in their way, however, is a Cleveland team who has a goal of its own and, in particular, their hometown player. Since the day he was drafted by the Cavs in 2003, LeBron James has been determined to bring a first championship to his city. The four-time MVP was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, just 20 minutes away from the Quicken Loans Arena and after falling at the last hurdle on two previous occasions with the team, he's not prepared to fall again.
In his first finals appearance for the Central Divison outfit, a 22-year-old LeBron came up against a juggernaut called the San Antonio Spurs, who were already a winning machine under Gregg Popovich and underlined this with a Finals sweep. His second appearance with Cleveland was made difficult by the aforementioned injuries to his teammates, but this time, there can be no excuses - northeast Ohio expects.
"I know our city deserves it. Our fans deserve it. But that gives us no sense of entitlement. We've still got to go out and do it." LeBron James
Speaking after their respective teams clinched a second successive place in the Finals, James and Curry, the lead superstars on their franchises, were singing from the same hymn sheet as they both took the time to reflect on what the moment meant to return to the Finals after another long journey.
"There's definitely a different feeling," James said. "I didn't appreciate last year myself personally getting to the Finals. Just so much was going on in my mind, knowing that Kev was out for the rest of the season and knowing that Ky was dealing with injuries all the way from the first round. I just didn't appreciate it.
"Having these guys right here at full strength, having our team at full strength, and the way I feel personally, I appreciate this moment, to be able to be a part of it and to be there once again."
After overcoming the Thunder in a seven-game battle, Curry said: "You appreciate how tough it is to get back here. That's the one thing I've learned. You can't take anything for granted because it's such a grind, it's such a battle against a great Thunder team that pushed us to the brink. So you've got to be appreciative of this accomplishment. And I look forward to getting four more wins."
Golden State, unsurprisingly, has been made the favourites to reclaim the title, and it would take a brave man to bet against them. LeBron, however, is not concerned with tags such as "favourites" or "underdog" and is certainly not prepared to label his team as the latter.
"Not my concern," he said. "I don't get involved in all of that – underdog, overdog, whatever the case may be. It's stupidity."
Instead, James is confident in the Cavs' chances of going all the way and making up for the disappointment of last year and again reiterated the importance of health.
"We're better built to start the Finals than we were last year," the 32-year-old said. "Doesn't matter who it's against. I mean, that's not a headline. It's obvious.
"We have another year under our belt and more chemistry, but health-wise, you know we're healthy and we're excited about the opportunity.
"We're fortunate to be here and we look forward to the challenge. It's an unbelievable team that we're going against. Hats off."
If the regular season meetings are anything to go by, Cleveland doesn't stand a chance. After a close encounter at the Oracle Arena on Christmas day in which the Warriors won down the stretch, the return fixture at the Q was never close. The men from Oakland obliterated their opponents and came away with a 34-point win. That was in January, though, and it would be foolish to factor that into this series.
OKC showed this as they were on the brink of eliminating the Warriors after taking a commanding lead in the Western Conference Finals despite losing the season series 3-0. After the Cavaliers' practice session on Tuesday, point guard Irving made it clear how their heavy defeat is not playing on their minds at all.
"In January?" Irving said. "I don't remember it."
The 24-year-old was more interested in acknowledging just how big the moment is and the anticipation across the basketball world to see the top two teams from their respective conferences compete for the coveted prize.
"I think everyone here -- everyone in the world -- knows this is what the game wanted to see," Irving added. "Number one and number one in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, respectively. This is what it's about, right here: top-level basketball, a lot of great players on one court at one time and two great teams just competing."
LEBRON JAMES vs STEPHEN CURRY
LeBron and Curry are undoubtedly the two biggest basketball players in the world. For a number of years, James was the undisputed best player on the planet and had no real rival for that crown. Kevin Durant was his closest challenger but even he never threatened to surpass LeBron, mainly because his personal record against him didn't make for pleasant reading. Just when it seemed nobody could go toe-to-toe with King James on the court, up stepped Steph.
His numbers and the accomplishments in the last two years speak for themselves. An NBA champion, back-to-back MVP - becoming the first unanimous recipient of the award - this season's scoring champion averaging 30.1 points per game and a unanimous All-NBA First Team selection.
The 28-year-old has dominated the league in a way that has never been seen before. Despite all of this, there are still some who question whether he deserves to be anointed as the world's best ahead King James. Something which doesn't bother the reigning MVP at all.
"I appreciate the platform I have and what I get to do every single day. I don't play to pass up somebody else's shine or star or take whatever from them. That's not what I care about." Stephen Curry
When the two greats met in last year's Finals, there was no question who played better, as mentioned previously with LeBron's staggering numbers. But it was Steph who came away with the chip, and only that shows up in the record books. This upcoming matchup will go some way to settling the argument once and for all.
It is extremely rare for the top two players in the league to square off in the Finals. As basketball fans, we were never treated to a Kobe Bryant vs LeBron James meeting despite our endless cravings. Therefore, it is refreshing and exciting to see the two stars - who were coincidently born in the same hospital in Akron, Ohio - come up against one another for the second consecutive year.
The second encounter between the two franchises contains many subplots that will be fascinating to explore throughout the Finals series. The question of the league's best player is sure to dominate the conversations, particularly in the media, but it's not something that either player is focusing on.
The NBA has had some great rivalries over the years and, in LeBron and Steph, with both players at the peak of their powers, there could be the makings of another, but James doesn't view his adversary in that regard.
"You guys make rivals. I mean, I think it's great for the sport. It's great for all sports," he said. "I don't think me and Steph -- when you talk about rivalries, you talk about Carolina-Duke, you talk about Ohio State-Michigan. It's hard to say LeBron and Steph. If there's a smaller scale or another word for a rival.
"The fact that we're going back-to-back I think is pretty unique. It's pretty unique to be in this position and just to have another opportunity, another opportunity for guys to write about it, for us to play it, for the people to talk about it throughout the world. I'm blessed that I can be a part of conversations."
Though they don't all make it public, being the best and going up against the best is something that fuels all sports stars, not just in basketball. Football fans continue to be treated to the battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as they have transcended the sport in incredible ways. James and Curry are beginning to be the equivalent in the NBA and are ambassadors of the league. They are valuable to the global pulling power of the association.
Another topic of conversation involving the two MVP's is who the 'face' of the NBA is. The two All-Stars both have a huge following in the States and across the world, but after LeBron's acrimonious departure from Cleveland to the Miami Heat in 2010, it's fair to say he isn't revered universally by all fans of the game. Curry on the other hand, with his rise to superstardom and otherworldly highlights on a nightly basis, appears to have won the hearts of practically everybody. But this particular conversation irks the league's all-time three-point leader.
"It's really annoying for me," Curry said. "That's not what I'm playing for, to be the face of the NBA or to be this or that or to take LeBron's throne or whatever. You know, I'm trying to chase rings, and that's all I'm about. So that's where the conversation stops for me.
"I'm not in the business of ranking or debating who is what. At the end of the day it's about winning, and the fact that we won a championship last year and were the last team standing, obviously, is what was most important to me."
While the media creates this narrative, it's clear that a ring is the only thing they're chasing. Speaking to the press in the build up to game one this week, questions about their individual battle for supremacy were inevitably fielded to them, but the two champions instead took the time to appreciate each other's achievements and the respect they have for one another.
"He's been to the Finals six times [in a row]. That's crazy. You appreciate that greatness right there. I won't be thinking about that on the court, but afterwards, you can appreciate the star power he brings and the high level of basketball it is." Steph Curry on LeBron James
"Steph was definitely the MVP of our league and is the MVP in our league and is a great basketball player, and what he does for this league is amazing." LeBron James on Steph Curry
LeBron is looking to create a legacy and Curry is aiming to form a dynasty. We will be the biggest beneficiaries as we get to witness these two future Hall of Famers attempt to add to their greatness.
As the two names that have been mentioned more than any others in the lead up to these Finals, there will be a huge amount of pressure on Cleveland's All-Stars Love and Kyrie. They have proved during this postseason that, when they are playing at a high level, the Cavaliers are a different team. With no disrespect to their previous opponents, the Warriors will be a completely different challenge.
The microscope will firmly be focused on them and it is down to the duo to prove that when they're on the floor with LeBron, they really can beat the defending champions and would've made a difference in last year's tie. The presence of K.Love and Irving will certainly give the Dubs more to think about on the defensive end. They were fortunate last season that bar LBJ, the rest of the Cavs roster went cold.
Though Irving will be expected to guard Curry for the majority of the series, it's unlikely to be the other way around. As is usually the case when Golden State come up against an elite point guard, Klay Thompson assumes that defensive assignment and did so in the previous two rounds against Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. Klay will have the advantage in height at 6'7" compared to Kyrie's 6'3", which will make it tough for Irving to shoot over Thompson.
Cleveland's two-time All-Star, though, has an arsenal of offensive moves and will prove to be a challenging proposition for Thompson, despite being a good defender. Irving's ball-handling rivals Curry for the best in the league and he is among the best finishers at the rim off either hand.
The Duke product will be the second scoring option for the Cavs and they will need him to be aggressive from the first tip and reach the level he showed in game one of the Finals of the previous campaign before he went down hurt in overtime. In 44 minutes of action, he filled the stat sheet by recording 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks. His team will be hoping to get that production on a consistent basis this time.
One matchup where the Bay Area franchise will have the upper hand will be with Draymond Green up against Love. Draymond - a runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting - is a relentless stopper and thrives off physical contact. On the offensive end, he will have his way with the Cavaliers power forward whose defence leaves a lot to be desired.
Green is the energy and the vocal leader on the floor for the Warriors and is a nightmare matchup for Love. Tyronn Lue will be best served by moving him to the center position at times and allowing him to guard Andrew Bogut, who is a non-factor on offence for Steve Kerr's men. This will allow the former Minnesota Timberwolves star to stretch the floor with his ability to shoot the three and create driving lanes for LeBron and Kyrie to exploit.
When Kerr reverts to his small-ball lineup - dubbed the "line-up of death" - Draymond will switch to center and go up against Tristan Thompson, which should be a matchup that Lue will have more confidence in. One area where OKC had a huge amount of success against the Dubs is on the boards and in double T, the Cavs have one of the best rebounders in the league, particularly on the offensive glass.
Thompson is more than capable of matching Draymond for hustle and is a talented one-on-one defender. Neither player backs down from a challenge and it should come as no surprise if this leads to chippiness and physicality much like Green's ongoing battle with the Thunder's Steven Adams. It's certainly one to keep an eye out for.
It may have come as a surprise in the 2015 Finals but it is widely expected that Andre Iguodala will be given a starting role throughout the series and the task of guarding LeBron. The former NBA All-Defensive First Team member had success against the two-time champion and after also contributing offensively, he unexpectedly won himself the Finals MVP. Iggy started the game seven win over OKC ahead of Harrison Barnes and is likely to do so again.
When Iguodala was in the game, LeBron James shot 38.1 percent from the field, scoring 26 points per 36 minutes with 2.9 turnovers in the 2015 Finals. With Iguodala on the bench, James shot 44 percent, averaging 35 points per 36 minutes with 2.2 turnovers. With Iguodala as the primary defender, opponents shot 37.2 percent overall. Those impressive defensive numbers show just how much of an impact he made to the team winning its first title in 40 years.