In name, this year's NBA Finals is a rematch between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. But that's where the similarities between the two series stop.
Both teams are drastically different than the versions that laced up in the Finals last June. The Warriors, now a record-setting, league-revolutionizing juggernaut, were "merely" a 67-win force a year ago. Cleveland, without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving due to injury, rode LeBron James to the tune of 32.7 shots a night over the six-game series. This postseason, which included an 10-0 start, Kevin Love has finally found his role and just two Cavs are shooting under 40 percent from three-point range.
Both teams are drastically improved, and it should result in a much more competitive series -- one that, at the very least, won't require James to single-handedly carry Cleveland against the best team in the NBA. But can the Cavs actually upset the 73-win Dubs and finally win a title?
They certainly stand a better chance than they did in 2015, but it will likely still require major adjustments from rookie head coach Ty Lue. Through the entire postseason, the Cavs have started a bigger lineup with James at the small forward, while Love and Tristan Thompson man the big positions -- an alignment that only played three minutes together against Golden State in the regular season, according to NBA.com.
It'll be a look that the Warriors haven't seen much of, but one that could pose disadvantages for Cleveland.
Pairing Irving and Love -- two defensive liabilities at positions where Golden State thrives -- is a risky proposition, if not supplemented with other plus defenders. A potential lineup of Irving, Iman Shumpert, James, Love and Channing Frye could do the trick -- giving James shooters to kick out to while also inserting versatile defenders at important spots on the floor.
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Playing James at a bigger position would also present Cleveland with its best chance at disturbing Draymond Green, who -- as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant showed last series -- is best counteracted with a longer forward with finishing ability. LeBron certainly falls under this category.
The Cavs have shown this postseason that they've finally begun to click at the right time, but they're still going up against one of the most talented and versatile teams in NBA history.
If Cleveland chooses to match Kyrie Irving onto Stephen Curry, the two-time league MVP should have no problem thriving. According to 82games.com, Irving allowed opposing point guards to post an 18.5 PER over the regular season.
To this point, nobody has proven able to beat the Warriors at their own game. Cleveland, which only established a true team identity in recent months, will need their good fortune to continue to stand a chance -- but if their playoffs-best 43.4-percent long-distance shooting holds up, this has a chance of being a long series. Working against the Cavs, though: Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green pose a tandem that has subdued James in the past, and is capable of doing so again.
One thing is certain: The Warriors aren't a team LeBron James can beat by himself. The hope for Cleveland is that he won't have to.
This is the best the Cavs have looked all season -- perhaps the best they've looked since LeBron's first go-around with the team. They're far less weathered than Golden State, which is coming off an exhausting seven-game bout with the Thunder, facing elimination in three straight games.
There's still the notion that Cleveland isn't even the best team Golden State is facing this postseason -- that title belonged to the Thunder, who proved unable to seal the deal last round.
The Cavs are rolling. But as long as the Warriors don't unravel, they'll be looking at a repeat.
Verdict: Warriors in 7