The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors know each other well from their six-game showdown in the 2015 NBA Finals. But the iterations of each team that will take the court at Oracle Arena on Christmas Day will have some sniffing around to do before tipoff and during the game.
The last time these two teams met, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao were on the shelf, Andrew Bogut logged a DNP, and Andre Iguodala, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova were all starting.
Nowadays, Love and Irving are healthy, pushing Thompson and Dellavedova back to the bench. On the Warriors side, Bogut is entrenched at center again, Iguodala has settled in as arguably the league's best sixth man, Harrison Barnes is recovering from a left ankle sprain, and David Lee now wears Boston Celtics green.
As Cavaliers head coach David Blatt told ESPN's Dave McMenamin:
I don't think there's anybody on our team that doesn't remember the Finals and I don't think there's anybody on their team that doesn't remember, either. I don't think the fans have forgotten because that was a very good NBA Finals. I know we're going down there finally with a full roster. I can't say that we're 100 percent in terms of where I know we're going to be once we get everyone ready and in shape. But since day one here we've been competing and we have asked no quarter and given no quarter and nor will we begin to do either.
Other than that, and Luke Walton standing in for Steve Kerr on Golden State's sideline, the principles for this much-anticipated rematch—Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, among others—are the same, albeit more in name than in game.
With all that in mind, if Friday's faceoff were the start of a best-of-seven series rather than a regular-season one-off between the 27-1 Warriors and the 19-7 Cavaliers, who would come out on top?
Superstars, Side by Side
The tale of the tape for any extended tiff, especially one of this caliber, begins with the most prominent names on the marquee, neither of whom will read the same way they did in the 2015 Finals.
The Steph Curry of six months ago isn't the same Steph Curry who "struggled" against the Cavaliers.
And by "struggled," I mean averaged 26 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists against 4.7 turnovers in 42.5 minutes per game.
This season, Curry has been far more efficient. He leads the league in scoring at 31.2 points per game and is on track to join the 50-40-90 Club, with shooting splits of 51.6 percent from the field, 44.8 percent from three and 90.2 percent from the free-throw line.
The player behind those numbers sports a swagger that few, if any, can match. When asked by Time's Sean Gregory if he's the best player in the world, Curry replied:
In my mind, yes. That's how I have confidence out there that I can play at a high level every night. I don't get into debates, arguing with people about why I am versus somebody else. I feel like anybody who's at the level I'm trying to be at, if you don't think that when you're on the floor, then you're doing yourself a disservice.
LeBron James could say the same for himself. The fact that he's held Cleveland aloft the Eastern Conference standings all season, despite injuries and slow starts up and down the Cavaliers roster, is a testament to his talent, command of the game and all-around preeminence.
He played the part of one-man band to the extreme in his fifth straight trip to the Finals. With Irving and Love down, James held his team together like twine, to the tune of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in an exhausting 45.8 minutes per outing. His shooting percentages suffered, but without James bending every moment of the last five games to his will, the Cavs would've been toast well before the deciding Game 6.
Having Love healthy from the get-go this season has eased the strain on James' back, both physically and metaphorically. Irving's recent return figures to lighten his load even further.
Not that James has been any less dominant. He still ranks fourth in scoring, and his field-goal percentage has crept up toward 50 percent again.
But inch to inch and second to second, even James, who's shooting a career-low 26 percent from three, isn't the same menace Curry has been this season. Where the former has to pick and choose when to take over, given his age (31 on Dec. 30) and ridiculous mileage, the latter strikes fear into the hearts of his foes whenever he crosses half court.
The Second-Tier Studs
As otherworldly as Curry has been, the Warriors wouldn't be where they are today without the outstanding efforts of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
Green has emerged as a top-10 player in his own right this season. He's the super glue that binds the NBA's super team on both ends of the floor.
The Michigan State product may not be a scoring star, though his 14.3 points per game are nothing to sneeze at. But he's sharpened his shot considerably and now boasts respectable career highs in field-goal (46 percent) and three-point percentage (37.9 percent).
All the while, he's led the Warriors in rebounds (8.8 per game) and assists (7.1 per game) and paced the entire league in triple-doubles with four.
Thompson's explosive scoring potential more than makes up for whatever imagination-capturing flash may be lacking from Green's game. He's already authored two outings of 39 points or more, including a 27-point third quarter against the Phoenix Suns.
Thompson isn't piling up points at the same pace (19.3 per game in 2015-16) that he did last season (21.7 per game), but that hasn't made him any less lethal. His true shooting percentage—which encapsulates two-point, three-point and free-throw shooting—sits at a career-best 60.9 percent. Among rotation regulars who average at least 15 minutes per game, Thompson ranks 13th in the Association in that regard, per NBA.com.
Should the Cavs lose Thompson for even a shot or two and the Warriors find him in time, Golden State's less heralded Splash Brother could heat up in a hurry and decide a game or two all on his own.
Not that Cleveland is without its equivalents.
Once upon a time, Green and Thompson were both bandied about as potential Minnesota Timberwolves in a blockbuster swap that would've brought Love to the Bay Area. Instead, the UCLA product wound up on the shores of Lake Erie, where he slogged through an uneven season before suffering a shoulder injury during the first round of the playoffs.
Love has not only recovered, but he's found a greater comfort zone in Cleveland, both on and off the court.
"I think this year as far as spots on the floor, I'm used a lot more," he explained to ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "There's a lot more parity and balance throughout the entire floor. I'm posting up a lot more, which I prefer and enjoy, while still being able to step out and do different things."
On the whole, though, Love's 2015-16 numbers are eerily similar to those he posted last season.
Still, by virtue of having a skilled forward like Love out there, the Cavs offense would take on a dimension that Golden State has yet to see under serious circumstances. Where once Cleveland had to lean almost exclusively on James to make plays, it can now call on Love to serve as a beacon of scoring and passing, with or without the King on the court.
Irving figures to return to that point eventually. He certainly was in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals when he practically matched Curry with 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Irving's kneecap cracked in overtime of his team's 108-100 loss. Six-and-a-half months later, the former All-Star MVP is back in action, though he still has a ways to go to regain his old form.
Tracking down the likes of Curry and Thompson wouldn't ease Irving's recovery any, though it would test the vitality of his reconstructed knee—not to mention the conditioning throughout his body.
Cast and Crew
Both teams have health issues to navigate among the rest of their respective rotations.
Harrison Barnes, a key cog in Golden State's deadly small-ball lineups, is still sidelined by a bum ankle. The Cavs would be better equipped to punish the Warriors for downsizing if Timofey Mozgov weren't so clearly hobbled by offseason knee surgery.
Iman Shumpert has some rust of his own to knock off. He's appeared in just four games this season on account of wrist and groin injuries.
Injuries aside, Golden State's supporting cast takes the cake here.
For one, Andre Iguodala has emerged as the league's most important reserve. According to NBA.com, the Warriors have outscored the opposition by 18.2 points per 100 possessions whenever the reigning Finals MVP has been on the floor.
He spent most of the Finals standing in for Bogut, who's once again been effective on both ends this season. According to NBA.com, the auspicious Australian has held opponents to 44.9 percent shooting at the rim—13th-best among players who've appeared in at least five games and faced down five or more attempts at the rim a night.
Meanwhile, Bogut has dished out 2.3 assists and converted 64 percent of his shots (second-best in the NBA), with plenty of lobs therein.
The Cavs did well to wield Bogut against the Warriors in the 2015 Finals. But Cleveland's supersized lineups—with James, Love and Mozgov up front and Thompson and Varejao waiting in the wings—may require more out of Golden State's defensive ace.
And if Bogut can't keep up, the Dubs can always turn to Festus Ezeli, who's come into his own (8.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 55.9 percent shooting, 1.4 blocks) as the second-string center.
Should Golden State need more length and switchability on the defensive end, Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush will be at the ready. In the event that speed and scoring come to the fore, Luke Walton can call upon Leandro Barbosa, Ian Clark and Marreese Speights to provide a spark.
To be sure, the Cavaliers' supporting cast doesn't exactly comprise slouches. J.R. Smith can heat up to pseudo-Klay-like levels when the mood suits him. So can Mo Williams, even at 33.
Dellavedova is as scrappy as they come, can hound Curry in spurts and has improved as both a shooter (45 percent from three) and passer (5.4 assists to 1.5 turnovers). Thompson brings much of the same manic energy and physicality to the frontcourt that Dellavedova harnesses at guard.
And in case of an emergency, Blatt can break the glass surrounding Varejao, Richard Jefferson and James Jones when he and his team are in need of some veteran savvy.
Each squad can go deep, but Golden State can and does call upon its second unit to step up in big moments alongside its starting core. Cleveland, on the other hand, looks to its role players more to hold the fort than build another castle.
There's some question as to how much Luke Walton has done to influence the Warriors' record-breaking 27-1 start. Is Walton simply resting on Steve Kerr's laurels? Or has Golden State's interim coach put his own stamp on the defending champs?
As Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher put it, "Walton's stint as head coach is akin to a rental-car driver—where he drives doesn't matter as much as the shape in which he returns the vehicle, which, in this case, is a Lamborghini."
To Walton's credit, he's kept that Lambo purring. Moreover, Kerr has afforded his fellow Arizona grad the freedom to tweak and tune it as he sees fit.
"Luke and I talk a couple times every day," Kerr told Bucher, "and we run practice together when we're at home. He takes some responsibility and I take some. It doesn't really require a lot of thought. I've definitely given him a lot of leeway."
Walton's done well with that leeway, but he's yet to be confronted with the sorts of crucial chess moves that mark most postseason series.
Blatt comes with no such concerns. He's long been a master of playing the hand he's dealt, no matter how bad, dating back to his days as a Euroleague championship coach at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
This past spring, he piloted the Cavaliers to within two wins of the franchise's first championship, despite losing Love, Irving and Shumpert to varying degrees at different points through the playoffs.
Walton may have the better squad at his disposal, but if Blatt could make one day's worth of oil last for eight, imagine what he could accomplish with a ripe field of olives and a fully functioning press.
Statistically speaking, the Warriors have only one peer in either conference, and that team resides in San Antonio, not Cleveland.
According to NBA.com, no team plays faster or scores more points per 100 possessions than Golden State. Only three teams—the Spurs, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls—sport stingier defenses than that of the Warriors, which led the league in defensive efficiency last season.
The Cavaliers have been fantastic on both ends in their own right, despite missing so many of their top bodies. Their offense is the NBA's fourth-most efficient, their defense the seventh-most. And when it comes to rim protection, Cleveland and Golden State are practically neck-and-neck.
Put the two ends together, though, and the gap between the Dubs and Cavs becomes impossible to ignore.
For the Cavs to have a chance at avenging last season's defeat, they'd need to emphasize those aspects of their approach that cut against Golden State's grain.
Cleveland can try to tilt the table in its favor by slowing the pace to a grinding halt and punishing Golden State's smaller lineups with size and strength up front. The Warriors, as currently constituted, could have some trouble with that approach absent Barnes. But the Cavs aren't one of the league's more prolific teams when it comes to interior scoring and points in the paint.
|Cavs in the Paint and on Second Chances|
|Pts in the Paint||41.4||17th|
|2nd Chance Points||11.4||23rd|
For every two-point basket that Cleveland musters off misses, Golden State can quickly respond with threes from Curry, Thompson or any of its other sharpshooters. No team in the league can so much as sniff the Warriors' 42.3-percent clip from deep this season, and only the Houston Rockets launch more from long range than Golden State's 30.5 attempts per game.
The Cavs could have something to say about this. They've allowed the seventh-fewest threes per game (21.7) and the seventh-lowest percentage on those shots (33.1 percent).
As it happens, Cleveland has been fortunate to avoid bigger burns from deep. According to NBA Savant, 342 of the 565 three-point attempts (60.5 percent) the Cavs have ceded this season have come with one of their defenders five feet or farther from the shooter. Those launching such open shots have knocked down just 35.7 percent of them.
That's about a point-and-a-half under the league average and miles below what Golden State's marksmen have done when afforded five or more feet of room.
The Cavs, then, would need Lady Luck firmly in their corner to keep the Warriors from setting fire to their defense. Truth be told, the same could be said for Cleveland nearly across the board—or any of the NBA's 28 other teams, for that matter.
This season's Warriors have reached a plane of basketball existence previously accessed only by the greatest teams the game has ever seen. Think of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won a league-record 72 games; the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who ripped off 33 straight wins; the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and an aging Oscar Robertson; the Dr. J-Moses Malone Philadelphia 76ers of 1982-82; and the hallowed 1985-86 Boston Celtics.
This Golden State group hasn't gotten there yet, but it has all the pieces in place—the players, the coaches, the system, the supreme confidence, the experience—to win the title that will put them in elite historical company.
Try as they might, there's not much the Cavaliers can do to stop that, especially not right now.
Edge: Warriors in six
All stats accurate as of games played on Dec. 23, 2015.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.