Check your excuses, caveats and asterisks at the door. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are back in the NBA Finals, with each side sporting a spotless injury report this time around.
Cleveland carries a 12-2 postseason record into the championship round. Golden State didn't sweep any playoff opponent, but it's riding sky-high after rallying against the Oklahoma City Thunder and becoming just the third team in NBA history to overturn a 3-1 deficit in the conference finals.
Can LeBron James and the Cavs snap their city's 52-year championship drought, or will the Dubs defend their throne and validate both their record-setting 73-win campaign and Stephen Curry's unprecedented unanimous MVP award?
Bleacher Report NBA experts Howard Beck, Ric Bucher, Kevin Ding, Adam Fromal and Grant Hughes analyze what to expect when the Finals tip off Thursday.
1. What impressed you more: Cleveland's sprint through the East or Golden State's comeback in the Western Conference Finals?
Beck: The question, frankly, isn't fair to the Cavs because nothing they did—even going undefeated—could match the Warriors' mesmerizing comeback. At 3-1, the Warriors were practically declared dead, and understandably so considering the strength of their opponent.
The Cavs never trailed in a series, but the Cavs never faced a team with the firepower of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. And the East is still the weaker conference. Going 12-2 is impressive—just not as impressive as winning three straight elimination games against a team featuring two of the top five players in the world.
Bucher: Warriors. Without question. The Cavs played a happy-to-be-here Detroit Pistons team, an Atlanta Hawks team they've owned for a couple of years and an injury-riddled Toronto Raptors team also thrilled to be where it was. In short, Cleveland did what it was supposed to do.
Ding: Blitzing through the B-League (I'll rate Detroit, Atlanta and Toronto a couple notches higher than the NBA D-League) with two losses, or stiff-arming elimination and an OKC team that would be a worthy NBA champion? What Golden State did was light years ahead of Cleveland's achievements.
Fromal: The Warriors proved the phrase "heart of a champion" is no mere joke. Losing three of the first four games turned the beginning of the Western Conference Finals into the definition of a sunk cost, and they played as such. The past did not matter. Not to take their opponents' success too lightly, but that has to be more impressive than stomping a trio of overmatched teams in the weaker conference.
Hughes: Kudos to Cleveland for knocking off flawed, inferior competition easily, but let's be serious: The Warriors' presence in the Finals is the result of an all-time improbable achievement. Handily winning a pair of playoff series without a healthy Curry and then becoming the 10th team (of 233) to ever climb out of a 3-1 hole—against a Thunder team that pureed the 67-win San Antonio Spurs, no less? It's the Warriors, hands down.
2. Whose Big 3 is more dangerous right now?
Beck: Still the Warriors' because the Steph-Klay-Dray trio simply meshes better than the Cavs' group. Curry and Draymond Green are a deadly pick-and-roll combination. Curry and Klay Thompson form the best shooting duo in NBA history. Thompson and Green are both elite defenders.
Of the Cavs' stars, only James is a true two-way player. Although Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are great scorers, both are unreliable defenders. And while the Cavs' offensive chemistry has been solid in these playoffs, it wasn't long ago they were struggling to blend their considerable talents.
Bucher: The numbers say the Cavs', but I'm still not sold they complement each other the way the Warriors' three do. No one with the Cavs poses the challenge to Draymond that Steven Adams did, and Klay's confidence has to be soaring after his Game 6 performance. In short: Ws have three guys who believe they can take over a postseason game. Cavs have, at best, two.
Ding: The scary thing is Thompson's career arc might've just changed, making the Warriors even more imposing. He seized the stage during the second half of the Game 4 loss in OKC because Curry and Green were so shaky, and Thompson realized he has the skill and standing to do that and help the team whenever it needs it—as he did in Game 6. That means any of GSW's three can control a game, whereas Love most definitely cannot.
Fromal: Curry, Thompson and Green have outscored their opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions during the postseason, per Basketball-Reference.com. James, Irving and Love, also according to Basketball-Reference.com, have posted a playoff net rating of 18.3. Yes, you're reading that correctly. With Irving and Love both hitting their strides during this second season, I have to give them the edge—however slight it may be from a subjective standpoint.
Hughes: The Warriors will aggressively target Irving and Love, looking to exploit their demonstrated defensive vulnerability. Good luck attacking Curry, Thompson and especially Green in the same way. Really, that's the end of the discussion. LeBron is a monster, and so is Curry. But Cleveland's other two key players are one-way contributors opponents actively try to exploit. There's no comparison here.
3. Whose core role players are more trustworthy?
Beck: It's the Warriors', but not by a wide margin. The Cavaliers have done a great job of improving the supporting cast since last June. Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye have been great additions, both for their shooting and their leadership. J.R. Smith has improved as a defender. Tristan Thompson is a rebounding beast.
But Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are game-changers with their defense, playmaking and all-around basketball IQ. Andrew Bogut is an underappreciated defender and passer. Harrison Barnes does a little of everything, which is what sets the Warriors’ role players apart. Whereas the Cavs are stocked with specialists, the Warriors’ supporting cast is built on versatility.
Bucher: The Cavs bench looks far more comfortable and confident, but again, it's hard to ignore the lesser challenge the team has faced. For now, the inefficiency of Barnes and Livingston, in particular, has to be worrisome for the Warriors, and Festus Ezeli has made a frightening number of unforced errors. Bogut clearly wanted out of his matchup versus Timofey Mozgov last year, so it will be interesting to see whether he's any more confident against Thompson and just how much he plays. Advantage: Cleveland's supporting cast.
Ding: Iguodala is already in sic-'em form from being unleashed on Durant, giving the Warriors the edge. Now, Iggy goes on the defensive against James. If Golden State can get away with single coverage with Iguodala on James, then the suddenly high-powered Cleveland offense getting open shots because of James' creation becomes much blander. Barnes will also have something to prove after being moved aside late in the conference finals and with restricted free agency coming.
Fromal: Golden State's depth has helped it immensely throughout the season. Impressive as Jefferson, Frye and others have looked for the challengers over the last few weeks, those bursts of production have been exactly that: bursts. The Warriors' non-star contingent has consistently proved its ability while helping aid a 73-win pursuit that was by no means possible while solely resting on the laurels of the marquee players.
Hughes: Smith and Frye are serious, reliable weapons from deep, and both are scorching this postseason. Because no role player outside of Iguodala has produced consistently positive minutes for Golden State lately, the edge here probably belongs to the Cavaliers. But if Ezeli slows down the whirring gears of his mental game a little, and Livingston finds the form he showed against the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, that could change in a hurry.
4. Who has the edge in coaching acumen: Tyronn Lue or Steve Kerr?
Beck: More interesting point, though it's been largely ignored: Both Finals coaches are Phil Jackson disciples. They might not run his offense, but Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue both won championships under Jackson, and both cite him as a major influence on their careers. Kerr has the advantage here based on experience. Lue assumed head-coaching duties in January, but he's proved a quick study and done a deft job of getting his temperamental stars to play together.
Bucher: As much as I've long thought Lue could be a good head coach and how much the early returns have justified that faith, I don't see any way a case can be made that he's seen, done or overcome more than Kerr. LeBron and his passive-aggressive nature, from most accounts, is a healthy challenge to coach, but he's not that healthy of a challenge, is he?
Ding: Give Lue a lot of credit for his communication, leadership and cool the Cavs needed more than even he realized with David Blatt. But as far as coaching strategy goes, Kerr has a decided edge just from the limited but intense experience he has as a head coach. See how Billy Donovan was able to figure out ways to maximize both his bigs and his smalls at various times against the Warriors? That'll be the challenge on Lue.
Fromal: Lue might be able to trademark the phrase "10-0 in the playoffs," but Kerr showed his chutzpah by subbing Barnes for Iguodala in the starting lineup of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against an undeniably dangerous Thunder outfit. Kerr's experience, willingness to trust his players and demonstration of his confidence in his own battle-tested abilities should reign supreme here.
Hughes: Kerr's insistence on fielding reserve-heavy lineups in pivotal stretches of the second and fourth quarters is always going to be risky. If he's got a flaw, it's his ongoing trust in untrustworthy units. Still, we've seen him push almost all of the right buttons for his entire two-year tenure, and he's got a ring and a 73-win season to show for it. Lue has definitely coaxed better chemistry from his roster than Blatt did, but that doesn't earn him an advantage over Kerr's flawless record and battle-tested experience.
5. Which team enters the Finals with more on the line?
Beck: Can I call it a tie? Look, LeBron has the most pressure on him—every season—and it's been that way for years. Every championship he doesn't win is held against him (and never mind he's made the Finals seven times in 10 years). If the Cavs lose, it will probably be because Love, Irving and the rest failed to deliver. But James will be the one who gets skewered no matter how he performs.
But it's a tie because the Warriors are going to get roasted if they fail to repeat as champions after racking up 73 regular-season wins. They need the championship to certify Greatest Season Ever status, and they need it to beat back the cynics who still diminish last year's title based on the Cavs' injuries.
Bucher: Win or lose, I don't see a whole lot changing with the Warriors or their window for title contention being dramatically altered. LeBron can hardly be blamed if he falls short again, and I don't care what his Finals record is—simply getting to seven of them deserves commendation. But how many times can one man make a march deep into June before his tread begins to fray?
It's hard to fathom that LeBron hasn't paid a physical toll yet. Considering how much a victory would mean to his legacy, it's easy to imagine its absence would be devastating.
Ding: The pressure is undeniably on the favorite. The Warriors have the opportunity to wrap everything up in a neat little bow—73 and champs and a strong case for best ever. But if they falter, the questions will arise again whether they overreached in the regular season. Even though people point to James' losing record in championship series, his legacy isn't going to be dramatically altered by this matchup the way the Warriors' history will be.
Fromal: Both teams have an incredible amount on the line, but this has to be the Cavaliers. The Warriors could withstand a loss—their season would still be one of the most memorable in NBA history. Even in defeat, 73 wins would look rather sparkly, as would a comeback from that 3-1 deficit. But if Cleveland loses yet again, the curse continues. That city desperately needs to taste success, and no player needs another ring more than James now Curry has eagerly snatched away his "best player alive" crown.
Hughes: Cleveland has a lot on the line. A lot. Losing these Finals could portend a roster shake-up and, if you're a full-on doomsdayer, might precipitate James' exit (again). There's also the small matter of no Cleveland team winning a major sports title in roughly 19 centuries. But the Warriors need this to cap an all-time season, and the alternative of falling short would brand them as one of the great disappointments in sports history.
Winning this ring puts the Dubs in the dynasty discussion and ices a campaign for the ages. They've got more on the line.
6. Who wins the series and Finals MVP?
Beck: Warriors in six. MVP: Curry.
Bucher: Warriors in five. MVP: Klay Thompson.
Ding: Warriors, 4-1. Not sold that Cleveland's shaky defense can do anything to control Golden State's passing and shooting. The Warriors won in six games last year and will be motivated to differentiate this one. MVP: Curry.
Fromal: The Golden State Warriors are a matchup nightmare, so we'll get a little bold here. If Cleveland struggled to corral DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry at times during the penultimate round, it's going to have a serious problem attempting to do the same with the Splash Brothers. Beyond that, Golden State's ability to get to the rim should play well against a team that sometimes struggles with its paint defense.
Expect James to mount a significant individual charge but the Warriors to repeat in five games while Curry completes his dream season as Finals MVP.
Hughes: Warriors in five. Curry wins MVP.
Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.