7 Reasons Cavs-Warriors Rematch Is Completely Different Than Past 2 NBA Finals
The same two teams are playing in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year, which has never before happened in the league's history. In fact, back-to-back Finals rematches have only occurred 13 times before this one, dating back to the Minneapolis Lakers and New York Knicks in the early 1950s.
However, even if the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are set to grace your television screens once again, each competing for their second title in three years, this matchup is entirely different than the previous iterations.
LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will still take center stage for the defending champions. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are lining up for the Dubs yet again, attempting to follow up another incredible regular season by getting their hands on the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
But given the changing historical impact, strategy shifts, key additions, increased health and plenty more, 2017 is poised to be its own series, not just an extension of the last two years.
Cleveland's Bench Is Stronger
During the 2016 postseason, the Cleveland Cavaliers' starters carried them past any and all opponents. LeBron James was otherworldly, Kyrie Irving shot flames from his right hand, and the rest of the opening quintet thoroughly trounced almost everyone they faced.
But the bench also did more than its fair share. It posted a 9.0 net rating, leaving it well clear of the San Antonio Spurs (7.6), Golden State Warriors (6.3) and everyone else in the playoff field.
This year, it's having a similar impact.
Cleveland's second unit has scored 119.5 points per 100 possessions through the first three rounds, putting it well ahead of the other 15 postseason offenses. And though the defense isn't nearly as strong, the total package still gives it the league's best net rating (8.6)—again, just ahead of the Warriors (7.8) and Spurs (4.7).
In spite of the slight dip in production, this set of reserves is actually stronger. The midseason additions of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams are paying off nicely, giving Cleveland more consistent options who can assume bigger minutes in a pinch. And while Richard Jefferson and James Jones are further removed from their primes, they add even more depth to an already deep bench.
At some point during the 2017 NBA Finals, a Cleveland backup will need to fill a big role. And more so than ever before, the Cavs have the pieces necessary to throw a capable player out against the Dubs. That might not be reflected in the net ratings, but the versatility and number of options represent a distinct upgrade.
Less Historical Impact on Franchises
Two years ago, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors walked onto the biggest stage hoping to end lengthy title droughts. The Larry O'Brien Trophy had never before graced the franchise from Northeast Ohio, and it hadn't journeyed to Oakland since 1975, back when Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes were leading the Dubs.
Golden State got the monkey off its back in 2015. Then Cleveland followed suit in 2016 after storming back from a 3-1 deficit in unforgettable fashion.
Now, that's no longer a storyline.
It may seem inconsequential, and it may well be for some players on these two squads. But for others, playing without the pressure of ending a historic title drought is comforting; it enables them to focus solely on winning for the current squad.
Aiming for two championships in a three-year stretch provides enough drama. Nobody suiting up on the sport's biggest stage "wants it more" than anyone else (cue Mark Cuban from a few years back). Motivation abounds.
But this is about the here and now. The distant past is now firmly on the back burner, allowing everyone to enjoy the third leg of this rivalry for exactly what it is: a star-studded rubber match.
Draymond Green's Hot Shooting
Whether it's because he's regained his confidence or because he loves the subtle differences to the Warriors' schemes that come with Steve Kerr's absence, Draymond Green has caught fire.
Sure, he's averaging fewer points per game this postseason than he did in 2016, dropping from 15.4 to 13.9. But that's largely because the blowouts through the first three rounds have necessitated fewer minutes, and the presence of even more scorers has changed his role so that he can take only the most efficient shots.
His percentages are up across the board, whether looking at field-goal percentage (43.1 to 50.0), three-point percentage (36.5 to 47.2), effective field-goal percentage (50.0 to 61.8) or true shooting percentage (54.9 to 64.8). Only his work at the stripe has declined (73.8 to 69.2), and that hasn't been enough to negate the overall gains.
Green's offensive box plus/minus last year (OBPM) was a meager 1.7—still above average, but by no means exemplary. This year, that number has skyrocketed to 6.0. Correspondingly, he's gone from adding 30.2 offensive points in NBA Math's total points added metric (TPA) in 2016 to 52.2 this year, which leaves him behind only Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden in the entire postseason field.
The versatile power forward has continued to function as one of the NBA's most dangerous defenders. But his offensive growth is pushing the Warriors to an even higher level, opening up more opportunities that weren't available during the 2016 NBA Finals, when he struggled with his perimeter stroke.
And, perhaps even more importantly, Green isn't in danger of suspension.
He missed Game 5 against Cleveland last year after the points for flagrant fouls added up, but he's not close to sitting out again this go-round. Though that could change if he gets ejected from a few contests early in the series, it's far more likely he's available for the duration of this clash.
Even More Small Ball
Both teams love going with small-ball lineups, and they didn't hesitate to run out sets of undersized troops against one another during either of the last two matchups. But that strategy will only be compounded by roster changes before and during the 2016-17 campaign.
Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver has more:
With both teams casting off traditional centers like Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov over the past year, the table is set for more small-ball and plenty more three-point shooting. There’s a strong chance that much of the Finals will be played with 10 capable three-point shooters on the court at the same time, given Golden State’s ability to play Draymond Green at center and Cleveland’s ability to use James or Kevin Love in that role.
Tristan Thompson will inevitably play plenty of minutes at the 5 to take advantage of the Warriors' one glaring weakness with his offensive rebounding prowess, but he's not truly a natural center. Zaza Pachulia shouldn't play too much for the Warriors, and their bigger lineups could feature David West or JaVale McGee at the center spot. But even those lineups will only be used sporadically.
The Dubs and Cavaliers can't stop lofting triples, and they'll have to keep up with each other from downtown. Putting more shooters on the floor makes sense in this matchup, particularly because players such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala provide more lineup flexibility. It also helps that they've each found success in the playoffs so far while going small.
Kyrie Irving, James, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith have logged only nine minutes together, but they've posted a 24.7 net rating. Meanwhile, the quintet comprised of Stephen Curry, Durant, Green, Iguodala and Klay Thompson has outscored opponents by 21.1 points per 100 possessions over the course of 32 postseason minutes. And these are only two of many successful combinations.
These lineups work, and they'll be deployed more frequently than ever in the coming series.
Kevin Love Playing with Unabashed Confidence
Even though he stopped Stephen Curry in isolation toward the end of 2016's Game 7, Kevin Love wasn't playing at peak levels during either of his first two Finals appearances.
He literally didn't appear during the 2015 series against the Golden State Warriors, still recovering from the shoulder injury suffered in a WWE match tussle with Kelly Olynyk of the Boston Celtics. One year later, he sat out of Game 3 with a concussion and only averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists during his six appearances. Worse still, he shot 36.2 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from downtown—numbers that compounded the shooting struggles spanning the entire playoff run.
Now, he's playing with unabashed confidence, taking on a different mentality than he possessed last year, per Ball Don't Lie's Ben Rohrbach:
It doesn’t matter to me if I’m getting five shots or 25 shots, I just want to win. I know I can impact the game whether it shows up in the stat sheet or not. I think that has allowed me to be comfortable out there on the floor, knowing my mindset is really there, still being aggressive and making plays, whether those are showing up or not. But just having all these guys’ back and being there for them is huge, and I embrace that.
Through 13 games in the 2017 playoffs, Love is averaging 17.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 47.5 percent on triples. As a spot-up player, he's posting an impressive 1.26 points per possession, which leaves him in the 79.6 percentile.
And his overall value leaves those numbers in the dust. According to NBA Math's TPA metric, Love added 6.7 points to the Cleveland cause before his 2015 injury. In 2016, he finished the championship run with a score of 19.7.
Heading into the 2017 NBA Finals, he's already at 28.9, leaving him behind only 13 of the 214 other players who have logged at least a minute this postseason.
A lot went into the Warriors' blown 3-1 lead, but Harrison Barnes certainly deserved at least some of the blame.
The small forward averaged just 9.3 points and 4.4 rebounds against the Cavaliers, shooting 35.2 percent from the field and 31.0 percent from three-point territory. During the final three games of the 2016 Finals, he connected on only five of his 32 field-goal attempts (15.6 percent), often bricking wide-open jumpers as the Cavs decided to leave him open and allocate defensive attention elsewhere.
Well, Kevin Durant is a decent upgrade.
Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Patrick McCaw, Zaza Pachulia and a few others are all new additions to this burgeoning rivalry. But no one figures to make a bigger impact than the former MVP, who's now playing with complete confidence in his abilities and fit within the Golden State schemes.
Durant is by no means just a glorified version of Barnes. He plays the same position, but his shot-creating ability gives the Warriors an entirely new weapon who can work with almost any combination of teammates. And though there have been some tricky spots during the adaptation process, it's all come together for the run to the Finals.
Though injuries prevented him from suiting up in every contest during the opening rounds, Durant is averaging 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He's nearly joining the 50/40/90 club by slashing 55.6/41.7/87.1. He's even making a huge defensive impact, holding opponents to 43.2 percent shooting at the rim while facing 4.4 shots per game.
At this point, his fit alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green can only be considered seamless. No one is sacrificing unnecessarily, but they're instead complementing each other in a way that's made the Dubs even more dangerous.
Infusions of talent were inevitable while these squads were gearing up for runs at three consecutive Finals appearances. But adding a top-six player takes that to an entirely different level.
Everyone Is Healthy (Except Steve Kerr)
Rewind to 2015, and injuries dramatically affected the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers were forced to square off against the Warriors while Kevin Love watched from the sidelines, and they quickly lost Kyrie Irving to a fractured kneecap in Game 1.
"You lose Kevin, an All-Star, lose Kyrie, another All-Star," LeBron James said after the defeat, per Fred Kerber of the New York Post. "Try as much as we could to make up, we had a lot of talent sitting in suits. I've had a lot of playoff runs on both ends and know one thing, you've got to be healthy, you've got to be playing right at the right time. We had no luck. We were not healthy."
One year later, he was on the other end.
Though a concussion knocked Love out for one game and may have played a part in his declining impact, it was the Warriors who drew the ire of the injury imp—and that's not even including the one-game suspension Draymond Green earned, courtesy of his flagrant fouls.
Andrew Bogut was lost to a knee injury, while Stephen Curry's similar injury—and the subsequently suffered elbow and ankle maladies—curtailed what he could do on the biggest stage. Even though he played in all seven contests against Cleveland, he quite clearly wasn't at 100 percent after missing time in the first two rounds.
"We made a few adjustments in terms of play-calling and actions that we tried to run," Golden State head coach Steve Kerr told CSN Bay Area's Monte Poole about the health of his star point guard a month after the Finals ended. "But there's only so much of that you can do. It's still about flow and rhythm and pace. We tried a few different things—and let's not forget, he was phenomenal in a few games."
Now, there are no more excuses. Injuries could develop during the rubber match, but both Cleveland and Golden State are entering the tiebreaking series with almost everyone available.
Every single rotation member is operating at full strength for the defending champions, though backup center Edy Tavares is lost for the year after playing just 24 minutes in the regular season. And while Zaza Pachulia (heel contusion) and Patrick McCaw (ankle) are recovering for the Warriors, they could both play in Game 1. Andre Iguodala's knee could also throw a wrench into the plans, but he's still active and performing well—three-point shooting notwithstanding.
It's only Kerr who's still missing, though Mike Brown has performed admirably as the interim head coach in Golden State, if only by refusing to make any big adjustments to a system that clearly works. And as a result, this is truly the series for which we've all been waiting.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.