Everyone loves a rematch.
The defending champion Golden State Warriors will face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday in the NBA Finals for the second straight year. But this year, the storyline is different.
Stephen Curry, the Warriors point guard and newly minted MVP, is coming off of a knee injury that took him out of the playoffs for two weeks. After returning, and when Golden State was struggling early in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, people close to Curry told Yahoo Sports he was “playing at 70 percent, at best.”
But you wouldn’t know it seeing Curry’s performance in Game 7 against the Thunder, scoring 36 points and draining three-pointers late to seal the series. Steve Kerr, the Warriors head coach, even said: “He looked right again.”
Curry’s counterpoint on the Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving, has his own injury redemption. In Game 1 last year, Irving left the game with a fractured left kneecap and watched the rest of the Finals from the bench. He only played 43 minutes. The Warriors would win the championship in six games.
Irving is healthy again, as is power forward Kevin Love. With both back, it changes the whole dynamic for the Cavs. As Tyronn Lue, the team’s head coach, put it to ESPN, “I just think that we have a different team than we had last year. Organization-wise, it’s the same two teams, but playing-wise and players-wise, we’re a different team.”
The series gives the Warriors home-court advantage, playing in Oakland on Thursday night. Throughout the regular season, Golden State seemed impossible to beat at home. Overall, the Warriors won a record-setting 73 games with only nine losses.
Indeed, the Warriors are the betting favorites, with 2-to-1 odds of winning the championship, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. But Cavs star LeBron James, who’s making his sixth-straight Finals appearance, isn’t having those odds. Really, he couldn’t care less.
“Not my concern,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t get involved in all of that—underdog, overdog, whatever the case may be. It’s stupidity.”
Since he won’t mess with odds, how are some sports writers looking at the series? Sports Illustrated lays out the matches between the two teams. For the Warriors to win:
The Warriors prevailed in the 2015 Finals by winning a clash of styles against a slow, bruising, simplistic Cavaliers team that was beset by injuries. If the 2016 Finals winds up being a fire versus fire, smallball versus smallball shootout, as many expect, Golden State would seemingly be fully comfortable in its own element.
And for the Cavs to win:
First, they’ll need their three extra days of pre-Finals rest to pay off with a split at Oracle. Second, they’ll need their perfect 7-0 home record in the postseason to hold up. Third, they’ll need to rely on their torrid three-point shooting to keep up in shootouts. Fourth, they’ll need to hope that their defense can remain cohesive and determined enough to take advantage of the Warriors’ choppier moments. Lastly, they’ll need James to be the focal point of the action in this series, much like he was for most of the 2015 Finals.
SI still has the Warriors winning in six games, again.
Curry has had some big performances against the Cavaliers, including a 35-point game in Cleveland on January 18. But that was the regular season. In the Finals, the slate is clean. Will the Warriors cap off the winningest season in history with a title, or will the Cavaliers snap their championship drought from 1964?
Game 1 of the Final starts at 9 p.m. ET. If you’re not at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, you can watch it on ABC.