The Cavaliers and the Warriors have met in the Finals in each of the last two seasons. The two teams will be linked in the annals of NBA history moving forward because of the battles they have gone through over the course of the last two Finals. If they meet this year for a third consecutive year, this will be an NBA first - no teams have ever met in three consecutive Finals.
The two teams look different this season, and if they meet up in the Finals, expect the Finals games to be more like the Christmas Day game in Cleveland as opposed to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day game in Oakland. The Cavaliers, having already beaten the Warriors (after coming back from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit on Christmas), the Cavaliers had nothing to gain by beating the Warriors on the road, there was no need to exert the extra effort necessary to keep up with the Warriors for 48 minutes.
"Shouldn't the Cavaliers have tried to get inside the Warriors heads by beating them again?"
The Cavaliers are already in the Warriors' heads. Having beaten the Warriors twice at Oracle in the last three Finals games, and having dominated them in Cleveland during Game 6, the Warriors know the Cavaliers can beat them. (Granted, the Warriors know the Cavaliers can also be beaten.)
"Why did the Cavaliers lose so badly to the Warriors in Oakland?"
The Cavaliers were in the final game of a six-game road trip.
They had nothing to gain by beating the Warriors.
The largest factor was the fact that James and Co. know that there is little to be gained by regular season victories, so why push it.
The Cavaliers are visibly bored with the regular season, and they are largely just going through the motions. They clearly are taking plays off on defense, taking games off as a whole, and this will continue until the middle of March when they engage "playoff mode" where they tune up their defense, their offense, and their effort, playing playoff intensity basketball for the majority of the game.
How do the teams compare?
From top to bottom, the teams are undeniably talented - the Warriors are (arguably) better at the top, but it is close between the two teams. How is it that the teams match up position by position?
Kyrie Irving has had a number of good games against Stephen Curry. Curry is a tremendous player, but something about Irving gives Curry fits - Curry has been hugely pedestrian against Irving compared to his typical play against other point guards in the NBA.
Kyrie Irving has been the one point guard in the NBA that has been able to match or outclass the two-time MVP. Part of the reason is that Kyrie Irving has one of (if not the ) best handles in the league, and because of this, Irving has the "wiggle" in his game that allows him to get his own shot at any time. Irving is a better overall athlete than Curry also, so that is one reason why Irving is able to stay with Curry on defense.
Kyrie Irving has a knack for being able to rise up and take the game by the throat in the fourth quarter. In many games against the Cavaliers and Irving, Curry has shrunk in the spotlight. In the Christmas game this year, Irving hit shot after shot in the fourth quarter as the score got closer and closer, eventually hitting the game winner over Klay Thompson with less than five seconds to go. Irving definitely raises his game when playing Curry and the Warriors.
Curry is no slouch in his own right, having the ability to create a shot when he wants or needs to, he is one of the greatest shooters the league has ever seen.
Klay Thompson is better than either Kyle Korver or JR Smith, the two starting caliber shooting guards on the Cavaliers roster.
Yes, Iman Shumpert is on the roster, but none of them have the same two-way impact that Thompson does for Golden State.
JR Smith has become a sort of Klay Thompson-lite as Smith has become a good perimeter defender and an excellent, yet streaky, three-point-shooter. The truth of the matter is that Klay Thompson is just so much better than anyone that the Cavaliers have when it comes to shooting guards.
Kyle Korver has not played enough games as a Cavalier to show what kind of impact he will end up having in Cleveland's system, but Korver can shoot with the best of them, as can Thompson. Smith, when on a roll, can out-shoot any player in the NBA because he can score off of a screen, off the dribble, catch-and-shoot, etc.
Korver is a solid team defender, Smith is also a good team defender, but he can also play a solid one-on-one defense. Smith has had some real hit or miss performances in the Finals. There will be games, like games 3 and 6 last year, where Smith will hit key shots and help propel the team emotionally and by scoring, but there will be games like the first two games of last year's Finals where it was unclear if Smith was on the floor or even in the game because he isn't making much of an impact.
Verdict: Warriors Advantage
LeBron James is the greatest basketball player in the world. Having said that, Kevin Durant is not chopped liver.
James is averaging 25.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 8.3 assists a game on 51.9% shooting from the floor whilst Durant is averaging 26.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on 54.4% shooting. There is little between the numbers of the two superstars. Both players have won an MVP award, both have led teams to the Finals, but the difference between the two is that James has much more impact on both ends of the floor.
Kevin Durant, as of late, has been playing very well on the defensive end of the floor, but there is something about playing against LeBron James that does not usually go well for Durant. In the Finals against the Heat and James, Durant was on the favored team, and James systematically picked apart the Oklahoma City Thunder. James always seems to be able to lead his team against Durant, but now the game has changed as Durant has joined the Warriors.
Durant has a chip on his shoulder this year, playing the villain role that James played in the 2010-2011 season when he first moved to Miami. He has been short with the media, he has been defiant publically, so it would be an understatement to say that he is feeling the pressure that accompanied his move to Oakland.
In the head-to-head matchup between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, you couldn't make a wrong choice, but it would be foolish to not take the King.
Verdict: Cavaliers Advantage
Kevin Love is having a fantastic season. He looks far more comfortable in his role with the Cavaliers. He is rebounding at a great rate this season, and his 20+ point scoring average is also reminiscent of his days as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Draymond Green is a very versatile player for the Warriors, let whatever record that is being kept show that. However, one thing that remains a mystery about Green is whether Green has helped to make the Warriors better, or if the Warriors have made Green appear to be better than he actually is. We have seen Kevin Love be a dominant force in the NBA while he was in Minnesota, but Draymond Green has never been on a team where he was not the third, fourth, or fifth option. It is easy to see that Draymond Green can be a good player, and he fits the mold of what the Warriors want in a power forward, but is he a product of the system or is he helping to produce the system? The question remains unanswered.
Having said that, Kevin Love has had some poor games against the Warriors over the past couple of seasons. He is not an ideal matchup for the style of play the Warriors employ, whereas a player like Tristan Thompson is a much better fit.
Kevin Love, if he plays well, can be a good mismatch for the Cavaliers, giving them an offensive presence in the low post other than LeBron James. Love truly is a huge x-factor for the Cavaliers because he can bust the game wide open, spreading out the Warriors defense, and his rebounding can help to secure possessions for the squad.
Green truly is the heart and soul of the Warriors team, and because of this, he gets the nod.
Verdict: Warriors Advantage
The Cavaliers have the advantage at the center position. Tristan Thompson is better than either Zaza Pachulia or Javale McGee, despite being undersized.
Thompson is a real difference maker on this team; his ability to switch onto guards and forwards is an amazingly valuable skill to have, and his offensive rebounding is something that is irreplaceable for the Cavaliers. Thompson had a great Finals series last year, catching lobs from James, receiving pocket passes in the paint for easy scores, and providing energy for his team.
Pachulia and Mcgee seem to just be along for the ride so to speak with the Warriors this year. Neither one of them provide an amazing service to the team, they're just average players at best, likely below average, so there is nothing to write home about when it comes to the Warriors centers.
Verdict: Cavaliers Advantage
The Cavaliers bench is arguably deeper than the Warriors. The Cavaliers, assuming Smith starts at shooting guard, have Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, and DeAndre Liggins coming off the bench. The Warriors have a mix of Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Ian Clark, Javale McGee, and David West coming off the bench.
For the Cavs, Korver, Frye, and Shumpert all shoot over 40% from distance coming off the bench. Liggins shoots 39.5% from deep and plays very tough, stingy defense on opposing guards. The Cavaliers bench is much deeper than the Warriors bench, but that should be a given knowing that the Warriors had to jettison much of their depth to make room for Durant. This could be a big difference in the playoffs - the Cavaliers can realistically go 10 or 11 deep, depending on who Coach Lue wants to play on any given night.
It would be reasonable to assume that during the Finals the Warriors would only go 7 or 8 deep. This could put a lot more strain on both players, causing players to become more tired over a seven game series, and lineup combinations. The Cavaliers will have more flexibility in terms of lineup options, who to insert, as well as possible lineups with multiple skill redundancies, ala a lineup with James, Smith, Korver, Irving, and Love/Frye. This would surround James with absolute knock-down shooters, which will open the driving lanes for James and Irving.
As far as the benches are concerned, it would appear that the Cavaliers have a much deeper, talent-laden bench when compared with Golden State.
Verdict: Cavaliers Advantage
It would appear as though the two teams have a great deal of talent, and the potential Finals three-peat for both teams would be yet another fantastic matchup between two amazingly talented franchises. With the skill levels between the two teams so evenly matched, do not be surprised to see another seven-game Finals series this year.