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The 2016 NBA Finals begin Thursday night in a highly anticipated rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Last year’s Finals were memorable, though they perhaps didn’t live up to their full potential. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love injured, LeBron James carried a battered Cavs’ squared to a 2-1 series lead, posting superhuman performances along the way. The Warriors found their groove in Game 4 and never looked back, winning three straight games and securing their first championship since 1975.
This year the Cavs are healthy and a little bit deeper while the Warriors bring back largely the same cast. The two teams took different paths to the Finals, with the Cavaliers cruising through a weak East while the Warriors had to fight for their lives after going down three games to one to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Suffice to say, expectations are high for this rematch, which will begin at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. Here’s how the Business Insider Sports staff thinks it will play out:
How the Warriors can win it all
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– Cork Gaines
The Warriors have the more talented roster.
The Warriors have the better coach.
The Warriors have home-court advantage.
The Warriors have the best basketball player in the world.
There is no need to overthink this.
The biggest thing is for the Warriors to stay healthy. This was a team that was cruising through the season until Stephen Curry went down with an injured ankle and then later with a knee injury. But Curry looks healthy now, and more important, the final game of the Western Conference Finals showed that he was getting his swagger back.
The Warriors also need Draymond Green to keep pushing the limits without going too far. While the emotion of the Oklahoma City Thunder series is behind him, Green is still just one flagrant foul or two technical fouls away from being automatically suspended for a game.
The Warriors will also enjoy facing a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in this year’s Finals, at least when Golden State is on offense. This will be especially true when the Warriors once again unleash their “Death Lineup” as they did to spark their comeback in last year’s Finals.
The “Death Lineup,” which includes Green at center and nobody over 6-foot-8, will lead to a lot of problems for the Cavs. That could change if Tyronn Lue sits Love for long stretches, especially in the fourth quarter. But as long as the Warriors take advantage of the time Love is on the court, they will be fine.
In other words, this is the Warriors’ series to lose, and as long as they don’t catch any bad breaks it will be over early.
How the Cavaliers can win it all
- Getty Images
– Emmett Knowlton
Defense, defense, defense. The Cavs enter the Finals having cruised through an easy Eastern Conference – losing just two games over three series – but to beat the 73-win Warriors four times in seven tries, the defense will need to be better than anything we’ve seen from Cleveland so far this playoffs.
You can read our own breakdown of the defensive matchups in the Finals here, but suffice it to say that if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love continue to be awful defending the pick-and-roll, the Warriors will end this series quickly. With Irving on the court during the playoffs, the Cavs are surrendering a dismal 107 points per 100 possessions; with Love, that number falls only slightly to a similarly awful 105.6 points. Remember that these figures have come against Detroit, Atlanta, and Toronto. If Love and Irving continue at a similar pace against the Warriors, the Cavs simply have no chance.
But if Love and Irving can figure out a way to transform themselves into average defenders (against Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, no less), the Cavs absolutely have a chance to win this thing. LeBron James is LeBron James; we saw what he did during last year’s Finals with a significantly weaker supporting cast. Defensively poor as they have been, Love and Irving both guarantee buckets on the other end of the floor. Sometimes good offense wears down even the best opponents, which helps on D.
Channing Frye’s stretchiness presents an interesting wrinkle for the Cavs, especially if he continues to shoot the lights out from beyond the arc. J.R. Smith has been solid defensively, but he cannot revert to his frustrating pre-Cleveland offensive ways. And don’t forget about Matthew Dellavedova – the closest thing we’ve seen to Curry kryptonite.
There’s no doubt that Cleveland has a tough task ahead of it. The Thunder came as close as anyone to knocking off the champs, but even with a chance to close the series out at home they couldn’t quite crack the Warriors. If anyone can do this, though, it’s LeBron James.
- Vaughn Ridley/Getty
– Scott Davis
The NBA world has become familiar with two forms of J.R. Smith – “Good J.R.” and “Bad J.R.” Good J.R. is a deadly catch-and-shoot option who can make opponents pay for keying in on James, Irving, and Love; slashes to the basket; rebounds; creates for others; and defends capably. Bad J.R. turns open looks into bricks, turns easy shots into difficult fadeaways, and falls asleep on defense.
This season, Smith was lethal from 3-point range. He knocked down 40% of this 3s in the regular season, and he has hit 46% of from long range in the playoffs while hitting 51% of his catch-and-shoot opportunities. The Cavs will need Smith to be locked in from deep to make Golden State pay for doubling James in the post or trapping a pick-and-roll. When Golden State closes out successfully, the Cavs need Smith to be aggressive in attacking the basket and finding an open teammate when the defense rotates.
Additionally, the Cavs need Smith to step it up on defense, where he has shown improvement all season. Smith will most likely have the unenviable task of tracking Klay Thompson all over the floor. But in an effort to preserve Irving’s energy, Smith may spend some time guarding Curry. Iman Shumpert, a better defender, is an option off the bench, but he doesn’t bring Smith’s offensive talents to the floor.
It’s not earth-shattering to say a team needs a player to play his best, but Good J.R. makes the Cavs a four-deep, explosive offensive attack without any letdown on the defensive end. Bad J.R. puts a lot of pressure on the Big Three and the Cavs’ bench.
BI STAFF PREDICTIONS
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Emmett Knowlton: Cavaliers in 6.
- Al Bello/Getty
By now you’ve read all about the Warriors’ “death” lineup and about the Cavaliers’ precarious defense and their worrisome overreliance on J.R. Smith. Nate Silver has given the Warriors nice oddsto win their second straight title – by all measures, the Warriors should wrap this up rather easily.
And yet. Call it wishful predicting, or contrarianism, or blind idiocy, but I’m riding with Cleveland. Tristan Thompson will annoy Draymond Green to the point of suspension; Frye and Smith will ride their hot hands from deep; Kyrie and K-Love will turn good offense into competent defense; and LeBron James will win his third ring.
Scott Davis: Warriors in 7
- Rick Bowmer/AP
It comes down to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Their offense is crucial to the Cavs, but can they survive on defense? The Warriors offer nowhere to hide, and barring a turnaround that casts aside careers’ worth of evidence, they simply don’t match up well with the Warriors.
That leaves LeBron and the rest of the Cavs (like last year) to face a team that, including the playoffs, is 85-14 this year. The Cavs can outshoot the Warriors and lock down enough to keep it competitive, but that’s all.
Cork Gaines: Warriors in 5
- Ben Margot/AP
When we get this deep in the season we have a tendency to overthink these things. Can the Cavaliers win it? Sure. But if these two teams played this series 10 times, I feel confident that the Warriors would beat the Cavs seven or eight times. Simple math tells me to go with the numbers, pick the Warriors, and pick them in dominating fashion.
Now, see where Stephen Curry and LeBron James rank among the greatest athletes in the world …
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