For a second straight season, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Finals. The Warriors triumphed in last year's championship round, winning the series 4-2, but both teams will be making a case that they're better this time around.
Last year's Warriors were more of a coming-of-age story than anything else. Not much was expected of them entering the season but they won 67 games in the regular season and turned aside some tough playoff foes en route to the title. This year, they entered as the team to beat and played even better in the regular season, winning a record 73 games.
As for the Cavaliers, their case is improved because of the health of their stars. Last year, they were limping by the end of the NBA Finals as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love - two of the Cavaliers' Big Three - weren't even playing. With two All-Star caliber players suiting up, they are expected put up a better fight this spring.
Both teams have looked unstoppable at times during the postseason - the Cavaliers won their first 10 playoff games while the Warriors only lost one game in each of their first two rounds - but both have also had some significant moments of weakness. For the Cavs, they lost Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Toronto Raptors, which set off some alarms. As for the Warriors, many will feel like they should have lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder. They trailed the Western Conference Finals 3-1 but survived to advance to the Finals. They're far more vulnerable than originally thought.
The determining factor of the series will be which Big Three plays better. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and especially Draymond Green have to deliver even though each had struggles in the Western Conference Finals. Green has been a concern after shooting just 35.4% in the Conference Finals after shooting 49% in the regular season.
Speaking of struggling forwards, the Cavaliers' Big Three includes Love, who was terrible in Games 3 and 4 of the Conference Finals. He had a combined 13 points in those games on 5-of-23 shooting. Love averaged just 6.5 points and shot 28.6% from the field in two games versus Golden State this season. If he's not sharp, the Cavs will have a tough time winning.
The Warriors won both regular season meetings, edging the Cavs 98-93 in Golden State on Christmas Day and crushing them 132-98 in Cleveland in January. Many people feel that the latter loss is what cost former head coach David Blatt his job just three days later.
We'll see if that decision to replace Blatt with Lue makes a difference. Lue hasn't been overly scrutinized in the playoffs so far but remember Blatt was canned because the Cavs brass didn't believe he could bring the team to the Finals and get the job done. Now the pressure is on Lue to take the team that final step. It's one thing to be on the sidelines against the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks, it's another to be matching wits with Steve Kerr, who has proven to be one of the shrewder minds in the game.
For this year's matchup, the Warriors opened as a -210 betting favorite while the Cavs opened at +175 to win the series. The Warriors are a 5.5-point favorite for Game 1, which is on Thursday.