5 reasons this Cavaliers-Warriors Finals will be different than last year

For the fourteenth time in NBA history, we’ve got a Finals rematch on our hands. That doesn’t mean 2016 will be anything like 2015, though.

Sure, the jerseys are the same. So are the biggest names on each squad. But a lot has changed over the past year for both the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Whether any of these changes will make a difference on who wins remains to be seen, of course. At the very least, however, we should be in for an entertaining series that keeps us on the edges of our seats.

Blindingly obvious, right? Last year, Kevin Love was eliminated in the first round with a shoulder injury, and Kyrie Irving went down with a fractured knee cap in Game 1 of the Finals. From there, it was all on LeBron James and the Cleveland bigs. He took all the shots, and the Cavs did everything they could to chase down the misses — because as soon as the Warriors gained possession, they couldn’t be stopped.

LeBron played out of his mind, although it wasn’t nearly enough. This year, he’s going to have help. Not only are Love and Irving healthy, but the Cavs are rested after a fairly easy road to the Finals, having played three fewer games so far this postseason than the Warriors.

That’s certainly a good thing. Having all of your options ready to be deployed is basically a prerequisite to winning a title. Yet we’re going to hear all series about how the Cavs are in trouble because of Love and Irving’s awful defense. 

It’s true, of course. Both of those guys are going to be in trouble against the Warriors. But that’s the beauty of a seven game series. Tyronn Lue and the Cavs have to figure out a way to minimize their defensive disadvantage while simultaneously forcing the Warriors out of their comfort zone with what Love and Irving do well on the other end. For Cleveland, that might mean embracing some slight zone principles, guarding areas of the floor rather than the players themselves.

Could it work? For a game, maybe. After that, the Warriors will adjust, and the Cavs will have to do the same. That’s the give-and-take of the playoffs, which makes the postseason such a different beast than the regular season.

A reasonable person could in fact argue that Curry was 2015-16’s most improved player, as we’ve done on a couple of occasions here

Curry destroyed his own 3-point record. He was more accurate from behind the 3-point line. He earned unanimous MVP honors. He increased his per-game scoring by more than six points per game, topping the 30-per-game plateau for the first time in his career. He grabbed the most rebounds per game in his career and set a new career-high for steals per game, too.

And somehow, despite attempting 11 3-pointers per game, Curry was more accurate from the floor, knocking down more than 50 percent of his field goal attempts. The only place Curry didn’t numerically improve his game was in assists per game, which can be in part explained by teams trapping Curry up top and forcing the ball out of his hands, turning Draymond Green into the primary offensive creator.

Curry’s just on the cusp of entering his peak, which means he could be better next year, as well. Maybe he’ll drill 500 3-pointers just to prove he can.

It seems absurd to claim a 31-year-old is getting better, and we’re not at all saying that the King is playing like his 26-year-old self. But compared to last year, James is in a much better place this season.

He was basically broken in 2014-15. Trying to lead his team to a successful season in his first year back in Cleveland put too large of a burden on James. This year, the Cavs sacrificed a few wins here and there to make sure LeBron would be at his physical peak when the Finals rolled around.

It’s worked to perfection. According to a study from ESPN.com, LeBron is playing faster and dunking more in the postseason. The difference is most apparent in his efficiency. Last year, James dipped below 50 percent shooting from the floor for the first time since the 2008-09 season. In 2015-16, he bounced back to shoot 52 percent with a 27.5 PER.

If there’s an area of concern for LeBron, it’s clearly his 3-point shooting. He’s taken fewer attempts from deep than in years past, and he’s been awful on 3s all season (30.9 percent). The Cavs will need to win the 3-point battle to beat the Warriors. It would help if LeBron could regress to the mean a bit on that front.

Don’t expect the Cavs to pound the ball into the post and try to slow things down against the Warriors, as they did in the 2015 Finals. Coach Lue swears up and down that his Cleveland team will try to run Golden State off the court.

That’s playing into the Warriors hands, of course, but the Cavs don’t have much of a choice at this point. Lue has turned this team into a free-flowing, up-tempo squad that thrives on making better basketball decisions than their opponent.

The change isn’t apparent in raw pace numbers. The Cavaliers average less than one additional possession per game under Lue compared to Blatt’s time with the team this season. But if you watch the games, the difference is clear. Where Cleveland stood around waiting for openings to develop under Blatt, they now move with purpose off the ball, forcing opponents into mistakes through the sheer number of decisions they have to make in a given possession.

Furthermore, the Cavaliers have completely abandoned any semblance of playing big, with Channing Frye earning more and more minutes as Cleveland’s ostensible center. Maybe Tristan Thompson will play a key role in the Finals, since the Cavs have to keep the Warriors off the board. We’d be surprised, though, if Cleveland doesn’t play to its strengths, even if they’re the same as those of the Warriors.

Last year’s Golden State squad seemed like a team of destiny. This year, the Warriors are probably a better team — that tends to be the case when you set a record for most regular-season wins.

They’re also a really tired team. 140 wins over two seasons with a title run sandwiched in between will take a lot out of you. And if anything plays into the Cavs’ favor, it’s that physical and mental fatigue that the Warriors are constantly battling.

We saw it when Kerr and Green had their famous blowup earlier this season — there’s a tension under the surface in Golden State that can be exploited if you force the Warriors into a few early mistakes. They’ll eventually settle down, as they showed in the Thunder series. Punch them in the mouth in Game 1, like Oklahoma City did, and you’ll stand a chance while they try to gather themselves and get back on the same page.

Will it matter? Probably not; we’re picking the Warriors in 6 once more. But we’re also expecting a more competitive series than many might think, because the Cavs are rested, healthy and hungry.