That the Golden State Warriors are a better team than last year is a given with their offseason addition of league MVP and four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant.
But LeBron James said the Cavaliers have improved as well, even though it would seem hard to improve on the unprecedented feat of rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win the 2016 title.
Oddsmakers and analysts have made the Warriors heavy favorites as the teams meet for the third consecutive year in the NBA Finals, which open Thursday at Oracle Arena. But James said more than talent will determine the winner.
“You know talent will only get you so far,” James said Sunday. “You gotta be able to sacrifice and dedicate and fight for one another throughout the course of a season, throughout the course of a battle. It’s a lot of talented teams in our league. A lot. And you see it all the time, ‘This team has a lot of talent, but why can’t they get over the hump?’?”
James is banking on the Cavs’ chemistry and closeness to make the difference. They bonded even tighter after J.R. Smith’s daughter, Dakota, was born five months premature in January, the death of Channing Frye’s parents within a month of each other in October and November and the addition of 12- and 14-year veterans Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, both playing in their first NBA Finals.
(AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, bottom, is guarded by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry during the first NBA Finals matchup.
Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving (24.5 points, 5.6 assists) raised his game to another level in the last four games of the conference finals against the Celtics, averaging 29.5 points while shooting 67 percent from the field and 56 percent from 3-point range. LeBron James picking up his fourth foul with 6:46 left in the second quarter of Game 4 against the Celtics inspired Irving to take over, and he finished with 42 points. Irving had a similar surge last year against the Warriors, joining Rick Barry and Dwyane Wade as the only players in the last 50 years to score 30 or more points in three consecutive NBA Finals games (3-5) before the age of 25. Irving’s numbers in the 2016 Finals: 27.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.14 steals, not to mention “The Shot” to win Game 7 for the Cavs. Smith (6.6 ppg) has been virtually invisible as a scoring threat in 13 playoff games as he concentrates on defense, as has Iman Shumpert (4.7 ppg). The Cavs may need some timely 3-pointers from Smith, just as he delivered in the third quarter of Game 7 last year. Korver (6.4 ppg) turned in back-to-back games of 14 and 18 points in the East semifinals against the Toronto Raptors. He should be inspired in his first Finals appearance, along with Williams, who tied his 2017 playoff-high with 14 points in the closeout game in Boston.
Warriors: Steph Curry (28.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals) averaged 17.5 points in two regular-season meetings with the Cavs, hitting 7-of-19 3-pointers, but has been hot during the playoffs. He averaged 31.5 points against the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, connecting on 56 percent from the field and 47 percent from long range, up from 50 and 43 percent, respectively, in 12 postseason games. Battling a knee injury, Curry got off to a slow start in the 2016 Finals, scoring 48 points in the first three games. In Games 1 and 3, he hit 10-of-28 field goals and 6-of-17 3s, but turned in efforts of 38, 25 and 30 points in Games 3-6. In Game 7, he hit 6-of-19 (4-of-14 from 3) for 17 points. Watching Irving versus Curry will be as riveting as James versus Kevin Durant. Klay Thompson (14.4 points, 38 percent from the field, 36 percent from long range) averaged only 11 points against the Spurs and made only 33 percent of his field goal attempts. A year ago he was at his best in Games 4-6, with 25, 37 and 25 points, respectively, but contributed 14 points in Game 7 (6-of-17 field goals, 2-of-10 3s). Ian Clark’s 7.5 points per game in the playoffs stands fifth on the team. Ex-Cav Shaun Livingston (4.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists) has the athleticism to hurt the Cavs.
(AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, left, defends against Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James during the first half of a game in Jan. 2017, in Oakland, Calif.
Cavaliers: James (32.5 points, second-highest of his career, 8 rebounds, 7 assists) continues to perform at what seems like his best all-around level in the postseason, posting career-bests in field goal (56.6) and 3-point percentage (42.1). In the closeout Game 5 in Boston, he passed Michael Jordan as the league’s leading playoff scorer. And he still may have another level. In earning his third Finals MVP last year, he averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.57 steals and 2.29 blocks, becoming the first player in history to lead all five categories in one series. His points average was the highest on a winning team in a seven-game Finals and his chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in the final two minutes of Game 7 was one of three plays that defined the Cavs’ championship victory. Iguodala, who missed 1½ games in the West finals with a sore left knee, will defend James, which helped Iguodala earn MVP honors in the 2015 Finals.
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love (0) reacts against the Atlanta Hawks.
Coach Tyronn Lue vowed to get Kevin Love more involved in the East finals against the Celtics and Love averaged 22.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3-point range. Love played center with the second unit and rediscovered his aggressiveness, but could be a defensive liability in this series if that energy falls off. Tristan Thompson (9.2 points, 9.3 rebounds) continues to shine at playoff time, and he’s improved his free throw percentage to 67, up from 50 in the regular season. Richard Jefferson averaged 15.3 minutes in the 2016 Finals and contributed 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field. In the Celtics series he took the minutes of Channing Frye because of Frye’s lackluster defense. That may happen again unless the Cavs get desperate for Frye’s 3-point shooting.
Warriors: Eight-time All-Star Durant, who left Oklahoma City in July, is the reason the Warriors are heavily favored. How well the Cavs defend Durant (25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks, 56 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3-point range) will be the key to the series. Lue could let James spend the bulk of his time on Durant, but chasing him would wear James out and might risk foul trouble. Durant scored 36 on Christmas Day in a Cavs’ victory in Cleveland and went for 21 in the Warriors’ 35-point home rout of the Cavs in Oracle.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
In this file photo, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green dunks against the Houston Rockets during the second half in Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, in Houston.
The wild card is forward Draymond Green, who will match up with Love but may resume his role as James’ antagonist. Green (13.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists) was suspended for Game 5 a year ago for an accumulation of flagrant foul points after punching James in the groin in Game 4. Some in the Bay Area believe the Warriors would have won the championship if Green has been on the court. Iguodala (6.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists) will be a thorn in James’ side on defense. Zaza Pachulia (6.1 points, 4.3 rebounds) started both games at center against the Cavs this season, but missed two games against the Spurs with a bruised right heel. The Warriors can also go big with 7-footer JaVale McGee (7.0 points, 3.2 rebounds).
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue draws up a play during a timeout against the Denver Nuggets.
Cavaliers: It took Tyronn Lue awhile to get his defense in order after the Celtics lost star point guard Isaiah Thomas at halftime of Game 2, but Lue made the right adjustments and got the Cavs up to speed in the final two games of the series. A year ago, Lue was an unknown after taking over when David Blatt was fired on Jan. 22. Now Lue has been to two NBA Finals and won a championship at age 40. His even-keeled demeanor keeps the Cavs from panicking, even when down 3-1 to the Warriors a year ago. He also remained supremely confident despite the Cavs’ 10-14 finish to the regular season. Lue visited San Quentin the night before Game 7 of the Finals with some of his assistants and friends from his playing days and used what he saw in his pregame remarks. After the Cavs swept the Raptors in the East semifinals, Jefferson said of Lue, “He’s still only a second-year coach, so he’s going to get far better. But he really has all the tools that you need to be one of the great coaches, not just in basketball, but also in sports.”
Warriors: With coach Steve Kerr still dealing with complications from 2015 back surgery, directing from the bench is former Cavs coach Mike Brown, who had two stops in Cleveland from 2005-10 and 2014-15. He took the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007 when James was only 22. Now in the ultimate irony, he’s getting paid by the Cavs to beat them. Brown was hired as associate head coach in July after Luke Walton left to coach the L.A. Lakers. Walton filled in for Kerr at the start of the 2015-16 season when Kerr underwent two offseason back surgeries and went 39-4. The Warriors are 10-0 since Kerr took an indefinite leave of absence and made Brown the bench coach. Brown communicates frequently with Kerr, who will likely watch from the locker room. The Warriors rank first among playoff teams in defensive efficiency (99.1) and while that’s likely because of Kerr and his system, it’s also Brown’s specialty. Who better to scheme to stop James than the man who coached him for five seasons?
Prediction: Cavs must ramp up their energy on defense and avoid turnovers to repeat as champions. Cavs in seven.