For two defending conference champions with precious little roster turnover from last season, there has been a remarkable amount of change in the clubhouse for these two squads.
To start, the coaches that manned the sidelines all the way back in October when things tipped off won’t be standing much, or at all, during this Finals. Golden State’s Steve Kerr sat out the first 43 games of the 2015-16 season after complications from a pair of back surgeries and a spinal tap (complications that hound him to this day). Assistant Luke Walton led the Warriors to a 39-4 start in his absence before stepping aside upon Kerr’s return. The victories technically don’t belong on Walton’s record, but they did earn him a spot coaching the Los Angeles freakin’ Lakers, so it was a pretty swell payoff.
(Though he could use that 90.6 winning percentage to balance out what will be a rough first season in El Lay.)
On the surface, Cavaliers head coach David Blatt did a credible job running Cleveland to a 30-11 record this year, especially considering the slow start to 2014-15. It wasn’t enough for the Cavs, who fired him at the season’s mid-point in favor of Tyronn Lue, who led the team to a 57-25 season and the East’s best record.
This will be the first time in league history the Finals will start with two head coaches who weren’t on the sidelines to begin the season. A coaching switchover and eventual Finals berth hasn’t happened to an Eastern participant since 2006 (when Pat Riley shoved Stan Van Gundy aside in Miami) and since 1982 (when Riley replaced Paul Westhead in Los Angeles) for a Western finalist.
The note that Golden State created with its small lineups during last year’s Finals set the tone for both teams’ seasons.
The convenience of poor injury rehab from hulking Cavs center Timofey Mozgov and the shiny new contract for hybrid big man Tristan Thompson influenced the Cavaliers to eschew a typical center for most of the year. The Warriors still started Andrew Bogut at center, but do-it-all forward Draymond Green took a larger role in the offense and ended his first All-Star campaign with a spot in the second tier of the MVP race.
The Cavs kept winning with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love … well, Kevin Love had an up-and-down year. Months later, we still don’t know which thoughts, outside of his overactive “beautiful mind,” went into LeBron James’ subtweets. James later stopped following the Cavs on Twitter, for whatever reason, while the team struggled to play consistently stout defense under Lue.
The Warriors, meanwhile, had a year for the ages.
The defending champs didn’t lose their first game until Dec. 12, after an NBA-record 24-0 start, and they needed the excuse of a double-overtime game the night before and travel over nearly half of America (losing an hour along the way) to finally submit. The team would post a 73-9 mark, best in league history, with Stephen Curry once again shattering his own 3-point record and winning his second consecutive MVP in an unanimous vote.
The Warriors opened the playoffs against an embarrassing Houston Rockets outfit that clearly did not want to be there, and were well on their way to a sweep when Curry (already smarting from an ankle injury) slipped and fell on a wet spot on the floor in Game 4, suffering a sprained MCL. Golden State still dispatched Houston, and the shock of an early potential exit without Curry was assuaged by a pair of Clipper injuries, but fears remained up to the minute Curry set the world on fire with his record-breaking overtime performance upon his return in the second round against Portland.
Still, worries lingered about Curry’s overall health as the Oklahoma City Thunder surprisingly ran out to a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals. Golden State extended its season with a rocky Game 5 win at home before cutting Oklahoma City to its core with a comeback win in Game 6. Game 7 was just as rough, for both sides, but the Warriors prevailed and will once again represent the West in the Finals.
Cleveland, for once, had a far easier go of things. After a tumultuous regular season, and in the wake of an injury- and suspension-laden 2015 playoff run, the Cavaliers breezed through the first two rounds, sweeping both the Pistons and Hawks while working up a devastating mix of perimeter ball, with trade deadline acquisition Channing Frye playing a pivotal role.
The Eastern Conference finals matchup with Toronto seemed to be working along the same lines until Toronto responded with a defiant Game 3 win following two Cavalier blowouts. Toronto held off a furious Cavalier comeback in Game 4 (as fears abounded about Cleveland’s screen-and-roll defense) to tie the series. Cleveland kept the Raptors at arm’s length with wins in Games 5 and the series-clincher, but the pierce in the armor is showing. — Kelly Dwyer
After knocking off the Cavs in six games in the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors took both regular-season encounters with Cleveland. Their Christmas Day meeting saw the Warriors win a grind-it-out slugfest reminiscent of last year’s title round, despite the presence of the two Cavalier stars who missed that series.
After missing all of the 2015 Finals due to a shoulder injury, Love pulled down a game-high 18 rebounds, but struggled elsewhere, scoring just 10 points on 5-for-16 shooting and having a hard time defensively against Golden State’s speed. In his third game back from the knee injury that knocked him out of the last five games of the Finals, a still-not-100-percent Kyrie chipped in 13 points on 4-for-15 shooting with two assists.
Their woes meant LeBron once again had to carry the offense; while he scored a game-high 25 points, he needed 26 shots to do it. Cleveland shot just 31.6 percent from the floor and 5-for-30 from 3-point land, producing buckets at a rate of offensive efficiency (83 points per 100 possessions) that made the 76ers look like the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. [/restrict]