The NBA Finals between Golden State and Cleveland might come down to which team is the hungriest for the title.
The talent level is basically even, with the backcourt stealing the show for both teams.
But sometimes in sports, timing is everything.
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Draymond Green is generally referred to as the heartbeat of the Warriors. Coach Steve Kerr said he reminds him of robo-rebounder and defensive whiz Dennis Rodman. He’s not a large man, but the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Green is considered the Warriors’ glue guy, the energizer bunny who brings the intensity every game, and the one player who can effectively guard all five positions. Green averaged 11.7 points and a team-high 8.2 rebounds this season. He finished second in the NBA for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Harrison Barnes is like the quiet contributor who is often overlooked, but keeps showing an affinity for making critical baskets. Barnes averaged 10.1 points and 5.5 rebounds this season, and shot 48.2 percent from the floor and 40.5 percent from 3-point territory. Former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee took on lesser roles off the bench to make everything flow effectively.
Last summer, LeBron James left South Beach – the Miami Heat – to return home and rebuild his legacy in Cleveland. Even with a rookie head coach and a rebuilt roster, James averaged 25.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 48.8 percent from the field. He got back in the good graces of the Cavaliers fans, who burned his jersey after he left Cleveland for the Heat in 2010 via free agency. After Kevin Love was lost for the rest of the season when he separated his shoulder in the second round of the playoffs against Chicago, Tristan Thompson emerged to make the Cavs a more physical team. Thompson is so confident that he will hit the jackpot when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer that he turned down a four-year, $52 million extension prior to this season. James said Thompson ought to be with the Cavaliers his entire career. James Jones and ex-Dallas Mavericks star Shawn Marion are the primary backups.
Edge at forward: Cavaliers
Andrew Bogut is not known as one of the league’s top centers. But his influence as a tough defender has had a major impact on the Warriors’ ability to control the paint. Bogut averaged 6.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.69 blocks per game this season and also shot 56.3 percent from the field. Festus Ezeli has been effective as a backup to Bogut. Ezeli started 41 games during the 2012-2013 season as a rookie and missed the entire ’13-14 campaign because of a knee injury, but has returned to be effective when needed.
One of the keys to the Cavaliers’ surge as a defensive squad is the presence of Timofey Mozgov. At 7-foot-1, Mozgov is a terrific rim protector who is adept at blocking and altering shots, and he can rebound. In the four-game sweep of Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals, Mozgov had 43 points, 30 rebounds and five blocks and was 17 of 30 from the field. Sometimes the Cavaliers slide power forward Thompson over and use him as their backup center. Kendrick Perkins and former Dallas Mavericks center Brendan Haywood are also available.
Edge at center: Warriors
Steph Curry and Klay Thompson form arguably the best shooting backcourt in the history of the NBA. In winning league Most Valuable Player honors this season, Curry averaged 23.8 points and 7.7 assists and also shot 44.3 percent from 3-point territory. No one in the NBA has a quicker release than Curry, who is averaging 29.2 points and 6.4 assists in the playoffs. Thompson averaged 21.7 points and converted 43.9 percent of his 3-point shots during the regular season. Thompson passed the NBA’s concussion protocol and will be in the starting lineup tonight after he was accidentally kneed in the head by Houston’s Trevor Ariza in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Curry and Thompson have a penchant for scoring points in bunches. Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa are the primary reserves in the backcourt. At 6-7, Livingston can post up and subsequently shoot over most guards. Barbosa uses his lightning-quick speed to blow past defenders.
Kyrie Irving missed two games in the Eastern Conference Finals and won’t be 100 percent in the NBA Finals because of tendinitis in his left knee. He also has a strained right foot. Irving’s progress has been slow, and the speed that he has exhibited throughout his career is not there. He has been relegated more or less to being a spot-up shooter. James and Irving are the main players who can crisply run the Cavaliers’ offense. And if Irving is not at his best, it puts more pressure on James. Shooting guard Iman Shumpert is mainly a defensive specialist who is playing better with the Cavaliers than he did with his previous employer — the New York Knicks. Another Knicks castoff, J.R. Smith, is flourishing in Cleveland. No longer considered a selfish player, Smith appears to fit right in with the Cavaliers’ team concept. He even converted 8 of 12 shots from behind the 3-point arc in Cleveland’s 97-89 win over Atlanta in Game 1 of the East Finals. Matthew Dellavedova is combative and is a solid backup point guard.
Edge at guards: Warriors
The best move Steve Kerr made over the past year was to turn his back on the head coaching job with the New York Knicks and accept the job with the Warriors. Kerr has looked like a genius in replacing Mark Jackson and has the Warriors in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1975. Under Kerr, the Warriors set a team record for wins in a season, with 67. They’ve also become one of the league’s better defensive teams, as Kerr has been able to effectively rotate as many as 10 players in and out of the lineup and keep them relatively happy.
Most NBA purists never heard of David Blatt before the Cavaliers hired him as their coach last summer. And it didn’t help when James said he changed a play that Blatt had called, leading to James’ burying a shot that beat Chicago 86-84 at the buzzer in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and tied that series at 2-2. Blatt, who was a point guard at Princeton, won a title as a coach in Europe last year. But if the Cavaliers win a title this year, James probably will get more credit for it than Blatt.
Edge at coaching: Warriors
The Warriors are a gaudy 46-3 at home this season and have the loudest fan base in the NBA. With home-court advantage in the Finals, the Warriors have a decisive edge. But don’t get caught up in the offensive splash the Warriors deliver on a game-by-game basis. This team is a defensive juggernaut. The Warriors were 40-0 during the regular season when holding opponents under 100 points and are 10-2 in that scenario during the playoffs. This team has several players who can score, handle the ball, create and run the offense. Plus, the Warriors had to navigate their way through a much stiffer challenge in the West playoffs than what the Cavaliers experienced in the East.
It’s difficult to imagine that after a 107-100 loss in Phoenix on Jan. 13 the Cavaliers were a dismal 19-20 and observers started questioning whether new coach David Blatt was relating to his players. But the Cavaliers quickly regrouped and finished 34-9 the rest of the season, which, percentage-wise, was the best in the NBA. Midseason trades for Smith, Shumpert and Mozgov helped nudge the Cavaliers over the top. The leadership of James has been remarkable, and his scoring, defense, passing and ball-handling skills have been on another level. If James has an off night, however, the Cavaliers are not equipped to have another player step up and carry the load. This is particularly true if point guard Irving isn’t at his best.
Edge at intangibles: Warriors
Prediction: Warriors in 6