Either way, LeBron gets a Finals rematch. Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers have made it two straight NBA Finals appearances — and six straight...

Thunder or Warriors? Who Cavs should prefer to face in 2016 NBA Finals

Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers have made it two straight NBA Finals appearances — and six straight for LeBron James and James Jones — they await their opponent with the winner of the Western Conference finals yet to be decided. If the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Golden State Warriors on Saturday or Monday night, we’ll see a rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals when LeBron and the Miami Heat took down Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder.

If the Golden State Warriors manage to win three straight games after going down 3-1, we’ll get a rematch of last year’s NBA Finals when the Warriors took down a battered Cavs team in six games. Finally, we’ll get to see if the Cavs can prove the naysayers of the Warriors correct in saying they were lucky they didn’t face a full Cavs squad.

NBA Playoffs

  • Cavs’ test starts now
  • Warriors-OKC: Game 6

So, which matchup should the Cavs prefer?

Why the Cavs should want to face the Thunder

Home-court advantage: 50-19. That is the record of teams with home-court advantage in the NBA Finals dating back to 1947 when the NBA was called the BAA. While the majority of that was done with the 2-3-2 format in the Finals, it’s still an overwhelming record for teams that go into the Finals with Game 1 on their home floor. And if they can win Game 1 on their home floor, that team is 41-11 in winning the series, according to WhoWins.com. The Cleveland Cavaliers won 57 games this season, which trumps the 55 wins for the Thunder.

One of those teams to not have home-court advantage and still win the NBA Finals was the 2012 Heat, led by LeBron. The Heat lost Game 1 to the Thunder in Oklahoma City before ripping off four straight victories to win the series in five games. Kevin Durant was incredible in that series, but it was LeBron’s team that came out victorious. Why is that? That leads us to our next reason.

LeBron James almost always beats Kevin Durant: LeBron and K.D. have faced each other 21 times in their careers. LeBron’s teams — whether it was his first stint in Cleveland, his time in Miami or his second stint in Cleveland — are 17-4 against Durant’s teams. Some of that came at the start of Durant’s career when Seattle/OKC was just starting this rebuilding process and James’ squads ran off six straight victories over the future MVP. But even after the Thunder became a very good team, LeBron’s teams have won seven of the past 10 matchups.

And of course, there is that 4-1 NBA Finals record from 2012 when the Thunder almost shockingly made it to the Finals as such a young team. A much more veteran Miami team should have and did take down the young guys with very little experience. Durant was great in that Finals series. He averaged over 30 points, shot 54.8/39.4/83.9 and only had one game in which LeBron outscored him. However, it wasn’t enough to take more than the first game.

In their career regular-season matchup, Durant shoots a better percentage from the 3-point line and the charity stripe. He also blocks more shots than LeBron (1.0 compared to 0.9 per game). However, James beats him in every other category, including points per game. The Cavs also won both regular-season games against the Thunder this season, although season series is a tough indicator for a playoff result.

Could LeBron keep up this dominance over Durant with another Finals win?

You don’t bring a Dion Waiters to a J.R. Smith shootout (a.k.a. the math problem): The Cavs have become one of the deadliest teams in the NBA over the past two years when it comes to 3-point shooting. They took the second-most 3-pointers last season and had the fifth-highest percentage. This season, the Cavs had the third-most attempts and finished seventh in percentage. That was before they became a supernova from beyond the arc in this postseason by knocking down 43.4 percent of a little over 33 attempts per game.

That brings us to the math problem of three being greater than two, which is something the Thunder have been able to overcome so far, but it still leaves you open to losing the battle from the 3-point line. Over the past two seasons, the Thunder have been pretty middle of the road in terms of attempts (14th and 17th). Their percentage has needed improvement as well with them finishing 23rd and 17th.

The Cavs have more than a handful of fully capable shooters who can be on the floor for long stretches. J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Channing Frye and Matthew Dellavedova all have had great seasons shooting the ball from deep. The Thunder have Durant, who is a spectacular shooter. Serge Ibaka has re-emerged as a reliable option from deep in these playoffs after a poor season. Dion Waiters shot around league average for the first time in his career this season. Russell Westbrook is historically bad at it. They also have Anthony Morrow, but his defensive lapses make him tough to play for long stretches.

The Thunder have done a good job of slowing down the 3-point shooting of the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs before them, but can you do that three straight rounds? This leads us to our final reason.

The Thunder would have to pull off the toughest playoff road in NBA history: The Thunder were challenged a bit mentally in the first round against Dallas but that wasn’t an actual tough matchup for them. Then they took down a 67-win team in Round 2. They would have to take down a 73-win team in the conference finals before tangoing with LeBron and company in the NBA Finals without home-court advantage in those last three rounds. Is that asking too much of one team in order to win an NBA championship?

And how spent would the Thunder be after taking down the Spurs and Warriors in back-to-back series? That was the biggest question before the playoffs when considering the Thunder’s road to the Finals. Are there too many elite teams to get through and how do you keep that mental focus and concentrated effort up for three straight opponents like that? It could build their confidence completely up by then and they could be in such a great groove as a team that the Cavs would actually be the underdogs in the series. That’s just a lot to ask of one team in their quest for the title.

Why the Cavs should want to face the Warriors

Revenge: The Cavs put up a valiant effort during the 2015 Finals. They didn’t have Kyrie Irving after the first game when he broke his kneecap. Kevin Love was out after the first round when Kelly Olynyk pulled Love’s shoulder out of its socket. Iman Shumpert was very much banged up. Matthew Dellavedova needed an I.V. after one game because he was so dehydrated. LeBron went through extensive treatment seemingly every hour off the court in order to get his body back on the court and performing at its highest level possible despite the grueling minutes and role he was forced to play.

The Warriors didn’t take it easy on the Cavs, but Cleveland still ended up with a 2-1 series lead before losing the next three contests. When some including Irving offered up the idea that the Warriors were lucky not to face them at full strength, scoffs were thrown in their direction. They couldn’t have played the same defense against the Warriors if Love and Irving played. That was the prevailing sentiment and the Cavs would’ve been run out of the building in a lot of games if they had better scorers but worse defenders trying to play at the pace of the Warriors.

Cleveland gets to bring its squad, healthy at the moment, into the Finals and prove to the Warriors that they were lucky last postseason. And with the way this squad is performing on offense, it may be the Warriors who are actually not equipped offensively to run with them.

Establish themselves as the standard for 3-point shooting over the Warriors: Last year in their run to the championship, the Warriors put up the most 3-pointers in a postseason. They knocked down 240 3-pointers in 21 games and connected on 37.4 percent of their attempts. It wasn’t the highest percentage in history by any means, but the volume was seemingly overwhelming for their opponents. 67 of those 240 3-pointers came in the six-game series victory over the Cavs in the Finals. Since then, the Warriors have been the standard from behind the arc with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — maybe the two greatest 3-point shooters of all-time already — leading the long-distance assault.

The Cavs have been better this postseason and better by a wide margin. Their volume and accuracy have been unparalleled in NBA history during the playoffs. Only one other team (2005 Phoenix Suns at 43.6 percent) has taken over 200 3-pointers in a postseason and hit a higher percentage than this Cavs team. The Cavs are shooting 43.4 percent from deep heading into the Finals and they’ve already made 202 3-pointers in 14 games. That’s the third-best total in NBA history for a playoff run. The 2014 Spurs (203) and last year’s Warriors are the only better teams.

So why aren’t the Cavs being regarded as the same historic shooting team as the Warriors?

This time the Warriors are the ones dealing with health concerns: Win or lose, it’s tough to watch Steph Curry during this first full series back from his MCL sprain and think he’s 100 percent healthy. Some reports have said he’s about 70 percent. The Warriors insist he’s not injured anymore, which isn’t the same as saying he’s healthy. And this time of year, you would have to be a cyborg to play this many games and be 100 percent from a health standpoint. That still doesn’t ignore the fact that Curry gets isolated against Steven Adams and struggles to get by him or get proper separation.

But Adams is a good defender, you’re probably saying to yourself. That he is. So how do we explain Curry not being able to separate from Enes Kanter in similar situations? It’s not that this is an excuse for the Warriors and Curry. It’s more of an explanation, and there’s a pretty big difference. It also means that it’s potentially the Cavs’ turn to exploit some injury concerns with major players to the Warriors this time around. Maybe by the time the Finals start, Curry will be much closer to 100 percent, but he’ll also be coming off a grueling seven-game series if that’s the case.

You can expect the Cavs to want to pounce all over this opportunity in their quest for a title.

LeBron James gets to prove he’s undeniably the best player in the world over Steph Curry: For the past two seasons, Curry has been the talk of the league. It’s not that LeBron isn’t talked about — he certainly is. However, Curry has dominated jersey sales, shoe sales (non-Jordan, of course), Vines, media coverage and MVP voting. While LeBron will often say the right things when presented with questions about his place in the league vs. Curry’s, there are also plenty of opportunities in which he says something and we’re on a quest for what the subtext of his comments are.

LeBron even garnered more Finals MVP votes than Curry did last year in a series he lost. You would be crazy to look at LeBron and deny that not only does he want to win a title for himself and Cleveland, but he also wants to remind everybody that he should be regarded as the best player in the NBA. He should have had a unanimous MVP back in 2013 before Curry became the first player in NBA history to get all of the first-place votes. He wants to remind the world that his body of work and his place in the NBA have more of an impact than what Curry has done in these two years.

Ability and tenure should matter when it comes to these things. And by taking down Curry in the Finals, he can provide that reminder in spectacular fashion. He may even attempt the defensive pressure he once put on another point guard who won MVP over him — Derrick Rose. LeBron has been faster and more athletic this season than the previous two years. Has he gotten himself in shape to be able to contain Curry in a potential Finals rematch?

I’m sure he would love to show us.

Final Verdict

So which team should the Cavs hope they face in the Finals? They’ll say it doesn’t matter to them, and maybe the revenge factor means more to them than having the best chance to win. But I’m going with the Thunder as the opponent they should want to face the most. Not only does the 3-point shooting seem like a huge advantage for the Cavs when the Thunder struggle to shoot them at an elite level, but the road to the Finals just seems unfair for the Thunder.

If they can pull it off, then it’s the most impressive single postseason run we’ve ever seen. It also seems impossible to take down 140 wins in the two rounds leading up to the tough Finals matchup. The Cavs are a deeper team with more weapons. I’m not sure you can say the same thing about them against the Warriors. That’s not a knock on the Thunder, who have really stolen the show so far in these playoffs. The Cavs just have to feel better about their chances against an exhausted but resilient Thunder team than they do against a Warriors team with the confidence and experience to help them repeat as champs, should they make it to the Finals.

LeBron James is headed to his sixth straight NBA Finals.
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