OAKLAND — When Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off Thursday at Oracle Arena, the whole scene will look familiar.
There will be the Golden State Warriors and, of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The same teams that have been competing for the title the last three years. But that doesn’t mean the games will play out similarly to those of the last few seasons.
For one, there’s the 7-foot former MVP who hurt the basketball world’s feelings this summer by bolting Oklahoma City to play for the Dubs.
No longer will the Cavs be able to leave that position — previously held by Harrison Barnes — unguarded as Kevin Durant hunts his shots.
“It’s not like it’s going to be a lot of wide open shots out there,” Durant reminded on Tuesday when he was asked how Cleveland will have to adjust to his presence in the offense.
On the other side, LeBron James and company have countered the Warriors adding the biggest trump card in the NBA by drastically improving their shooting.
Kevin Love is launching 3-pointers at a more effective rate than he ever has in his career as he enters the Finals hitting 47.5 percent of his attempts.
“That kind of shooting ability for a big is unheard of,” Durant said.
And it’s altered the way the Cavaliers are running their offense. Instead of using him in pick-and-pop situations in halfcourt sets, Cleveland is finding him in transition. And with Love entering the championship series fully healthy for the first time, Durant expects he’ll be playing better than ever.
“He’s playing great right now, it’s on us to slow that down,” Durant said.
With Love establishing himself as an effective floor-spacing shooter, it only creates more space for James — one of the most unstoppable players in transition in the history of the league.
What’s more, James has found a way to make himself even more difficult to guard.
He’s shooting more 3-pointers (5.8 attempts per game) and — here’s the important part — hitting more (42.1 percent) than he ever has in the playoffs.
When LeBron, a freight train with handles, can force you to guard him on the perimeter, he’s nearly unguardable.
“You can’t stop LeBron,” Warriors acting head coach Mike Brown said. “He’s going to score, he’s going to get others involved, he’s going to help others score. So, you try to make it tough for him.”
That won’t be as easy as it was when Brown coached James in the 2007 NBA Finals, when the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavs. Gregg Popovich’s bunch locked down a 22-year old LeBron by going under screens and daring him to shoot.
That’s not on the table anymore, and — most likely — neither will a sweep.
Contact Jacob C. Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.