Stephen Curry dunks during practice on Wednesday. The Warriors host the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Champs face tougher challenge in LeBron, Cavs this time

You wanted it. ABC wanted it. The NBA sure as heck wanted it. Save for Oklahoma City and San Antonio perhaps, the basketball world wanted it. Balls not only wanted it but predicted it.

Well, we finally got it — the Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Warriors, Part 2. If the NBA had canceled the regular season and made this a best-of-99 finals, it would have spared us a lot of boredom.

Now sit back, relax and strap it down. This one’s gonna take a while.

It seems almost everyone likes the Warriors to repeat and not without reason, but Balls isn’t so sure about that. Let’s not forget that, when the Champs closed the deal in Cleveland a year ago, the Cavaliers were more like King James and the Seven Paupers. Kyrie Irving sat out the final five games. Kevin Love didn’t play at all. James and a bunch of guys named Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mosgov still extended the Champs to six competitive games.

Since then, James griped and moaned about how things might have been different. Well, it’s time to put up or shut up. Because his supporting cast is present and accounted for this time.

This is a better Cavaliers team than the one last fall. A lot better. Irving and Love give them a second and third option on offense. What’s more, in Channing Frye, a shrewd pick-up before the trade deadline, it has another 3-ball threat. Unlike last year, when James was the show, the Warriors will have more on their minds at that end.

Oh, and this time the Cavaliers have a trusted coach, too.

Since Tyronn Lue replaced the overmatched David Blatt, the Cavaliers have played more like the Warriors in substance and style. They move the ball quicker. They space the floor better. They shoot 3-pointers more often and efficiently.

While the Cavaliers are defense-challenged at times, they have covered the 3-point line as well as the Warriors in the postseason. It’s close to the basket where they tend to get soft. Coach Steve Kerr may be tempted to rely on a bigger line-up more often, but that’s not his team’s strength.

Here’s what concerns Balls about the Warriors at the moment — they’ve had to work too hard to get to this point.

The Cavaliers have played three fewer games in the playoffs. They’re the fresher, healthier team. The seven-game test against the Thunder took a lot out of the Warriors, no doubt. Could the Cavaliers be the team that has more left in the tank this time?

As it concerns the best players, James and Stephen Curry, that’s no small factor. James has averaged about 37 minutes per game in this postseason, nearly five fewer than a year ago. Expect him to be more of a factor at the defensive end, where his team desperately needs him.

As for Curry, the Most Valuable Player has flashed some of his old magic at times. Still, it’s fairly obvious that his gimpy ankle and knee aren’t 100 percent and won’t be the rest of the way.

Balls took Cavaliers in seven games at the start of the season. As hard as it is to pick against the Champs, it’s stickin’ to it.

LEAGUE OF ITS OWN: After what took place in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, who knows what the NBA is fixin’ to do in its showcase event.

Referee Scott Foster had been scheduled to work the game, but he was bumped in favor Danny Crawford even though rotations rarely change in the postseason. That Crawford was the better referee might have prompted the move. Yet critics pointed out that the Warriors were far less effective when Foster was present, which raised suspicions about whether the higher-ups had a specific outcome in mind. In the last two seasons, the Warriors have a 4-4 record and minus 2.0 points differential with Foster compared to 22-5 and plus-9.5 without him.

Then again, this kind of thing has gone on in the league for years. Nobody scared Michael Jordan and his epic Chicago Bulls teams like referee Hue Hollins, who showed up a lot when they were comfortably ahead in series. Balls repeatedly asked then league operations chief Rod Thorn about the process, only to be told that it was a private matter each time.

Meanwhile, in the Events section on its Facebook page, the NBA promoted the Cavaliers-Warriors matchup hours before the Thunder-Warriors series had been completed. The league blamed an overzealous ticket broker for the mistake.

Yep, just another thing about the NBA that makes you go hmmmmm.

YOUR MOVE, K.D.: While the Thunder’s Kevin Durant watches the NBA Finals from a distance again, the plum of the next free agent market can think hard and long about his future.

If money is what moves him, Durant will sign a one-year deal with the Thunder then test the market again next year. The guy has a $300-plus million Nike deal. How much more financial security does he need, really?

But if it’s an elusive NBA title that the 27-year-old Durant wants most, then he’ll leave nothing to chance. He’ll ditch Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City and head to a big market that gives him the best chance to achieve it. That means the Bay Area, where Durant and Curry could hoist banners in the state-of-the-art Chase Center for years to come.

BO KNOWS DRAMA: The Sharks dropped their first-ever Stanley Cup Finals game in Pittsburgh the other night, and worst yet, former unsigned draft pick Nick Bonino won it in the final minutes.

Look at it this way: At least they got to part of one of the classic calls in sports history.

“BoninoBoninoBoninoBoninoBoninoBoninoBoninoBoninoBoninoBonino . . . Nick Bo-ni-nooooooooooooooooooooooooo . . .!” Hockey Night Punjabi broadcaster Harnarayan Singh described The Shot Heard ‘Round the Social Media World.

Sure beat the heck out of “Boy, did Brent Burns, Paul Martin and Martin Jones just screw up or what?”

JUST SAYIN’: Ex-Giant Marlon Byrd might have played his final game after another PEDs bust, but he made more than $38 million in his career, so the rest of us should be that dumb.

Jabari Blash and Drew Pomeranz for Yonder Alonso and Marc Rzepczynski isn’t the worst trade in franchise history, but give it some time, Athletics fans.

49ers CEO Jed York approves of the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas, and the Raiders approve of Colin Kaepernick as 49ers’ quarterback for at least the next 10 seasons.

Maybe it’s just Balls, but the baseball season has started to drag a bit.

Good news of the day: Only 98 more ’til the NFL regular season opener!

Got an opinion? A gripe? A compliment? A compliment?! Send them to pladd@aol.com, and who knows, you may get your name in the paper before long.

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