OAKLAND — On paper, the NBA Finals matchup is the same as last year.
In reality, the second championship meeting of the NBA’s two best players is entirely unfamiliar.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have a new coach, new style and a trio of healthy all stars.
“We have more players now,” Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue said Wednesday after practice. “I think having Kevin [Love] and Kyrie [Irving] healthy, with those two guys hurt last year and injured, it just shortened our rotation and made our bench players starters and our rotation wasn’t as deep.”
Lue said he expects to play LeBron James at power forward and center for stretches to counterbalance the Golden State Warriors’ smallball unit.
Meanwhile, the Dubs’ roster appears consistent. But the difference this postseason has been an improved Klay Thompson, who has played brilliantly as Stephen Curry works his way back to full health.
Last year, the Washington State University product struggled at times. But this year, he’s been one of the best players in the playoffs.
Thompson has already connected on 20 more 3-pointers this postseason despite playing four fewer games. He’s also logged playoff career bests in points per game (26.2, up from 18.6), made free throws (89 percent) and effective shooting (56.1 percent). He leads the playoffs in points per game and corner 3s, going 23-for-46 on the shot he regularly calls a “layup.”
Veteran Andre Iguodala called Thompson out before this season for not being equipped to deal with the rigors of a long playoff run. “As the season went on I think he wore down a little bit, mentally more than anything,” the veteran swingman said in September.
Thompson promised then that he would better pace himself, and it appears he has.
Curry said after practice on Wednesday that Thompson’s progress is something he expected.
“He’s a better player than he was last year, so he’s obviously done that the entire season and in the playoffs up until this point, so I don’t see why that would change at all,” the unanimous MVP said. “Another year under your belt and being here for the second time, I think everybody will be more ready for this stage and him included.”
Last year, the shorthanded Cavs allowed Iguodala to roam free and inflict damage by guarding him with ill-equipped big men who couldn’t match his footspeed. This year, they’ll likely employ a smaller lineup and guard the entire floor better.
That means Klay can’t be a passive observer to the Dubs’ offense; he’s going to have to impose his will like he did so well as Curry recovered from a sprained MCL.
“I expect [the Cavs] to make me play the same way, which is trying to take away my 3-point shot, run me off the line, make me finish at the rim, which is fine,” he said. “… It’s just about staying aggressive, doing what I’ve done these whole playoffs on both sides of the ball.”
Many of the actors remain from last year’s finals, but the 2016 Cavs-Warriors series will be a different production.
And the Warriors certainly hope the ultimate result stays consistent.
“Whether I score five points or 30 points,” Thompson said, “as long as [we] get the win, it doesn’t really matter.”