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Rod Beard breaks down Cavaliers-Warriors NBA Finals

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
This time, LeBron James of the Cavs has a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

It’s not just LeBron James versus Steph Curry, Part II.

It’s the title-hungry Cleveland Cavaliers against the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in a rematch of last season’s six-game series.

This time, James has a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and the Cavaliers have played more like a team that could bring the city of Cleveland its first major-sports title in 52 years.

It’s a reprise worthy of the hype, pomp and circumstance of Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler or Sugar Ray Leonard — and after the Warriors narrowly escaped the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7 on Monday, the Cavs have at least a puncher’s chance.

Las Vegas oddsmakers favor the Warriors to become the first back-to-back champions since James’ Miami Heat in 2012-13, but James, who has been to the Finals for six straight seasons, is looking to fulfill his dream of bringing his home state of Ohio an NBA title.

As a team, the Cavaliers have hit 38 percent on 3-pointers in the playoffs, and only two of their main rotation players — James (32 percent) and Matthew Dellavedova (28 percent) — are hitting below 40 percent. Their bigger issue will be defending the 3-point shot, as the Warriors will challenge them from everywhere on the perimeter.

The Warriors enter the series with all the bravado of having dispatched their biggest challenge in a series in the past two seasons, with the Thunder. After overcoming that 3-1 deficit, they’ve bounced back and shown that they can play with their backs against the wall. But they’ll face a more formidable foe in this year’s version of the Cavaliers, who swept through the first 10 games of the postseason before a pair of road losses at Toronto.

While the Cavs might not have the same offensive firepower as the Thunder, the Warriors won’t have an easy time in trying to repeat. James looks more determined and willing to do whatever it takes on the court to try to win his third title.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the NBA Finals rematch:

Warriors guard Stephen Curry is the two-time reigning Most Valuable Player.

GUARDS

With Steph Curry, the two-time reigning MVP, and Klay Thompson, the Warriors arguably have one of the best ckcourts in NBA history. Each is capable of winning a close game almost single-handedly, as they showed in the comeback over the Thunder. Their defense is much improved, and they’ll have an easier time trying to keep tabs on the Cavs on the perimeter.

Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith each is hitting 46 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs, which should make for an exciting back-and-forth backcourt matchup. As well as the pair has played, they’ll have to ratchet up their defense significantly — and maintain that shooting touch — in order to stay with the Warriors for a whole series.

EDGE: Warriors

FORWARDS

Draymond Green is one of the most versatile players in the league, but his production dipped in the Western Conference Finals. He’s their heart and soul and he’ll need to get back to his previous playoff numbers and effectiveness. Harrison Barnes (8.9 points) hasn’t been a big factor in the series and Andre Iguodala proved to be a defensive savior against the Thunder.

The Cavaliers’ chances ride almost solely on LeBron James putting his stamp on the series. He’s deferred some of his scoring (24.6) in the playoffs in order to facilitate (7.0 assists) and rebound (8.6). Kevin Love remains one of the biggest keys, with his ability to operate seamlessly between the paint (9.6 rebounds) and the perimeter (45 percent on 3-pointers).

Edge: Cavaliers

CENTERS

Neither team’s big man figures to play a significant role in the series, as the pace projects to be an up-and-down, fast-paced, 3-point flurry. As either team goes to a small lineup, the other will try to match, but if the Cavs learned anything from the Thunder series, it could be that playing the big lineup could be a viable weapon against the Warriors.

The Cavs’ Tristan Thompson (4.9 points and 8.4 rebounds) and the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut (5.0 points, 6.5 rebounds) will be counted on more for rebounding than scoring and their defense in preventing easy drives will be critical for both teams’ success.

Edge: Cavaliers

BENCH

Either Barnes or Iguodala off the bench will provide a scoring spark, but the Warriors could stay with one of the starting guards. Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa are experienced and can handle the pressure of playing in big games.

The Cavs’ Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye are in the twilight of their careers; Matthew Dellavedova is a defensive asset and Iman Shumpert (47 percent on 3-pointers) can be critical pieces, if coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t shorten the bench.

Klay Thompson provides a complement to Curry.

EDGE OVERALL: Warriors

The Warriors showed in the conference finals that they can make the necessary adjustments — and hit the shots — when their backs are against the wall. They’ll face a different level of desperation with the Cavs, who are at full strength this time. Their legacy of the historic 73-win season is predicated finishing the job and taking the title, but James and the Cavs won’t let it happen easily.

The Cavs have played well throughout the playoffs, save a two-game hiccup in Toronto. The home-court advantage will be huge in the series — they haven’t lost at Quicken Loans Arena this postseason — so the hardest part will be winning one on the road. James’ legacy also is in limbo, as he’s 2-4 in his Finals appearances. Make it 2-5.

PREDICTION: Warriors in 7