OAKLAND, Calif. — There’s a comfort level for MVP Stephen Curry and his teammates this time around on the big stage.
Coach Steve Kerr even senses a calm about the Golden State Warriors as they go into a second straight NBA Finals – a second straight against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, no less.
Everything was new last year. There were some serious nerves. Golden State’s daily schedule and routine got disrupted, which Kerr called “a bit of a shock to our guys’ system.”
“I don’t think anyone’s going to be nervous out there like we were last year,” Klay Thompson said.
The 73-win Warriors are fresh off a Game 7 victory against the Oklahoma Thunder that capped a remarkable comeback from a 3-1 deficit, and they hope to roll that momentum right into Game 1 on Thursday night in front of their rockin’ home crowd at Oracle Arena.
“I know we’re a better team than we were last year, just off experience and what we’ve been through in this postseason, better equipped to kind of handle the scene of the Finals and all that’s kind of thrown at you when you get here,” Curry said. “The first time, it’s a whirlwind.”
Cleveland has its own reasons for these Finals to feel far different from last June. Namely: The Cavs are at full strength as they try again for the franchise’s first championship after losing in six games last year.
Kyrie Irving went down with a devastating knee injury in a Game 1 overtime loss to Golden State last year. He is back for the rematch, and power forward Kevin Love is poised for his Finals debut after he missed last year’s series because of a dislocated left shoulder that required surgery.
Ask folks in Northern Ohio and they’re sure to say things would have turned out differently had those two stars been on the court, and the city’s five-decade championship drought dating to the Browns’ 1964 NFL title already would have ended.
“I don’t really get involved into the whole pressure thing,” James said of bringing a championship home to Ohio.
The healthy Cavs, who also added Channing Frye this season, like their chances with Love in the mix. Coach Tyronn Lue has all the confidence in Love.
“It’s nice not having to sit there and watch. I mentioned last year that it was very bittersweet. Bitter having to sit there and watch not being able to help, but sweet seeing so many guys that are the main reason we are where we are today stepping up and making big plays,” Love said. “That was the sweet part of now being here and being able to play.”
Even if he now draws menacing defender Draymond Green and those regular, celebratory muscle flexes.
“Them having all their guys is always going to be a challenge,” Green said.
While the Warriors have said all along that this special, record-setting season won’t matter in the end if they don’t hoist another trophy, they know how much Cleveland wants this. Desperately needs this, in fact, for a city starved of major sports triumphs.
“I think we’re stronger at our core, but we’re very similar as a basketball team,” Kerr said. “They are dramatically different. Obviously they’re healthy, but not only are they healthy, they’ve changed their style. They tried to grind us to a pulp last year playing big, and they were slowing the ball down, slowing the pace down. … They’ve got shooting all over the place, and they’re playing at a much faster pace. So it’s really a much different team that we’re seeing.”
It’s the 14th time in NBA history that the same teams square off in the Finals in back-to-back seasons. And in the Cavs’ favor? Six of the last seven teams to lose the Finals the previous year won the next facing the same opponent.
The 2015 Finals were crazy for Green, from the level of play on the court to the stresses off it like taking care of family members in town for games.
“Coming in last year, we had no idea what to expect. All this stuff was like, `Whoa.’ Everything was a shocker,” Green said. “You know how to deal with all that stuff now. I think it’s more the stuff before the game that you deal with better rather than the game. And then on top of that you know the intensity level that it takes to win an NBA Finals.”
Irving and the Cavs understand as well as anyone it takes some luck at this stage after a long season, too.
Something Cleveland didn’t have last year.
“Well, coming into the postseason you actually want to have a great bill of health, and we were just unfortunate of not having that going into the full extent of postseason,” Irving said. “They won the championship last year, and now we come in, two evenly healthy teams, and No. 1 and No. 1 in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, respectively. This is what it’s about.”