CLEVELAND -- Even as the Cavaliers return to the warm embrace of Quicken Loans Arena, the scene of their NBA Finals revival one year ago, it’s apparent the Warriors in these NBA Finals not like the Warriors of those NBA Finals.
Indeed, the only similarity is both Warriors teams entered Game 3 on the road with a 2-0 series lead.
The Warriors of 2016, however, came into Game 3 with a hobbled Stephen Curry, a far too emotional Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes at small forward and a sense that perhaps a back-to-back championship was in the cards.
They proceeded to lose four of the last five Finals games, and the series, collapsing as much under the weight of their own shortcomings as the relentlessness and increasing swagger of the Cavaliers.
The 2017 Warriors come into Game 3 Wednesday night with a healthy Curry, a more stable Green, Kevin Durant at small forward and, above all, a rock that has lingered in their collective gut since last June, when they infamously became the first team to lose a 3-1 lead in The Finals.
It’s not easy to discern which of these four factors is most significant, even if Cavaliers superstar LeBron James believes he has the answer: “KD.”
The presence of Durant, instead of Barnes, is the most visible difference between the Warriors of last June and the Warriors of today. Durant has been the best player in the series, fantastic on defense and provided more offense in two games than Barnes did in seven. He is completely neutralizing James.
But Curry’s health cannot be underestimated. One year after bad wheels undermined the mind-blowing agility that sets him apart, those physical gifts are on full display. Unable to shake the lumbering Kevin Love in 2016, Curry is back to embarrassing anyone with the gall to challenge him on the perimeter.
And Green’s head has leveled to such a degree it’s darn near flat. He apparently learned from his mistakes of last year, when his firebrand ways blazed so hot he found himself suspended for Game 5. He took it hard, blaming himself for the Warriors failure to win it all for the second consecutive year.
Yet the overall drive exhibited by these Warriors is unlike anything they have shown before. It’s stronger than that which pushed them to the championship in 2015, even stronger than that which pushed them to win 73 games last season, shattering the single-season NBA record.
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“You just see a certain amount of focus,” Draymond Green said Tuesday. “You see a competitive level of where like it hasn't been matched. That's a good sign. But just the way guys have been locked in, focused on the task at hand, I mean it's been a special thing.”
It’s a focus that is sharpened by bitter memories of last June, even if some of the names have changed.
“That was last year,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Half the guys on the team this year are new.”
Zaza Pachulia and David West and JaVale McGee and Matt Barnes are, along with Durant, the new veterans. Pat McCaw and Damian Jones are rookies. The roster was renovated last summer.
But the most important new member, the team’s new superstar, Durant, can identify with what the Warriors went through. He was a leader of the Oklahoma City team that last May coughed up a 3-1 series lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Leads are history, right. The Warriors went up 2-0 on Cleveland last June by posting a 15-point win in Game 1 and a 33-point rout in Game 2. They’re up 2-0 now after winning Game 1 by 22 and Game 2 by 19.
The numbers are similar numbers, but the vibe is different.
“I think guys are locked in, like I've never seen before, understand the task ahead and know that this is going to be the hardest game of the series,” Green said.
If Games 1 and 2 are any indication, everybody who takes the court for the Warriors in Game 3 of these Finals will bring the appropriate level of concentration. They’re different now, and potentially much better than a year ago.
“As a team I think so,” Klay Thompson said. “We're moving the ball great, we're shooting the ball at a high clip, and our defense has been unbelievable.
“So, I mean, it's easy to draw back on last year because it was a tough series for us. We obviously had a lead and we lost it. We just got to learn from it and not try and make the same mistakes twice.”