The Warriors returned to contention in 2012 after five straight lottery seasons following their 2007 upset of the Dallas Mavericks. After losing in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, Mark Jackson was fired as head coach and the team replaced him with five-time champion Steve Kerr. Golden State raced through the regular season to a league-best 67 wins behind lights-out shooting and a stalwart defense, earning franchise All-Star Stephen Curry the league MVP award. In the playoffs, the Warriors swept the New Orleans Pelicans thanks to a game-tying three to force OT from Curry in the third victory. Golden State trailed the Memphis Grizzlies 2-1 in the semifinals before winning three straight to advance to the team’s first Western Conference Finals since 1976. In the conference finals, the Warriors easily defeated the Houston Rockets in five games to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since their championship season of 1975.
The Cavaliers toiled in the lottery after LeBron James‘ departure in 2010, drafting young talent in Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins as number one overall picks in 2011, 2013, and 2014. James announced his free agency return in 2014, and the team traded Bennett and Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star Kevin Love. Cleveland struggled in the regular season in 2015 before acquiring several key role players mid-season, and a turnaround led to 53 wins and the number two seed. In the playoffs, the Cavaliers easily swept the Boston Celtics but lost Love for the rest of the playoffs. LeBron hit a game-winner in game four, of the conference semifinals against the Chicago Bulls, sparking three straight victories after trailing 2-1 to return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2009. With a sweep of the number one seed Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland reached the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007.
The Warriors’ back court consisted of sharp-shooting “Splash Brothers” Stephen Curry at point guard and Klay Thompson at shooting guard. Midway through the Finals, Kerr elected to go small by inserting Andre Iguodala at small forward, Harrison Barnes at power forward, and diminutive Draymond Green at center and sliding starting center Andrew Bogut to the bench.
Shaun Livingston served as the primary backup at guard for Golden State, and Leandro Barbosa provided further depth as the fourth guard. Former All-Star David Lee served as the primary backup at power forward, and Festus Ezeli provided depth as a fourth big man. Marreese Speights, Justin Holiday, and James Michael McAdoo rarely saw the floor in the NBA Finals.
Matthew Dellavedova stepped in to start for the Cavaliers at point guard after Irving was lost to injury in game one of the NBA Finals. Iman Shumpert started at shooting guard on the wing alongside four-time MVP LeBron James. In the post, Tristan Thompson started at power forward in place of the injured Love, and Timofey Mozgov started at center.
Cleveland lost their depth due to injuries to Irving, Love, and initial starting center Anderson Varejao, and the only real contributors off the bench in the NBA Finals were J.R. Smith and James Jones on the perimeter. Other players who played sparingly in the championship series include Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, and Joe Harris.
Game One: Cavaliers 100, Warriors 108 (OT)
The Cavaliers built a 14-point advantage in the first quarter before Golden State came back to briefly retake the lead in the second. J.R. Smith hit a three at the buzzer to give Cleveland the lead at the break. The second half saw several lead changes, and the teams traded baskets in the fourth before Curry hit a jumper to put the Warriors up with under a minute to play. Mozgov tied the game with two foul shots, and Irving blocked Curry’s game-winning lay-up, but James missed a game-winning jumper at the buzzer. In overtime, Golden State’s defense nearly shut out the Cavaliers, and Irving left the game with a fractured kneecap. Curry, Thompson, and Iguodala combined for 62 points to lead the Warriors, and LeBron’s 44 points weren’t enough as Cleveland lost the opener.
Game Two: Cavaliers 95, Warriors 93 (OT)
The Warriors led early off Thompson’s hot start, but the Cavaliers came back and built an 11-point lead late in the fourth. Golden State embarked on a 15-4 run of their own, however, to tie the game on a lay-up from Curry, and the teams went to overtime again after James missed another potential game-winner. The Warriors briefly held the lead late in the extra period before Dellavedova was fouled off an offensive rebound and made two foul shots to give Cleveland the lead for good. LeBron had a monster night with 39/16/11, and Mozgov chipped in a double-double as the Cavaliers tied the series 1-1. Thompson led Golden State with 34 points, but Curry struggled from the field on 5/23 shooting.
Game Three: Warriors 91, Cavaliers 96
Back at home, the Cavaliers led for nearly the entire game, building their advantage to as much as 20 in the second half. Despite struggling early, Curry led a furious Warriors comeback that saw them draw to within one point before Dellavedova converted an impossible bank shot plus the foul to halt the rally, and Cleveland held on to take a shocking 2-1 series lead. James was again magnificent with 40/12/8, Thompson delivered a double-double, and Dellavedova scored an unexpected 20 points. Curry finished with 27/6/6 and seven three’s, and Iguodala turned in 15/5/5 off the bench, but the Warriors trailed in a series for only the second time in the playoffs.
Game Four: Warriors 103, Cavaliers 82
The Warriors made an adjustment by going small with Iguodala in the starting lineup and Green at center. After a brief 7-0 start by Cleveland, Golden State’s offense began to click and they built a 12-point lead by halftime. The Cavaliers closed to within three in the third, but the Warriors blew Cleveland out in the fourth quarter. Curry and Iguodala both scored 22 points to lead Golden State as they tied the series back up at 2-2. Mozgov led the Cavaliers with 28/10, but James struggled from the field despite putting up 20/12/8.
Game Five: Cavaliers 91, Warriors 104
The teams traded the lead and runs throughout the first half, and the Cavaliers briefly took a one-point lead midway through the fourth on a three from James. The Warriors answered back, however, with a 25-9 run and five clutch three’s–including a deadly step-back from Curry over Dellavedova–to clinch the victory and take a 3-2 series lead. The MVP point guard finally erupted with 37 points to lead Golden State alongside Iguodala and Green’s combined 30/17/13. LeBron was again huge with 40/14/11, but the Cavaliers largely struggled as a team and faced elimination headed back home in game six.
Game Six: Warriors 105, Cavaliers 97
Golden State grabbed the lead early and briefly surrendered it to start the second half, but key contributions off the bench from Livingston, Ezeli, and Barbosa helped keep the Cavaliers at bay in the final stretch. A late barrage of three’s from J.R. Smith wasn’t enough as the Warriors won their third straight game to clinch the NBA championship. Curry and Iguodala again tied for a team-high 25 points, and Green delivered a triple-double with 16/11/10. James struggled from the floor again but managed 32/18/9, and Mozgov and Thompson turned in double-double’s for Cleveland. For his role in guarding LeBron and spark in the small-ball starting lineup, Andre Iguodala was named the Finals MVP for a Golden State team that won its first championship since 1975.
The Warriors won their first NBA championship while playing in the Bay in 40 years in 2015. During the ensuing off-season, the team managed to retain most of its key contributors. Dissatisfied with his role, David Lee asked to be traded to another team, and Golden State honored his request by sending him to the Boston Celtics in exchange for athletic small forward Gerald Wallace.
Entering the off-season the Cavaliers were surrounded by questions concerning Kevin Love’s desire to stay in Cleveland, but the rumors were squashed when the power forward signed a max deal. GM David Griffin was questioned for possibly overspending on most of the team’s free agents, but the roster returned for the 2016 predominantly intact with the recovery of injured stars Irving and Love.