By Julia Love and Rory Carroll
OAKLAND (Reuters) - The NBA Finals have often been decided by the winners of key battles in areas where both teams excel and with three-pointers proving to be the weapon of choice for this year's protagonists, fans are braced for a battery of long-range bombs.
Cleveland and Golden State plotted their way to the title showdown from downtown, with the Cavaliers setting the record for most shots made from beyond the arc during the playoffs and the defending NBA champion Warriors ranking second behind them.
That pattern continued in Game One of the best-of-seven series on Thursday, when Golden State guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson helped rubber stamp a 104-89 victory with back-to-back treys in the final three minutes.
The high-risk strategy underscores a belief that the three-pointer, long regarded as a gimmick, has become an NBA staple, a shift driven in part by the lithe Warriors, who use the shot to open up the floor and speed up the pace of the game.
The three-pointer has also given teams greater flexibility as they aim to pack their rosters with as much talent as possible while keeping one eye on the salary cap.
While scouts often favored the tallest and strongest players, skilled long-range shooters did not have to fit the traditional template, said Robert Boland, director of the graduate sports management program at Ohio University.
"It's democratized the sport... you can be a 6ft-10in shooter, you can be a 5ft-10in shooter," Boland told reporters.
"It gives coaches and teams who are smart a way to manage the cap as opposed to thinking, 'How do I collect superstars?'"
NBA commissioner Adam Silver also views the shot as an "equalizer", as he put it during pre-game interviews.
"You can't dream that you're going to be seven feet tall but you can work at it and become a fantastic competitor on the floor," he said.
The Warriors have excelled at shooting from downtown as they developed into an elite squad. The team became the first in NBA history to log more than 1,000 three-pointers in a season this past campaign, 402 of them nailed by Curry alone.
It was a mark other players would be hard-pressed to match, Silver said.
"In some ways maybe that's like when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile," Silver said of Curry's achievement this season. "It's something that just a few years ago people thought wouldn't be done."
He said Curry's range, which forces defenders to pick him up as far out as half court, had stretched the floor in new ways.
"When you see him that far behind the three-point line, where on a regular basis he's making 30-footers and making shots and requiring defenses to cover him in ways that they're not used to, it changes the whole dynamic of our game," Silver said.
"I tell you, it's just incredibly exciting," he said.
While the Cavaliers deployed a post-up style last season, they too have emphasized the three-pointer this time around, using the shot to free up star forward LeBron James to move the ball.
Warriors coach Steve Kerry said that defending the Cavs at the three-point line would be key to prevailing in the rematch of last year's NBA Finals, won 4-2 by Golden State.
"They're similar to us in terms of that explosiveness getting going with the three point shot," he said.
If the Warriors prevail over the Cavaliers once more, it will silence doubts about their long-range style of basketball, which some players say would not hold up in the slow-moving, defensive style of prior NBA eras.
Regardless, the three-pointer was here to stay, Kerr predicted.
"The game has changed a lot based on rules and trends," he said. "But I don't see the three-point trend being a trend. I think it's probably here for a while."
(Editing by John O'Brien)