OAKLAND, United States: LeBron James has the Cleveland Cavaliers poised for a championship repeat in his seventh consecutive NBA Finals while Kevin Durant has sparked a historic Golden State playoff run in search of his first title.
The epic squads collide in an unprecedented third consecutive NBA Finals starting Thursday (Friday in Manila) at Oakland, with the host Warriors an oddsmakers favorite in the hotly anticipated best-of-seven showdown against a Cleveland team that made the greatest comeback in Finals history to defeat them a year ago.
“They are a great team. They are the champs,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We’re trying to take what they took from us last year.”
The Warriors spoiled James’ fairytale return to Cleveland from Miami by downing an injury-hit Cavaliers squad for the 2015 crown, their first in 40 years.
Golden State then won a record 73 regular-season games and seized a 3-1 finals lead before James sparked Cleveland to victory in the final three games to claim the title, leading every major statistical category in an unprecedented, Herculean feat.
“You have to appreciate the position that you’re in because it’s never, ever guaranteed,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “That’s something that we’ve learned.”
The third chapter of the trilogy has seen the Warriors sign superstar free agent forward Durant and again lead the league in wins. Golden State made a record 12-0 run through the first three playoff rounds, winning by an average of 16.3 points.
“We’re excited,” Durant said. “But we’re not satisfied.”
The Cavaliers struggled to a 7-10 record in March, closing the season 12-15 with four consecutive losses. But Cleveland has gone 12-1 in the playoffs with an average win margin of 13.6 points, James becoming the all-time NBA playoff top scorer in the process.
“We have another level,” James said. “And we believe we can get there.”
Not since the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s has the NBA seen a rivalry so intense, this one involving seven of the past eight NBA Most Valuable Player award winners in James with four, Curry with two and Durant with one.
“A lot of people wanted to see Boston and the Lakers back in the day,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “Nowadays a lot of people want to see Golden State-Cavs. It’s two of the teams playing some of the best basketball. So why not want to see it again?
“Last year had some of the best ratings in NBA history. With them adding Durant and the way they’re playing, the way we’re playing, it can be even higher.”
The decider last year was the most watched NBA game since icon Michael Jordan won his sixth and final crown in 1998.
Jordan motivates LeBron
James, who is 3-4 in finals appearances, uses Jordan’s feats as a measuring stick to motivate his own bid to become legendary.
“It has nothing to do with passing him in rings, passing him in points, passing him in MVPs. It’s just my personal goal to keep me motivated,” James said. “You guys want to have the conversations about who’s the greatest of all time, things of that nature, it doesn’t matter to me.
“Comparing between people either living or still playing or not playing, it’s great for barbershops, but for me I’m just trying to leave a legacy behind so I can inspire the next group of kids.”
That legacy could use another title. But barring his way is a Golden State squad out to prove they are the super team dynasty of the era, not the Cavaliers.
“Everybody’s excited about it, but it’s still kind of business as usual, we’re not finished yet type of attitude, which is great,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “Knowing that we need four more wins to accomplish our main goal, we’re clicking at the right time. We’re still getting better. I don’t think we’ve reached our ceiling yet.”
That’s why a historic 12-0 playoff start won’t mean much if it doesn’t culminate in a crown.
“It’s a really cool accomplishment, one you can talk about for a second, but you’ve got to be able to turn the page and get ready for the gauntlet of winning four more games,” Curry said.
“It’s a great run—12-0 is great. But it doesn’t mean anything going into the next series and we have to understand that.”