WASHINGTON: Defending champion Cleveland and powerhouse Golden State enter Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) start of the playoff semifinals pushing toward an unprecedented third consecutive NBA Finals showdown, adding more sparks to an already historic rivalry.
Golden State entertains San Antonio in Sunday’s best-of-seven Western Conference final opener while the LeBron James-led Cavaliers await Monday’s game-seven winner between Boston and Washington in an Eastern Conference final that begins Wednesday in Cleveland.
No two teams have ever met for the title in three consecutive seasons, as the Cavs and Warriors could, and only a handful of players have made the NBA Finals seven years in a row, as James could do.
The Warriors beat Cleveland for the 2015 crown and were one win shy of capping a repeat title run last year after a record 73-win campaign only to have James spark the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit to the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, taking the trophy in seven games.
So it’s no wonder that Warriors guard Stephen Curry, the two-time reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, can ponder a matchup with the Cavs even as he admits Golden State has plenty of work ahead to oust the Spurs.
“We’ll hammer it out when we get there but we’ve got four more wins to go,” Curry said. “We’ll be keeping an eye on them.”
Both the Warriors and Cavaliers have swept through the first two playoff rounds without dropping a game. Golden State forward Draymond Green said he had hoped to see more from Cleveland’s East rivals.
“I thought teams would compete a little harder,” Green said. “When you watch Cleveland play, you only watching one side of good basketball. That’s kind of weak.”
James does not diminish Cleveland’s strong start in eliminating Indiana and Toronto, saying, “It’s rewarding when you can advance. It’s not just given to you. You have to go out and earn it.”
But even “King James” admits: “We have another level and we believe we can get there.”
In the playoffs, James is averaging 34.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game. And last year, he became the first player in NBA history to lead the finals in every major statistical category.
“I’m going to let you guys talk about that as far as if this is the most complete I’ve been in my career,” James told reporters.
‘Why not … see it again?’
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, who played on two championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers, sees no problem with a “Three-peat” Cavs-Warriors final, comparing fan interest to the 1980s finals that often pitted the Lakers against Larry Bird-led Boston.
“I think nowadays a lot of people want to see Golden State-Cavs. It’s two of the teams playing some of the best basketball right now,” Lue said.
“Why not want to see it again? I think last year had some of the best (TV) ratings in NBA history. The way they are playing, we are playing, it can be even higher.”
The 30.8 million US viewers for last year’s final game were the most for any NBA Finals contest since Michael Jordan’s 1998 farewell game for Chicago.
And it doesn’t hurt that the Warriors added former NBA MVP Kevin Durant this season.
“You have that third player (Durant) who is definitely one of the top three players in this league, that can go get his own shot at any time,” Lue said. “And that’s what makes them more dangerous.”
Spurs accept underdog role
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said his team’s basic defensive approach to the Warriors is “Pray” and Argentine guard Manu Ginobili played up Golden State’s favored role.
“We are playing one of the best teams, like, almost ever,” Ginobili said. “They’re tough and they added to that incredible offensive talent and good, solid defense. They have the whole package. It makes complete sense for them to be the favorites.”
The Warriors won an NBA-best 67 games this season but the Spurs were next with 61.
“Anything can happen in a playoff series,” Ginobili said. “But for anything to happen, we’ve got to play our best.”