OAKLAND, United States: LeBron James, in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals, leads the Cleveland Cavaliers in a rematch with defending champion Golden State starting Thursday (Friday in Manila), but this time the superstar has a healthy supporting cast.
Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry sparks the Warriors’ quest for a title repeat against four-time MVP “King” James, who is trying to bring Cleveland a major sports crown for the first time since the 1964 NFL Browns.
“Our city deserves it. Our fans deserve it,” James said. “But that gives us no sense of entitlement. We’ve still got to go out and do it, be as great as we can every night. We look forward to the challenge.”
Last year, Cavaliers forward Kevin Love missed nearly all of the playoffs and injury-nagged guard Kyrie Irving broke a kneecap in the championship series opener.
A superman effort by James — the first man to lead the Finals in all three major statistics with averages of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists — couldn’t keep the Warriors from taking the best-of-seven series in six games.
“It’s definitely a different feeling,” James said. “I didn’t appreciate last year, what we were able to accomplish. Knowing Kev was out and Ky was dealing with injuries from the first round. I just didn’t appreciate getting to the finals.
“Having our team at full strength, and the way I feel personally, I appreciate this moment, to be a part of it once again.”
James and reserve teammate James Jones are the first players to reach six straight NBA Finals since legendary Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics ended a run of eight consecutive titles half a century ago.
“In this day and age, to see LeBron do something like that where it hasn’t been done in 50 years, that’s crazy,” said Cavs forward Richard Jefferson.
‘Don’t want to lose again’
James and the Cavs were swept by San Antonio in the 2007 finals and three years later he departed for Miami. The Heat lost the 2011 and 2014 finals and won the 2012 and 2013 NBA titles before James returned home vowing to make the Cavs a champion, barely missing on his first try.
“I know what it feels like to win it. I know what it feels like to lose,” James said. “And I don’t want to lose it again.”
In an 11-2 playoff run, James has averaged 24.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.2 steals a game with Irving contributing 24.3 points, 5.1 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game and Love adding 17.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists a game.
“Thinking about just the steps it took to get back to where we are now, I really have a true appreciation of the journey,” Irving said. “We’re still not satisfied. There’s still a goal at hand we have to accomplish.”
Blocking that path are Curry, 3-point sharpshooter Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, last year’s NBA Finals MVP after the Warriors won the last three games when he started.
“They’ve been playing well the whole playoff run,” Curry said. “We’re ready for anything. Knowing how important taking care of your home court is, that will be a high priority going into game one.”
But this year, the Warriors have battled playoff injuries — Curry missing two games with an ankle sprain and two weeks with a right knee sprain — and enter the finals after three must-win triumphs over Oklahoma City with only two days off.
“Guys have been playing hurt all year,” Thompson said. “But I think no matter what they’re going through, we’ve got too many competitors on this team to let that hold them back.”
‘Never lost confidence’
“We never lost confidence that we could get back to the finals,” Curry said. “It was just a roller coaster from the time I got hurt to coming back. Now we’re four wins away from our goal. We’ve got to just refresh and get our bodies ready.”
The Warriors produced the best record in the NBA’s 70-season history at 73-9, Curry leading the league with 30.1 points and 2.14 steals a game. Golden State led the NBA in scoring, assists and shooting percentage overall and from 3-point range.
But they needed 3-point heroics from Thompson and Curry to escape a semi-final ouster.
“Everybody will look at 73 wins and say this team never hit any adversity,” Green said.
“When everything is on the line, that makes it 10 times worse. It took a tremendous effort to overcome.”