The NBA has resisted the notion of it being a two-team league but the NBA Finals features the two teams who have lapped the field so many times over, 28 franchises got seasick.
But the expected seven-game marathon between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers makes the winter trek and spring slumber well worth it, should it live up to its billing.
And if we’re all honest, as much as a compelling playoff would’ve been welcomed, seeing a classic Finals will be the perfect bleach to a season where we spent most of the time going, “Blech!”
It’s the reward of believing the regular season is meaningless and seeing the playoffs as a meaningless exercise, the possibility of this Finals being the best in recent NBA history.
Two champions facing each other isn’t a rarity, as the Pistons and Spurs faced off in 2005, the Lakers and Celtics met up in 2010 and the Spurs and Heat matched wits in 2013 and 2014. But this version has more spice, intrigue and more long-term ramifications all around.
LeBron James is admittedly chasing the ghost of history as opposed to having a true peer, although the Warriors’ ascension was something he didn’t see coming when leaving Miami for Cleveland after the 2014 season.
Somehow, all roads, all conversations seem to begin and end with him, as he’s made the Michael Jordan comparisons almost seem realistic, even though he should stand alone on accomplishments that have actually exceeded the hype he entered the league with in 2003.
If there’s one way James can be compared favorably with Jordan, it’s this: If there isn’t a considerable gap in quality between the two teams, it’s nearly unfathomable to see a James team lose four times in the next two weeks.
That’s a testament to his will, focus and downright greatness at his age and experience more than it is some perceived race with Jordan. That alone should send a shiver down Golden State’s steeled spine, one that was admittedly hardened by James leading the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit this time last year.
Cleveland’s team was built on the back of the man whose birth essentially guarantees a berth into June in James, reaching his seventh straight Finals, a feat unheard of in the modern NBA. The Cavaliers’ ineptitude in James’ four-year absence—along with some curious bounces in the draft lottery—gave them enough assets to turn into drafting Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson then trading for Kevin Love.
The rest of the roster was compiled by shrewd trades from the bargain bin along with an unspoken pressure from James to ensure ownership spared no expense when it came to contracts, luxury tax penalties be damned.
For Golden State, is it revenge or validation? Well, for the members of the 73-win team that let a 3-1 lead slip away it could be the former, as they’ve been on the end of some not-so-subliminal shots from James and the Cavaliers since last Father’s Day.
For Kevin Durant, it would be the latter considering the criticism he’s taken in the name of competitive balance for joining a 73-win team—after squandering a 3-1 lead of his own last May as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
His transition to the Warriors has made them more than a team whose sum was greater than the individual parts, but now an unstoppable juggernaut with very few weaknesses, if any.
Before his late February knee injury, it could be argued Durant was a top-three MVP candidate with his improved defense combined with an efficient offensive repertoire that was already unfair and impossible to defend.
But perhaps the brightest light besides the one that follows James everywhere he goes and even the places he resides in should belong to Stephen Curry. Having a lackluster Finals in 2016 where it could be argued he unraveled along with getting a front-row seat to Kyrie Irving hitting a winning triple in his face on his home floor could harken some back to Magic Johnson being called “Tragic” after the 1984 Finals.
Whether that label was fair to Johnson or not didn’t matter; It stuck until he redeemed himself from choking away that series to the Boston Celtics. He already had the greatest game a rookie could have with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in 1980 against the 76ers in The Finals, and followed it up with another Finals MVP in 1982.
Curry doesn’t yet have those showings on this stage, and his worse-than-reported knee injury from last June isn’t a problem this time around. He’s yet to produce a moment on this stage worthy of his resume.
He needs this as much as Durant apparently “needs” to show the public he made the right decision by leaving Oklahoma City, as if that matters. As if Durant himself didn’t put up a 30-6 line in the 2012 Finals while shooting 55 percent and 39 from the 3-point line.
But it’s not just the stars. It’s the shuffling of rotations, as the Warriors can go to their Death Lineup with Draymond Green at center, with length and shooting all around.
It’s Tristan Thompson being able to win a game on his own just by dominating the offensive glass. It’s Klay Thompson being able to detonate in a quarter for 30 points, winning a game on his perfectly-formed shooting motion.
It’s Kevin Love being a more confident and better fitting player this year, as a perfect stretch-shooting complement to James’ pinpoint passing. It’s the Cavaliers defense being terrible during the regular season but serviceable during the playoffs.
It’s Golden State having the fortune of Kawhi Leonard’s ankles landing on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, along with the fortune of a league flushing new salary cap money and being able to land Durant while having Curry on the biggest value contract in NBA history.
It’s Golden State’s defense being able to morph into a switching monster of length while hiding Curry’s flaws. It’s Golden State figuring out if Mike Brown will coach for seven games or if Steve Kerr will ride in on his white horse from his painful back ailment to lead his team to a second title in three years.
But who are we kidding here? It’s always about LeBron, right?
Still, though, Warriors will get their revenge, with Curry serving it with cold jumpers to validate his place in NBA history.