With the exception of “The Godfather”, the sequel is rarely more compelling than the original, but the NBA Finals could challenge that conventional theory as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will make history with a win or become dubious with a loss.
The rematch many anticipated tips off Thursday night in the Bay Area, with each team coming in equally motivated in what is likely the most hyped matchup since 2010 when the Lakers and Celtics squared off in a rematch of the 2008 series, with the Lakers avenging an embarrassing six-game loss with a seven-game triumph.
The Warriors have embraced the challenge of going after history all season long, and are now four wins away from completing the task of not only repeating as champions but finishing off a 73-win season, breaking the record of the 1996 Chicago Bulls by one game.
The defending champions have emerged weary but emboldened after being the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Conference Finals to the Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Cavaliers have gone through the East, largely untested and healthy.
A loss for the Warriors awakens the doubters who say jump-shooting teams can’t win championships, despite the resounding evidence from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s displays over the last week and last two seasons as a whole.
Curry, the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, is battling knee and ankle injuries he suffered in earlier rounds, but looks healthier with his lateral movement, as evidenced by his ball-handling dancing in Game 7 of the Conference Finals Sunday night, freeing him up for jumpers against Oklahoma City’s big men who had been able to stay with him earlier in the series.
A loss for Curry perhaps stops the coronation to crown him as one of the best in this era, although one could say he’s proven plenty at 27 years old.
A loss for Golden State sullies a transcendent season, particularly those in Chicago who are clutching their Michael Jordan beads, believing that somehow the Bulls will be erased or lessened by Golden State’s greatness.
For Cleveland, a loss would merely add to the list of championship failures for a city that hasn’t won anything in over 50 years, adding to LeBron James’ record in NBA Finals’ series, already at 2-4 — which overshadows the fact James has become the face of June basketball, reaching the NBA Finals for the sixth straight time, a mark that hasn’t been attained since members of the great Celtics teams of the 1960s.
Last season, James carried the Cavaliers with historic performances in the absences of co-stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the Cavaliers’ six-game loss to Golden State, a series in which they led 2-1 before dropping the final three.
This year, James has acquiesced a bit, aiding Irving and Love but Irving in particular, as Irving was leading the Cavaliers in scoring before the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals when James took over.
But the turning point could have occurred months ago in Cleveland, when Golden State strutted back into Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the building where they clinched last year’s title, and trounced Cleveland on national TV, leading by as many as 43 points.
It led to David Blatt being fired days later in favor of Tyronn Lue and the reconstruction of the Cavaliers’ style began shortly thereafter. They added long range shooter Channing Frye and seemingly, began preparing for a rematch with Golden State by playing Warriors-like basketball.
They play smaller, with shooters around the floor and in the second round, combated Atlanta’s trapping defense with a record amount of 3-pointers in the four-game sweep.
But it’s dangerous to try to beat Golden State at its own game, even if James is on the roster, even if the team is healthier this season. Finals rematches in the last 30 years or so usually favors the scorned team, but with the narratives surrounding both and considering Golden State’s quest for validation, it’s hard to see which team is more motivated to win.
Either way, it’s a series neither can afford to lose and will go to the limit.