The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet yet again for the Larry O’Brien trophy, the fourth installation in what has become the most decorated rivalry in the NBA.
While each of the last three matchups were highly anticipated, this year’s series seems to be met with a collective yawn—even after compelling, if not unfulfilling, seven-game conference finals series for both finalists.
The storylines have been exhausted since 2015, even though each series took on a different life on its own compared to the pre-series expectation. Even LeBron James’ unheard of streak, reaching the Finals eight straight years, hasn’t been celebrated as much as it has been scrutinized for the lack of competition within his conference.
And the perceived mismatch between the two clubs makes it feel even more anticlimactic with a less-than-stellar bunch James dragged through the East, along with Kevin Love’s status due to a concussion he suffered in Game 6 of the East Finals.
The Warriors, battered and perhaps a bit vulnerable after a tough series against the Houston Rockets, are still rightfully heavy favorites even as Andre Iguodala doesn’t appear to be ready to return from a bone bruise in his left knee.
Iguodala and Draymond Green put the “Death” in the Warriors’ famed “Death Lineup” and now with Kevin Durant, the “Hamptons 5” crew that can switch everything defensively, shoot and create mismatches on the offensive end.
Perhaps it’s a bit fitting because James looks like he’s leading the “Jackson Five” into Oracle Arena for the series opener, and not even having a wingman as talented as Jermaine to help shoulder the load.
Four of the five best players in this series play for the Warriors, even without Iguodala in play, and usually that’s a recipe for a stinky, unfulfilling quick series. But then again, the Boston Celtics had an even greater advantage, with six of the seven best players in their series, home court advantage and a wizard for a coach in Brad Stevens.
It still didn’t matter as James made sure Game 7 was played at his pace, an ugly finish as the Celtics’ threw up brick after brick with the weight of such a game choking off their oxygen.
No such thing will happen to the Warriors, as they watched the Rockets, a team built to beat them, miss 3-pointer after 3-pointer to lose a Game 7 at home while the champions killed them with a third-quarter surge and title-styled poise.
Short of complacency or another critical injury from the Warriors, it looks like a quick series. Kevin Durant gets juiced whenever he sees James on the other side, and even though last June’s triumph didn’t seem to give him the validation he so craved, going against his lone competitive equal has to bring out the best in him.
Stephen Curry nearly averaged a triple-double in last year’s Finals but nobody noticed due to the singular brilliance of James, and Durant’s MVP performance.
He was one rebound short of the feat in Game 7 on Memorial Day, and has the greatest talent disparity in his matchup against George Hill. If he needs individual motivation, putting his stamp on a Finals series could be it although last year’s numbers (26.8 points, 9.4 assists, 8.0 rebounds) were stellar.
For James, all the superlatives have been used to describe his playoff performances and almost all of them apply. The game-winners his critics said he was mentally incapable of producing has only added to his lore.
If there's one way the Warriors have enhanced James' current standing, their rocky road to the Finals, battling lulls and bouts of boredom, illustrates the concentration James has exerted mostly every day for nine months just to get to the Finals. The Warriors have been fixtures since 2015, changing rosters and adding a supernova in Durant that almost feels unfair in the way of competitive balance.
James has owned the decade, being a contender in his presence alone, carrying all types of franchises into June.
And while some of the mythmaking and rewriting of history can be a bit extra, any series with James gives him and his team a chance—and they know there is zero margin for error.
The Warriors, even though history will look at them as one of the best teams ever, have a tendency to play around with the game. They create openings with their laissez faire approach, giving away a Game 4 against the Rockets that started the downhill spiral nearly costing them that series.
And let’s not forget, a 3-1 lead blown to a James-led team is in their history, a stain only remedied by their acquisition of Durant weeks later.
As undermanned as this Cavaliers team is, it is resilient. Coach Tyronn Lue battled a health scare that prompted a temporary leave of absence, the roster underwent a massive overhaul at midseason and had been left for dead multiple times over the last four months.
But here the Cavs are, here James is, standing at the precipice of history.
They can make it ugly, they can make it interesting.
They could make it look competitive…if they had Kyrie Irving.
Warriors in 5 (or 6).