An NBA season that has had little in the way of drama will come to a gripping close over the next two weeks when two familiar foes fittingly battle in the Finals for an unprecedented third consecutive year.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are four wins away from repeating as NBA champions in what may go down as one of the greatest championship showdowns ever, but standing in their way is a sharpshooting Golden State Warriors team that beat them in the 2015 Finals.
The ultimate championship rubber match, which most everyone expected the moment last year’s Finals ended, begins on Thursday in Oakland and will cap what has been a predictable 82-game regular season and lopsided postseason.
Golden State, led by two-times reigning league MVP Stephen Curry, are in remarkable form after becoming the first team in league history to enter the Finals undefeated (12-0) since the NBA went to the current playoff format in 2003.
And unlike the Warriors squad that blew a 3-1 Finals lead last year after a record-setting 73-9 regular season, this version of the team is even more dangerous after adding former league MVP and four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant.
The acquisition sent quakes throughout the NBA and all but assured the Warriors, who went on to post the league’s best record, a ticket back to the Finals.
But despite returning to the Finals with relative ease the Warriors are well aware of the value of not becoming complacent.
“Obviously it’s a new season, especially this last series of the season, and we gotta bring it,” Durant said of the best-of-seven clash.
“You can’t expect us to just say ‘oh we’re a great team on paper together and it’s just going to happen.’ You know, we got to go out there and try and take it.”
The series will feature a number of compelling individual matchups, most notably James versus Durant at small forward, Kyrie Irving versus Curry at point guard and Kevin Love versus Draymond Green at power forward.
There will be no love lost between these teams, especially after Green, whose Game Five suspension in the 2016 Finals was considered by many to be the turning point, said last November he wanted to “destroy” and “annihilate” the Cavs in a championship rematch.
But none of that will matter to Cleveland since James, who stretched his Finals streak to an astonishing seven straight years dating back to his time in Miami, is playing the best playoff basketball of a career that already includes three NBA titles and a trio of Finals MVP awards.
For their part, the Cavs have also made an impressive run to the Finals with their only playoff blemish a Game Three loss to Boston in the East final.
“Both teams are better than last year’s teams. We are a better Cavaliers team and they are a better Warriors team but what does that mean? We don’t know yet,” said James.
“But we are both better. We’ve both added pieces that have helped our offensive packages and defensive packages be even more scary and obviously you can see that.
“We are both playing at a high level and when you look back on it at the end of the day you’ll look back and say that was two great teams who competed for championships.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Andrew Both)