OAKLAND, Calif. — The simple, unprecedented fact that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will square off in a third straight NBA Finals is enough to make this series momentous.
But as the series kicks off Thursday at Oracle Arena, ramifications — for participants on both sides — run deeper than just settling a rubber match between the two franchises that have come to define the sport. With A-list stars on both sides, and with legacies on the line in a variety of ways, these Finals have the potential to be a spectacle the likes of which we have never seen.
“It’s exciting,” Cavaliers forward Kevin Love said during the NBA’s Wednesday media gathering. “You take the bus in here over the today, and you see that Finals logo. … It’s special.
“It’s something that, being a basketball fan, and having come from a basketball family and having it in my blood, it’s — I grew up watching the Finals, and wanted to be part of the Finals. So to come in here today, it’s definitely something that’s not lost on us, and it’s a great opportunity for us.
Also special are the forces arrayed in this series, one that the NBA hopes will make up for what has been an otherwise disappointing postseason — thanks, in large part, to the way the Warriors and Cavaliers have dismantled their opponents to get here. The finalists reached this point with a combined playoff record of 24-1. Their dominance has only underscored the amount of star power that exists on both of these teams, and the many different elements of the potential drama about to unfold.
The leading men, of course, are Kevin Durant and Steph Curry for Golden State and LeBron James for Cleveland.
Durant chose to join the Warriors last July after losing to them in the Western Conference finals for precisely this opportunity that’s now before him. He last reached this stage in 2012, when he and the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder played James and the Miami Heat in what seemed like it was destined to be the first of several Finals meetings.
Since then, though, Durant has spent five years waiting to get back to this point, enduring one playoff disappointment after another in Oklahoma City — including season-ending injuries to himself and co-star Russell Westbrook in two seasons, and losses to the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals in two others.
The stakes for Durant couldn’t be clearer. Win the championship this year, and it validates his decision to come to Golden State — and potentially sets up the beginning of the next NBA dynasty. But losing again to James, and failing to win a championship after joining a team that had already won a record 73 games and came within one win of a championship last season, could cast him adrift, similar to what happened to James when his Heat failed to beat the Dallas Mavericks in his first season in Miami in 2011.
“I just take it a day at a time,” Durant said. “I try not to think about, ‘[Was] this year better than the last?’ I know I’ve grown as a player, just through experience, from the last five years, but if I don’t go out there and execute, none of it matters.
“I’m here now. And everything . . . in the past? It happened, and I learned from it, and hopefully it makes me better this time around.”
That’s certainly how Curry will feel. The past two NBA Finals have seen Curry perform at a level far less than the version of himself that dominated the league during the regular season. He won back-to-back MVP awards, but was beaten out for the Finals MVP award by Andre Iguodala when the Warriors won two years ago. And after being injured earlier in the playoffs last season he had moments of brilliance he couldn’t sustain as the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead and watched the Cavaliers celebrate a championship here a year ago.
Now, Curry arrives back at the top of the sport playing as well as he ever has, averaging 28.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range. A strong showing in this series would not only allow Curry to silence his critics who think his regular season production is overhyped because of his Finals performances, but would also allow the Warriors to erase the feeling of having a second straight title slip through their fingers last season.
“It’s been a great motivating factor,” he said. “I have great memories of and terrible memories of last year, but they’re both lessons that you can learn going into the series, knowing what it takes to win, how important every possession is, focusing on the details.
“I don’t want to feel what I felt last year, and to do everything in my power to attack every game with that kind of perspective.”
The biggest thing standing in the Warriors’ way, of course, is James. Once again the undisputed best player in the game after last season’s triumph, one that allowed him to snap Cleveland’s more than half-century wait for a championship, James has a chance to add to an impressive legacy.
Not only would it be his fourth championship, but managing to take down this Warriors team for a second year in a row — and continuing his run of dominance over Durant, over whom he holds a 18-5 career head-to-head edge — would further strengthen his case to potentially surpass Michael Jordan as the game’s greatest player.
Just don’t tell that to James.
“I never really talk about my legacy,” he said. “I kind of just live in the moment, and if I’m able to accomplish something, then it kinds of adds to it on its own.
“At the end of the day, I want to be able to, once I hang it up and not play this game anymore, that people can look back at what I was able to accomplish — win, lose or draw — and say that he made a difference.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
Thursday night’s tip will mark the moment that James and the leading men on both sides get their chance to write the next chapter in a remarkable trilogy.