OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — After a summer highlighted by Kevin Durant‘s decision to leave Oklahoma City for the star-laden Golden State Warriors, a six-month regular season and three rounds of playoffs, the NBA Finals are right back where they ended last June.
Not that anyone expected any different.
Take III of the NBA Finals trilogy between Golden State and the Cleveland Cavaliers gives Stephen Curry and Draymond Green a chance to avenge last year’s Warriors collapse and LeBron James the opportunity to add a fourth title in his chase of Michael Jordan’s six.
Perhaps most noteworthy, it gives Durant the chance at a first championship and validation for his decision to leave the Thunder and join the league’s latest super team
“I can’t go out there and do everything on my own or I can’t go out there and just let my teammates do all the work for me,” Durant said Wednesday, a day before the series opener. “I got to do my part and we all got to make it come together as a group.”
This matchup has seemed ordained since James walked off the court in Oakland last June, having delivered his native northeast Ohio its first major team championship since 1964.
James had won two titles as part of another “super team” in Miami but last year’s meant even more to his legacy.
“I’m not in the `prove people wrong, silence critics’ department no more,” James said. “I got a promotion when I got to the 30s. At the end of the day, I know the way I’m built. My only motivation is to be able to compete for a championship every single year.”
The Warriors have been right there the past two years, winning the franchise’s first title in 40 years in 2015 and then blowing a 3-1 lead last year to put a sour ending on a record-breaking 73-win season.
That series turned when Green was suspended for Game 5 and James and Kyrie Irving took over from there.
“Any time someone beats you, you’d love to play them,” Green said. “But at the end of the day winning a championship is winning a championship. You don’t care who you’ve got to take down, you just want to take whoever that is down.”
Here are some other things to watch in Part III:
While the Cavs and Warriors have played in the Finals the past two years, Durant and James met before that in different uniforms. James won his first title in 2012 with Miami in a five-game series over Durant and the Thunder. Durant played well, averaging 30.6 points and shooting 55 percent but James came out on top.
“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 that matters,” Durant said.
James’ first trip to the Finals came 10 years ago when the Cavs were swept by San Antonio. His coach that year was Mike Brown, who has served as acting coach for the Warriors while Steve Kerr is out following complications from back surgery. Brown had two stints as coach in Cleveland, leading the team to the playoffs five straight times from 2006-10 before returning for a one-year stint in 2013-14 when the Cavs won 33 games.
“It feels a little surreal,” Brown said. “I’m sure come tip-off tomorrow, when I’m looking at those guys in that uniform, it will feel even more that way, but right now just kind of taking everything in stride.”
According to the odds makers in Las Vegas and the number crunchers at analytical sites, the Warriors are the clear favorites to win the series after sweeping their way through the playoffs with a record-setting margin of victory of 16.3 points per game. James has called Golden State a “juggernaut” but the Warriors aren’t buying all that talk.
“We’ve had a great season to this point, a great playoff run. And hopefully we keep it going, but we fully respect and are aware that this team that we’re playing, they’re the champions and we’re not,” Kerr said.
One of the few things that hasn’t gone right for Golden State this postseason has been Klay Thompson‘s shooting. He has hit just 38 percent of his shots as his normally reliable jumper has failed him.
“I’ve had a week off,” Thompson said. “So I feel great. Can’t get caught up in your shot falling or not.”
Thompson has been stellar on the defensive end even when his shot has been off and will likely be counted on at times to slow down Irving, who scored 98 points in the final three games last year, including the series-clinching 3-pointer.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Warriors are the first team to win their first 12 games of the postseason, sweeping all three rounds so far. The Cavs haven’t been far behind, losing only in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final to Boston.
This series also features 11 players who have been named All-Stars in their careers, including seven this year. The only other time a Finals matchup featured 11 former All-Stars came in 1983 when Philadelphia swept the Los Angeles Lakers.