For the third time in as many years, the Golden State Warriors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. This was the expected outcome from the moment last season ended, despite the fact that a third consecutive matchup has never happened before. The Cavs retained the best player in the world, and the Warriors added Kevin Durant, who is likely in second place on that list. How boring and predictable is that?
On the contrary, it’s perfectly okay that this season culminates in another rematch. These were the best teams in basketball a year ago, and they’ve done nothing to lose that standing. LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, and has played the best basketball of his life in these playoffs. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green won a title together two years ago, and they’ve only improved with the addition of a former MVP. Translation: There has never been a team like these Warriors. Teams don’t go to the NBA Finals two years in a row and then add the second-best player on the planet. Golden State is a juggernaut, undefeated through the playoffs to this point, and it’s possible their best is yet to come.
That is a challenge worthy of a basketball god. Fortunately for Cleveland, they happen to have one, homegrown. LeBron carried his city to a title last year, becoming the first player to lead both teams in all five major stats for the Finals. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and the rest of the supporting cast are important, no doubt. But this team will live and die with the play of its leader. Success or failure will rest most heavily on King James.
These Finals are about LeBron’s legacy, first and foremost. There are plenty of subplots, from Durant’s chase for a title to the revenge tour of the 73-win Golden State team. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s one story that stands above the rest. Michael Jordan never faced a team quite as deadly as these Warriors. Victory here would add legitimate intrigue to the endless Jordan-James comparisons.
Let’s pump the brakes for a moment, though. As fun as it can be to speculate, LeBron’s place amongst the NBA’s greats is a tired subject, and one that is incomplete anyway. This is far from a one man show, with plenty of other attractions in this series. Draymond Green missed game 5 of the 2016 Finals due to a four-flagrant-foul suspension, causing a massive momentum shift in Cleveland’s favor. Green is likely to play every game this time around, as he has yet to commit a single flagrant foul in these playoffs. Kevin Durant will finally return to the Finals, last appearing with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. Durant’s offseason decision to join the already-dominant Warriors speaks to his intense desire to win a title immediately, and the move has put him in the perfect position. Even Steph Curry has something to prove, after a disappointing 2016 Finals. Curry’s game 6 ejection comes to mind, the then MVP growing frustrated with his performance on the biggest stage. Curry’s playoff momentum coming into the Finals looks much better this year, and it would be fair to expect a bounce-back showing.
Much has been made about the NBA Playoffs disappointing viewers this year, due largely to injuries and a predictable outcome. There is certainly some credibility to those claims, with just one loss between the two participants. There was, however, quality basketball throughout. The Milwaukee Bucks came incredibly close to stunning the Toronto Raptors. The Indiana Pacers showed once again that they are the only team in the east that can make LeBron look human. The Utah Jazz showed that their young core is ready to succeed on a larger scale.
The reality remains that Cleveland and Golden State are in a league all their own. Last year’s Finals became an instant classic, another chapter in LeBron’s impressive story. And honestly, aside from this incarnation of the Warriors, who even stands a chance of slowing him down? The gift of watching these two titans battle it out a third time might be worth the inevitability.