USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down the complete team effort the Cavaliers will need in order to beat the Warriors.
USA TODAY Sports
OAKLAND – The third installment of a trilogy guarantees no epic conclusion. Creators may promise one, and consumers may crave one. But in art and sports, as in life, there are no guarantees.
The event plays out, and judgment follows.
But this unprecedented Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors matchup in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive time could – should? – be a classic.
“We had the regular season, we had the playoffs, been tested – both teams – and now we just meet at the top of the mountain,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said.
The same two teams have never played in three consecutive Finals – not the 1960s Celtics-Lakers, not the 1980s Celtics-Lakers or ’80s Lakers-Pistons or ’80s Sixers-Lakers.
This is just the fourth time in any major pro sports league that the same teams have met in the championship series, and it hasn’t happened since the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings played for the Stanley Cup in 1954, ’55 and ’56.
“It’s history,” Hall of Famer Julius Erving said.
The star power illuminates the NBA universe. Future Hall of Famers. Seven MVP awards. Eleven current or former All-Stars appearances. Eight All-NBA performers. The biggest names in the league. LeBron James. Steph Curry. Kyrie Irving. Klay Thompson. Kevin Love. Kevin Durant. Draymond Green.
“When the best players have to face each other to prove who is better, there are a lot of intense emotions as well as calculations going on,” Hall of Famer and former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told USA TODAY in an e-mail. “Rivalries engage the whole player, demanding that he or she rise to their best level—maybe even a little beyond.”
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The abundant storylines fill the demand for content:
- James playing in his seventh consecutive finals, joining a small group of Celtics from the 1950s and ’60s to accomplish that. “I never really talk about my legacy,” James said. “I kind of just live in the moment and if I’m able to accomplish something, then it kind of adds to it on its own.”
- Durant’s quest for his first NBA title. “Just approach basketball like I always have, which is with love and care and hard work, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
- Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s absence due to health. “at the end of the day this is his team,” said Warriors acting head coach Mike Brown, who had two previous stints as the coach of the Cavs and knows James well.
- Curry’s Finals rebound from last season’s crushing loss. “I don’t want to feel what I felt last year,” he said.
- Green trying to make amends for his Game 5 suspension. “The things that it taught me is it’s put me in the position of where I am today,” he said.
- The Warriors are 12-0 and the Cavaliers 12-1 in the postseason, entering the Finals with the best combined winning percentage since the NBA expanded the playoffs to 16 teams in 1984.
It is the matchup most NBA experts predicted, and the one many fans – despite allegiance to other teams – are anxious to watch. As many as 30 million people in the USA and millions more around the world will tune into series based on the last season’s Finals ratings.
“We also understand that this is just as an exciting matchup for everyone else as it is for us,” Irving said. “You got to take it as that. You got to relish in the competition and the players that we’re going against. This is what everyone wants to see and this what we all want to be a part of. So, I’ve been waiting.”
The familiarity, the competition, the moments, the great plays, the success, the falling short, the meaning and significance add to the intrigue of a third series between the two teams.
Abdul-Jabbar played the Sixers and Celtics in consecutive Finals in the 1980s. He wanted a third consecutive matchup, especially against the Celtics, but that never happened.
“Before we beat them in 1985, the Lakers were 0-8 against the Celtics in the finals,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “That year we beat them handily 4-2 and I felt we were playing so well, so smoothly that we could have just kept beating them. We owed them a lot of payback and I wanted to be a part of that payback.”
Given the players under contract for both teams for the next few seasons, it’s possible Cleveland and Golden State play in the finals a couple of more times.
But for now, they enter the Finals with different pressures.
The Warriors find themselves at a fascinating fork in the road, with a potential dynasty awaiting them down one path and another year of infamy down the other.
A win would serve two purposes, not only avenging the 2016 loss in which they became the first team in NBA history to collapse after leading 3-1 in the Finals but completing the goal they’d all talked about last July when they met inside that mansion in the Hamptons to recruit Durant.
Durant wasn’t sure at first, concerned both about the prospect of being deemed the NBA’s top villain but also of the question of whether he would fit.
The Warriors had made history without him by winning 73 regular season games. So why, he thought, would they have any desire to share this spotlight? The answer, both then and now, had everything to do with this Finals moment that awaits them.
The Cavs aren’t exactly playing with house money but they erased 52 years of sporting misery by delivering Cleveland and northeast Ohio the first title in a major pro sports league since the 1964 Browns. If Cleveland loses this series, it won’t be as devastating.
Not everyone can see the big picture implications of a third consecutive matchup.
“I don’t really care about history too much,” Warriors small forward Andre Iguodala said. “I try not to focus on that either. Just handle business when you’re supposed to handle business and then that’s when you’ll make history.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.