In what is becoming something of an annual rite, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors meet for the fourth consecutive season when the NBA Finals tip off on Thursday night.
Game 1 of the best-of-seven series will be played in Oakland, Calif.
The Warriors prevailed in two of the first three season-ending head-to-heads, claiming the 2015 and 2017 titles 4-2 and 4-1, respectively, to sandwich the Cavaliers’ 4-3 shocker in 2016.
If the Cavaliers are to get even in 2018, it would require an even bigger upset than two years ago, when the Warriors set a regular-season win record and led 3-1 before Cleveland gained momentum from a Draymond Green suspension and stunningly swept the last three games.
Thanks to a lineup featuring All-Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Green, Golden State has been made the second-biggest favorite — about a 10-to-1 choice — in an NBA Finals since sportsoddshistory.com starting tracking such things in 1999.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers, a 20-1 pick to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001, were a heavier favorite. The Lakers won the best-of-seven in five games.
The favorite has won the championship in 13 of the 19 Finals since 1999.
“We can’t worry about what the outside guys are saying and who’s being picked,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We know what we have here and what we’re trying to do.”
What the Cavaliers have is LeBron James, who already has led two underdogs to titles in the past five years.
He helped the Miami Heat to the first of its back-to-back titles in 2012 as an underdog to the Oklahoma City Thunder before being the driving force in Cleveland’s win over Golden State in 2016.
The Warriors imported Durant in free agency following their 2016 disappointment in part to deal with James. So far, it’s worked.
Durant outscored James 38-28 and 33-29 in the first two games of the 2017 Finals, leading Golden State to overpowering 113-91 and 132-113 victories that cleared the path to a relatively smooth-sailing trip to a five-game championship run.
In fact, it was Kyrie Irving, not James, who arguably was the biggest reason Golden State didn’t sweep. Irving bombed in 40 points in Cleveland’s 137-116 home win in Game 4, sending the series back to Golden State for one last game.
Durant then did it again, offsetting what might otherwise have been a difference-making 41 points from James with 39 of his own, helping the Warriors pull away late for a 129-120 triumph.
On the eve of the rematch, Durant insisted it’s not a one-on-one duel.
“I know my role on my team,” he said. “I’m just trying to play in a way that will help us win a championship. That’s the only thing I can do.”
For the fourth year in a row, Golden State will hold the home-court advantage in the Finals, this time despite finishing second in the Western Conference to Houston in the regular season. The Warriors eliminated the top-seeded Rockets in seven games in the Western finals that ended Monday in Houston.
The Cavaliers entered this year’s playoffs seeded just fourth in the East, and they will be playing their third consecutive series without the home-court advantage. They were able to win twice in Toronto in the Eastern semifinals before waiting until Game 7 to record the key road win of the Eastern finals against the Boston Celtics.
The Warriors won both head-to-heads in the regular season, prevailing 99-92 at home on Christmas Day, then 118-108 at Cleveland three weeks later.
While Golden State will be missing a key role player, Andre Iguodala, for the Finals opener, Cleveland might be without its second-best player, Kevin Love.
Iguodala remains sidelined due to a left leg bone bruise that kept him out of the final four games of the Houston series. He was evaluated this week and is making progress, according to the Warriors. However, he continues to have nerve inflammation surrounding his left knee. He will be re-evaluated again before Game 2 on Sunday.
“Based on how long it’s been and when it happened, I’m not that far away,” Iguodala said Wednesday, according to ESPN.
Love remains in the NBA’s concussion protocol, and his status for Thursday is uncertain. He collided heads with the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum early in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, and he missed the rest of that game and all of Game 7.
“I’m still not sure,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said Wednesday of Love’s Game 1 availability. “He’s going to go do some things today and see how he feels. But he is in the protocol still, so we’ll see how he feels.”
Love’s health could play a big role in determining whether James can capture a fourth championship. James is appearing in his eighth consecutive NBA Finals — the highest total for any player not part of the Boston Celtics’ dynasty in the 1950s and ‘60s — and his ninth Finals overall.
Curry is looking to make some history, too. The league’s Most Valuable Player in 2014-15 and 2015-16, he could become the eighth player with multiple MVP honors and three or more NBA titles.
Bill Russell was an 11-time champ and a five-time MVP. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time MVP, won six championships. Michael Jordan captured six titles and five MVP honors, and Magic Johnson collected three MVP honors and five championships. James and Larry Bird both have three championships and three MVP trophies. Tim Duncan earned two MVPs and five titles.
—Dave Del Grande, Field Level Media