OAKLAND – The Golden State Warriors have had to wait nearly a year for a chance to avenge their defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s NBA Finals, a series in which they became the first team to squander a three-games-to-one lead in the championship round.
Although the Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games in the 2015-2016 regular season compared to 67 this season, they are arguably even stronger heading into this year’s Finals against Cleveland due to the addition of superstar forward Kevin Durant.
Durant gives the Oakland, California-based club an additional weapon and more size to complement sharp-shooting guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
But the Cavaliers also have their own group of superstars, headed by future first-ballot Hall of Famer LeBron James, who will be competing in his seventh consecutive NBA Finals and eighth of his storied career, and also including highly skilled point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love.
In last year’s Finals, James was not only the best all-around offensive and defensive force on the court, but also played a pivotal role in goading volatile Warriors forward Draymond Green into committing a costly flagrant foul that changed the course of the series.
Green was suspended for one game for appearing to punch James in the groin area toward the end of Game 4.
Golden State went into Game 5 at its home arena with a 3-1 lead and a chance to clinch the title but lost that contest without its best defensive player and then narrowly went down to defeat once again at the Oracle Arena in Game 7.
Although the Warriors looked dominant at times in last year’s NBA Finals, their path to the championship round was rocky and even required them to overcome a 3-1 deficit against Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
They have not lost a single game this time around, although their path was made easier by the rash of injuries suffered by their opponent in the Western Conference finals, the San Antonio Spurs.
The Cavaliers have breezed into the Finals for the second straight year, although the Warriors figure to be the Eastern Conference champions’ toughest test of the playoffs once again.
“Golden State – they’ve been the best team in our league for the last three years, and then they added an MVP,” James said this week, referring to Durant.
While Finals appearances have become an annual occurrence for James, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, the 28-year-old Durant will be competing in the championship round for just the second time and the first time since 2012.
James won his first of two titles as a member of the Miami Heat in that year’s Finals when he led his squad to a 4-1 victory over the Thunder.
The 32-year-old all-time great will continue his quest for a fourth title – and the Cavaliers’ second – when the Finals get under way on June 1 at Oracle Arena, a feat that would leave him two short of the championship haul of legendary Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan.
The Warriors, a franchise initially based in Philadelphia that won the championship in 1956, 1975 and 2015, are seeking their second title in three years.
One major question mark in the series is the status of Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has been out for most of the postseason due to complications from back surgery but could return for the Finals.