OAKLAND – LeBron James will attempt the most amazing achievement of his historic career by leading the twice-rebuilt Cleveland Cavaliers against heavily fancied defending champion Golden State in the 72nd NBA Finals.
The 33-year-old superstar reached his eighth consecutive finals seemingly by sheer force of will, lifting the Cavs on his shoulders throughout the NBA playoffs to book their fourth finals meeting in a row against the Warriors, with the best-of-seven championship series opening Thursday at Golden State.
This marks the first time in North American pro sports history that two clubs will meet in the final for a fourth consecutive season.
A title would cap the superlatives of an epic career because never has a James-led finals club been so huge an underdog as the Cavs are now. Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Warriors as the biggest NBA Finals favorites since 2002.
“We have an opportunity to play for a championship. That's all that matters,” James said. “We've been counted out for a long time this season. It's a heck of an accomplishment for our ball club.
“No matter what the storyline is going to be, no matter if we're picked to win or not, let's just go out and play.”
Rebuilding after the off-season trade of star guard Kyrie Irving, the Cavs struggled and were retooled again at the trade deadline, leaving James and forward Kevin Love alongside role players such as outside shooters J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver and inside man Tristan Thompson.
“I switched my mindset at the trade deadline to 'Let's get the most out of this season I can,'“ James said. “I'm trying to squeeze the most out of this orange to where there's no more juice left.”
Skeptics wonder how much juice James has left. He has seen 164 playoff games -- the equal of two full extra seasons -- from his first finals run with Miami to now.
And this year, in his 15th NBA campaign, James played all 82 regular season games, a career first, as he adjusted to ever-changing rosters.
“This has been one of the most challenging seasons I've had,” James said. “It has been six seasons in one. It has been a whirlwind. It has been a roller coaster. There has been everything that you can ask for.”
A crazy feeling
James is 3-5 in career NBA Finals after losing his first with Cleveland in 2007, winning two of four with Miami from 2010-2014 and taking the 2016 title in seven games over Golden State between 2015 and 2017 losses to the Warriors.
Only three players in NBA history have reached more consecutive finals than James, with Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn managing nine and Bill Russell a record 10 in a row. All three played on a 1960s Boston Celtics dynasty.
Four-time NBA Most Valuable Player James has averaged 34.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the playoffs, taking command in game-seven playoff wins over Boston and Indiana to keep the title dream alive.
“After all these years, we almost expect him to do that,” Smith said. “We expect him to get over the hump and take us with him. It's a crazy feeling.”
Beware 'other guys'
The Warriors seek their third crown in four seasons and sixth overall, which would match the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls for third on the all-time list behind Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers.
With Kevin Durant dominating inside, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as 3-point sharpshooters and Draymond Green inside contributing rebounds and assists, the Warriors have been nearly as formidable as they were in last year's title run.
“Somebody asked, it's four years in a row getting to the finals, do you appreciate it? Yes, because it's really hard,” Curry said. “All the smiles and embraces you have with your teammates, your coaches, it's well deserved.”
Curry is also wary of dismissing James's supporting cast.
“They are NBA players and yeah they are new and what not and 'Bron is amazing. He played an unbelievable playoff run to date and has willed his team to his eighth straight finals and all that,” Curry said.
“It was an amazing performance, but don't disrespect the other guys out there. They fought hard, too.”
Injuries could play a role, with Love uncertain for the opener while in the NBA concussion protocol and Golden State's Andre Iguodala questionable with a sore left knee.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)