CLEVELAND — There is a highlight in the Cavaliers’ pregame introduction video this season that always draws ooohs and cheers from first-time viewers: LeBron James dribbling the ball in one hand with Steph Curry’s throat in the other.
James dribbles with his left hand and throws his right forearm into Curry’s neck in a scene from last season’s Finals, the force of which sends the reigning two-time MVP tumbling backward with his eyes closed. Gets the home crowd every time.
This is where we’re at as the Warriors and Cavaliers lace up the gloves again on Christmas. Goodwill toward men be damned. This is a full-blown, red-blooded rivalry, the likes of which is rarely seen in this NBA era of bro hugs and back slaps for the opponent and hasn’t really been witnessed since the bitter Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry of the 1980s.
The Celtics and Lakers met in the Finals three times between 1984-87. Much like then, this Cavs-Warriors rivalry features the game’s best players — James, Curry and Kevin Durant are widely accepted as the three best players in the league regardless of order. Now that Durant is on board, this rivalry has them all.
“It’s a rivalry already,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, who is well-versed in Lakers and Celtics lore from his playing days in Los Angeles and time as an assistant coach in Boston. “We just have one and one [championship], but it’s definitely a rivalry. Each team when you go out and play, you’re definitely thinking about each other. It’s just how it is.”
Should these two teams meet again in the Finals in six months, Lue said he would declare this on the level of the Celtics and Lakers. The Cavs and Warriors would also accomplish an impressive piece of history in the process. No two teams have ever met in the Finals in three consecutive seasons.
That seems hard to believe given the Celtics-Lakers feud of the 1960s, when they met six times in eight years, but never did it happen three years in a row.
“It’s a lot of championships won in that era,” Lue said. “But if both teams stay together and both teams continue to keep winning, it could be like that. They have a great team over there on the other side and we have a great team also. When you talk basketball, you’re going to talk Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio. And it’s a great place to be in.”
The Warriors’ addition of Durant adds another level of intrigue. It also changes the way the Cavs match up defensively. Lue used James to guard Draymond Green throughout the series last season, including the critical Game 7. With Durant on the floor, however, that won’t be possible because Lue said it doesn’t make sense to use Tristan Thompson on Durant.
The loss of J.R. Smith for the next three months stings as well. DeAndre Liggins is a big, physical defender on the perimeter, but he doesn’t have Smith’s offensive repertoire, and games in this series are predicated on shooting.
Even as far back as July’s summer league, executives across the league were already anointing the Cavs and Warriors as Finals opponents for a third consecutive year. No one in the league office would complain if it happens. These two teams are ratings gold for the league. They’re also meeting for the 18th time in the past 24 months, which might explain the animosity.
There is a deep respect for the opponent on both sides, but there is also the issue of James stepping over Green, Curry flinging his mouthguard into the stands, Klay Thompson taunting James about how the NBA is “a man’s league” and Marreese Speights tweeting out a baby bottle to further incite James.
Both James and Lue cautioned, however, not to be so quick in declaring the Cavs and Warriors the last two teams standing. The Spurs will have a loud voice in these proceedings and there is always the rare chance a team like the Toronto Raptors or Los Angeles Clippers might sneak up and trip one of the heavyweights. For now, however, Cavs fans will continue to dream about the next time James can drive his forearm into Curry’s throat when it matters most.
“I think only time will tell as far as comparing what history has done,” James said. “Obviously we know the history between the Celtics and Lakers of the ‘80s and how many times they’ve faced one another. Only time will tell with us.”
©2016 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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