As the NBA conference finals head into the next-to-last weekend of May, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers look unstoppable in the East, while Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have their hands full out West with Oklahoma City.
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But make no mistake: this season won't be satisfying without a finale that matches the King against the Baby-Faced Assassin, a showdown that has been in the works for nearly a year.
Ever since the Curry-led Warriors beat James' short-handed Cavs in the 2015 NBA Finals, we've all been looking forward to the sequel, one that had them both at their best. And, boy, this one couldn't be setting up any better, assuming the Thunder realize this just isn't their time. (Of course, it might their last, best shot for a title if Kevin Durant leaves in free agency, but let's not digress.)
Without question, Curry vs. James, Part II would have the makings of those monumental showdowns in the 1980s between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, a rivalry that propelled the league to unprecedented heights.
Their teams combined to win eight of the 10 championships during that decade, highlighted by three meetings against each other in the Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers took two of those series, forever giving Magic the upper hand over his fiercest rival.
The stakes are just as high for Curry and James.
Curry might be a two-time reigning MVP (this most recent one by a unanimous vote) and perhaps the greatest shooter in NBA history, with a range that stretches to just this side of Neptune, but he and his team still play with a bit of a chip on their shoulders.
Clearly, that is directed toward all those who thought the Warriors were a bit of a fluky champion a season ago, the beneficiaries of James having to go it alone in the Finals after both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving went down with injuries,. Not to mention all those old-timers who keep insisting that Golden State wouldn't stand a chance against Michael Jordan's Bulls, even though the Warriors took down Chicago's venerable record by going 73-9 during the regular season.
Then there's James, whose legacy is being firmed up each time he reaches the Finals. He's been six times already, but only come away with a pair of rings – both won during his sojourn to South Beach, a Decision which unfairly earned him an almost universal scorn that still lingers. Never mind that he returned to his de facto hometown with the express purpose of bringing Cleveland its first sports title in more than five decades.
Though clearly not facing the level of competition the Warriors are navigating on the other side of the bracket, the Cavaliers have been downright dazzling in the playoffs. They have yet to lose a game, sweeping both Detroit and Atlanta before blowing out Toronto in the first two games of the conference final.
Cleveland is only the fourth team in NBA history to start the playoffs with 10 straight victories, going all-in to surround James with an array of weapons. There's Irving, whose penetration creates space in the lane. There's Love, who knocks down 3-pointers when the defense sags (and gets plenty of long-range help). There's Tristan Thompson, who dominates the boards and sets up all sorts of second-chance opportunities.
In the first two games against the Raptors, James has been the anti-Curry – connecting on 18-of-26 shots from an average distance of less than 2 feet.
''I've got great teammates who are getting me open,'' James said. ''We're just a well-balanced, oiled machine. I always use football terminology. We play offense, we play defense and we're great at special teams as well. You have to be able to do multiple things according to how the series or how the game is being played. We've been able to adjust.''
It's also time to adjust our perceptions of the King.
Sure, Curry has become the charismatic face of the league, and rightly so, a thoroughly entertaining player who is much more relatable to the common man given his slender frame and more limited physical skills. And to all those geezers who insist on hurling insults – we're now looking at you, Gary Payton – there's no doubt that Curry was a worthy choice as the league's first unanimous MVP.
But James remains the best player, the first guy to grab if you're building a franchise from scratch. And, outside of one very notable PR blunder, he's done more than enough to be worthy of our cheers, too. He's essentially taken a city on his back, intent on exorcising several generations of sports demons for the good people of northeast Ohio.
The Cavaliers are joyfully going along for the ride.
''I just think it's the belief, I think it's the commitment, and then it's the sacrifice we're all giving to one another,'' James said. ''We're giving it all to one another. It works great when you're able to do that. Everyone is feeding off one another.''
Ditto for Curry and the Warriors.
We can't wait to see them in the Finals.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .