Golden State Warriors: When the LeBron James rivalry actually started

Over a year before they would square off in three straight NBA Finals, the seeds of a Golden State Warriors and LeBron James rivalry were planted at Oracle Arena.

The basketball world has rightfully been caught up in the NBA Finals “trilogy” between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers the last three years. However, the roots of this rivalry actually stem back to a regular season contest that took place on Feb. 12, 2014, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA.

By 2014, the Miami Heat were relying on LeBron James and Chris Bosh more frequently. Dwyane Wade sat out a total of 28 games that season due to injury and rest. This would be one of those games.

In his absence, LeBron put on a tremendous individual performance. He ended the game with totals of 36 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. Numbers which are eerily similar to what he would average the next year against the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals (35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game).

The Dubs would overcome a slow start and eventually take the lead in the fourth quarter. Stephen Curry scored 29 points and was complemented by 21 points from David Lee. Fittingly, the final result of the game came down to the two best players on the court.

A late three-point play by Curry put the Warriors up by two. Trailing on the road, down one superstar and nearing the All-Star Break, the Heat gave the ball to their two-time Finals MVP. LeBron wound down the clock and took an incredibly tough jumper to either win or lose the game.

You can guess what happened next.

The game itself would prove ultimately inconsequential for the Heat that season. In fact, they would not face the Warriors again during the James-Wade-Bosh era. They would advance to a fourth straight NBA Finals, but ultimately lose to the San Antonio Spurs in five games. LeBron James returned to Cleveland the next season to join forces with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and they would form a trio that would be the Cavaliers’ nucleus for the next three years.

However, to the Warriors, the game was a test and a barometer for their championship readiness.  LeBron had laid claim to the Eastern Conference and that reign still continues. The Warriors knew that the road to a title would eventually run through James and major changes ensued.

Marc Jackson was replaced by Steve Kerr as head coach for the 2014-15 season. The Warriors subsequently won a league-leading 67 games and the NBA title in a six-game series with the Cavaliers.

They went from scoring 104.3 points a game in 2014 to scoring 110 a game in 2015.  The bench was significantly upgraded with the additions of Festus Ezeli, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa. The continued development of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were major factors as well. Not to be underscored, however, was Andre Iguodala willingly moving to a sixth man role, which allowed Harrison Barnes to gain valuable experience.

After the 2015 NBA Finals loss, the Cavaliers made their own coaching change, replacing David Blatt with Tyronn Lue during the season in an unprecedented move. However, the change in leadership, style of play and a refusal to quit resulted in a 2016 championship for Cleveland.

The Cavaliers came back in historic fashion from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to defeat a Warriors team that had won a record 73 regular season games. LeBron James had brought a title to his home state and added another Finals MVP trophy to his resume.

The rivalry deepened further that summer of 2016 once Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for the Golden State Warriors in free agency. Durant and James have been compared with each other since KD entered the league. They both play the same position and even matched up in a 2012 NBA Finals.

That year, James won Finals MVP honors and the Heat won the title in a competitive five-game series. In 2017, the Warriors won 67 games and it was Durant who would claim the Finals MVP trophy while Golden State reclaimed the NBA title in a five-game series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now the stage is set for Cleveland, and particularly LeBron James, to answer the Warriors. The last three years have been a colossal back-and-forth affair that has shaken the NBA record books. And it all dates back to a regular season game in Oakland on Feb. 12, 2014.

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