When the NBA Finals finally get underway on Thursday, LeBron James will face down the most formidable team of his career.
Apologies, San Antonio Spurs — both the 2007 and 2014 incarnations. No disrespect, 2011 Dallas. Deal with it, Boston, and all the other also-rans who ran off King James and his respective teams.
Because this Golden State Warriors team is the best LeBron has faced during any run at a Larry O’Brien Trophy. That fact will be on sharp display during a series that will feature disparate approaches, dissimilar stars and competitors at disparate ends of the legacy spectrum.
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Let’s start with Golden State. LeBron has never faced a reigning Most Valuable Player in the NBA Finals, and in Steph Curry he’ll go toe-to-toe against a player of such dynamic excellence this season that shutting him down (as he did to Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose in these playoffs) or hoping to outduel him and his formidable teammates (like he once did to Kevin Durant and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Finals) seems highly unlikely.
Curry has emerged as a nearly supernatural talent this season, marking his name on the short list, already, of greatest shooters of all time. He has broken ankles belonging to the likes of Chris Paul, helped spur excellence in teammates ranging from Draymond Green to Harrison Barnes and became a beloved fan favorite. He is, unlike LeBron, built like the everyman. He seems the very rallying point for the silly but prevalent anti-LeBron sentiment still simmering out there.
This is the guy who led his team to 67 regular-season wins — a breathtaking number and tantalizingly close to the Bulls’ 72 wins, the best mark in NBA history.
Of the teams LeBron has faced on the way to a Finals, the Spurs — both incarnations — came closest to that with 58 wins.
Golden State features a high-powered and flashy offense that embraces ball movement and led the league in shooting percentage, 3-point percentage and assists per game in the regular season. So far in the playoffs, it has notched the playoffs’ second-best shooting and 3-point percentage and is again first in assists per game. It’s all highlighted by Curry, the league’s MVP and one of its best 3-point shooters. His 73 made 3-pointers in this postseason is already a record.
They’re a one-man show, with that man rotating often being LeBron, sometimes Kyrie Irving, with guys like J.R. Smith sometimes getting in on the action. The Cavaliers led the NBA in the regular season in isolation rate at nearly 12 percent. That number jumped to almost 16 percent in the postseason, an astounding figure given the fact that it’s usually ball movement that gets teams these days deep in the playoffs.
And that happened while LeBron shot 18 percent – not a typo, actually 18 percent – from the 3-point line this postseason.
In a league where a winning team must normally move the ball, play grinding defense and feature a great point guard, the Cavs have played their spade, the one exception to that formula for success: You could also just have LeBron James on your team.
Because while Golden State’s defense, the best in the NBA during the regular season with a 42.8-percent opponents’ field-goal percentage, has been key to their success, the Cavs were so-so on defense until the playoffs. Their point guard, Irving, has been injured and hobbled. And their ball movement, as noted, tends to go in one direction.
But they’ve ridden their LeBron Advantage mercilessly in these playoffs. His usage rate – measuring how many possessions a player gets out of his team’s total offensive plays — is at 36.4 percent, highest in the playoffs of anyone with more than one game played. And those isolation plays tend to mean LeBron Ball — he’s averaged 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game, carrying this team. His 37 shot attempts in Game 3 against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals — an overtime win – was a personal high for the King, and proof.
So they have ridden him, put miles on the tires and perhaps worn off some tread in pursuit of that elusive Cleveland championship.
All signs, from weariness to depth to defense, point to the Warriors.
And yet . . .
It is James, and not Steph Curry, who has walked under those harsh lights of the NBA Finals and found that the very atmosphere itself shifts. It is LeBron, the four-time MVP, and not Curry with his one MVP, who has been forged in both Finals failure and glory.
And while the Warriors have not tasted a championship in most of our lifetimes, the Bay Area certainly has. But Cleveland? They are a barren sports landscape, and it is their own, from Akron, who stands on the precipice of delivering sweet relief.
James knows what is at stake, for the city he loves and the legacy he craves. He has been here before. He has faced down what awaits in ways Curry, Klay Thompson and the other Warriors can only learn on the run.
Yes, the best team he has ever faced stands in the way. But if you are the Chosen One, perhaps beating the best – especially when they have no idea what is coming – is part of what you are meant to do.
It’s a nice thought, and it could happen, and Cleveland would deserve every ounce of how that would feel.
But give me Warriors in seven. LeBron’s love for his home area is deep, real and formidable. But so is the team he’s about to go up against.
Bill Reiter is a columnist for FOXSports.com, a radio host in Los Angeles and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.