(Reuters) - The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will both be trying to deliver a championship to their title-starved fans when the NBA Finals open this week with a mouthwatering matchup between two of the game’s best players.
While the Warriors last won a title for the city of Oakland in 1975, the city of Cleveland has not celebrated a championship since the 1964 Cleveland Browns of the National Football League.
Both the Warriors and Cavaliers will be leaning on their respective most valuable players to restore glory, and though Stephen Curry took home the league’s top player award this year LeBron James still wears the unofficial crown.
What four-time MVP James has accomplished with this season’s Cavaliers team is one of his greatest feats and has returned him to the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year, a feat not accomplished since 1966.
With his key sidekicks either sidelined or hobbled, James has averaged 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists during the post-season.
Cleveland swept Atlanta in four games to book their first trip to the Finals since 2007 when James was in the midst of his first Cleveland tour before leaving for Miami and returning home this season.
Golden State’s 40-year wait to return to the Finals has come at a physical price. Curry, averaging 29.2 points during the postseason, took a violent fall in the Western Conference final and has not appeared quite the same since.
Meanwhile, backcourt mate Klay Thompson sustained a concussion in the team’s series-clinching win over Houston last week but returned to practice on Monday and expects to be ready for the Finals.
Working in the Warriors favor is that Thursday’s Game One will have given each team seven days, which is the longest gap in history between the end of the conference finals and start of the Finals.
Rust could be an issue for both sides and the job of preparation will fall on the shoulders of a pair of first-year head coaches.
Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Cleveland’s David Blatt give the Finals two rookie NBA coaches for the first time since the league’s inaugural season (1946-47). The two have taken divergent paths to get here, however.
Kerr won five NBA championships as a player and worked in the front office before landing with the Warriors. Alongside assistant coach Alvin Gentry, who has just been hired to take over the New Orleans Pelicans head job next season, Kerr has crafted an offense and culture that won a league-best 67 games and has been lauded around the league.
Conversely, Blatt’s arrival to the NBA has been met with criticism and speculation about his job status as the former European coaching giant learns the pressures of coaching James.
The supporting cast of the Cavaliers will be critical as will the health of All-Star guard Kyrie Irving who missed two games of the conference final due to an ailing left knee.
Long-range bomber J.R. Smith stepped up in Irving’s place and delivered some critical performances.
Cavs Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova has been a lightning rod this post-season with his scrappy play ruffling opponents but sparking Cleveland. He may have his sights set on getting physical with Curry.
The Warriors are capable of pushing back, however. Defensive wizard Draymond Green and tough big man Andrew Bogut give the team bite and help them compete in the rebounding battle even as they go to small lineups.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue