(Reuters) - LeBron James and the Cavaliers rested up and waited through a tumultuous Western Conference finals before finding themselves right back where they were last year, going against the Warriors for the NBA title.
James, on a stated mission to bring to Cleveland the city’s first major professional sports team title in 52 years, and the Cavs hit the road to open the best-of-seven against sharpshooter Stephen Curry and Golden State at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, on Thursday.
Cleveland fell in six games in last year’s NBA Finals, but that was an undermanned Cavaliers crew.
They were without injured power forward Kevin Love and lost point guard Kyrie Irving after one game of the Finals.
This year they are at full strength and looking a different team under new coach Tyronn Lue, who has them running and gunning three-pointers as an Eastern Conference version of the Warriors.
James is now surrounded by potent shooters including Irving, Love, J.R. Smith and Channing Frye, who helped Cleveland set three-point records during their 12-2 charge through the playoffs that began with a pair of four-game sweeps.
Despite all this, the Warriors are heavy favorite, according to the early betting markets.
A high octane Finals could be in the offing as they match their shooting prowess against Curry and All-Star backcourt mate Klay Thompson, Golden State’s “Splash Brothers”.
Cleveland should be the fresher of the clubs.
“Feeling good right now,” coach Lue said. “Focusing on trying to get better, using each practice, all the time we have to get better.”
It has been a much tougher return trip for the Warriors, who despite their NBA record 73-9 regular season mark, had to endure Curry’s knee injury earlier in the playoffs before a huge challenge from the Thunder.
Oklahoma City not only had a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven, but also double-digit cushions in both Game Six and Seven.
“We weren’t just down 3-1, but we’d been blown out two straight games,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game Seven.
“It’s a pretty remarkable comeback. It shows a lot about our guys and their will and their grit.”
James, a four-time league MVP, has of course shown his grit over the years as best all-around player, with defensive skills to match his offensive prowess. This is his sixth NBA Finals in a row and seventh overall.
Curry, a unanimous choice in repeating as NBA MVP, is gunning to join Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan and James as the NBA’s only back-to-back MVP, NBA title winners.
Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Andrew Both