Warriors-Cavaliers III: Three big storylines for the 2017 NBA Finals

The Warriors will try to reverse the pain of last June’s NBA Finals loss to the Cavaliers. (AP)

1. Can the inevitable meet expectations?

The 2017 NBA Finals matchup we all wanted is finally here. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will compete for a championship for the third-straight season, and not a moment too soon. Three rounds of noncompetitive series confirmed what many of us already believed — that these teams are clearly the two best in the league and perhaps the only two that could beat each other in a seven-game series. The Warriors and Cavs share just one playoff loss between them, and even that defeat came as a surprise. This result felt inevitable as early as the first round.

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Thankfully, these finals have the potential to make everyone forget the lackluster six weeks that preceded them. Although they only play twice per regular season, the Warriors and Cavaliers boast the most fascinating rivalry in the league. Two consecutive tough, dramatic NBA Finals have created plenty of bad blood and clear points of comparison. The Warriors are the NBA’s best team, a collection of star talent the NBA hasn’t seen in this salary cap era. The Cavaliers are nearly as loaded, but they take their cues from one transcendent legend — LeBron James, a generational talent now vying to replace Michael Jordan as the widely accepted Greatest of All Time.

Naturally, it’s difficult to assess this matchup outside of the context of last June, when the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit for the first time in NBA Finals history. That title carried plenty of historical and emotional weight — the first championship for a major Cleveland sports franchise since 1964, a signature accomplishment for LeBron, and the denial of ultimate glory for a Warriors squad that had set virtually every other single-season team record throughout the campaign. That series will be remembered forever — we all know about Draymond Green’s suspension, The Block, Kyrie Irving’s three-pointer, and Kevin Love’s perimeter stop of Stephen Curry. Those are moments and storylines that will go down in league lore.

It’s not certain that this season’s finals can match it, if only because 2016 set such a high standard. Yet the presence of Kevin Durant could make this series even more epic. When KD joined the Warriors last July, he appeared to make them unbeatable. A third-straight season with the league’s best record and several game-winning performances for Durant this postseason have only strengthened that argument. If the Cavs are going to win the series, it will probably take even better showings from their stars.

The stage is set for another fantastic series. No matter what transpires, you can’t say we haven’t earned a classic.

Can LeBron James top his historic performance in last June’s NBA Finals? (AP)

2. LeBron’s legacy

You know that ghost? The one LeBron admitted last summer he feels himself chasing like an Andre Iguodala layup? This is how he can catch it.

James has already turned in a remarkable season, averaging career highs in rebounds and assists per game while leading the NBA in minutes at age 32 and moving into seventh place on the league’s all-time scoring list. He’s just the third player ever to put up at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game in his 14th season, joining Michael Jordan — there’s the ghost — and Kobe Bryant, and he’s kicked it into an even more fearsome gear in the playoffs. Unprecedented workload be damned: this is a force of nature at the peak of his powers, lording over his conference competition on his way to a third consecutive clash with the only worthy opponent that this league, at this time, has to offer him.

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There will be some who say that LeBron can never equal or surpass M.J. in the race to be crowned the greatest basketball player of all time, whether because he has lost in the NBA Finals four times in seven trips while Jordan went a perfect 6-0 in the championship round, or because the shadows of past legends sometimes grow so large in the retelling that it becomes impossible for any flesh-and-blood human to escape them. If LeBron’s able to pull this off, though? Coming back from 3-1 down to the winningest regular-season team of all time, featuring the first-ever unanimous MVP, by ripping off arguably the greatest three-game run in postseason history and winning Game 7 in their gym, and then following that up by beating the All-NBA core of that team plus Kevin Freaking Durant, and doing it again without home-court advantage? Well, suddenly, it’s an awfully interesting conversation.

By playing at this level at this stage in his career, having just seen his NBA odometer roll over 50,000 career pro minutes, James is already in uncharted territory. Winning a fourth title, and likely a fourth Finals MVP, against a more imposing opponent than any M.J. ever conquered in the Finals might just be enough to put him in the most rarefied air there is.

Kevin Durant will play in the second NBA Finals of his career. (AP)

3. Kevin Durant, back on the grand stage

When Kevin Durant made his first NBA Finals appearance in his fifth NBA season, it seemed borderline unfathomable that he’d only be making his second in Year 10. But thanks to injuries, and a cost-conscious trade that will live in infamy, and more injuries, and Klay F*****g Thompson, the anticipated Oklahoma City dynasty never ascended.

As a result, when KD reached unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, he decided to pull up stakes and head West to the Bay in pursuit of both a replenished sense of on-court joy and the championship that has thus far eluded him. On the first score? So far, so good. Now, we find out about the second one.

After missing more than a month with a sprained medial collateral ligament and tibial bone bruise in his left knee, and missing two games in the opening round of the playoffs with a calf strain, Durant is back at full strength and in full view as one of the most dominant players in the game. He’s never scored at a higher clip in the postseason — 27.2 points per 36 minutes of playoff floor time — or done so more efficiently, shooting a blistering 55.6 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from 3-point range, while providing what looks like the perfect isolation-scoring antidote for what can ail the Warriors’ whirring offense when it starts to go on the fritz. Oh, and he’s doing all that while cleaning the glass and swatting shots at higher rates than his previous six postseason appearances, and while playing small-ball power forward in one of the most devastating defensive lineups in the game.

Five years ago, Durant went toe-to-toe with LeBron on the grandest stage of all, averaged 30 points per game on 55/39/84 shooting splits … and lost in five. This time, though, he’s not the upstart with the unproven young squad taking aim at the super team; he’s older, wiser and even better, and he’s got a squad just as gifted and just as nasty as the opponent he’ll face. He was willing to suffer the slings and arrows, the chants and the cupcake costumes, for another chance at the brass ring. Now, he’s got it. The NBA world can’t wait to find out what he plans to do with it.