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While the Cleveland Cavaliers are going through a tough stretch, those who expect the current difficult times will result in anything but a fourth-straight NBA Finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors come June are mistaken.
So says none other than Warriors guard Klay Thompson.
“I’d be shocked if we didn’t do it again,” he told reporters in preparation for Round II with Cleveland this season, which will take place Monday night at Quicken Loans Arena. Golden State comes in an NBA-best 35-9, while Cleveland has dropped eight of its last 11 to dip to 26-16.
Thompson and his Warriors teammates have won two of the three Finals matchups against the Cavaliers, Cleveland winning in 2016, so he knows both sides of the spectrum.
“I’ve experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” he said. “You learn from both.”
Steve Kerr doesn’t sugarcoat it. In fact, when it comes to his Warriors playing the Cavaliers, he comes right out and says it.
“We just want to kick each other’s ass,” he said. “There’s no sort of love lost.
“That’s how it should be. We should be trying to beat each other.”
Kerr harkened back to the days of yore when the Celtics and Lakers combined to form the NBA’s best rivalry. Boston and Los Angeles squared off in The Finals a dozen times in a 51-year span.
“Lakers-Boston was the dominant rivalry. Our rivalry with Cleveland is the analogy of the modern NBA,” Kerr, a member of the 1992 Cavaliers who bowed in a rugged Eastern Conference Finals to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, 4-2, said. “It’s the same thing. You got superstars all over the floor. You’ve had three Finals meetings.
“You have so many games and so many people watching. It’s definitely a special feeling in the building when both teams are there.”
The drama of three consecutive Finals matchups between the Cavs and Warriors has certainly translated into huge numbers in terms of television ratings.
Last season, an average of 20,840,00 watched the five-game series, won by Golden State, 4-1. The number represents the biggest for ABC since it tipped off televising The Finals in 2003 and was the most-watched Finals since Jordan and the Bulls beat Utah in 1998, Jordan’s last season as a Bull.
The Finals in 2016 and 2015 were also hits with viewers, attracting an average of 20,225,000 and 19,939,000, respectively.
Draymond Green, Golden State’s high-octane forward, said he sensed a change, however, when the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers on Christmas Day at Oracle Arena, 99-92.
“[It] didn’t feel like we were playing against the same team,” he said, referring to Cleveland granting four-time All-Star guard Kyrie Irving’s request for a trade last summer, sending him to Boston in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round draft pick this year and Miami’s second-round pick in 2020.
Thomas (hip), though, like Golden State’s Steph Curry, did not play in Round I on Christmas Day. Both will play Monday night.
“To not see [Irving] out there was just weird,” Green said. “But maybe with [Thomas] playing… it’s just different because that’s another All-Star level player.
“But it was different the last time, to me.”
Thompson, who was tasked with attempting to check Irving during the last three Finals, agreed there was a difference without Irving playing.
After all, he did hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers’ franchise history, a stepback 3 over Curry with less than a minute to play in a thrilling Game 7 in 2016 at Oracle.
Irving also had games of 45 points (Game 1), 38 points (Game 3) and 40 points (Game 4) against in the Finals against Golden State a year ago. However, he struggled in losses in Game 2 and Game 5.
“He’s one of the best scoring point guards ever, so there’s a reason he was playing in The Finals for three straight years,” Thompson said. “Obviously, he made huge shots and is a clutch player. It was a joy to play against him for three straight years.
“Who knows how it turns out this year? But it was a lot of fun.”
Kerr admits Irving’s shot and the Cavaliers’ victory in Game 7 on 2016 to complete the first 3-1 rally to win a championship in Finals history cut deep.
“It will always linger as the toughest loss,” he said. “I never think about Game 7 anymore, I’ve moved on.
“If you linger on that stuff, you can’t move on. Then in the end, as you move further away from it, it’s a game. Somebody is going to win. Somebody is going to lose. You have to have that kind of perspective.”
Curry, the NBA’s unanimous Most Valuable Player during that 20156 regular season, agreed.
“It doesn’t ruin my day when I think about it,” he said. “But you obviously wish it didn’t happen.
“I’m all right with those memories. It makes you better. It makes you appreciate winning more. It makes you hungrier.”
That’s certainly the case for Green, who did not play in Game 5 of that Finals after being suspended for a Flagrant 1 foul on LeBron James after punching him in the groin after James stepped over him in the waning seconds of a Warriors win in Game 4 in Cleveland.
“You don’t want to lose that feeling because you never want to experience it again,” Green said. “You can never guarantee that you’ll never experience it again.
“But the best way you can get as close as possible to guaranteeing it is remembering that feeling and fighting so hard against it.”