NEW YORK • Today will mark the first time since June's epic seven-game showdown between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals that the league's two heavyweights will face one another.
In many ways, not much has changed. Both the Warriors, who overcame a season-high 22 turnovers to down the Detroit Pistons 119-113 on Friday, and the Cavaliers, who rolled past the Brooklyn Nets 119-99, remain massive favourites to win their respective conferences this season.
It will set up what would be an unprecedented third straight meeting in the Finals, and a rubber match after the two split the championship round the past two seasons.
But, in one very important way, this meeting could not be more different: The introduction of Kevin Durant into the most significant head-to-head NBA battle since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were trading championships in the 1980s.
"It should be fun," Durant said after Thursday's 117-101 win over the Nets. "They're the champions and they're defending their crown, so we have to go in there and do what we do and play our game. It's going to be an electric atmosphere. I'm looking forward to it."
So is virtually every basketball fan, as this game has been circled on everyone's calendars since the schedule came out in August.
Who could resist the first meeting between them since the Cavaliers came back from a 1-3 deficit to knock off the Warriors and deliver their first-ever championship?
But, in many ways, it is exactly the way that series played out which will, for everyone involved, downplay the importance of both this game and the return leg in Oakland next month.
Last year, the Warriors comfortably beat the Cavaliers in both regular-season meetings.
"I think our guys are excited, for sure," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "But these guys have been around for too long. What happens on Christmas has nothing to do with what happens in June. We proved that, unfortunately."
And, for large stretches of this season, that is how the Warriors have played. Yes, they are 27-4, but their season has mostly been defined by the team turning things on when it is a must.
Some of the expected fireworks in today's game will be tempered by Cleveland's loss of J.R. Smith, after the mercurial shooting guard fractured his right thumb.
Still, if any team is going to be able to make up for the loss of a scorer other than Golden State, it is Cleveland, with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all off to excellent starts this season.
The Warriors have been relatively injury free but have needed some time to adjust to the loss of longtime fixtures Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, even if they would swop them for Durant and Zaza Pachulia 100 times out of 100.
"It's not just a regular game, it's a special game." Pachulia said. "You're playing on Christmas Day, on TV, different jerseys, all that. It's a rematch of last year's Final."
WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS
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