NBA Finals: Only the strong survive

By Jason Inocencio

Posted at May 28 2015 05:34 PM | Updated as of May 29 2015 01:34 AM

Two teams with tortured fanbases are now about to play in the NBA Finals.

For the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s often been a long, sad, often heartbreaking road, but they have both finally made it this far.

Each has a near-unguardable superstar who has either been or is becoming the face of the league. Surprisingly, each is also coached by men who had never coached in the NBA before the season started.

Golden State Warriors players celebrate with the Western Conference championship trophy after defeating the Houston Rockets. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

When you look at Stephen Curry, you don’t necessarily think of the stereotypical NBA superstar. Reed-thin, largely unheralded before being drafted in 2009 out of Davidson (a college not known for producing NBA players), and viewed as injury-prone early in his career, the son of journeyman sharpshooter Dell Curry slowly worked his way to becoming an All-Star in Oakland.

With his pure stroke, mad dribbling skills, and penchant for hitting big shots with defenders draped all over him, Steph was not someone who jumped out of the gym or dazzled you with his dunking. Instead, he was fundamentally sound, something most coaches value and love to teach to youngsters.

After replacing Mark Jackson with Steve Kerr, the long-suffering Warriors found a defense to match their explosive offense and ran all the way to a franchise-best 67 wins this season. Curry won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy by a landslide as the Warriors swept the New Orleans Hornets led by Anthony Davis, faced a gritty Memphis Grizzlies with Marc Gasol in the middle, and nearly swept the Houston Rockets with MVP runner-up James Harden.

The only obstacle remaining just happens to be a four-time MVP with his own baggage and cursed franchise.

The Second Coming

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, guard J.R. Smith and forward LeBron James celebrate beating the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

We all know the story. Hometown boy goes straight from high school to the NBA, is drafted first overall by his home team, carries them to the Finals in 2009, announces on national television that he’s dumping them for Miami in 2011, becomes the target of scorn and hatred the following season and loses to the Dallas Mavericks. He then breaks through with back-to-back NBA Championships and Finals MVP awards in 2012-2013 before being dismantled by the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.

LeBron James has been a villain and a hero to many people since he was first in the spotlight. When he chose to leave the Heat after that Spurs defeat to come back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, many praised him for “coming home” and for showing love for a franchise and city that burned his jersey when he first left.

Yet James also saw that the Cavs had a young superstar in Kyrie Irving, and knew that the team could trade No. 1 picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love. In David Blatt, James would have a coach with tons of experience coaching in Europe, but never at the NBA level.

The Love experiment was largely a dud as the big man often felt underused or isolated in a team with James and Irving needing the ball a lot. James himself looked lost and uninterested in the first two months of this season, resulting in a 19-20 win-loss record.

When the Cavaliers finally found their rhythm, traded for New York rejects JR Smith and Iman Shumpert as well as Denver’s Timofey Mozgov, the state of Ohio finally woke up with them. Not even a season-ending shoulder injury to love in the first round of the playoffs against the Celtics would be enough to stop the locomotive that was James.

Boston was swept, and despite some tense moments against the Bulls, Chicago also fell by the wayside. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the ease with which Cleveland disposed of the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks. Coach Mike Budenholzer and his team with no stars were supposed to be the Spurs of the East, but without the injured Thabo Sefolosha to help stop James, and with Demarre Carroll and Kyle Korver’s injury woes, the Hawks too were swept. The Cavaliers are now back in the Finals after six years, and James is their hero once more.

Hunger in the Bay Area

The last time the Warriors were in the NBA Finals was exactly 40 years ago. Al Attles was their coach as Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes led them to a four-game sweep of the then-Washington Bullets. Since then, the team has been largely mired in mediocrity, with few bursts of superstar brilliance in the 1990s and early 2000s. Even with the “Run TMC” trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin running Don Nelson’s uptempo offense, the Warriors were more flash than substance then. When Nelson returned in 2006, a team of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, and Monta Ellis knocked off a Mavericks team that was the West’s top seed in 2007, but that was their peak.

Kerr’s addition to the Joe Lacob-owned Warriors truly pushed this team over the top. As a disciple of both Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, the former Phoenix Suns general manager proved to be a natural at coaching and brought out the best out of Curry, his “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Andrew Bogut.

Five decades of frustration

In Cleveland, you have a city that has not won a major sports championship since 1964. That was the year that the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League won the NFL Championship in the pre-Super Bowl era. Since then, neither the Browns, the Indians of Major League Baseball, nor the Cavaliers have sniffed success. Michael Jordan famously shredded the Cavs in the 1980s, dismantling the likes of Craig Ehlo, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and Larry Nance.

The drafting of James in 2003 was supposed to end that title drought, thus the hatred and anger sent his way after “The Decision.” Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who famously wrote a scathing online letter ripping James when he left, swallowed his pride and has basically allowed the four-time MVP to act as general manager and coach at times throughout this season. Team officials may deny it, but everyone sees how James has pushed for the signing of free agents and the trading of players who will complement his game. James has also admitted not following Blatt’s offensive play-calling at times, but it’s all forgiven now that they’re in the Finals.

As Golden State and Cleveland battle over the Larry O’Brien Trophy handed to the champions of the NBA, two cities that have seen their share of failure over the decades will be on display for the world to see and hear.

The power, versatility, and forcefulness of James will be pitted against the wizardry, shooting, and defiance of Curry.

In the end, only one of them will be good enough to earn the title of 2015 NBA Champion.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.