When LeBron James walks into Oracle Arena for the first time since Game 5 of last season’s NBA Finals, he knows it will trigger unpleasant thoughts about how his Cleveland Cavaliers lost the title to the Warriors.
James also knows that winning the rematch on Christmas Day will do little to ease the sting of the finals loss.
“The memories will come back as soon as we walk into the building, but also understand it’s one of 82 and I’m not going to put everything into this game,” James said.
This meeting is one of the more anticipated Christmas Day games in recent years. The seventh Christmas rematch of the previous season’s NBA Finals features a full-strength Cleveland squad against a Warriors team that has captured the attention of the basketball world.
Golden State won a record 24 straight games to start the season and brings a 27-1 mark into this game that is the best for a team at Christmas. The Warriors also have won 31 in a row at home in the regular season but none of those games has been as big as this one.
So what does it mean?
“We either finish that game 28-1 or 27-2,” forward Draymond Green said. “That’s about it.”
Not everyone is downplaying the rematch. Cavs guard Iman Shumpert said he was still “salty” about losing the finals to the Warriors. Golden State center Andrew Bogut also acknowledged that this would be a big game.
“We know it’s huge for them to come here,” Bogut said. “We’re undefeated at home, and with our record, they want to make a statement to us and we want to do the same. I anticipate it being one of the classics that we can all watch in 10 to 15 years.”
This game will be very different from the series in June for reasons besides the lower stakes.
The Cavaliers, who were without power forward Kevin Love for the entire finals and point guard Kyrie Irving for the last five games, are completely healthy for the first time this season.
Despite those key absences last spring, James almost single-handedly helped the Cavaliers win Games 2 and 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Then came a lineup switch by coach Steve Kerr that sent center Andrew Bogut to the bench in place of small forward Andre Iguodala – the Warriors won the final three games by an average of 14 points.
“They’re a different team, we’re a different team,” Green said. “We’ve grown. I’m sure they’ve grown. We’re not going back to the Finals like, ‘Look at this, this is what they did.’ They’ve got 26 games that we can look at from this year.”
The Warriors will be the team that is short-handed this time. Starting forward Harrison Barnes is unlikely to play because of a sprained ankle and Kerr remains sidelined from complications from offseason back surgery.
Even with those absences there will be plenty of star power led by James and MVP Stephen Curry.
“Our guys love these type of games,” Warriors interim coach Luke Walton said. “It’s not an epic game. It’s a regular-season game. It should be entertaining. Obviously, a finals rematch with two of the best teams in the NBA going at it at prime time on Christmas Day. That’s enough to make it a very exciting game. But win or lose, it’s just another game on the column.”