If it seems like just yesterday when LeBron James was downplaying any talk of a rivalry between his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, a team the Cavs have faced in the NBA Finals over the last two years, it’s because it was just yesterday.
“I don’t think we have a rival in our game today,” last year’s Finals MVP told the media. “We’ve had two great Finals appearances the last two years, but I had the same with San Antonio when I was in Miami. We weren’t rivals. And I think I played those guys more, so I wouldn’t look at it as rivals.”
Draymond Green of the Warriors, on the other hand, believes the two teams definitely have something going. And after his team beat up on Cleveland, 126-91 at Oracle Arena, Green talked a little about it.
“It’s definitely fun. A team that you beat, beat you, it’s definitely fun. If you look at the last two years and this year, we’ve been the top two teams in the league each year, and so I look at it as a rivalry, and it’s definitely a fun game to play in.”
It might not be a surprise that James and Green have different points of view about whether Cleveland and Golden State are engaged in a competition for the ages, but one play involving the two may have set the tone for the rest of the season for the two teams who many believe will meet for a third time in the Finals this year.
It happened in the middle of the second quarter. Green was trying to cut off James who was picking up steam near half court when Green’s shoulder collided with James’ chest, almost like a hockey check or a clothline. The Cleveland superstar fell to the floor immediately and Green was assessed a flagrant foul while words were exchanged between players from both teams. Some believe James played it smart and made it look worse than it was, and after the game, both players tried to downplay the moment. Golden Sate coach Steve Kerr also offered up a nuanced point of view, saying, “Obviously, he went down hard and sold it pretty well. But when I look at the replay, I might think, ‘Oh yeah, that was definitely a flagrant.’ But I haven’t seen it, so it’s tough to assess, but [James’] a pretty big, strong guy.” Yet any play like that, especially when it’s between Green and James, will probably be deciphered as some sort of message from the Warriors. Green is known for his physical, sometimes “dirty” play. James is the best player in the world. It’s difficult not to read into that.
While everybody was trying to play politics after the game, the fact remains that, nearing the All-Star break with both teams at the top of their conferences, a play like that could resonate. Whether or not James still wants to admit that the best two teams in the NBA have a rivalry going doesn’t really matter anymore. A game in the middle of January that saw an escalation in physical play, and also saw Golden State even the score after the Cavs took the first game of the season in Cleveland on Christmas, is proof that the NBA has its best rivalry going in years. And if last night’s last meeting between Golden State and the defending champs for the regular season is any indication, another Finals between the two would be very interesting. The players know each other very well, and even with the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors lineup, Cleveland could very well still come out on top in the end. It’s by no means a foregone conclusion.
The truth is that it’s hard to call the last two years anything but a rivalry, and one that will be remembered for a long time to come like the Lakers and Celtics or Bulls and Pistons. But If James is right and the players on the top two teams in the NBA didn’t consider each other rivals 24 hours ago, then one hard foul could have changed all of that.