OAKLAND (AP) — Minutes after LeBron James lost the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors four months ago, he vowed to return to the gym right away with plans to get back to the big stage. To win another ring.
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant heard it yet already knew it — and everybody on the defending champs and King James’ Cleveland Cavaliers realizes these teams could be destined for another championship showdown at the end of this season.
No, James is not through. Neither are the reigning champs if they have their way.
They all understand the entire league has upped its game to chase these two heavyweights from their respective conferences.
“That’s the beauty of competition at the highest level, other teams make us better and vice versa. Cleveland made us better,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They beat us two years ago, they made us better last year. We’re doing the same thing for them. They’re retooling a little bit, they’ve got some great talent. Every team is trying to get where we are and that pushes us. We push them. That’s what makes the game better.”
The Warriors and new-look Cavs will be tested in their openers: Golden State hosts Houston on Tuesday night in Chris Paul’s Rockets debut, while Cleveland plays Boston at home with Kyrie Irving in a Celtics jersey following that blockbuster August trade that transformed the Eastern Conference rivals.
After losing to Golden State in a Game 5 clincher in Oakland, the Cavs spent the summer rebuilding a roster that now features new stars like Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Isaiah Thomas.
Despite dealing Irving to its closest competitor in the East, Cleveland is deeper with more versatility and talent than at any time James has been on the roster.
And with close friend Wade back by his side, James is not only happy but is teammates with a player who brings out the best in him. Throw in former league MVP Rose, motivated to show he’s still one of the game’s elite guards, along with Thomas, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver and Tristan Thompson, and it’s easy to see why Cleveland seems to be on a collision course with the Warriors again.
The key being health and how quickly the Cavs can assemble all the pieces.
“Don’t think we’ll be the team we want to be in a week. It’s going to be for the whole season,” James said. “We’re going to have changes, we’re going to make changes, we’re going to become a better team as the games go on so the team opening night will not be the team that we know we can be.”
James can become a free agent next summer, but has not backed off his intent to end his career with Cleveland.
“I think when you get to a certain level you don’t need another team to motivate you. We want to win a championship, they want to win a championship,” Golden State’s Draymond Green said. “We know what it’s like, we know the feeling, we love the feeling. They know the feeling, they love the feeling.”
The Warriors are almost the same team, with Finals MVP Durant far more comfortable his second time around with Golden State — the scrutiny of leaving Oklahoma City long behind him.
“I expect us to pick up with a full head of steam on Tuesday,” Curry said.
There will be the fanfare of the Warriors receiving their championship rings in a pregame ceremony.
Yet Golden State still remembers its flop on opening night a year ago, following a loss in the 2016 Finals to Cleveland after its record-setting 73-win regular season. The Warriors lost at home to San Antonio 129-100 in Durant’s debut.
This time, they’re beginning the daunting quest of trying to repeat — something the franchise couldn’t do after the 2015 title against James and Co. as Cleveland won last year.
“Your swag level is through the roof, as it should be,” Durant said. “You’re the best team in the league and you go out there and beat a bunch of teams to win a championship, of course your swag is going to be through the roof. You hear about swag, you hear about guys deserving stuff or stories that they might have coming up into this year, all this fairytale stuff, it’s cool stories, it’s cool feel-good stories but you’ve still got to go out there and play the game, you’ve still got to lock in every possession if you want to win.”
NOTES: James is nursing a sprained left ankle and his status for Tuesday remained unclear. He was injured Sept. 27 in practice. ... Key reserve Andre Iguodala is questionable for the Warriors’ opener because of his troublesome back and Omri Casspi also could be out because of a right ankle injury, Kerr said.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball