OAKLAND, Calif.—The tunnel that leads onto the Oracle Arena floor had more congestion than the interstate outside the arena. Hundreds of media members, including the ever-present late-night show pranksters, shuffle slowly forward in anticipation, preparing to storm the court at the first allowable moment. The signal is given and the rush is on. Inevitably, one reporter trips and falls hard to the ground: a few colleagues check to make sure no major harm has been done, while others move past the accident as quickly as possible.
This madness can mean only one thing: the NBA Finals are here, at long last. After a week with no hoops, the Warriors and Cavaliers introduced themselves to the full force of the world's basketball media Wednesday, going through stretching and light shooting drills as dozens of still cameras flashed and video cameras rolled.
"Same old face," LeBron James shouted to no one—and everyone—in particular. "They're tired of seeing me! Five years straight!"
Cleveland's four-time MVP knows better than anyone that nothing could be further from the truth. With Game 1 set for Thursday night (9 p.m. ET), James remains the biggest draw in the game, even though his Cavaliers are underdogs and will open the series on the road, a superstar in his prime whose talents magnetically pull reporters from all corners of the globe. "LeBron Fatigue" might be a real phenomenon when it comes to MVP voting, but not when it comes to the league's grandest stage. Few present would complain if James appeared in the next five Finals, especially as he enters this series averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists while running up a 12-2 record so far in the playoffs. The millions of fans watching on television surely share that same insatiability.
"What's it like being around [James] outside of the court?" Cavaliers coach David Blatt asked. "I get out of the way. A lot of people want to touch him. A lot of people want to talk to him. I just try to stay out of the line of fire."
This has become an annual ritual: Like February and roses, March and colored eggs, June is for watching James chase the Larry O'Brien trophy. His five straight Finals appearances—the first four coming with the Heat—are more than Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan ever managed in a row. James has now matched Jordan with his six career Finals appearances. "But who's counting?" he joked, when a reporter mistakenly shortchanged James' career total.
James' "same old face" happens to be one of the few familiar ones here. His offseason decision to leave Miami and return to Cleveland turned the East on its head, while Golden State's unexpected rise from a first-round exit in 2013-14 to 67 wins and a Finals run under first-year coach Steve Kerr ensured that this year's championship clash will be loaded with new blood on both sides.
Consider: James entered the 2015 postseason with 158 playoff games under his belt. The other nine projected starters in Game 1 had played in just 113 playoff games combined. Also: James enters the 2015 Finals with 27 games of Finals experience, while the other nine starters have combined for... zero.
Kyrie Irving, the X-factor for this series given his ongoing struggles with knee tendonitis, is a case in point. The three-time All-Star was reminded Wednesday of an exchange from back on Halloween. During a heated early-season game against the Bulls, Irving was caught on camera asking teammate Mike Miller if "this is similar to what a playoff game feels like." Irving, 23, had missed out on the postseason in each of his first three years. Now, Cleveland is relying on him to serve as a secondary scorer alongside James while spending some time marking reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who is averaging 29.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds in the playoffs.
"That was the second game of the season," Irving said, laughing as he thought about the clip. "And look where we are now. I had never experienced anything like that. We played in Chicago ... and it was packed, and you could just feel the energy. ... It was like, 'Is this the playoffs? Is this what it feels like?' Obviously, Mike's a champion, and he's like, 'Oh, no, not really.' And now playing in three playoff series, it doesn't even compare. It's nothing like the playoffs. So now that I actually have that experience, it's funny looking back on it."
Although Cleveland's roster is filled out with a number of veterans with serious postseason experience—including Miller, James Jones, Kendrick Perkins, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood—postseason rookies will be playing a lot of the minutes around James. Joining Irving in the starting lineup will be fourth-year power forward Tristan Thompson, who has emerged nicely to average 9.4 points and 9.9 rebounds in his first postseason. Second-year guard Matthew Dellavedova is also playing in his first postseason, and will play significant minutes off the bench.
Of course, Blatt himself is a Finals rookie—although he appears ready to fight tooth and nail to dispute that characterizations. After spending most of the last three decades playing and coaching in Israel and Russia, Blatt was hired by the Cavaliers last summer, marking his first coaching job in the NBA. While overseas, Blatt won numerous league titles and guided Maccabi Tel Aviv to the 2014 EuroLeague championship. He pointed to those experiences Wednesday as he lectured a reporter who suggested that Blatt had made a lot of progress from "coaching in small arenas in Israel" to the Finals in his first NBA season.
"Well, you should know well that I also coached a lot of games in very big arenas, including the EuroLeague final in Milan that we won," Blatt said. "So, no, I'm not at all uncomfortable or don't find this at all imposing. It is special, and it is a tremendous feeling to be part of this great, great league and to be able to be a part of the Cavaliers on their journey to trying to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time in over 50 years. So it's thrilling and it's exciting, and it's joyful to be in this situation. Is it at all unusual or uncomfortable for me? No, I've been in situations like this before many times, as you know."
His tone seemed to drift past "convincing" and toward "trying to convince himself."
Kerr, Blatt's coaching counterpart, has been in this situation so many times before that he doesn't need to remind anyone. With five rings and a championship-sealing jumper to his name, Kerr has said he pulls on stories from his championship runs with the Bulls and Spurs to motivate his team. Name-dropping Michael Jordan has been a go-to move when he wants to get their attention, but the main thrust of his approach seems to be preaching the importance of staying relaxed and loose.
The Warriors' clowning in practice—the half-court shooting contests and comedy-infused film sessions—have been a hot topic of conversation this week, as Golden State hopes to continue playing the free-flowing, charmed style of basketball that produced 67 wins and a +10 point differential this season. Although this is the first truly deep run for Kerr's core players, four of his starters—Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green—are in their third postseason run together.
"You've got to get through the media frenzy and the other distractions that come with being in the Finals, and you still have to focus on your job," Kerr said. "What I really found as a player was once you get out on the floor, you just start playing, and everything returns to normal. It's still just a basketball game. But you've got to get to that point, and the best way to do that is to try to ignore the chaos as much as you can."
While James set a purposefully jovial tone while Cleveland's practice session was open to the media—dancing as he stretched, singing a few bars and exchanging quips with Perkins and J.R. Smith—Golden State kept things fairly buttoned up and businesslike. The Warriors seem purposefully level, much as they were after clinching the Western Conference finals. Their celebrations were subdued: they were pleased, not elated, and ready for more.
Indeed, the two teams seemed to slide into traditional roles: the Cavaliers bubbled with an underdog's "nothing to lose" excitement, while the Warriors held tight to the favorite's "stay the course" focus.
"If we lose, nobody cares that you were ever here," Green said. "Getting here isn't special enough. We've got to finish the deal."
When basketball returns from its week-long hiatus Thursday, James is sure to bring his best as he pursues the third title of his career. How everyone else will perform—which of these Finals newcomers will rise, and which will shrink—remains to be seen.
James is the one player who has been there and won, and expects his opponent to play to its full capabilities, regardless of the pressure.
"[The Warriors] have been playing championship basketball all year," James said. "Why would they change? We've been playing championship basketball over the last two and a half months, so we're not going to change either. Just go out and play."