Thursday's Cleveland at San Antonio contest feels like the biggest game of the Spurs' season since the season opener at Oklahoma City. The Cavaliers are the runaway favorites in the Eastern Conference, they're at full strength now that Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert have returned to the fold and they've won eight in a row to San Antonio's nine.
The Cavs figure to be the best test to date to hand the Spurs, who are 22-0 at the AT&T Center, their first home loss of the season. The easy storyline is that Cleveland just happened to be the squad that gave the Spurs their last regular season home defeat on Mar. 12, in overtime. San Antonio had a six-point lead with less 33 seconds to go, but Irving drilled two bombs sandwiched around two missed free throws from Kawhi Leonard to send the game into extra time. Irving was unconscious that night, with 57 points on 20-of-32 shooting (7-of-7 from downtown) and he out-gunned Tony Parker, who was pretty good in his own right with 31 -- the last time Parker scored in the 30's until Tuesday night at Detroit. The dueling point guards turned the Leonard-LeBron James match-up into a sidebar.
After that loss, the Spurs won their final nine home games of the regular season --all by 12 points or more-- so their official home winning streak stands at 31 at the moment since the league doesn't count those pesky playoff losses to the Clippers.
So much has happened since that game and it seems more like 10 years ago than 10 months ago. Back then the Spurs were floundering and trying to climb the standings after a poor start, hampered by injuries to Leonard, Parker, Tiago Splitter and Marco Belinelli. They were to trying to regain the edge and intensity they had in 2014, but never got all the way there and certainly weren't able to sustain it. In a way, the Cavs game was a microcosm of their whole season, with moments of brilliance, a stunning collapse at the end and ultimately, a frustrating loss. Since then they've reloaded, with four new rotation pieces, including, obviously, a star in LaMarcus Aldridge.
The way the Warriors have exploded the past year-and-a-half, they've left the rest of the league in the dust and even stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and Blake Griffin and Chris Paul in L.A. have been shoved into the background. The ecosystem we knew is a thing of the past.
Stephen Curry and Co. have done the impossible: They've rendered LeBron James irrelevant, to the point where he's no longer the league's biggest villain. In fact, what the Dubs are doing harkens back to Michael Jordan's run with the Bulls during the 90's, when the NBA didn't really have any heroes or villains, no good guys or bad guys, and the whole drama of the league was seeing whether anyone could topple Chicago's historic greatness.
(Okay, maybe Karl Malone was a jerk. And I pretty much despised Shaq from the beginning. But still.)
My point is that LeBron James is no longer LEBRON JAMES: SUPERVILLAIN. He's not Darth Vader in high-tops. The Spurs toppled him once and for all in June of 2014, effectively destroying the Miami Heat. Actually, there's a bit of a "Star Wars" parallel in the Spurs vs. "The King" Finals trilogy. The good guys won the first and third ones, 2013 was our Empire Strikes Back, the best and most dramatic of the three but with the bummer ending where LeBron James revealed that's he's our daddy, and then it all ended the next year with Leonard mastering his Jedi gifts and Miami's empire imploding while I celebrated with some annoying Ewok music.
The numbers show us that James has actually been a bit better this season than last. He's had to be with Irving missing almost two months rehabbing from surgery to repair a broken kneecap. Despite his overall efficiency, James is shooting the worst percentage from downtown since his rookie year and ranks among the worst high-volume shooters in the league from outside the paint, though he's picked up a bit since that John Schuhmann tweet.
It's just not the same anymore. You can't slay the dragon and still call LeBron the dragon. He no longer represents the mountaintop, the pinnacle, the daunting obstacle to overcome. Been there, done that. Heck, the whole point of the Spurs vs. LeBron narrative was whether a team could conquer an all-powerful singular talent. Now the Spurs have a player in Leonard who's arguably as great as James himself. Where's the challenge in that? It probably wasn't a coincidence that it took a career night from Irving to beat the Spurs the last time these teams played. Leonard has demonstrated --repeatedly-- that he can neutralize LeBron.
We can't even skewer James for changing franchises and chasing rings and all that silly stuff that now feels like it happened a million years ago. The Spurs have created their own super-team, replete with a max contract stud bought in free agency in Aldridge and a fellow ring-chaser in David West. In retrospect, I kind of feel guilty piling on James along with everyone else for the way he handled leaving Cleveland the first time. Yes, "The Decision" was narcissistic and excessive, but in all honesty we can't really accuse him of blindsiding Cavs fans with that one. All the signs were there, from his lethargic play in an elimination game at Boston in 2010 to the way he immediately tore that jersey off his body in the tunnel after the buzzer. During his free agent recruitment process he wouldn't even take a meeting with Dan Gilbert and the Cavs or return their calls. He at least gave the Knicks a meeting.
Everything is different now and too much has happened. The Spurs are in a different place, the league is in a different place and LeBron is literally in a different place. Defeating him doesn't carry the same meaning, the same weight as it once did. Whether it was the Spurs or the Warriors who knocked him off his throne, he just doesn't carry the same "final level boss" feeling he once did, even though it's understood that you still have to beat him four times to hold up the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Right now beating the Cavs in the Finals feels like a given for whoever comes out of the West, an anti-climax, sort of like every Super Bowl between 1984 and 1997, where the NFC Championship was the de-facto title game, or the final hockey game of the 1980 Winter Olympics. If Spurs vs. Warriors is USA vs. The Soviet Union, then the Cavs have to be Finland.
Maybe James can make us dislike --or at least fear-- him once again. Beating the Spurs would be reminder of what he once meant to us, and to the league in general. Right now, I'm more worried about Irving, because when he's got it going, he's a poor man's Curry.
And that says it all, right?