When LeBron James made the decision to return from Miami to Cleveland in 2014, the powerhouses in the Western Conference were the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and LA Clippers. Each team was considered to be a possible Finals opponent for the Cavaliers should Cleveland make The Finals with James back in town.
Despite the early outlook, what pundits and fans anticipated never manifested.
Reaching the championship series was never an issue for James' Cavs as they represented the Eastern Conference four consecutive seasons in the NBA Finals. The aforementioned Western Conference teams, however, would never see the court in June as the rise of the Golden State Warriors took center stage.
Behind first-year coach Steve Kerr and a Kia MVP season from guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors climbed the Western hierarchy and earned their first Finals appearance since 1975.
While their 50-year drought was ending, a classic rivalry was just beginning. On June 4, 2015, Cleveland and Golden State met to tip off a Finals showdown that would occur every postseason for the next four years.
The matchup got off to a scintillating start. Game 1 of the 2015 Finals featured 13 lead changes, 11 ties and went to overtime. During the extra period, however, Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving fractured his left kneecap and would miss the rest of the series. Kevin Love, who the Cavs acquired in the offseason from Minnesota by trading away their No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins, was already sidelined with a dislocated shoulder he suffered in the first round.
Cleveland’s injuries and Golden State’s talent provided a daunting, and eventually insurmountable, task for first-year coach David Blatt and the Cavs. Despite winning Game 2 and 3, the Cavaliers lost the next three games as adjustments from Kerr’s staff fueled a 4-2 series win. Forward Andre Iguodala was inserted into the starting lineup, and his assignment to lock down James with a blend of offensive production generated a Finals MVP.
The Warriors ended their long title-drought, something Cleveland would do the following season. The Cavaliers fired Blatt midway through the 2015-16 season despite possessing the No. 1 seed in the East. Assistant coach Tyronn Lue took over and, on the day he was promoted, Kerr returned to coach the Warriors after missing 43 games because of back pain. He went on to earn Coach of the Year honors. Stephen Curry became the first player to ever win the NBA MVP by a unanimous vote, and the Warriors posted a historic 73-9 record.
None of the accolades would truly matter after the 2016 Finals, however. With a 3-1 series lead, the Warriors were one win away from repeating as champions. All-Star forward Draymond Green would serve a series-changing suspension in Game 5 following a swipe to James’ groin in Game 4. The Cavaliers took advantage of Green’s one-game absence with a legendary performance from James and Irving, who each scored 41 points.
Green returned in Game 6, but Cleveland won and sent the series to a classic Game 7 in Oakland. Late in the fourth quarter, three moments were etched in Cleveland history: the block, the shot and the stop. James raced down court for a chasedown rejection on Iguodala, Irving hit the clutch go-ahead 3-pointer over Stephen Curry and Love stayed with Curry step-for-step to prevent a game-tying 3. The 52-year drought in Northeast Ohio was over.
Cleveland became the first team in history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in The Finals.
Sorrow would shortly turn to satisfaction in the Bay Area. Less than a month removed from The Finals, Golden State added another premiere player when Kevin Durant decided to join via free agency. His arrival bolstered a stacked team that already featured three All-Stars, making them automatic favorites to win the 2017 Finals. Cleveland once again owned the East behind James, but lost to the Warriors 4-1 in their third straight Finals meeting as Durant claimed Finals MVP.
The next summer, Golden State outlasted every team the West once again, and James made his eighth consecutive Finals appearance. His cast would be different than it was the previous three years. Irving was traded to the Boston Celtics before the season began. Severely outmatched, the Cavaliers nearly stole Game 1 on the road.
With the game tied at 107 and 4.7 seconds remaining, Cavs point guard George Hill missed a costly free throw. Things got even worse when J.R. Smith retrieved the rebound, but dribbled out the clock thinking the Cavs were winning. Cleveland lost in overtime, overshadowing James’ playoff-career high of 51 points.
Durant earned his second straight Finals MVP as the Warriors swept the Cavaliers, 4-0.
James defected for the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency one month later. His move put an end to an unforgettable chapter in the NBA history books. The Akron native fulfilled his dream of “bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio” in impeccable fashion, but Golden State ultimately finished this rivalry with a 3-1 lead.