This just in: LeBron James believes in himself and his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates. Shocking, I know.
Though most statistical models don’t give the reigning champs even a puncher’s chance of taking down the Golden State Warriors for a second straight year–FiveThirtyEight has Cleveland pegged as a 10 percent hopeful—the four-time MVP feels differently, per ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin:
Yet the fact that James is preparing for such a formidable foe in the Finals has become old hat for him. Six of the eight times James’ teams have reached the Finals, they have been the underdog, including this year. The only time a James team was the favorite in the Finals and lost was 2011, his first year with the Miami Heat, to the Dallas Mavericks.
“I only play blackjack in Vegas anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” James said of the sportsbooks doubting the Cavs’ chances.
For the record, James feels quite confident about evening his career Finals record to 4-4 with a win over Golden State.
“I feel good about our chances,” James said. “Very good.”
This is typically where I would insert one of those “Well, what else is he going to say?” pieces of low-hanging fruit. And that could certainly apply. But San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich basically conceded to the Warriors after Game 1, so I won’t go there. (The Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard, but still…)
To James’ credit, the Cavaliers haven’t really given him a reason to be anything other than optimistic. He continues to be the best player that ever lived, Kyrie Irving has been on fire of late, Kevin Love is playing hyper-aggressive, super-effective basketball, and a lot of Cleveland’s defensive issues, including those in transition, have ironed themselves out.
Playing the Warriors, of course, is a different challenge altogether. This is probably the best team ever assembled on paper, and they will try to force the Cavaliers into counters by running small-ball lineups that potentially render both Love and Tristan Thompson unplayable. And while the Cavaliers will have no trouble getting buckets, is their defense up to the task of slowing down the frenetic Warriors?
The numbers don’t think so. Most analysts don’t think so, either. James feels differently. And, well, after the performance he put forth last year to help the Cavaliers erase a 3-1 lead at the expense of the Warriors, he’s earned the right to show faith in his squad without us interpreting as an empty smokescreen.