INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Everywhere from the Las Vegas sports books to ESPN's Basketball Percentage Index to even LeBron James' framing of the 2017 NBA Finals has the Cleveland Cavaliers as heavy underdogs against the Golden State Warriors.
But Kevin Love doesn't buy it.
"The whole underdog thing is funny to me, because, yeah, at the end of the day we are defending our title," Love said Saturday following the Cavs' first practice in preparation for the Warriors since clinching a spot in the Finals on Thursday. "We're trying to repeat, which is so hard to do. I think we will use it as fuel, we will use it as motivation, but the idea of playing into it? It's tough for me to say that is the case. I don't feel like we're underdogs. We match up well with them, and I think they'd say the same about us."
Westgate Las Vegas has Golden State as a -260 favorite compared with Cleveland at +220. ESPN's BPI says the Warriors have a 93 percent chance of winning the series. James himself twice said the Warriors have been the best team in the league for the past three years and referred to them as both a "beast" and a "juggernaut."
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said the thought the Cavs would need the underdog title as a linchpin to get ready for the Finals was offbase.
"We're not going to use that as motivation," Lue said. "It's like, we're in the NBA Finals. That's enough motivation alone. Not worry about what it says in Vegas or what people are saying about underdogs. We're not using that as an excuse. We've got to come out and play. Our goals were set at the beginning of the season, and that's to win a championship. So, that's what we're focused on."
The Warriors' goal, of course, is also to win the rubber match and earn their franchise a second title in three years against Cleveland. Only Golden State forward Draymond Green put it in much stronger words when he told NBA.com's David Aldridge in October that he wanted to "destroy" and "annihilate" the Cavs should they meet with a championship on the line again.
"He's competitive," Love said of Green. "I mean he's one of the most competitive players in the league and he kind of spoke this into existence. He's a guy who said he wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday and you know he's a guy who brings it every single night, so now with the way the Finals went down last year if I were in his shoes, I would want the same thing."
Lue said that his team has "probably already have seen and heard" Green's comments before and chalked the aspersions cast as Green "speaking out of emotion." He added, "I like guys like that ... says what he really wants."
The Green-Love matchup was the last thing the Cavs wanted last June. Along with the concussion he suffered in Game 2, the versatile Green was the root of Love's troubles as a less mobile big man. He averaged just 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in the six games he played, but capped the series with nine points, 14 rebounds, two steals and a crucial stop on the perimeter against Steph Curry in Game 7. He comes into the Finals this year playing at a much higher level than that, having averaged 22.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in the Cavs' Eastern Conference finals win over the Boston Celtics.
After a conference finals like that, is Love so confident that he prefers a Warriors matchup over playing the San Antonio Spurs?
"Want the Warriors? Like Bron said in his post-game presser, they've been right at the top, best team in the league for three years straight now, they've been super-impressive," Love said. "It's kind of in our minds that that's who we were going to see. They played great basketball this year. Obviously adding an MVP to a team that already has a two-time MVP, that makes them even more impressive. It's tough to say that we didn't expect it; we knew they'd be right there."
Both teams have been right there next to one another in any sort of statistical measurement this postseason. The Warriors are 12-0 overall through the first three rounds; the Cavs are 12-1. Cleveland has the No. 1 offensive efficiency in the playoffs with 120.7 points per 100 possessions; Golden State has the No. 2 at 115.8. The Warriors have the No. 1 defensive efficiency at 99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions; the Cavs are No. 3 at 104.6.
"I think throughout the course of the playoffs, I think each team wasn't going to be outdone, until we lost that game to Boston," Lue said. "But we did something and then they come back, they'll do something. They do something, we come back and do something. So I think on both sides, they're kind of looking and watching and trying to outdo each other and I saw Draymond said last night, he just talked about just two great teams and Steph said, 'It wasn't easy.' Like, 'We put in the work, we came in every single day and put in the work to get to this point to play in June. It wasn't given to us. We had to earn it.' And both teams had to do the same thing. So having that team like Golden State over there who is always pushing us, I know from on this side, it's great for us and it's great for the game."