After all, his Cavs had beaten Golden State four consecutive times, dating back to last year’s NBA Finals when they overcame a 3-1 series deficit to take home the championship.
"I don't think we have a rival in our game today," James told reporters after Cavaliers practice Sunday. “We've had two great Finals appearances the last two years, but I had the same with San Antonio when I was in Miami. We weren't rivals. And I think I played those guys more, so I wouldn't look at it as rivals.”
James might be the only player on either team to take this stance. In fact, Draymond Green called BS on James’ view.
“Yeah, I think it’s a rivalry — just me, though,” Green told reporters during his postgame press conference, per ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “Regardless of whether LeBron thinks it’s a rivalry or not — they want to beat us. And we want to beat them.”
Kyle Korver, who’s played in five games with Cleveland since being traded on Jan. 7, used the dreaded R-word to describe the Cavaliers-Warriors matchup.
"It's a rivalry, it feels like," said Korver, per Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor. "I don't know how many of them there are in the NBA right now, but this feels like it's at the top.
So what is a rivalry in James’ mind?
Not a rivalry
The Spurs: ''I wouldn't say it's a rivalry,'' James told reporters in November 2014 before his first game against San Antonio since returning to the Cavs, per AP. ''But I would say it's mutual respect, it's great competition and they definitely helped me grow along the way and hopefully, I pushed them too.''
The Pacers: "We've faced these guys two straight years in the playoffs, and you guys already make it a rivalry?" he said in 2014, via Yahoo! Sports. "There's no rivalry. There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days.”
Anyone, at least since 2013: “I've thought about it. There is no real rivalries. It's the truth. No rivalries,” James said, also via Spears. “Cowboys-Redskins is a rivalry. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry. Duke-Carolina is a rivalry. Bears-Packers is a rivalry.
"I don't know why, but there is no [NBA] rivalry. You see someone year, year, year and year after year and you guys battle it out, that's when it becomes a rivalry."
Maybe a rivalry
The Wizards, once upon a time: James (and his teammates) downplayed the venom during his battles with Washington from 2006 to 2008, suggesting that the Pistons were more of a rival at the time. But in retrospect, he’s given those early playoff series more weight.
“You know, now that’s a rivalry,” he said in 2014, via ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin. “That was a rivalry. When we talk about rivalries, that was a rivalry at that time, and it was a lot of bad, not only blood, but words and everything coming from that camp, coming from our camp, and it was great for basketball at the time. It was must-see TV, and I was happy to be a part of the victorious side.”
As close to a rival as LeBron will admit
Paul Pierce: James wouldn’t go all-in on calling Pierce his rival, but his hard-fought battles against the Celtics rank atop The King’s ladder of individual matchups.
"I would say that I don't really have an individual rivalry. I think the closest would be Paul Pierce," James said in June 2013, according to Masslive.com’s Jay King. "I would say Boston is a rival of mine because I've met them so many times in the postseason. I've been able to advance against them, they've sent me home fishing a few times. So I would say Boston and Paul Pierce would kind of be that guy, if I had to name just one guy."
Pierce agreed: “If I see LeBron walking down the street, it's not going to be no fistfight. I've got a lot of respect for him,” Pierce, then a member of the Wasington Wizards, said back in 2014, via ESPN.com’s Michael Wallace. “It's like fighting for the same girl. How am I going to be cool with that guy? I've got total respect for him as a person. It's just the thing we go through on the court.”
So why won’t LeBron call the Warriors a rival?
Good question. But it might not even be his call to make.
After all, it was Kyrie Irving who iced the Warriors with a cold-blooded step-back three-pointer over Stephen Curry in last year’s Finals. And it was Irving, again, who scored six of Cleveland’s final eight points, capped off by a turnaround jump shot over Klay Thompson’s arms to complete a 14-point Cavaliers comeback on Christmas Day.
When asked how much he pays attention to the scope of the Cleveland-Golden State rivalry, Irving, unlike his MVP teammate, didn’t downplay the magnitude of the matchup.
“I think we all pay attention to it. We wouldn't be honest with ourselves if we said we didn't pay attention to it,” Irving said in a Jan. 11 interview with ESPN.com. “Of everyone trying to make this a big thing. You have a lot of great teams playing basketball in the league but the last two championships were played by the Warriors and us. We just try and take full advantage of the opportunity to play against a great team, especially the Warriors. We're playing on a historic day at that, and it's a bigger cause, too.”
Irving is seven-plus years younger than James, and is younger than Curry (28), Kevin Durant (28), Klay Thompson (26) and Draymond Green (26). So while The King may not consider Cleveland’s matchup with Golden State a rivalry, it may soon be Irving’s decision to make.