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NBA: It’s PAYBACK TIME

OAKLAND, United States (AFP) – LeBron James has the Cleveland Cavaliers poised for a championship repeat in his seventh consecutive NBA Finals while Kevin Durant has sparked a historic Golden State playoff run in search of his first title.

The epic squads collide in an unprecedented third consecutive NBA Finals starting Thursday at Oakland, with the host Warriors an oddsmakers favorite in the hotly anticipated best-of-seven showdown against a Cleveland team that made the greatest comeback in Finals history to defeat them a year ago.

“They are a great team. They are the champs,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We’re trying to take what they took from us last year.”

The Warriors spoiled James’ fairytale return to Cleveland from Miami by downing an injury-hit Cavaliers squad for the 2015 crown, their first in 40 years.

Golden State then won a record 73 regular-season games and seized a 3-1 finals lead before James sparked Cleveland to victory in the final three games to claim the title, leading every major statistical category in an unprecedented, Herculean feat.

‘‘You have to appreciate the position that you’re in because it’s never, ever guaranteed,’’ Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. ‘‘That’s something that we’ve learned.’’

The third chapter of the trilogy has seen the Warriors sign superstar free agent forward Durant and again lead the league in wins. Golden State made a record 12-0 run through the first three playoff rounds, winning by an average of 16.3 points.

‘‘We’re excited,’’ Durant said. ‘‘But we’re not satisfied.’’

The Cavaliers struggled to a 7-10 record in March, closing the season 12-15 with four consecutive losses. But Cleveland has gone 12-1 in the playoffs with an average win margin of 13.6 points, James becoming the all-time NBA playoff top scorer in the process.

‘‘We have another level,’’ James said. ‘‘And we believe we can get there.’’

Not since the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s has the NBA seen a rivalry so intense, this one involving seven of the past eight NBA Most Valuable Player award winners in James with four, Curry with two and Durant with one.

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