I get asked often if I think LeBron James and Stephen Curry will go head-to-head much in these NBA Finals.
Fair question. Reigning Most Valuable Player Curry from the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavalier James, the best player of this NBA generation, are the headliners who make this matchup so appealing. It’s all the more interesting that James took an early shine to Curry’s potential when Curry played college ball for Davidson.
But when these Finals start Thursday (9 p.m., ABC), I can’t see one of these stars guarding the other much except in transition. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Curry doesn’t have the size or bulk to handle the 6-8, 240-pound James in the post. And while James could chase Curry through Warriors screens, there are other Cavaliers (Kyrie Irving or Iman Shumpert) who’d be better suited to that task.
Since we’re finally through the eight-day layoff between the conference finals and the championship round, here’s a drill-down on the matchups in this series, position-by-position:
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Curry vs. Irving: While Curry (23.8 points and 7.7 assists) is the MVP, this isn’t necessarily a mismatch. Irving, a former No. 1 draft pick from Duke, is one of the top five or six point guards in the league, with exceptional ball-handling and quickness to the rim (21.7 points per game, 5.2 assists).
The question is more Irving’s health after he missed two games of the Eastern Conference finals with a knee injury. He played in the close-out game against the Bulls and has had over a week off from games.
Curry is obviously hard to guard because he’s equally adept as a jump-shooter and ball-handler. The best counter-measure to that is for Irving to make Curry expend lots of energy guarding him.
If Irving struggles to contain Curry, the Cavaliers could have Shumpert, a strong perimeter defender, take turns guarding him and shift Irving to defend Klay Thompson.
Thompson vs. J.R. Smith/Shumpert: Four seasons into his NBA career the Warriors’ Thompson has rounded into a terrific two-way guard. He averages 21.7 points and shoots 43 percent from 3-point range. Plus, he’s a versatile defender who can guard point guards, shooting guards and many small forwards.
Thompson has been recovering from a concussion he suffered in the close-out game against the Houston Rockets when he was kicked in the head. Golden State coach Steve Kerr said he feels confident Thompson will be cleared to play in Game 1.
Smith and Shumpert, both acquired in a trade with the New York Knicks, are Cleveland coach David Blatt’s 1 and 1A options at shooting guard. Smith is shooting 39 percent from 3-point range as a Cavalier, which makes him a great target for James’ passes. Shumpert is more of a shut-down defender, but he’s shooting a respectable 34 percent on 3s as a Cavalier.
Harrison Barnes vs. James: Barnes, who played at North Carolina, is the Warriors’ starter at small forward, so he starts out matched against James. The reality is he’ll get lots of help and backup in the daunting task of containing James.
James’ size and speed make him the ideal basketball body. But just as importantly he has skill as a passer and a shooter (25.3 ppg., 7.4 apg) that equip him to defeat double-teams. Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford says you send doubles at James only as a last resort because he’s so adept at finding wide-open teammates.
Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Thompson and power forward Draymond Green might all take turns guarding James before this best-of-7 series is over.
Barnes has been a solid complementary player in Golden State, averaging about 10 points each of his first three seasons. Having former All-Star Iguodala off the bench could be a big plus in this match-up.
Draymond Green vs. Tristan Thompson: Label this one the “rising stars” matchup of these Finals.
A former second-round pick, Green drew support in the NBA’s awards balloting for All-Defensive team and Most Improved Player. He replaced David Lee as the Warriors’ starter and he’s not just a defender, averaging 11.2 points and 8.5 rebounds and shooting 34 percent from 3-point range. Green looks due for a big pay raise in free-agency.
Thompson, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, became marginalized in Cleveland’s rotation when the Cavaliers traded for Kevin Love last summer. But when Love needed shoulder surgery after the playoffs’ first round (he was injured in a tie-up with Boston Celtic Kelly Olynyk), Thompson shined.
In 23 playoff appearances this spring, Thompson is averaging 9.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and shooting 59 percent from the field. James frequently praises him, saying he should be a Cavalier for life.
Green is more versatile, but Thompson contributes without needing a lot of touches.
Timofey Mozgov vs. Andrew Bogut: Trading with the Denver Nuggets to acquire Mozgov after the Cavaliers lost Anderson Varejao to injury was one of the moves that kept Cleveland viable for the championship.
Mozgov and Bogut are similar as far as big bodies who provide defensive presence. Neither team needs a big production offensively from center the way these teams are constructed.
Bogut’s ability to be a secondary defender on James, without getting in foul trouble, could be a significant factor. Likewise, the Warriors will put Curry into pick-and-rolls that will test how nimble Mozgov can be.
Blatt vs. Kerr: One of these guys will become just the third rookie head coach to win an NBA championship that first season (others were Paul Westhead in 1979-80 and Pat Riley in 1981-82, both with the Los Angeles Lakers).
Blatt was a successful coach in Europe before the Cavaliers hired him. Kerr hadn’t coached before, but he won five championships as a player with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs and was later general manager of the Phoenix Suns and a television analyst.
In these days of analytics and sophisticated advance scouting, coaching is as much about relationship-building with star players as drawing up the perfect in-bounds play. James occasionally vetoes Blatt’s in-game calls, which comes with coaching a superstar. Kerr seems to have a good grasp of holding players accountable without wearing them out.
The Warriors have home-court advantage in this series and finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record at home (39-2) and on the road (28-13). They appear to have the more complete roster than the Cavaliers.
But here’s the big however: James will be playing in his fifth consecutive NBA Finals. If anyone is equipped, both in talent and experience, to will his team to the title, it’s James.
Warriors in seven.
NBA Finals schedule (all times Eastern)
Game 1: Thursday, Cavaliers at Warriors, 9 p.m., ABC
Game 2: Sunday, Cavaliers and Warriors, 8 p.m., ABC
Game 3: Tuesday, Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m., ABC
Game 4: June 11, Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m., ABC
Game 5*: June 14, Cavaliers at Warriors, 8 p.m., ABC
Game 6*: June 16, Warriors at Cavaliers, 9 p.m., ABC
Game 7*: June 19, Cavaliers at Warriors, 9 p.m., ABC
* If necessary