It’s only fitting that LeBron James and Stephen Curry will meet in the 2015 NBA Finals. In a season dominated by exceptional individual play in an exciting MVP race, the pair separated themselves as the two best players in the respected conferences. When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors go head-to-head starting June 6, in many ways the series will be recognized as a duel between two superstars.
Having won four of the last seven MVP awards and reaching his fifth consecutive NBA Finals, James continues to be the game's top player. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll have the best NBA Finals. Curry enjoyed the better regular season, winning the 2015 NBA MVP with 100 first-place votes, ahead of the Houston Rockets' James Harden (25 first-place votes) and James (five first-place votes).
Just as Curry had the best individual 2014-2015 season, the Warriors were the NBA’s best team. Their 67-15 record put them seven games ahead of the second-best team, tying them for the sixth-best winning percentage in league history. The Cavaliers won 53 games, good enough for the No.2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But there was an aching feeling that the two teams would meet in the Finals. While the San Antonio Spurs were the defending champions, and the Atlanta Hawks finished with the best record in the East, the prevailing wisdom was that it would be Golden State meeting Cleveland with the title on the line.
The league saw a similar situation in the 1992-1993 season. The Phoenix Suns finished the year with the best regular-season record (62-20), and their top star, Charles Barkley, was named the regular-season MVP. Michael Jordan, whose reputation was well-established, led the Chicago Bulls to five fewer wins and the No.2 seed in the East.
But when the two teams finally met in the 1993 NBA Finals, Jordan showed why he was the No.1 basketball player in the world. He averaged 41 points per game, defeating Barkley and the Suns in six games.
James, a student of Jordan who grew up idolizing the Bulls legend, knows all too well that, no matter what happens in the regular season, having the best player on the floor in the NBA Finals plays a major role in determining the eventual champion. But how that top player performs often dictates the winner, and in the case of James, he has been on the losing end on more than one occasion.
When the Cavs got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals, James shot just 35.6 percent from the floor, while finals MVP Tony Parker scored 24.5 points per game on 56.8 percent shooting. James struggled during the latter part of the Miami Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, and series MVP Dirk Nowitzki outscored him by more than eight points per game.
In last year's finals, James battled a tenacious defender and a cohesive offense when the Spurs cruised past the Heat in five games. James scored 28.2 points per game, but Kawhi Leonard limited his touches and forced him into seven turnovers in a key Game 3 victory for San Antonio. Head coach Gregg Popovich had five players average better than 10 points per game, including series MVP Leonard, who shot an exceptional 61.2 percent in a breakthrough series.
Golden State has won more convincingly than Cleveland all year, and the Cavaliers are not at full strength. Kevin Love’s shoulder injury will prevent him from playing in the series, and starting point guard Kyrie Irving has been battling injuries for most of the playoffs, forcing James to do even more.
While James remains the consensus best player, Curry has emerged as a strong No.2. He earned the MVP award with an historic regular season, scoring 23.8 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field, 44.3 percent shooting from three-point range and 91.4 percent shooting from the free throw line. Curry’s 29.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game in the playoffs are just as impressive.
The Rockets ranked sixth in defensive efficiency and first in opponents’ three-point percentage, but Curry still managed to average 31.2 points per game on 49.1 shooting from behind the arc in the Western Conference Finals. Even in the playoffs, first-year coach Steve Kerr was in awe of his starting point guard. Kerr, a sharpshooter himself, has seen greatness before as a teammate of Jordan in the 1990s.
“Steph was Steph,” Kerr said after a particularly strong effort by Curry in a Game-3 win over Houston. “He’s the MVP. He’s had a brilliant season. … I mean, it was remarkable, just a tremendous performance.”
Iman Shumpert will likely be called on to guard Curry, since Irving is a subpar defender who has been battling leg injuries. It promises to be a tough task considering Curry's ability to not just score but also create for his talented teammates.
Considering Curry's fluid supporting cast, he might have a better chance of reproducing his usual numbers. James’ 30.3/11.0/9.3 splits in the Eastern Conference Finals have never been matched in a playoff series, but he may have a difficult time doing the same against Golden State, particularly with Irving not at full strength and Love sidelined.
After winning 67 games in the regular season, Curry and the Warriors breezed through the playoffs against stiff competition. With a matchup looming against James and the Cavs, the sharpshooter will become the only player to ever face the rest of the All-NBA First Team members in one postseason.
No team has been able to slow James this postseason, but the Warriors might may have a pair of players to contain a scoring outburst. Andre Iguodala was an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection last year, and he forced Harden to set a playoff record with 13 turnovers when Golden State closed out the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors can also throw Draymond Green at James, who was named to this year’s All-Defensive First Team.
James, however, can do more than just score and has the ability to be more than just a dazzling player. Head coach David Blatt recently praised the veteran for his contributions beyond the box score.
"We have a champion [in James] who leads them in the right way, a guy that is not only a fabulous basketball player, but he is an experienced winner who's about the right things and who leads his guys in a way that empowers them and does not belittle them, in a way that lifts them," said Blatt.
This year will mark Curry’s first appearance in the NBA Finals, while James has already been in this position five different times. Both teams will have a week to recover, but Curry hasn’t been the same shooter in his brief time on the floor since his scary fall on Monday. He’s missed 25 of his last 39 shot attempts, and he went 5-for-17 from the field in his last game against Cleveland.
The odds makers expect Curry to have a terrific series, making him the odds-on favorite (10/23) to be named the NBA Finals MVP. James, who’s won the award twice, is the second favorite (2/1) at Bovada.lv.
Cleveland went 3-10 in games that James missed this season. Golden State lost both games that Curry sat out.