Every year we’ve seen the NBA Finals come down to one player or one particular matchup. Last year, small forward Kawhi Leonard tore LeBron James and the Miami Heat apart to lead the San Antonio Spurs to their fifth championship in team history.
This year, the most interesting matchup that could ultimately decide the 2015 Finals comes at point guard, with the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry lining up against the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving.
Two integral figures in the recent wave of point guards who have an eye to score first rather than distribute, Curry and Irving’s matchup could make for one of the more exciting Finals’ in history as well as titanic-like scoring numbers on both sides.
Compared side-by-side, there’s some similarities between these two talented young players, but even more separates their respective styles of play.
Here’s a breakdown of their games as well as a final assessment of who has the edge heading into Thursday night’s Game 1 Oracle Arena.
This comparison really comes down to The Shooter vs. The Driver.
Size-wise Curry and Irving are both listed at 6-foot-3 and roughly 190 pounds, and they use their smaller stature to wiggle through opposing defenses, as well as their elusive dribbling skills and five-gear speed to either blow past defenders or make the most acrobatic and impossible shots in the lane.
During the regular season, Curry’s scoring numbers of 23.8 points per game off 48.7 percent from the field were better than Irving’s 21.7 points and 46.8 percent, with the differences in those basic statistics largely negligible. However, from an efficiency standpoint Curry fully utilized his time on the court with a 28.06 player efficiency rating (No. 3 in the NBA) in 32.7 minutes a game. Irving averaged 36.4 minutes this season, and his PER was 21.57.
That’s a major discrepancy, but personnel also needs to be considered. Curry shared the Warriors’ backcourt with shooting guard Klay Thompson, who picked up the first All-Star berth of his career with 21.7 points and 43.9 percent three-point shooting. Irving began the year with since-traded-away guard Dion Waiters, and eventually received help from veteran J.R. Smith and swingman Iman Shumpert. Irving also had to share the ball with James, a fact that took some getting used to for every member of the Cavs.
The one true difference between these two superstars is simple and obvious: long-range shooting. Curry broke his own record with 286 three-pointers made, and hit 44.3 percent of his attempts. Irving wasn’t too far behind in terms of percentage, knocking down 41.5, but he made 157.
Curry’s success rate, compared to how he gets his attempts off his a hole other matter. Often times Curry comes off the dribble and sets up his quick-release jumper in a second or less. Other times he’s charging down the court on a fast break, and catches a pass on the run for another shot from an impossible angle that still finds the bottom of the net.
Irving’s highlights come from his tornado like drives to the basket, complete with a scoop or spin move in the lane that can be just as jaw-dropping. Irving's penetration skills often lead to Cavaliers points, since missed shots have a chance to be tipped in.
This is where Curry’s almost unbeatable jump shot figures more into the equation.
The MVP was sixth in the league with 7.7 dishes per game, juxtaposed to Irving’s 5.2 assists, which were down from a career-high 6.1 last season. Because Curry’s jumper is so automatic, defenders can’t lay off him or play the passing lanes as much. Instead they are forced to play Curry straight up, which allows him dribble-drive opportunities to suck almost the entire defense into the paint and free up cutters or shooters like Thompson or Draymond Green on the perimeter. It’s a big reason why Golden State was tops in the league this season with 27.4 assists a game.
The Warriors’ offense allows Curry to act as both top scorer and assist man, playing up to both of his skills. Irving on the other hand is more comfortable as the sole scorer, and he had to adjust to the addition of James as well as power forward Kevin Love, both of whom are excellent passers.
James, a threat for a triple-double every game, took over floor general duties to lead the Cavs with 7.4 assists per game during the regular season. He’s also upped that average to 8.3 during the playoffs. With James handling, Irving actually posted only 2.5 turnovers per game, the best of his career, while Curry’s asked to do more and thus coughs up 3.1 a game.
Once again, traditional statistics suggest the Warriors are middle of the pack when it comes to defense, since they allowed 99.9 points per game during the regular season, No. 15 in the NBA.
But in terms of overall defensive efficiency, Golden State was No. 1 in the league allowing 98.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a slight uptick from No. 3 a year ago for the Warriors, and could be contributable to Curry chipping in a career-best 2.0 steals per game. He also boasted a 4.1 defensive win share total, which estimates how many wins can be attributed to a player’s defense.
Curry’s certainly quick and long enough to defend every point guard in the league, but he does receive plenty of help from Thompson and Green, as well as Andre Iguodala and center Andrew Bogut.
Irving’s averaged 1.5 steals a game over the last three seasons, and he’s posted defensive win shares of 2.1 and 2.0 over the last two seasons. But overall his defense has been panned by many critics who accuse him of being lackadaisical, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he’s asked to check Curry full or part-time in this series.
Health is obviously going to be a key factor for Irving. He missed two games of the Eastern Conference Finals due to a knee injury, and though he practiced Sunday, head coach David Blatt said Irving was still “not himself.” Irving remains probable for Game 1.
Curry’s had a clean bill of health all season, and he’s coming in hot with 26 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals in the series-clinching Game 5 win over Houston. He also is at full strength after a dangerous fall contesting a layup by Trevor Ariza.
Both players do a lot of the intangibles right. Irving has done a better job of not turning the ball over, and also can surprise opposing shooters with a block shot. Despite high volume of his shots, Curry actually has good shot and pass selection.
Edge: Curry. He wins out in each of the three categories, but that doesn’t mean the matchup will be lopsided. If anyone is capable of frustrating Curry on defense it's Irving, who when healthy has the skills to get Curry into foul trouble and out of the game early. This matchup might be a lot of fun to watch.