The NBA Finals will boast a competition which is being billed as the Most Valuable Player, Stephen Curry, against the presumptive “best player in the world,” LeBron James. While both those descriptions might be accurate, the billing is not.
James and Curry won’t be competing against one another very much. James is a small forward/power forward. He’ll be guarded by a combination of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Beating that impressive group of defenders is his challenge.
Curry, however, will be mostly going against Kyrie Irving, a star in his own right, and a fantastic scorer. While Curry will get help guarding Irving from Thompson and Co., and Irving will get help from J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert (and likely some help from LeBron), this is the actual positional matchup.
And therein lies the true feature billing of this series. In fact, it’s something of a surprise how much Irving has held his own in the five previous meetings, per Basketball-Reference.com. (Note: TSA is True Shooting attempts).
In their two meetings this year, Irving is averaging 23.5 points to Curry’s 20.5 and 4.5 rebounds to Curry’s 2.0. Curry has an 8.0 to 3.0 edge in assists, though, and has a true shooting percentage of 57.0 percent to Irving’s 51.0 percent.
That said, while Curry’s numbers came exclusively with Irving on the court, per NBA.com, 4.5 of Irving’s points came while Curry sat.
However, the counter to that qualification is that when both Irving and Curry were on the court, Irving’s team held a 2.5 point per game advantage.
And both have proven that on any given night, they can go positively ballistic. Irving popped for a double-nickel on Jan. 28 against the Portland Trail Blazers, then topped that mark with 57 on March 27 in helping the Cavaliers over the Spurs.
Curry cranked out 54 points in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 27, 2013. He hit 51 this year on Feb. 4 against the Dallas Mavericks.
The actual head-to-head here is going to be the most entertaining of the series, too. It’s not just about the numbers. Curry and Irving have arguably the two slickest and sickest sets of handles in the NBA. In fact, even Allen Iverson, owner of the crossover that once duped Jordan, declared unequivocally that both are on another level than he was:
— SHOWTIME SPORTS (@SHOsports) May 14, 2015
If you’re watching the playoffs for enjoyment and not just numbers, this should make you positively giddy. This isn’t just a great matchup, it’s a downright fun one. Whether it’s Irving slipping through the defense, or Curry using his dribble to destroy grown men’s egos and set up a pull-up three. There will be plays made off the bounce.
Who isn’t looking forward to seven games of this?
The best previous competition between the two happened on Dec. 29, 2013. Curry had 29 points and 11 dimes. Irving had 27 and nine. Irving sank the three that sent the game to overtime, but Curry led the Warriors to victory.
Here are the highlights of that one:
From the viewpoint of a fan, the series will be pure fun just because of the magical things those two can do with the ball and the range they have. As an analyst, though, it could swing the difference in the series. Irving doesn’t have to outplay Curry to win. He just has to keep close.
Since acquiring J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, the Cavaliers are 21-3 in games where Irving and James both score 20 points. They have outscored their opponents by an average of 10.5 points in such circumstances. And, yes, that includes an 11-point win over Golden State on Feb. 26.
Irving has had issues with his knee this postseason, but he played in Game 4 against the Hawks and the prolonged rest between the closeout game and Game 1 of the Finals won’t hurt. He’ll have played just one game since May 20 and two since May 14. That bodes well.
If Irving can keep up with Curry on both ends of the court, he could swing the difference in the series. But at the very least, he’ll make it as entertaining a Finals as we could hope for.