(Photos: Thomas Ondrey/Plain Dealer, Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle)
At the beginning of this NBA season, it shouldn’t have been hard to imagine this year’s NBA Finals matchup on paper.
The Cavaliers boasted a “Big Three” of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, while the Splash Brothers — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — returned to a loaded Warriors roster.
Yes, there were legitimate concerns about how James and company would mesh under first-year NBA head coach David Blatt, and they were valid in the early going. Golden State had a first-year head coach too in Steve Kerr, but that didn’t stop the high-powered Warriors from finishing with a league-best record in the superior Western Conference.
Now, though, as the calendar has turned to June, none of those things really matter.
LeBron has led the Cavs on a tear through the Eastern Conference back to the Finals, a place where he’s been for the last five seasons. Curry, the NBA’s MVP, has similarly led his team — whether you subscribe to the idea that the Warriors’ better overall roster gave him a distinct advantage or not — to its first Finals appearance in 40 years.
Both superstars have taken their teams on relatively straight-forward paths to the Finals to this point, but what will happen in the coming two weeks or so will be entirely different for the Cleveland and Golden State alike. It’s fitting that it has taken a long wait — seven days for the Warriors, eight for the Cavs — to finally get things underway.
When the NBA Finals tip off on Thursday, the Cavs and Warriors will face off against something they’ve not yet had to deal with in these playoffs: the other team’s superstar.
Sure, the Warriors are more than just Curry, and even without Kevin Love and with a hobbled Kyrie Irving, the Cavs are more than just James.
But at the risk of oversimplifying things (you can find a wonderful and more complex discussion from Grantland’s Zach Lowe here), neither team is a whole lot more than its superstar. In the regular season, the Cavs and the Warriors went 3-10 and 0-2, respectively, without James and Curry.
So here we are, with a matchup of the current MVP and a four-time MVP.
James and the Cavs are rightful underdogs against the league’s best team in just about every metric imaginable. That doesn’t mean Curry will have considerably less to do, though, because the Warriors are at their best when he’s a weapon that is hitting his patented pull-up 3-pointers.
When Curry isn’t a long-range threat, the Warriors become mortal. It happened twice in Golden State’s second-round series with the Grizzlies; Curry shot 2 for 11 and 2 for 10 in Games 2 and 3, respectively, and the Warriors lost by a combined 17 points.
The flip side of that, obviously, is that Curry also has the ability to make shots that are impossible to defend and pour in boatloads of points in short bursts.
But James has that ability, too, even if it may not be in the same way as Curry. Despite struggling mightily from the 3-point arc in the playoffs, LeBron has proven more than once that he’s still perfectly capable of getting and making his own shot when he wants it. Like the Warriors will need Curry, the Cavs will need James.
And as LeBron himself said recently, you can’t really stop him or Curry, anyway.
It’s hard to say absolutely that whoever plays better between James and Curry over the next 4-7 games will be the NBA champion, but it’s easy to say that their teams go as they go. That doesn’t always boil down to something as simple as points, but it’s a real factor nonetheless.
With that in mind, James has been here many times before, while this is Curry’s (and most of the Warriors’ roster’s) first trip to the NBA Finals. That’s worth considering, even if Curry’s supporting cast is healthier and more complete than James’ as the series opener nears.
The bottom line is that both superstars will have a significant load to carry in order to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy later this month.
Perhaps it’s fitting that LeBron James’ 6-8, 250-pound frame has the slightly higher capacity.