The NBA Finals are upon us!
The conference finals ended 9 days ago, and the long wait for the Finals to begin is over. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors both took care of business early, with the Cavs sweeping the Atlanta Hawks and The Warriors putting the Houston Rockets to the sword in five games. League suits decided a few years ago to “lock in a start date” because of TV, the league’s digital partners and “215 countries and territories airing the games.” By virtue of the conference finals wrapping up so early and the NBA being unable to bring the start date forward, the media have been forced to invent all sorts of angles to fill column inches with ink in the lead up to the Finals.
We have been forced to listen to talking heads discuss whether this series will define LeBron James’ legacy, a subject the media are obsessed with. Newsflash, LeBron James has won 2 NBA titles, and gone to 2 other NBA Finals, and has been the best player in the league for the majority of his career.
We have had to endure NBA journalist putting on their “Trust me, I’m a doctor” surgical masks and writing countless vapid articles on whether Kyrie Irving’s injured knee will be 80, 90, or 100% once the series finally starts.
We have been forced fed articles on whether David Blatt will be the head coach of The Cavs next year if they are defeated in the Finals.
Worst of all we have had to hear over and over again how close ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst is to LeBron. The inference here is that Windhorst is a kind of Moses figure, with LeBron confiding in Windhorst and that it is then Windhorst’s duty to present LeBron’s intimate feelings to the world, in the same way that Jesus gave Moses the 10 Commandments to give his followers. Windhorst is close to LeBron, they are both from Akron Ohio, and both attended the same High School, we get it, LeBron likes Windhorst. Windhorst has been able to parley this unusual relationship with a superstar into a post at the biggest sports programming network in The U.S.A, ESPN. Good for you Brian, but can we get back to talking about the basketball please?
This series will be decided on matchups, and here I am going to break down the pivotal match up in the series, the battle of the point guards, Stephen Curry vs Kyrie Irving.
Steph Curry is the league MVP, and has led his team to a 67 win season, a record good for the 6th best win total in the history of the NBA. Curry led Golden State to a 16-game improvement over last season’s 51 victories—the largest total win increase of any team that won at least 50 games in the previous season.
Kyrie Irving on the other hand has just come off the first season of his career with a winning record. In his first three seasons he was the best player on a God-awful Cavaliers team. In his first season in Cleveland they had 21 wins, in the second season he had 24 wins, and last season they improved to 33 wins. LeBron James “coming home” obviously reversed this pitiful record, acquiring the leagues best player can do that for you. Cleveland won 53 games, battled adversary, but with LeBron leading the way, and Irving as the second best player they havr morphed into a team on the cusp of championship glory
It goes without saying that both Curry and Irving are elite point guards. They share some traits, both have unbelievable ball control, the ball almost appears to be on a string whenever they are dribbling.
In the Finals we will be watching the players with the two best handles in the league duke it out. But don’t just take my word for it, Allen Iverson, one of the “badest” men to ever play in the NBA, and a guy who had out of this world handles, gave his two cents on Irving and Curry.
“Those guys are next level. I didn’t have the handle they do.”
I would give the nod to Irving, but only by a hair when it comes to best handles, and only because when he uses his handle to get himself into the lane, he converts at a higher clip than Curry.
They are both exceptional drivers, and move through the gears effectively, with both players having a lightening first step. Curry will often get into the lane and either drop an acrobatic floater over the opposing teams big, or else swing it out to the open man from deep. Curry is the better playmaker of the two, last season he averaged 8.5 assists, and would have hit close to that number again, but for the fact that he saw reduced playing timw under Steve Kerr, a disciple of Greg Popovich when it comes to massaging minutes. He still averaged 7.7 assists per game.
Playmaking does not come as naturally to Kyrie, this is as much a function of the fact that for the first 3 years of his career he had very little help offensively, and often had to do it all on that end, than him being a “gunner.” With LeBron and Kevin Love in town however he has had to make a concerted effort to include his teamates more often. This didn’t come naturally to Irving, 4 games into the regular season The Cavs stood at 1-3, and had just come off a 19 point drubbing at the hands of The Portland Trailblazers. Kyrie himself went 3-17 in that game, and did not record an assist.
LeBron James, the master of passive-aggressiveness decided to address this through the media.
“Everyone wants to win, I would hope.” “Would you rather play selfish basketball and lose, or play unselfish basketball and sacrifice and win? You pick.”
After the game an ESPN reporter, you guessed who, Brian Windhorst reported that James and Irving had a fraught exchange of opinions, after which Irving left the arena, refusing to speak to the media.
“There’s a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad habits been built up the past couple years,” said a visibly irritated James moments after the exchange. “When you play that style of basketball, it takes a lot to get it up out of you. There’s no way you’re going to win a basketball like that, you just can’t win like that.”
Irving has indeed adapted, the arrival of J.R Smith and Iman Shumpert have helped the team offensively, and while play making is not something that he is ever likely to excel at, he has toned down his propensity for volume shooting. More than anything, he has come to realise that he has one of the best playmakers in the league in LeBron on his team, and that it is ok for him to play off the ball, and let LeBron be the initiator on offense.
As mentioned above, an off-shoot of the delay in the start of the Finals has meant numerous journalistic rabbit holes have been pursued and published in order to fill the void left by the lack of games this last week and a half. One of these was the argument that Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter of all time. Now I am too young to agree or disagree with this assertion, but it seems impossible to make such a proclamation, knowing that the three point line has only existed in the NBA since 1979.
Even when it came into existence first it was largely ignored, and used only in desperate situations at the end of games, or as the shot clock was about to expire. That means that one has to question what does one mean by the greatest shooter of all time, and does one automatically omit players from pre 1979 as they did not have the opportunity to shoot 3’s? In other words the argument is both ridiculous and waste of everybody’s time
Whether or not you believe he is the greatest shooter of all times, there is no disputing that Curry is a special, special player, and it his shooting that makes this so. Ironically, Irving is also a very good shooter of the ball from deep, Irving won the 3 point shoot out only 2 seasons ago. Curry however is different gravy when it comes to shooting the long ball, this past season he broke the record for most 3’s converted in the regular season (286, Curry himself set this record), all the while shooting an efficient 44.3%, and taking over 8.3 threes a game.
He has carried this form into the post-season, obliterating the record for most made threes in the playoffs, held by Reggie Miller, before a shot was ever hoisted in anger in The Finals. The previous record was 58, Curry currently stands at 73, it is not out of the question that he will top 100 made threes before the series is over.
Curry gets his 3 point shot off in a different manner to Irving, or any other player for that matter. He has what Jalen Rose would call “In the gym range,” meaning that he is a threat to pull up and drop a three on you as soon he crosses half court. He takes and usually makes shots that would get every other player in the league instantly yanked by the coach.It is innately thrilling to see Curry pulling up from 28 feet and just bombing a three in someone’s face, and then reacting as if it was just another shot.
Irving is a good three point shooter, but rarely takes the kind of pull up/step back threes that are a staple of Steph’s game. He is more a spot up shooter, albeit an excellent one. He attempts about 5 3’s per game, and shoots a very respectable 41.5%, but his shooting does not cause teams to redesign their entire defensive scheme just to deal with him as Curry’s shooting does.
Defensively Curry is better. Both players are 6 foot 3″ and weigh around the 190 pounds mark, so theoretically they are working off more or less the same bass. Due to their slight build both players are limited with what they can do on the defensive end when faced with more physically overpowering point guards such as Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose.
Curry however plays good team defense, has a superior understanding of defensive schemes and does not get burned as regularly on pick and rolls. A lot of this is simply down to effort and buying into playing defense. Irving often looks disinterested defensively, going for steals that he shouldn’t be going for and generally being lazy about staying in front of guys.
The problem for Cleveland is that Irving is going to have to play big minutes defending Curry, the MVP of the league and arguably the toughest player to guard in the NBA. You might think that The Cavs would be better served hiding Irving and putting someone like Shumpert on Curry. But that creates all kinds of cross match up issues, Irving is not big enough to guard Klay Thompson, who would simply shoot over him. Switching him onto Harrison Barnes is also a no-go, Barnes would simply take Irving down into the post, where he would overpower him for easy lay up after easy lay up.
In reality the Warriors starting 5 offers no safe-haven to stash Irving, meaning he will have to face scampering around an obscene amount of screen’s, chasing Curry both on and off the ball. Respite will only arrive when The Warriors reserves check in, where you can put Irving on Andre Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa or Shaun Livingston.
In most categories I have picked Curry as being superior to Irving. That is not to say that I do not expect Irving to trouble Curry at times, Irving is a gifted player and will give Curry trouble, just as Curry will give Irving trouble. Infact, I believe the key to Irving having success defending Curry could well be by Irving laying down the gauntlet on offense. By putting pressure or Curry to defend Irving, The Cavs will hope that this tire Curry out, causing Curry’s offensive game to suffer.The old adage “Attack is the best for of defense” could ring through here.
Regardless, I believe that it is the battle of the point guards that will decide this series. LeBron will get his points, but it is how this duel plays out that I will be watching for closely. Enjoy the Finals, and be sure to check back in with Pundit Arena to read me break down every game of this series.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
Finals MVP: Steph Curry
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