Mike Carlson: Will the NBA Finals be Golden State vs Cleveland or Steph vs LeBron?

It's a repeat of last years finals, which the Warriors won in six games

BY Michael Carlson 14:48 Thursday 2 June 2016, 14:48 2 Jun 2016

Picture by: Eric Risberg / AP/Press Association Images

In the end, the NBA got the match-up almost everybody wanted, the rematch of last season's finals, the best teams in each conference, and most importantly, the biggest superstars going heads-up, the guys who attract the casual viewers to their television screens. But it wasn't easy.

At one point last week, after the Toronto Raptors turned in two impressive wins at home to even their series with the Cleveland Cavaliers at two games apiece, and the Oklahoma City Thunder went 3-1 up on the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who won a league-record 73 games in the regular season, breaking the mark set by Michael Jordan's 1996 Chicago Bulls. The prospect of Oklahoma City going up against a team in Canada had executives at the ABC television network seeing nightmare visions of TV ratings in free-fall.

But the Cavs won the next two games, getting the clincher in Toronto to ensure at least one of the sport's top-two stars, LeBron James, would appear in the finals for the sixth consecutive year, and the seventh time in his career. Then the Warriors' superstar, Steph Curry led his team to three improbable wins in a row, including game six in the deafening confines of OKC's Chesapeake Arena, where his wing-man Klay Thompson, drilled a league-record 11 three-pointers.

In each win the Warriors controlled the game in the final minutes, as the Thunder seemed to self-destruct when the pressure got the heaviest, and their two stars, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, couldn't match the coolness with which Curry or Thompson simply stepped further away from the hoop to sink their series of long-range death-blows.

Basketball is a team game, but don't tell that to the league or its media. To them, this series is a mano a mano showdown between Curry, the NBA's Most Valuable Player both this season and last, and James, four times MVP, though not since 2013. When Curry won this year's award, James spoke cryptically about 'definitions', and he may have had a point. Curry was inarguably the league's 'outstanding' player, but it's easily arguable that the Cavs as a team are merely an extension of James, and hence he is more valuable to them.

Curry and Klay Thompson (left) are two of the best three-point shooters in the NBA. Picture by: Mark J. Terrill / AP/Press Association Images

Case in point: Cleveland boasted the best record in the NBA's weaker Eastern Conference, but needed a resurgence in the second half of the season after they fired coach David Blatt and installed Tyronne Lue, at the apparent instigation of James, who often appears to be acting as a player-coach on the court anyway.

They are a stark contrast in style. James has the build of a Marvel super-hero, and has been a dominant force in the NBA since going direct from high school in Akron to nearby Cleveland. Unlike many young players, he was not only physically ready, but seemed to have the maturity to cope with the great leap. Curry, whose father was an NBA player known for his shooting, was brought along more slowly. He may stand 6-3, but he's thin, and as a college player at lightly-regarded Davidson, pro scouts worried he'd be unable to withstand the rigours of the NBA season.

This is exactly what makes him so popular with fans, who can look at him and imagine themselves coping with bigger, stronger, faster men by using subtle fakes, clever ball-handling, and a shooting range that befuddles even the toughest defenders. Paradoxically, his preternatural skills make him a basketball every-man.

The Warriors start as favourites, but there are a few notes of caution being sounded.

They took their race to 73 wins seriously, playing each game down the stretch as if it were a playoff contest. As if to challenge that hubris, Curry was injured twice in their opening series, yet they still beat Houston four games to one; Curry returned in game four against the Clippers, expecting to be broken back in slowly; instead, his replacement, Shaun Livinstone, managed to get himself ejected for trash-talking a referee. Curry missed his first nine shots, but when the game went into overtime he scored 17 points in the five minute extra period. The Warriors finished off the Clips in the next game taking the series 4-1.

James will hope that he can win his first NBA title in Cleveland with help of team mates Kevin Love (left) and Kyrie Irving (centre). Picture by: Ron Schwane / AP/Press Association Images

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers breezed past Atlanta and Detroit in four-game sweeps, and won the first two games against Toronto before they finally lost. They're rested and ready, whereas the seven-game slugfest with OKC has to have taken something out of the Warriors, the theory goes.

On the positive side, the Warriors will open with the first two games at home, where they lost only once during the season, and once in the playoffs. They beat the Cavs last year, 4 games to 2, but this is not the same Cavs team.

There is probably no player in the NBA better equipped physically than James to simply take over a game on his own, but James' NBA finals record stands at 2-4, and the two wins came after he left Cleveland for Miami and assembled a team with two other big-name stars to help share the load. Broadcasting at the 2012 Olympics, it was interesting to watch James play a complementary role, at least until crunch time in the surprisingly tight final with Spain.

Last year the Cavs weren't fully healthy; this time, James' two supporting stars, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are at 100%, both will be expected to add scoring from the outside to match the Warriors. In mid-season the team brought in Channing Frye, another long player (6'11") with an accurate outside shot. The Cavs are equipped to challenge the Warriors at their own game as well as imitate the Thunder and put taller defenders on Curry and Thompson.

But in the chess match of basketball, the Warriors coaches, Steve Kerr and Luke Walton, may be better equipped to move the pieces. Last year, sixth-man Andre Iguodala was named MVP of the Finals for the defensive job he did against James, and the Warriors, for all their finesse, may be better equipped to play the game inside against the Cavs. But if either Curry or James rise to the occasion and win the series with superstar heroics, no one will be surprised, and the executives in the suits will be in heaven.


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