Four-time MVP against current MVP; elite athlete and one of the greatest players ever against arguably the greatest shooter ever; brute force against skillful ball-handling.
In terms of accolades, James is far more decorated:
|Stephen Curry||LeBron James|
And even though Curry won this year’s MVP award, James had an equally dominant statistical season.
|Stephen Curry||LeBron James|
James also has the edge in career head-to-head matchups with Curry, amassing a 5-2 record.
Each player is a star in his own right, but how they manufacture their eye-popping numbers comes in completely different ways. Curry is about finesse, clever movement and elite skill. James, meanwhile, primarily barrels through opponents with the sheer force of his physicality and unparalleled athleticism.
Although James and Curry will both log a ton of minutes in the Finals, they won’t necessarily guard each other. It’s more likely that Cavs head coach David Blatt will stick his best perimeter defender, Iman Shumpert, on Curry. Conversely, expect Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes to share duties battling James, with some Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala sprinkled in for good measure.
Golden State Guarding James
Curry’s improvement on the defensive end and the Warriors’ army of long, athletic wings allow their switch-heavy defense to thrive. Whenever there’s any type of confusion fighting through picks or a ball-screen occurs late in the shot clock, the Warriors trade assignments and live with the ensuing matchup.
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
When it’s Thompson, Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Barnes or Green involved in a switch, not much is lost defensively. All of those players possess the necessary lateral quickness and wherewithal to guard perimeter players of all sizes and speeds.
Curry’s improvement as a defender is what’s allowed Golden State’s defense to truly thrive, however. Subsequently, the Warriors’ willingness to have him guard some of the league’s best players in switch situations helped them boast the league’s top-rated defense during the regular season.
Instead of hiding Curry on a weaker offensive player—a tactic Warriors head coach Steve Kerr still uses to start out possessions—Golden State can live with the consequences of any of their defenders guarding any opponent.
Multiple and consecutive switches create a wall on the perimeter by blowing up any screening action.
Take a look at how the Warriors shattered this modified double drag screen—when two players set a ball screen at an angle parallel to the baseline—by the Memphis Grizzlies during the Western Conference Semifinals.
Iguodala shifts his body and sits between the ball-handler, Jeff Green, and the middle of the floor, while Curry waits on the baseline side. No matter which way Green dribbles, he faces a Golden State defender. His only course of action is east or west dribbling, as opposed to north-south.
The resulting switch leaves Curry on Green, an apparent mismatch. What opponents fail to realize, however, is that Curry has massively improved his footwork as a defender. Because he cannot handle the physicality of bigger players, he uses his lateral speed and quick hands to bother the ball-handler.
This intense ball pressure far away from the basket negates any size advantage. The only way offensive players can exploit Curry is by walking him down to the block, but that becomes difficult in late-clock situations or when the bigger player has the ball 25 feet from the rim.
On this play against Memphis, Green is forced to settle for a tough fallaway jumper:
We can throw out the first game, however, because Cleveland was operating without LeBron.
This is normally an area of dominance for the Warriors because Green has proven to be such a dominant back-to-the-basket defender. In the Western Conference Finals, Golden State had repeated success downsizing their lineup by sliding Green over to the center position to guard the Houston Rockets’ Dwight Howard on the block.
But Green can’t shut down LeBron. Blatt will repeatedly attack that matchup in the post until Golden State adjusts, and it will be up to Kerr to figure out how he wants to deal with James directing traffic from the post.
That’s also why constant switching, especially with Curry, could prove problematic for the Warriors. Cleveland might to look involve Curry and James in off-ball screening action to facilitate a switch. If the ball then lands in LeBron’s hands, he’ll feast on hurried double-teams and scrambling rotations.
Golden State would have to counter by switching less. Every tactical decision in basketball has a domino effect, and this type of man-to-man coverage leaves Golden State’s perimeter wall vulnerable. Instead of detonating every screen with an easy switch, the Warriors would have to work that much harder to prevent screens from freeing Cleveland’s wing players.
Cleveland Guarding Curry
No matter how Golden State looks to defend Cleveland, don’t expect Curry to be anywhere near James when he has the ball. It’s on the other end of the floor that we could see James and Curry squaring off, particularly in the fourth quarter of close games.
Ben Margot/Associated Press
The offensive burden James shoulders with a sidelined Kevin Love and a hobbled Kyrie Irving is enormous, and Blatt has been smart enough to rest his star player on defense. This isn’t to say that LeBron isn’t giving any effort defensively; it’s just that Blatt is cutting corners where he can to save James’ energy.
Against Golden State, that will likely mean he guards Barnes or Iguodala for most of the series.
That’s what happened when James did play in the Cavaliers’ February victory over the Warriors. With Curry and Thompson dominating touches and serving as the focal points of the offense, players such as Iguodala and Barnes function as floor spacers and secondary drivers.
Barnes gets the ball every once in a while, but it’s usually in the flow of the offense through drives off penetration or catch-and-shoot opportunities. The post touches he normally sees will disappear if James guards him, meaning LeBron will have even less pressure to defend on every possession.
And James is a good off-ball defender anyway. He’s a great rebounder and shot-blocker from the weak side, and his defensive acumen allows him to roam free without getting burned all that often.
In the fourth quarter, Cleveland’s defense begins to switch almost everything, making no effort to chase players across the floor. Particularly with Tristan Thompson playing the 5, Cleveland has the athletes to never find itself in an unfavorable defensive predicament.
The Cavaliers can also change gears by moving LeBron onto the opponent’s best perimeter player. We saw that during the only truly close game of the Eastern Conference Finals, when James covered Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague in the final three minutes of Game 3.
Teague did score in isolation once, but it came off a difficult layup, which LeBron nearly blocked while bumping him off his driving path.
When push came to shove in the game’s final moments, James made more of an effort to stay connected to Teague and shut him down himself.
Expect a similar strategy from the Cavs in the Finals. Goading opponents into isolation basketball is a part of their defensive strategy, and Curry cannot help himself when he’s being chased by a big.
Blatt’s comments earlier this postseason concerning his defensive strategies have echoed this intent. While the switching doesn’t eliminate every defensive problem, it’s ultimately about the Cavaliers playing the numbers and diminishing opponent efficiency (via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today):
You’re never going to take everything away from anyone, but particularly in the series when you have time to see the team many, many times and you have time to prepare, you do lock in on doing certain things that you feel will help you lower their efficiency. So far, we’ve been able to do that. The task and the challenge will be to do that going forward.
That’s why this series will never consistently feature James and Curry in direct conflict. Shumpert or Irving will harass Curry. Curry will do the same to either of those players. James will tangle with Golden State’s versatile stretch 4s and lengthy wings.
Whoever stops the opponent’s superstar will win this series. How impactful Curry and James are on offense will be every bit as critical as how relentless the teams’ role players are on defense.
Within this matchup of individual NBA giants is a clear-cut example of team-oriented basketball.