Steph Curry vs. Kyrie Irving – Jorge Mercado

Heading into the NBA Finals, most people definitely give Steph Curry the nod over Kyrie Irving. And how could you not give it to the two-time MVP? Well, it’s quite simple, actually: Curry has come up short in the games’ biggest stage the last two years, the NBA Finals.

Last year, Curry went four games during the NBA Finals’ seven-game series, during which he failed to score 20 points and only averaged 22.1 points per game, an eight-point drop off from his regular season tally of 30.1 points per game. Compare that to Irving’s 27.1 points-per-game average in the 2016 NBA championship, and all of a sudden the idea of Curry is a much better player goes out the window.

Even in the 2015 NBA Finals, Curry was not bad, but he certainly wasn’t playing at the MVP-caliber he had displayed all season. This year, he hopes to right that ship coming into the Finals red hot, averaging 28.6 points per game on 50.2 percent shooting from the field and a very impressive 43.1 percent from long range.

Of course, we all know Curry is the better shooter between the two, but the area in which Irving really has the advantage is his driving and finishing ability. Irving is undoubtedly the game’s best finisher, averaging nearly 60 percent between zero and three feet from the basket.

Kyrie also has the psychological advantage over Curry due to the fact that he did nail that game-winning basket right when Curry was guarding him to secure Cleveland’s championship. Despite the fact that Curry will most likely not face Kyrie head-to-head most of the series, expect the Cavs to try to switch to get that matchup as often as possible to let Irving take over this year’s Finals.

Unfortunately, even with the advantage at the point guard spot, the Warriors roster seems to be too stacked to lose, especially with the acquisition of Kevin Durant.

Prediction: Warriors in 6.

Klay Thompson vs. J.R. Smith – Calvin Thrift

In the world of playoff beards and lucky shoes, postseason sports hold plenty of oddities, and the NBA is no exception.

Back in March, following a worrying three-game slide in which the Warriors lost to the Celtics, Timberwolves, and Spurs, a fan approached Klay Thompson for a peculiar autograph. Thompson succumbed to the request, signing the Golden State-themed toaster.

While truly a heartfelt story between fan, player and kitchen appliance, the story doesn’t stop there. Since Thompson signed the toaster, the Warriors haven’t lost a single game without Klay in the lineup.

Following that three-game slide in March, Golden State went on to win 14 consecutive games before losing to Utah in its second-to-last regular-season game in which Thompson sat out for rest. The Warriors then capped off their regular season with a win. Now, Golden State is on a 12-0 streak in the playoffs despite Klay struggling offensively.

In total, the Warriors with Thompson playing have gone 27-0 since Thompson signed the now-famous toaster.

J.R. Smith and the Cavaliers may have to find a toaster of their own to stop the Warriors’ winning streak, but if that doesn’t work, the matchup of shooting guards will certainly be important in deciding who is celebrating this summer.

Although getting virtually the same minutes, Thompson has scored eight less points per game this postseason while racking up an uncharacteristic .383 field goal percentage and .364 percentage from deep.

J.R. Smith certainly hasn’t had an impact close to that which he had last regular season, in which he started in all 77 games he played, but his contribution to the Finals is overlooked. Smith will be crucial for the Cavs in preventing offensive runs through locking down Thompson in addition to providing a three-point threat.

While Thompson will look to shoot out of his slump, Smith is surely ready to prevent the star guard from having any 37-point quarters while doing all he can do to help LeBron will his way to another Game 7, in which the Cavaliers’ fundamentals will outdo Golden State.

Prediction: Cavs in 7.

Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James – Richard Benites 

LeBron James

Top scorer (423 points) in this year’s NBA playoffs and leader in total forced turnovers (28 steals) throughout this postseason: These are only a couple of stats that prove LeBron James’s presence will be felt starting Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals. LeBron is in magnificent form and is currently challenging his basketball history by putting on perhaps one of his best playoff performances.

Considering LeBron’s legacy, that’s quite an impressive history we’re talking about. Into their 30s, most players begin to experience a veteran decline in their play. Or, like in LeBron’s case, you’re not like most other players and you remain the top dog in your league. At age 32, he’s soon to be the leader in minutes played this postseason, as Cleveland’s small forward still appears to be the same old prodigal son they once had. Oh, and he just passed Michael Jordan for the most playoff points scored of all time with 5,995.

LeBron is a once-in-a-lifetime player, and he’ll definitely show it come Thursday night. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love by his side, you won’t want to miss the continuation of a three-years-in-the-making, modern-day Golden State rivalry.

Kevin Durant

As far as postseason efficiency goes, Durant has actually mirrored a similarly spectacular showing. Durant is either above or below LeBron by less than a single unit in all major scoring categories, apart from assists. And at age 28, to be able to match one of the best to ever play the sport in terms of production is nothing short of remarkable.

At 6’9”, Durant plays with incredible speed and agility. Paired with an almost unguardable post and perimeter game, it’s no question that Durant falls into the top-10 conversation amongst best players in the league.

Durant’s matchup against LeBron will surely be the best test of his merit, and it’ll be a sight to behold for all.

Prediction: Cavs in 6.

Draymond Green vs. Kevin Love – Spencer Ault

It’s the third straight year that the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Finals, but it’s the first year that the Warriors will have to face a fully operational Kevin Love.

Sidelined with a separated shoulder in 2015 and ineffective at best in 2016, Love seems to have finally figured out his role within the Cavs’ high-powered offense in this year’s postseason run. The 6-10 power forward is averaging 17.2 points per game on 47.5 percent three-point shooting with 10.4 rebounds per game this postseason, far ahead of last year’s averages en route to Cleveland’s dominant 12-1 playoff record.

Luckily for the Warriors, they still have one of the best power forwards in the league in Draymond Green. Green might have cost his team a championship last year with his Game 5 suspension, but he seems more focused this postseason.

Green’s posted a 13.9/8.7/7.2 split in these playoffs, all the while keeping up his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber play. Love, on the other hand, has not been quite as effective defensively as Green, although that’s hardly a shock.

Though both are technically power forwards, it’s unlikely that Love and Green will be marking one another throughout the Finals. Green’s defensive savvy allows the Warriors to put him on LeBron James and Kevin Durant on Love. That’s a big bonus for Golden State, as Durant will save a lot of energy guarding Love rather than James.

The Cavs have no such flexibility on defense and so will most likely be forced to guard Durant with James and Green with Love. That’s a tough matchup for Love and a tiring one for James.

Love is the better scorer and rebounder of the two, but his margin there can’t make up for Green’s margin defensively. The Warriors have the edge in the power forward department, just as they will in the Finals.

Prediction: Warriors in 6.

Mike Brown/Steve Kerr vs. Tyronn Lue – Andrew Hernandez

Perhaps the biggest shift from last year’s Finals matchup is the absence of Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr. The 2016 NBA Coach of the Year has been dealing with recurring back issues, prompting the emergence of Mike Brown, the Warriors’ acting head coach and former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown has been extremely successful in his interim role, as Golden State currently holds a 12-0 record in the postseason and is looking to carry its momentum into the Finals after becoming the third team since the 1988-89 and 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers team to get through the first three rounds with an unblemished record.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Tyronn Lue and his coaching staff have done extremely well this season in creating an offense that likes to use a series of cuts across the court, coupled with screens around the top of the key to create scoring opportunities both in the paint and on the perimeter. The pairing of Lue’s play-calling skills and Cleveland’s talented roster is going to be a tough matchup for Golden State, but Coach Mike Brown and staff are looking to cause similar headaches with their own offensive sets.

On record from the Cavs’ previous series is Tyronn Lue’s shot at the Warriors’ offensive playbook, about which he told reporters in an interview after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, “The stuff [Boston’s] running, it’s harder to defend than Golden State’s [offense] for me … Golden State runs splits and all that stuff, but [the Boston Celtics] are running all kinds of [stuff].”

Indeed, the Golden State Warriors’ offense significantly features splits that involve entering the ball into the post and setting screens around the top of the perimeter, creating open threes or a chance for the post player to slip to the basket. It’s no secret what the Warriors are going to run against you; it is simply a game of trying to stop it, as their own stable of elite shooters will be able to score at a large rate, making perfectly defending against this set extremely difficult.

Prediction: Warriors in 7.

A version of these stories appeared on p. 8-9 of the June 1, 2017, edition of the Daily Nexus.

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