The NBA Finals and LeBron James' mission for Cleveland
It seems like forever since the Milwaukee Bucks pushed the Chicago Bulls to a surprising six games in the playoffs this year.
But they are still playing basketball, and the temperature rises to a fever pitch Thursday night when The Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors begin in California.
It's not unfair to say that the series pits the two best players in the league against each other, Stephen Curry of the Warriors who was the league MVP, and LeBron James, who may well be one of the best ever to play.
Predicting the outcome of a series like this is a hazardous undertaking,
Golden State was the best team in the league during the regular season with a 67-15 record. Cleveland was 53-29. Neither team was seriously challenged during the playoffs.
Here's a breakdown of some of the individual matchups and some of the intangible factors that may be important.
Point Guard – Curry, who can shoot from anywhere and has a perpetual green light goes against Kyrie Irving. Both players are All-Stars but both are dealing with nagging injuries. Curry bruised his right side in a classic fall against Houston and Irving has been battling tendinitis in his knee. Nobody is going to be able to stop Curry, but if Irving is healthy he can be just as formidable a force as Curry.
Shooting Guard – Golden State's Klay Thompson faces Cleveland's Iman Shumpert. Thompson suffered a concussion in the final game against Houston and it will be interesting to see how it impacts his game. Shumpert is a good defender and may be able to keep Thompson out the lane. If Irving is troubled then Shumpert may have to chase Curry around the floor. Shumpert is a great shooter and manages to be open for passes from James.
Small Forward – Harrison Barnes has the task of facing James. Calling LeBron James a small forward is kind of like saying Willie Nelson is a singer. There is no way that Barnes will be able to contain James, even when he gets help from teammates. Barnes had a gigantic game in the Warriors' final win over Houston, but better players than him have found out that guarding James can wear you out and take you out of your own game.
Power Forward – The Warriors' Draymond Green may well be one of the best defensive players in the league. He can guard everyone from a big man to a point guard. Tristan Thompson is a rebounding demon and if Green can't keep Thompson off the boards it's going to trigger that Golden State running game.
Center – Andrew Bogut, who cut his teeth in Milwaukee, has turned into a great rebounder, defender and passer. He doesn't score much, but with all the offensive power around him he doesn't need to. Timofey Mozgov runs the pick and roll about as good as any center in the league. But his rebounding ability and his protection of the rim may be compromised if he moves outside to play Bogut who won't be shooting, but who loves to move and pass from the perimeter.
There are two big intangibles in this series that are going to be important.
One is that California thing the Warriors have going. They have homecourt advantage and a fan base that is surprisingly active.
Cleveland's big one is James. He took his talents to Miami and then brought them back home to Cleveland (even though he's from Akron). The fever pitch that's surrounded his return since he first announced is almost off the charts. Plus, he seems like a man on a mission. And nobody wants to get in the way of LeBron James on a mission.
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