As exciting and unpredictable as the 2014-15 regular season was, the NBA's Eastern and Western Conference Finals have been anything but.
With a 118-88 Game 4 win over the Atlanta Hawks, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers officially clinched an Eastern Conference title, while the Golden State Warriors are one game away from doing the same out West. A sub-par Game 4 effort behind them, the Warriors can take solace in the fact that teams leading 3-0 in a best-of-seven series are now 111-0 all-time, per WhoWins.com.
So much for a season defined by parity.
But fun as parity can be, the Finals are the game's grandest stage—one deserving of the league's biggest and brightest stars.
This year, that sentiment holds extra weight.
LeBron James is the entrenched superstar who's taken up a residency in the championship spotlight. After the Cavaliers held serve against Atlanta, LeBron will make his fifth-straight Finals appearance with a chance to capture a third ring.
According to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, it's been decades since any player could make that claim:
Howard Beck @HowardBeck
Per Elias: LeBron will be first player to make 5 straight Finals since...the '60s Celtics. Bill Russell, Satch Sanders, KC Jones, Sam Jones2015-5-27 02:27:51
Howard Beck @HowardBeck
8 players have made 5 straight Finals -- all of them Celtics in 1950s/60s. Bill Russell holds the record, w/10 consecutive Finals (1957-66).2015-5-27 02:30:52
Then there's Stephen Curry, the title-contending newcomer fresh off his first MVP who's looking to jump-start his own LeBron-esque era of sustained prosperity with a 2015 Finals statement.
"They'll never admit it, but very quietly the Cavs and Warriors are looking towards their inevitable matchup next week," CBSSports.com's Matt Moore wrote on May 24. "LeBron James said Sunday he only caught the third quarter of Game 3, and that while the Warriors of course looked good, no series is over until it's over. Behind closed doors you can bet he's beginning to turn his attention to Golden State, and the Warriors to James and his Cavaliers."
After Curry and James finished first and second, respectively, in All-Star fan voting, it's only right that the league's two biggest titans are on a collision course to culminate this season with a head-to-head duel for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Different Styles, Familiar Versatility
Twelve years into James' career, it's understandably more difficult to get wide-eyed about his performances compared to a newcomer like Curry—who flaunts an on-court panache we've never seen before.
However, that shouldn't diminish the four-time MVP's accomplishments now that he's elevated the Cavaliers to a plane they haven't resided on since 2007. Desensitization be damned, LeBron continues to find new ways to dazzle, even if his accomplishments aren't heralded quite like Curry's.
Hell, James just averaged 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the Eastern Conference Finals. Should he continue producing at that clip, he has a chance to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1963 to average at least 27 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for an entire postseason.
That's a 52-year chasm, and LeBron is on the verge of bridging it.
"I have a gift, and that's why I'm able to keep defenses off guard because, you know, they say, 'OK, we're going to make him score or make him pass,'" James said after Cleveland's 94-82 Game 2 win, according to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick.
LeBron's self-assessment is spot-on—as his postseason numbers indicate—but it's also fascinating in that it could easily be applied to Curry.
|LeBron and Steph's Postseason Production at a Glance|
While they're aesthetically different players—LeBron cloaks his game in strength and Curry finds ways to gut defenses with finesse—their abilities to embrace versatility are strikingly similar.
ESPN Stats & Info confirmed as much after Curry's 40-point, seven-assist explosion in Game 3 Saturday night:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
30 pts + 5 ast each of 1st 3 games of conf finals series: Abdul-Jabbar (1970) Tim Duncan (2003) LeBron (2009) Stephen Curry (2015) #Elias2015-5-24 14:30:13
Curry and James are also two of four players (along with Blake Griffin and James Harden) averaging better than 25 points and six assists during the playoffs, numbers which have been preserved by poise and masterful dexterous control.
According to SportVU player-tracking data, James ranks No. 2 among all playoff passers—creating more than 21 points per game via assists. Curry's eight spots lower at 14.9 points generated by dimes, but then again, Golden State boasts more secondary ball-handlers to help distribute touches and diversify schematic looks.
Boiled down, there's no direct, simplified route to containing either player. They each contain multitudes, and one way or another, they're going to exploit the opposing defense. Whether it's with speed or muscle, drives or threes, cross-court bullets or behind-the-back theatrics, James and Curry will always find ways to maximize the functionality of their ludicrously deep skill sets.
A Changing of the Guard?
Like James before him, Curry has found ways to revolutionize the game stylistically.
As teams transition to schemes that revolve around the three-pointer, Curry has been at the forefront of an offensive renaissance. He's launching 11.1 threes per game in the playoffs, a number no player has sustained before (minimum four playoff games).
In Game 4 against the Rockets he hit six, and for the series, he's drilled 24. That's twice as many as James (12) has made during the entire postseason. Entering Game 5, Curry's sitting pretty at 70 total postseason triples, which is already a playoff record. All it took was 14 games.
"The shooting is hard to describe because I don't think we've ever seen anybody shoot the ball the way Steph does off the dribble, off the catch," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters after Game 3, according to ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.
James, on the other hand, can't buy a bucket from distance. He's shooting below 40 percent from every basic area outside the restricted area for the playoffs, but his ability to deviate defenders' attention upon penetrating has freed up plenty of looks for his teammates.
That drive-and-kick prowess is invaluable to a team that's without droves of dribble-drive ball-handlers, but there's a distinct flair to Curry's game off-the-bounce and off-the-catch that makes it tailor-made for where the league is headed. Cleveland, meanwhile, continues to play at the slowest pace of any playoff team, and the Warriors have proved capable of dictating game flow all season long.
Prepare for a contrasting clash of epic proportions.
Setting the Stage
One more win needs to be sorted out, but history suggests it's merely a procedural formality that will pave the way for a Cavaliers-Warriors Finals.
And though the storylines are bound to be plentiful and captivating, a showdown between stars will trump all of them.
In one corner, there's the entrenched champion and familiar face of the Finals. In the other, there's the league's fastest-rising star and MVP, who will be looking to usurp LeBron's status as the NBA's most dynamic championship staple.
Curry does so by embracing the new-age tools that got him to this point, but James' experience, title savvy and mental wherewithal will pose a formidable challenge.
Soon enough, the matchup will be official. And when it is, the basketball universe will be watching intently to see if the King can be overthrown by a prince named Steph.
Alec Nathan covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AlecBNathan.