These NBA Finals would be plenty compelling just confined to team vs. team. Golden State will cap an historic, record-setting season with a second straight league title, or Cleveland will overcome a 2-0 series deficit to deliver that city’s first major-sport championship parade since Browns reigned in 1964. Basketball can’t lose either way.
This isn’t just Warriors vs Cavaliers, though.
The series-within-the-series is in some ways just as intriguing.
LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry.
That duel is obviously interwoven into Warriors-Cavs but also separate and, in a certain way, even bigger. In a league driven by superstars, by the names on the back of the jerseys more than on the front, it is the epic battle of who’s in charge.
That great mythical title of Best Player swings in the balance. Such a title is rarely debated in football or baseball but it is part of the lifeblood of the NBA. Did that start with the endless debate over Chamberlain’s stats vs. Russell’s rings? Did it coalesce for all-time with Magic-or-Bird?
Most times the Best Player honorarium is held without debate for so long it’s as if the title has been retired. Michael Jordan comes to mind. More recently, LeBron owned that title his entire career — he anointed himself King James first, then earned the crown — until Curry audaciously laid claim to the title last season and then for the first time possessed it by consensus this year.
These Finals are putting ‘Best Player’ back in play, reopening the debate.
This might have been the platform for Curry to reiterate and underline his status as the new king, but, through three games, instead, the stage has belonged to the old king, to the once and perhaps future king.
Golden State leads 2-1 entering Game 4 Friday night in Cleveland, and the Warriors continue as strong favorites to win it all. They’d still be favorites even if the Cavs won again and evened the series.
Also, our narrative of LeBron reclaiming what was his is fragile, we’ll admit. It could flip fast. Imagine, for example, that Golden State won Game 4 because Curry looked like his old MVP self, draining 3’s, maybe popping for 30 points, and rediscovering that cocky swagger that might be offputting oozing from others but not from him because he looks like a 15-year-old who doesn’t shave yet.
Through three games, though, LeBron is making his case that, individually, he remains The King and that Curry still is the prince, waiting to fully ascend. I can very much envision a scenario in which the Warriors are champions again but LeBron emerges, even in defeat, seen once again as greater overall than Curry.
James has outscored Curry in all three games so far, by 24.7 points to 16 on average. James also is averaging 10.3 rebounds and 8 assists. And his guarding Draymond Green in Game 3 was a huge difference-maker that reminded us how the defensive end remains a James plus in any who’s-best argument.
The old king has risen this far in the Finals while the new king has seemed to cower, his team up 2-1 in spite of him as much as because of him.
“Follow my lead!” James ordered his teammates before Wednesday night’s 120-90 victory — which he led with 32 points. Impressive, that was. Vintage.
I know. I hear you. There is a chorus out there chanting that the knee issues that kept Curry out early in this postseason mean he still isn’t 100 percent healthy. Sorry, no sale. His knee seemed fine when he came back against Portland to score 69 points in two games. Seemed OK again when he averaged 27.9 vs. Oklahoma City in the Western finals.
Don’t suddenly pin it on health because — so far, and emphasize that — Curry has withered head to head against the man he had usurped as Best Player.
Also don’t underestimate LeBron’s drive to gain back that mythical crown, because, short of delivering on that promise to make Cleveland a champion, it may be all he has left.
LeBron is an intense student of basketball history, and a caretaker of his own place in it. It would insult him to be pigeonholed as past his prime at age 31, a supposition hurried along by Curry’s ascension. His rings total may be forever frozen at two, but if his Best Player days aren’t yet done he may still have a chance to retire slotted behind only Jordan himself when the sport’s greatest ever are discussed.
What we can say for sure right now:
LeBron James has been the best player on the court in these NBA Finals.
And it doesn’t feel like a fluke. It feels right.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.