For as nearly as basketball realizes the ideals of an individual sport—due to the outsized impact a single transcendent player can have on his team’s fortunes and the fact that opposing greats can and often do line up right across from each other to test the potency of their powers in direct opposition to their rival’s—this NBA Finals series was never the Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James showdown. Curry may have wrestled away the mantle of the league’s best player from James’s hands after last season’s Finals, then ran away with it during the Warriors’ and his own historic greatness during this year’s regular season, but very early on in this series it was evident that James, with his otherworldly talents across the entire spectrum of basketball abilities, remained a cut above Curry as an all-around player. Thus, Curry vs. James wasn’t the defining matchup of the series.
While Curry and James never truly challenged each other head-to-head for any sustained period during the Finals (though one of the handful of iconic moments these Finals did produce involved Curry trying skitter past James for a layup, only for LeBron to spike the ensuing shot through the floorboards of the Cavs’ arena and informing the reigning two-time league MVP not to attempt something similar or else risk getting his shit wrecked once again), the Finals were not without a player seeking to validate himself by gunning at one of his supposed betters. The headline story of the Finals—rightfully—is about James removing all doubt that he is anything other than the NBA’s most massive force around which the rest of the league orbits and bends to his whim. But this title would not have been possible without Kyrie Irving and his attempts to prove he’s better than Curry.
Irving is in many ways Curry-lite. These are two score-first point guards who dribble with the guile of an expert three-card Monte dealer, who need only a single stutter step by a defender to jet into the lane and send the ball spinning high off the glass and through the net, and who have no compunction about taking only the slightest hint of space on the perimeter and raising up for a three. But besides their respective handles, Curry is much better than Irving at every other facet of their games. Irving and Curry basically play the same game, only Curry does it with much, much more lethal efficiency.
Usually, that is. For the first two games of the Cavs-Warriors series, Irving was an absolute liability. His long-evident defensive shortcomings did his team no favors, while his penchant for overlong solo dribble shows that culminated in late-in-the-clock contested jumpers that weren’t hitting made him actively harmful to the Cavaliers’ chances of winning. He seemed more preoccupied with trying to out-Curry Curry with flashy crossovers and deep jumpers than with getting himself and his teammates good looks while preventing the Warriors from doing the same. It was perfectly reasonable to watch how badly the Warriors were exploiting Irving, recall the fight the Kyrie-less Cavs put up against this team last season, and wonder if Cleveland wouldn’t be better off benching Irving for someone who wasn’t hellbent on being such a minus on both ends of the court.
Somehow, Irving turned it all around. After averaging 18 points on 33 percent shooting in the first two games of the Finals, Irving went off in the next five, scoring 31 points per game (most famously with the 41-point barrage in Game 5), shooting 51 percent from the field, and 47 percent from three. He was still by and large shaking his man down on isolations, then pulling up for difficult shots in the caverns or crevices of space his handle would open up for him, but these shots were falling with regularity.
No longer did you fear the ball making its way into his hands and the clanger he seemed almost compelled to chuck at the rim in an effort to go toe-to-toe with Curry; instead, you felt confident that Irving’s careening jaunts into the lane would, more often than not, end with a scooped shot from either hand bouncing off the backboard at a wild angle and dropping through the rim, or that those three-pointers that would snap off his fingertips right as a defender recovered enough from Irving’s third hesitation move to reach up and obstruct his view would nevertheless sail through the hoop.
The biggest basket of last night’s decisive Game 7 wasn’t hit by Steph Curry, the greatest shooter of all time, or LeBron James, maybe the greatest player the league’s ever seen, but rather by Kyrie Irving, who isn’t the best or even elite at any one of the core aspects of basketball, but who leveraged the exceptional skills he does have in the biggest moment of his career, against the NBA’s premier player at his position, and canned the shot that would make him a champion.
Kyrie Irving isn’t a better player than Steph Curry. But in Irving’s efforts to prove everyone wrong about that, he wound up beating Curry in the very way Curry so often beats everyone else. That’s probably all the affirmation Irving needs to sleep well at night, content with his place in the game. At least for right now.