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Finals provides MVP proving ground for James, Curry

POSTED: May 29, 2015 10:51 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


The GameTime crew revels in LeBron's fifth straight Finals trip.

The crew discusses LeBron James' fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

— Everybody's chasing something as the 2015 NBA Finals approach.

LeBron James is chasing Michael Jordan, judging by the barroom debates, along with a better Finals W-L record -- the Cleveland Cavaliers star is 2-3 at the moment -- and a legacy that might suit him better than "most polarizing player in the NBA today."

LeBron's bigger accomplishment: 2007 or 2015?

Is taking the current Cavs roster to the NBA Finals a bigger accomplishment than taking the '07 Cavs there?

Stephen Curry is chasing James, not just in terms of Most Valuable Player awards -- the Golden State Warriors guard trails, 4-1, after capturing the 2014-15 honor -- but as a leader and a champion, someone who can reach this stage time and time again and know in advance what needs to be done.

Multiple Cleveland defenders, of course, will be chasing Curry, crowding and pressuring one of the quickest releases and deadliest shots in league history. And at least as many Golden State players will be chasing James, or banging with him down low, giving up their bodies in hopes of thwarting one of his locomotive drives or pestering him as he shoots into a momentary lapse in concentration, hard as that might be to come by.

GameTime: Defending LeBron

Kyrie Irving gives an update on his status for Game 1 and the GameTime crew breakdown what the Warriors will need to do in defending LeBron James.

James and Curry are so different as players, it's hard to believe the MVP award is elastic enough to stretch and fit both of them. Every time James has won it, he has been the NBA's best player -- but then, most years he hasn't won it, he's been the best player too. Curry isn't nearly as big or as strong, and looks overmatched at times just trying to guard the other fellows who play his position; James can guard all five spots when needed.

But Curry had the hot hand and the hot narrative this season -- best player on the best team, pretty much wire to wire -- and that was enough. That's why he won the award for the first time, while James -- who has finished in the top 10 in balloting all 12 seasons of his pro career, top 5 the past 10 years -- wound up third behind Houston's James Harden.

Different as they are in size and style, James did find some common ground with Curry -- besides both of them being born in Akron, Ohio -- when asked how Cleveland might cope with the elusive Warrior.

"The same way you slow me down," James said, his expression deadpan after the Cavaliers' workout Friday. "You can't."

One's a brick house, the other is more rubber band man -- how else could Curry have survived his nasty spill over Trevor Ariza in Game 4 of the West finals? -- but they're both MVPs. Two of the 31 men who have won the NBA award a total of 60 times. A dozen of them are multiple winners like James, accounting for 41 trophies. The other 19, like Curry so far, won once.

What we'll see played out over four to seven games beginning with Game 1 Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC) -- past or current MVP winners squaring off in the Finals -- isn't all that rare. It happened the first time it possibly could, with 1956 MVP Bob Pettit taking on 1957 winner Bob Cousy in the '57 Finals between Boston and St. Louis.

All those Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain head-bangings, those bouts of Larry Bird-Magic Johnson one-upsmanship in past Finals were MVP showcases, too. There was a dry spell for a while early in this millennium, with Philadelphia's Allen Iverson (the 2001 winner) vs. Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal (2000) in the 2001 Finals as the only such clash from 1999 through 2007.

But since 2008, the Finals have featured dueling MVPs six times, including this year. James vs. Curry (2015 Finals), Tim Duncan (2013, 2014) or Dirk Nowitzki (2011), or Kobe Bryant vs. Kevin Garnett (2008, 2010).

So what does James think of the MVPs won by himself and Curry?

"It all depends how you want to define what an MVP is," the Cavs star said. "I've been fortunate to win the trophy four times, but I've been MVP of my team for a long time. Because of the way I lead and the way I approach the game, as far as being professional off the floor. So for me, I'm honored, I'm blessed to be able to have four trophies, but I don't need to have a trophy to understand what being an MVP really means."

That said, James thinks Curry was a deserving winner. More than that, he agreed with the suggestion that the Warriors guard, who was the top vote getter for this year's All-Star Game, is an emerging face of the league.

"Steph is great for our league," James said. "The way he approaches, not only on the floor but off the floor. A beautiful family and everything. That wouldn't be bad at all for our league if they want to model it behind him."

James has been an admirer of Curry since the younger man was fresh out of high school and headed for Davidson College, modest roots for an NBA MVP. James saw Curry play in a few tournament games, loved his "motor" and his ability to shoot the ball equally well on catches or off the dribble.

"I'm very good at noticing talent," James said. "I thought he was special then. Obviously he is now still."

The thing is, so is James. He's unwilling to yield anything to Curry or his teammates, and he definitely isn't inclined to defer in their chase of the Bill Russell Award, which gets presented to the MVP of the Finals. James holds a 2-0 edge on Curry on that one, claiming it along with his rings in 2012 and 2013.

James' climb from jaw-dropping individual star to hardware winner and team leader, at the highest level, is what Curry wants to emulate. As the mouthguard-munching Golden State scorer said: "He had to win his first one at some point."

James has had a Cavaliers squad that was: A) breaking in new-to-the-NBA head coach David Blatt, B) assimilating new faces and individually strong styles of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and James, C) adapting on the fly to trades that delivered J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, and then D) re-inventing itself in the playoffs to cover for an injured Love and a limping Irving. What he's done in leading this bunch ranks with some of the heaviest lifting and most impressive work of his career.

"I've had to step up my leadership," James said on the night Cleveland ousted Atlanta. "I had to be very patient. ... To be able to sit at one point during the season and see us at 19-20 and watching my team struggle and me sitting out two weeks. They wanted coach Blatt fired, [were] saying we needed [a better backup] point guard. 'Will LeBron and Kyrie be able to play together?' So many storylines [were] just happening at that point in time."

James' example and trust has turned newbies Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova into reliable postseason performers. He's putting up gaudy numbers, too -- 27.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 8.3 apg -- though he's been more efficient in the past (42.6-percent shooting, including 12-for-68 on 3-pointers).

But it has been James' contributions that are best understood and appreciated from within that have wowed Irving.

"I became a fan, to be honest with you," the All-Star guard said of playing alongside James this season. "I just told him it's a different feeling when you're on a team with someone you've watched for so long. When you get to see him up close and, you know, the work he puts in and the dedication that he has, and the drive and the will that he has.

"I don't want to say we jumped on his back but we were all there for him. He was doing his thing but I think the true testament of him is that he embodies a leader. ... We have so many different personalities, so many different guys -- when you have a leader like that who brings you up and lifts you up in every situation. There's never going to be a time when you look at him and he's going to look frazzled or like he doesn't know what he's doing. He always know four steps ahead and it's just like, 'Whoa.' I wasn't even thinking about that and -- 'What the heck!? He saw that coming?'

"So it's just a learning experience," Irving said, "And you're constantly, constantly on your P's and Q's, because he just expects you to be at your best. He wants you to be at your best. If you have a guy like that, the basketball stuff will take care of itself."

The basketball stuff will be in good hands on both sides over the next couple of weeks.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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