America at Large: King and crown prince in Christmas showdown
LeBron James is a player for ages but Stephen Curry could be ready to usurp him
Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors has been kind of Jordanesque, averaging almost 32 points despite playing less than 35 minutes per game. Photograph: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
At midday on Friday, as a part of a tradition stretching back nearly 70 years, the first of five consecutive NBA games will tip-off live on national television. The Christmas Day basketball marathon has become such a slickly marketed part of the festive ritual that participating teams will wear uniforms specially designed for the occasion, replete with socks resembling those ironic holiday sweaters that really aren’t funny anymore. Befitting the commercial nature of the season, all the bespoke gear will sell massively before, during and after the featured matches.
While there will be tut-tutting and harrumphing from some quarters about a sport colonising a religious holiday, the fans won’t care a jot because the third game on the slate is the most eagerly anticipated of the campaign.
Much more than just a reprisal of last June’s finals match-up, the marquee clash between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the reigning champion Golden State Warriors also pits LeBron James, the greatest player of his generation, against Stephen Curry, the best player on the planet for the past 12 months. The once and future kings and all that.
When leading the Warriors to their first title in four decades, 27-year-old Curry shattered scoring records, the 98 three-pointers he drained in the play-offs bettering the previous mark by 40. Along the way, he inserted himself into the argument about the identity of the best pure shooter of all time and even his pre-game ritual became essential viewing. Aside from executing all the usual warm-up drills at a mind-blowing level of precision, Curry also likes to make trick shots from the tunnel leading from the court to the locker-room.
That could be dismissed as YouTube-era gimmickry, the same way some believed Curry and his team might be one-season wonders who caught fire for one magical stretch. Wrong on both counts. Eschewing the expected post-championship hangover, the Warriors and their brightest star have actually improved since the summer. They won their first 23 games this year and currently stand 26 and one, a gaudy statistic that has prompted speculation they may yet surpass Michael Jordan’s 1996 Chicago Bulls who finished 72 and 10.
For his part, Curry has been kind of Jordanesque, averaging almost 32 points despite playing less than 35 minutes per game. That his tally of 131 three-pointers made so far is half a century ahead of the next best player in the league underscores the growing belief he’s almost impossible to stop with the ball in his hands.
“Everything he does depends on what the defender is doing,” wrote Isaiah Thomas, the Boston Celtics’ point guard, in a deconstruction of Curry earlier this season. “So when he’s coming at you, if you’re afraid of the three – which you should be – and you give him too much space, he’ll knock it down. If you play too far up on the three, he’ll take you off the dribble. If he beats you on the first step because you were playing too far up, say goodbye. He’s already gone. If you sink back with him, he has the shiftiness and the quick release to step back and shoot.”
The elevation of Curry has provided James, perhaps for the first time since being anointed ‘The Chosen One’ in a memorable 2002 Sports Illustrated cover, with a genuine rival for the title of most influential player of the era. There have been other contenders and pretenders through the years but none have threatened his superiority quite like the son of a journeyman pro who is barely six foot three. That James has just signed to Nike for life while his putative successor is part of Under Armour’s upstart brand adds one more layer of intrigue to the rivalry.
In a recent profile with Sports Illustrated, there was a revealing detail about James returning home from a Cavaliers game, struggling to sleep and turning on a tape of the Golden State Warriors versus the Toronto Raptors from earlier that night. He wanted to see what Curry had been up to. Downing 37 points as it happened. Tempting as it might be to cast James as the lion in winter here, especially given the high intensity mileage he has on the clock since his teens, he’s just 30 and still passionately devoted to honing his craft. Before pre-season began this year, he spent a month in Miami working on his game with different coaches, ball handling and post skills in the morning, strength in the afternoon, and shooting at night.
Even now with the campaign in progress, James is putting in extra time trying to improve his free throwing, and, as his fans regularly point out, he was deprived of the better members of his supporting cast for last year’s finals. Throw in his desire to finally win a title for Cleveland and the profile is definitely not of a man happy to hand over his crown just yet.
This is what makes tomorrow’s showdown so appetising. At 82 games long, the NBA regular season is a hopelessly drawn-out affair and there are times each winter when the schedule sags and too many fixtures scarcely seem to matter. This is different. Their first meeting since last June and a possible preview of next June, here we have that rarest and most refreshing of billings in modern sport, the best against the best at their best. What more could anybody ask for at Christmas?