Hooley: It's Kyrie, not LeBron, in the crosshairs

Kyrie Irving outplayed Steph Curry in the 2016 Finals. For the Cavs to win, he'll have to do it again

The more analysis I hear surrounding the defending champion Cavaliers unprecedented matchup against the Golden State in a third consecutive NBA Finals, the more I wonder about the under-the-radar roster addition the Warriors have pulled off.

It seems Michael Jordan has come out of retirement to bolster Golden State's lineup in time for LeBron James arrival at Oracle Arena for Game 1 on Thursday night.

That's how this Cleveland-Golden State matchup --the first in NBA history featuring the same teams in three consecutive seasons -- is being framed.

It's not Cavs-Warriors, Part III.

It's not Golden State interim coach Mike Brown against the team that fired him twice.

It's not Kevin Durant seeking his first NBA title a year after leaving the team that had Golden State down, 3-1, in the Western Conference finals.

It's LeBron vs. M.J.

Please, excuse me while I yawn.

This cross-era comparison of perhaps the two best players in NBA history grew tiresome long ago, yet the unimaginative can't seem to resist engaging in it once again.

And I'm pretty sure I know why.

It's a rigged conversation, contrived by those who will never give LeBron James credit as a transcendent star.

To them, the M.J. comparison is a fail-safe insulator against giving LeBron his due as an all-time great. After all, if four MVP awards, three NBA titles, three Finals MVPs, two Olympic gold medals, an NBA scoring title, rookie of the year honors and recently-christened status as the league's all-time playoff scoring leader aren't confirmation enough of James greatness, you're determined to always invent an empty box on whatever imaginary checklist would confirm his greatness.

Jordan's six NBA championships provide that perceived gap for James' critics now, and nothing short of equaling that total with four consecutive titles would give LeBron a way to silence his detractors.

He's not winning four straight, of course, not with 32-year-old legs and Durant joining forces with a 73-win team to upset the already-imbalanced competitive equation in the West.

But while James can't elevate himself any further with those who are perpetually grinding their axe against him, there is one Cavalier who can dramatically jump his status with a Cleveland win in these Finals.

That would be Kyrie Irving, whose skills are wondrous and wide-ranging, but not consistenly so to the degree his is indisputably among the league's Top 5 point guards.

On some nights -- many nights, even -- Irving is right there among the elite at his position. But his uneven defense and occasional ball-dominance offensively leave enough holes in his resume to allow John Wall, Chris Paul, Damien Lillard, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden to edge in front of Irving as often as not.

Kyrie can separate himself from that crew over the next two weeks by outplaying Curry, as Irving did last season during the Finals.

From the point the Cavaliers fell into a 3-1 deficit a year ago, Irving averaged more points than Curry (30 per-game vs. 24), outshot him from the field (.523 vs. .367), outshot him from three-point range (.529 vs. .357) and committed one fewer turnover per-game.

Overall in the series, Irving outscored Curry by five points per-game and outshot him .460 to .403.

Curry has been the Warriors' best player this post-season, leading them in scoring with a 28.6 average.

If he gets close to that in the Finals, the Cavaliers cannot win, short of Durant having a start-to-finish disaster, and even that might not be enough. Such is the Warriors' abundance of depth and talent.

Curry is Golden State's emotional leader and knockout artist. There is no accurate valuation for the impact of his three-point success, which often originates well beyond the arc and sends Oracle into energetic spasms.

Irving must prevent that defensively, while providing the same dagger-wielding impact of his winning triple in Game 7 last year and his turnaround jumper against the Warriors on Christmas Day.

The Kyrie-Curry matchup is the one that should be in the crosshairs of Finals inspection. Not LeBron against a long-retired legend whose ghost will always be elevated by those loathe to credit James for anything he's ever done or will yet accomplish.

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