By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
INDEPENDENCE — LeBron James has already felt the stinging spray from the Splash Brothers in the NBA Finals.
When league MVP Stephen Curry and trigger-happy Golden State teammate Klay Thompson are knocking down 3-pointers from 30 feet, swishing contested jumpers over taller players and destroying defenses designed to stop them, the only option is pray they miss.
“Some of those shots,” James said. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
As the Cavaliers, considerably healthier than they were a year ago, prepare to take on the 73-win Warriors in the finals again, they know their chances of ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought hinge on how well they defend Curry, Thompson & Co.
Stopping the Warriors is impossible. Slowing them isn’t.
“They shoot the ball extremely well,” James said before the team left for California and Thursday’s Game 1. “Klay and Steph are probably the two greatest shooters that we’ve probably ever seen. Better offense beats great defense any day. So we have to be able to do other things to stop them, but it’s hard to contain them.
“We all know that. The whole league knows that. Our team knows that. But we have a game plan and we have to follow it and be true to it.”
Although they won’t admit it publicly, the Cavs have been eyeing a rematch with the Warriors since losing to them in six games last year.
James back then was virtually on his own after Kevin Love separated his left shoulder in the first round and Kyrie Irving shattered his left kneecap in Game 1 of the finals. James did everything possible, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists — an unprecedented finals stat line — but it wasn’t enough. The Warriors had too much ball movement, athleticism and depth.
While fans, the league office and TV executives clamored for a Curry-James rematch, the Cavs claim they were ready for any opponent.
“It didn’t matter,” said James, appearing in his sixth straight finals. “Like Coach (Tyronn) Lue said, we’re just waiting on the winner. We’re fortunate to be here and we look forward to the challenge. It’s an unbelievable team that we’re going against. Hats off.”
This time around, the Cavs have comparable talent.
That won’t matter, though, if they don’t defend.
Curry appears back to normal after dealing with a knee injury earlier in the postseason, and Thompson made a postseason-record 11 threes and scored 41 points in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. The Warriors erased a 3-1 deficit to end Oklahoma City’s season and set up Golden State vs. Cleveland, the sequel.
Irving will likely be matched up with Curry. But it won’t fall solely on him to check the game’s purest shooter.
J.R. Smith has been Cleveland’s best defender all season, and at 6-foot-6, his size could give Curry (generously listed as 6-3) some trouble. Matthew Dellavedova tenaciously hounded Curry in last year’s finals until he exhausted himself and wound up hospitalized. James, too, will guard Curry in certain situations.
One of Cleveland’s primary challenges will be the way it deals with Golden State’s pick and rolls designed to get Curry mismatches. Thunder center Serge Ibaka found himself isolated on Curry late in Monday’s Game 7 and committed a costly foul trying to block a 3.
The Warriors expose weaknesses.
“It’s tough,” Lue said of combating Golden State’s screens. “It’s one of two things: either you can switch and have a big (man) on Curry and have him take the shots over your big or you can double-team Steph and throw it back to Draymond (Green), who’s probably the best playmaker at that position in the league and now you have a four-on-three or a three-on-two. So you got to pick your poison.”
Golden State shot its way back against Oklahoma City, draining a league record 90 3-pointers to complete a comeback Lue feels only heightens the aura around these modern-day Western gunslingers.
The Cavs learned in last year’s finals they can’t leave Curry and Thompson for a millisecond.
“You always have to have your antennas up,” Lue said. “You can never relax, because they’re always moving. We got to be sharp and stick to our principles and know what we’re supposed to do.”
The Cavs will study scouting reports and break down film to be ready.
And, even then, James knows that may not be enough.
“You still gotta try to stop them,” he said. “And that’s a tall task.”