OAKLAND, Calif. – Stephen Curry was annoyed, almost to mouthpiece-tossing levels, by the questions because the answers were so obvious. If the first unanimous MVP in NBA history could only wave helplessly in an attempt to keep Kyrie Irving in front of him, could only respond to LeBron James’ intimidating glares and flexes by looking away and couldn’t even beat the slow-footed Kevin Love off the dribble to create his own shot, was there really a need to ask if something was wrong? Wouldn’t trying to assign some nebulous percentages to his health be a wasted exercise?
Curry never used any excuses for his poor performance on the game’s biggest stage, never sought sympathy for his struggles – even as the Finals version of Curry rarely, if ever, came close to resembling that euphoric, fun-time version of Curry that challenged our definitions of heat checks and deep range before that unfortunate slip on a sweaty court in Houston derailed a dream season.
As he drifted into an offseason filled with the disappointment from surrendering to James an NBA title and his brief hold on the title of the game’s best player, Curry said he wouldn’t allow himself to wallow in the what-coulda-beens related to being at full strength. The Golden State Warriors lost. He lost. And that was enough to keep him motivated and focused on trying to avoid duplicating those feelings next June.
“That was the situation,” Curry said Tuesday about playing with knee and ankle injuries last postseason. “There are certain situations that everybody has to deal with and whoever is at the end … there is no need for any other storylines. I hated that I was asked about it that much, because at the end of the day, I was on the floor playing. If we would’ve won, the situation would’ve been different. Obviously, the question would’ve been a little different: ‘How did you overcome such a catastrophic injury and win a championship?’”
Despite having a less-than-optimal Curry, the Warriors were still one game, and one minute, from hoisting back-to-back Larry O’Brien Trophies – a feat that would’ve enhanced his burgeoning legend. Instead, Curry will have the chance to show if the humiliation has deflated him or inspired a redemptive charge the way it has other greats.
“That’s life. It’s all part of it,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Curry. “Pick a player in history – maybe not Bill Russell, he won every year – but I remember Michael [Jordan] when we lost to Orlando [in 1995] and he came back. His summer was different. He was upset. [Larry] Bird, Magic [Johnson] used to beat each other, those guys would go home and try to get better. Unfortunately, losing is kind of part of this. We lost last year. We all had to lick our wounds. So now Steph wants to be better. He’s ready to roll and I think our guys have good perspective, too. We’re lucky to do what we do. We’re lucky to have a really good team and have a chance to have fun every day.”
Golden State found the ultimate consolation prize with the free-agent acquisition of Kevin Durant, a signing that put the winners of the past three MVP awards on the same team for the first time since Moses Malone and Julius Erving were together in Philadelphia. After the Warriors made their pitch to Durant at that private home in the Hamptons, Curry remained in contact with the four-time scoring champion until he made his final decision. The text-message exchanges went beyond basketball and instead centered on how well Durant would fit with the Warriors and how Curry had no problem sharing the spotlight. Time shared on Team USA during the 2010 world championships – when Durant was a star on the rise and Curry was barely finding his way – fostered a mutual respect.
“I’ve been watching Steph play since he was in college and then coming into the league, so I knew that we’d figure this thing out,” Durant said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t have to dominate the ball in order to be effective. … Demeanor is still the same. He’s excited about the game of basketball. You can see the joy on his face. It’s contagious.”
Privately, the Warriors realized they had put too much pressure on Curry before his body eventually broke down and it was one of the reasons players were busy recruiting Durant while feverishly chasing 73 wins and a second ring.
With Durant deciding to abandon Oklahoma City, the Warriors actually got out ahead of the rest of the league, forcing the other 29 teams to adjust before they could fully be figured out. Durant has added more excitement to a championship contender that hasn’t had a chance to get stale. And, Durant also spared Curry from the pressure of topping a regular season in which he was arguably, simultaneously, the MVP and the most improved player.
“I haven’t really thought about it like that,” Curry said of Durant’s arrival, “because that would kind of cheat my process. I have the same mentality. I don’t really think about any other expectations. I want to get better. I want to be better than I was last year. That’s going to be the same, regardless if KD was here or not. You would think there is a blessing with pressure or whatever, but that’s not how I can think, because I’ve got to still do my job and do it at a high level for us to be as great as we want to be.”
What an improved Curry will look like remains to be seen. His scoring average is likely to decrease, but he could raise his assist average and, possibly, his efficiency with so many weapons on the floor to give him space and passing options. But Curry put to rest any speculation about his pending free agency next summer, when the Warriors could give him a five-year maximum contract that could triple the $12 million salary he’ll earn this season.
“I want to be back here. I like playing here, and that’s it,” Curry said. “My answer is not going to be any different all year. Keep asking me, I won’t have a different one. I’m not going to let it distract me at all.”
When Curry arrived for training camp last season, he made mock apologies for his and Golden State’s success, which was greeted with more skepticism than appreciation from peers and rivals. All season, Curry and the Warriors were able to lean on outside sources for motivation. But losing in the NBA Finals and becoming the first team to blow a 3-1 lead after setting the regular-season record for wins created a pain from which they can’t easily recover.
“This is more real for us. Because we felt what we felt all summer. We experienced that,” Curry said. “It wasn’t something that was coming at us. It’s better when you’re motivated from how you feel and the experiences you’ve had versus how other people see your team or your journey, so this is more real for us, coming off a loss.”
More NBA coverage from The Vertical: