HOUSTON – The shots kept falling, those long, gorgeous arcing balls that scrape the sky and destroy the wills of men. Stephen Curry had immersed himself in a ferocious flurry, the greatest shooter the sport's ever seen turning these Western Conference finals into the sublime. Out of nowhere, out of so much doubt, Curry has become the most improbable superstar in the sport.
"I don't think we've ever seen anybody shoot the ball the way Steph does," Warriors coach Steve Kerr marveled.
And so on Saturday night, something more washed over Curry on his way to 40 points, something seldom witnessed out of one of the most polite, obliging MVPs in the NBA's modern history. He stopped ignoring the taunts of courtside Houston Rockets fans and started giving it back to them. Another 3-pointer dropped, and he stood in the corner, preening, his scrawny chest puffed out, telling one befuddled fan to, "Sit down."
"If they want to talk," Curry said late Saturday, "hopefully they can take some back."
No one distributes damage the way Curry does, a thousand paper cuts on the way to a bludgeoning. He made 12 of 19 shots, including 7 of 9 3-pointers. He had seven assists and five rebounds. Steph Curry had Game 3, and the Rockets, on a yo-yo.
This 115-80 victory over Houston moved the Warriors within one game of a series sweep, within one game of the NBA Finals. Across the country, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are halfway there, too, a 2-0 lead over the crumbling Atlanta Hawks with Games 3 and 4 awaiting at Quicken Loans Arena. These are two trains rumbling down the tracks.
This hasn't been the most memorable of NBA playoff springs, but Curry vs. James offers the possibility of redemption. Curry earned the NBA's Most Valuable Player award, but validation doesn't come with beating the runner-up James Harden in the conference finals. James is still the best player on the planet, the game's most relentless force of nature. He's forever lurking, forever crushing fairytales.
If the Warriors fail in the NBA Finals, if James closes out the Hawks and elevates the Cavaliers to a title, this season will best be remembered for him. In this generation, in this NBA, the pursuit of something important goes through him.
The intersections of the Cavaliers and Warriors promise to be intriguing, and push past the two best players. On the night before Cleveland coach David Blatt started negotiations on a Cavaliers contract in June, he was on his way to Cleveland International Airport to fly to Golden State and accept the job as Kerr's top assistant.
Hours earlier, Blatt had impressed owner Dan Gilbert and his partners in several hours of discussions. In Blatt's mind, he still suspected the Cavaliers job was a long shot, and had been running out of time to accept Kerr's offer with Golden State. He wanted to come to the NBA, and thought that $1 million a season to run the Warriors' offense could catapult him into a head-coaching job. The Cavaliers had no idea they would be signing LeBron James, nor trading for Kevin Love. They were hiring Blatt to bring order to a young team, hiring him for a rebuild.
Over the next several hours on that mid-June day, Cavaliers officials made a few final calls for recommendations on Blatt, including USA Basketball officials and a Big Ten Conference coach who had studied several seasons of Blatt's Euro offense that spring. Before Blatt could leave for the airport, they called his agent, Mike Tannenbaum, and suggested that Blatt forgo climbing onto that plane. Blatt was the choice, and Kerr had his cue to make his move for Alvin Gentry.
Almost a year later, you wonder: Would Blatt be the preferred candidate to coach the New Orleans Pelicans, the way Gentry has become now? Would Ty Lue have led the Cavaliers to the cusp of the NBA Finals?
There could be a full week to consider those questions before Golden State and Cleveland start the NBA Finals, until East meets West. In the end, the best season's best player, Stephen Curry, is starting on his way toward the game's best player, LeBron James. You could see that dark side starting to show itself with Curry on Saturday night, see him starting to give everyone hell at the Toyota Center. LeBron James is lurking, creeping closer, and Stephen Curry understands the truth about the NBA: If you want something big in this league – if you want it all – there always seems to be one man standing in the way.