CLEVELAND – Throughout his entire basketball life Stephen Curry has been told what he was and what he couldn’t be: too small, too slight, too one-dimensional, too much a product of small schools to ever make it in the big time, NCAA or NBA.
And throughout it all, he shrugged his thin shoulders and cut his own path.
So it should be no surprise that here in the NBA Finals, here staring across from the greatest force of nature in the game, it was all the same … including the response.
Curry ignored early series cries of not being aggressive enough, physical enough, just, well, not LeBron enough, to stay the course, let his game come to him and eventually deliver in MVP fashion. In the end, he didn't get a single Finals MVP vote, but this doesn't occur without him and everyone in the organization will tell you that.
He scored 25 points and dished eight assists here Tuesday as Golden State defeated Cleveland 105-97 and closed out the franchise’s first NBA championship in four decades. His impact on these Finals came in classic fashion, building across six games while never stepping outside the Warriors’ vaunted system.
Once trailing 2-1 in a street fight of a series, the Warriors won each of the final three games.
And there was Steph Curry.
"It's all about winning," Curry said. "Stats really don't matter. I mean, guys have great series and all that and people take notice and take their place in history with those stats and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, it's all about winning and what you can do to help your team get to that point."
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LeBron James, who often dominated play and almost single-handedly made it competitive, finished with 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists for the Cavaliers. Once again it wasn’t enough. James fell two games short of delivering a title to his native Northeast Ohio in his first season back with the franchise.
For all of LeBron’s brilliance, his will, his indomitable way of playing here, it’s Curry who was hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, putting a cap on an MVP season. It was a crown on an unlikely career that saw him as a lightly recruited prep player out of suburban Charlotte, N.C., despite the NBA pedigree of his father, Dell.
If nothing else, he is a product of intense self-confidence, not just in ignoring what people said he couldn’t do, but what they said he should do. He always believed his way, his abilities, his uniqueness would have to be enough.
Instead he just kept developing what he could: an even better shooting touch, more floaters, ever-refined ball-handling skills, even smarter understanding of spacing and pacing and passing.
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No, he wasn’t a finished project. He’d tell you he still isn’t. So what?
It was the same when Cleveland jumped to a 2-1 series lead here as Curry’s shot was off and LeBron was clearly trying to use the series to remind everyone who is basketball’s best player.
Curry never wavered; never decided he needed to silence the chattering class by demanding the ball.
“Steph’s been really smart this whole series of not overreacting to everything that’s around the game,” said teammate and Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, who scored 25 in Game 6. “He’s always stayed in that zone of what’s on his basketball court and how I can help my team win it any way possible and not getting out of myself or getting away from what the team needs to do to win.
“He’s just been an MVP for us.”
The plan was the plan. The plan worked all season. The plan would have to work now. He may have been named regular-season MVP, but it was in the context of the team.
“How we’ve been effective all year [is] because we have the versatility and the talent, all one through five on the floor, to be able to make plays,” Curry said.
It’s not that he didn’t have his dagger moments, that there weren’t times he asserted himself. He learned quickly in this series that opportunities are precious and adapted accordingly.
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When asked what he learned about the Finals as they unfolded, Curry responded: "To block out the noise. That's the biggest thing. Because it's obviously just you and another team, and all eyes are on you every single step you take."
Perhaps the most critical segment of this series came at the end of the third quarter of Game 4, Cleveland cutting the Warriors lead to three. The Q was rocking. The Finals hung in the balance.
Curry calmly called for the ball, shook a defender and drained a three, pushing Golden State to a six-point lead. In a reversal of roles, a gassed LeBron tried to answer with a three of his own at the buzzer, only to miss badly. When James went to the bench to rest at the start of the fourth quarter, the Warriors seized control of the game and the Finals.
Curry finished with 22 that night. He then dropped 37, including 17 in the fourth quarter, in Game 5. On Tuesday, he dropped a couple of massive threes to help stem a fourth-quarter Cleveland surge, then when double-teamed, hit a wide-open Klay Thompson for another.
It was Curry at his finest.
"We found a recipe for success, and that's the most important thing for us," Curry said. "Now that we have this under our belt, I think we can actually appreciate what we were able to do this year from start to finish."
These Finals were never going to happen without his impact. It’s just that impact wasn’t coming anyway but his way.