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It didn’t get its own name, like The Stop, or The Shot, or The Block. In its own way, though, Stephen Curry’s turnover with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals was nearly as stunning.
It was an absolute street fight of a Game 7 between Curry’s Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers — 19 lead changes and 10 ties through the first 43 minutes, neither team leading by more than three possessions to that point, with good looks at a premium and both teams shooting 42.5 percent from the floor. LeBron James had just gotten fouled taking a 3-pointer and made all three of his free throws to cut the Warriors’ lead to 87-86 … and Steph dribbles it up the court, backs into Kyrie Irving, sees Klay Thompson cutting to the right corner, and flings that lefty behind-the-back pass out of his running buddy’s reach and out of bounds.
That was the last possession on which the Warriors would have the lead. After a LeBron 3 to put the Cavs up two and a Klay layup to tie it, Golden State wouldn’t score another point. Cleveland would win the final two minutes, and with it, the first championship in franchise history, having become the first NBA team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals.
It was a gut-wrenching ending for the Warriors, who had just set an NBA record for most wins in a regular season with 73, and for Curry, who had not only won his second consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player trophy, but had become the first player to garner every first-place vote from the media-member electorate. Yes, Golden State had decimated the league in historic fashion due in part to the sort of nonchalance and irrepressible buoyancy that would find nothing more appropriate in a one-point, one-game-to-rule-them-all affair than a sneering flick, and no, the Warriors didn’t lose the title on that turnover. (I’ll probably always believe they lost it with a couple of minutes left in Game 4.)
Still: that pass in that place at that time was mind-boggling. One year later, on the eve of a third straight Warriors-Cavs Finals, Curry admitted during a chat with ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes that he hasn’t totally gotten it out of his own head, either:
“I know it wasn’t a good pass,” Curry told ESPN as he shook his head from side to side. It’s a mishap he’s not proud of. […]
That’s one pass he’d like to have back, but he has promised himself he won’t allow that one low moment in his career to alter his game moving forward.
“Yeah, I still think about that [turnover],” Curry told ESPN. “[But] in thinking about that game, it’s funny because I know the concept of making the right play, making a simple play, understanding that there are deciding moments in games and the difference between winning a championship or not could be one of those plays. [With that said,] I came out in preseason this year and threw a behind-the-back pass because I have confidence that I can do it and it won’t change that.”
What Curry calls confidence, his once and hopefully-near-future head coach Steve Kerr might call arrogance, especially after watching Steph commit the cardinal sin that seems to get Kerr to clipboard–smashing: throwing the ball all over the place.
Steph might still think about his Game 7 behind-the-back turnover, but he didn't totally pocket that one this year: https://t.co/8NpM4MENJ1
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 30, 2017
It’s worth remembering, though, that Kerr wasn’t necessarily deploying “arrogant” as a pejorative in Curry’s case. Kerr knows as well as just about anybody that there’s a reason Steph thinks he can make damn near any play on the court. It’s because he can.
That penchant for playmaking, when paired with world-historic, game-breaking shooting, is what makes Curry one of the most uniquely gifted offensive players that the sport has ever seen. Stifling it in pursuit of more predictable play would be counterproductive, even if its byproduct can sometimes causes coaches to murder whiteboards. That spark ignited the Warriors’ growth into the best team in the NBA over the last three years; it also cost them a critical possession in the biggest game of the year. Strikes and gutters, ups and downs.
It’s a delicate balance to strike, figuring out how to play carefree without being careless, one that Curry and the Warriors have wrestled with — largely to great success — throughout his rise to superstardom and their rise to the top of the league. And to be fair, Curry has been a bit more careful with the rock this season. He averaged fewer turnovers per minute and per possession than he had since 2012-13, the year in which he and the Dubs took the NBA by storm with a first-round postseason victory over the Denver Nuggets before giving the San Antonio Spurs everything they could handle in a six-game second-round defeat.
And while Steph has made some … shall we say optimistic passes this postseason, some coming in service of hunting alley-oop dunks for JaVale McGee:
And while he hasn't gone to that particular well in the playoffs, Steph has had at least a couple of headscratchers: https://t.co/36UFkqiOHe
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 30, 2017
… he’s still turning the ball over on a lower share of his team’s possessions than at any point in his postseason career, and the Warriors as a team have coughed it up less frequently through three playoff rounds than they had in either of their two previous runs to the Finals.
The combination of a steadier hand on the ball with a return to both full health and ruthlessly efficient shooting has Curry once again looking like one of the most dangerous players in the game. With first-year Warrior Kevin Durant likewise in fine form heading into the Finals, Golden State enters the championship round as the favorite to avenge last year’s loss to Cleveland and take its second title in three years.
To get there, though, the Warriors will have to avoid the kind of lapses that can prove deadly against a team as talented as the Cavs — and that starts with Curry on the ball, finding an equilibrium between seizing opportunities to go for the jugular and knowing when to just make the next pass and keep it moving.
“You obviously know how much that matters in the scheme of winning a championship,” Curry told Haynes. “So, for sure, I understand that when I’m out on the floor, and especially in the playoffs, if I don’t turn the ball over and we’re going to get a shot on every possession down in crunch-time situations, knowing that the ball is going to be sure in my hands, that’s the evolution of the game that I have to try to master.”
It’s not an easy thing to master, especially for a player as naturally creative and gifted as Curry, one for whom so much is possible every time he touches the ball. But if he can find a way to curb some of the dramatics without dousing the flair that makes him special, it could significantly improve the Warriors’ likelihood of vanquishing the Cavs once again.
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