CLEVELAND – The most Stephen Curry moment of these NBA Finals came while he was serving as a gleeful spectator on the bench in the second half of Game 2 at Oracle Arena. Foul trouble kept the two-time MVP sidelined, but he remained engaged, providing an entertaining sideshow as his teammates shined.
Basketball is meant to be fun and few find enjoyment in the game quite like Curry, who found creative ways to celebrate the Golden State Warriors' rout. He feigned falling out of his seat, then covered his face with a towel to hide his laughter and/or disbelief after a Draymond Green three-pointer. He mimed shooting a rapid-fire bow and arrow after a no-he-didn’t Klay Thompson heat check from deep. Then, after Shaun Livingston made yet another midrange jumper, Curry acted as if he were using a videogame control pad, punching imaginary circle and square buttons to avoid drifting into boredom.
The Golden State Warriors aren’t built like other teams that possess franchise-altering superstars. They have proven, especially in this postseason, that they can win games without Curry. And through the first two games of this series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the performances of the Warriors’ deep supporting cast essentially gave Curry a much-needed week off from his trademark, Steph-gonna-Steph, head-smacking heroics. Curry was also spared from criticism for not having the type of performance expected from an MVP because the Warriors were winning.
But one loss – a bizarre, nonchalant effort – in Game 3 has once again brought attention to Curry’s inability to take immediate control of the league’s largest stage. And it has also invited a level of scrutiny and criticism that Curry mostly avoided during a charmed season in which he wasn’t asked to be more than the assassin with the happy-go-lucky flair.
Curry tiptoed through three games – posting a 48-point total that ranks as the worst three-game span of his season – but the Warriors will eventually need to see their best player tap dancing again to defeat a Cavaliers squad that suddenly has some confidence after taking their whipping in Oakland, flipping it and serving up a 30-point beat-down in Cleveland to make it a series again at 2-1.
In his NBA Finals debut last season, Curry also moved slowly, needing 2 ½ games before he finally found a rhythm. LeBron James was a one-man spectacle and Andre Iguodala's move to the starting lineup completely changed the series, so Curry’s strong finish – which usually would've earned Finals MVP honors – was often overshadowed. This time around, Curry couldn't exactly find the parallels because most of his problems haven’t been the result of searching for solutions. His struggles have been self-inflicted – silly fouls, lazy passes and wayward shots that hint at a lack of focus. More troubling, Curry was quick to surrender to Cleveland’s physical play Wednesday, providing no resistance or push-back. And his teammates – particularly his All-Star running mates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson – were unable to provide cover and capsized with him.
"You're going to have games where it just ain't there. It happens to everyone. Contrary to popular belief, nobody in this league is super human," Green said. "Everybody has bad games. Everybody has rough patches. Some come at different times than others. Some they're worse times, but it happens."
After Game 3, Curry was adamant that he was “fine.” Physically? Sure, if you say so, though his inability to dribble around Tristan Thompson might suggest otherwise. Mentally? No way. Not even close. Curry looked spent and has for some time this postseason. But he was always able to muster just enough energy to unload that timely bucket and bail out his teammates in a pinch. Coach Steve Kerr noted that something was woefully and curiously wrong in the first quarter of Wednesday’s 120-90 shellacking, when he pulled Curry after his first turnover and asked, “Are you OK?”
This season has required a level of mental toughness and focus that could break even the strongest player. When he wasn't fearlessly chasing one of Michael Jordan's most cherished records, Curry was having his accomplishments diminished by NBA legends who considered him the beneficiary of a "water-downed league" in which players didn't have to deal with hand-checking and full-time man-to-man defenses. But Curry snared the first unanimous MVP, 73 wins and 402 3-pointers, obliterating records with a dedication to dominance that meant he would only get his rest by handling his business in just three quarters.
Once he got to the playoffs, Curry had to endure the frustrating, injury-related starts and stops, and the emotional stress of awaiting MRI results on his right knee that were less serious than initially feared. Curry has never used those setbacks as excuses for poor play – and how could he after he scored a record 17 points in overtime and boasted to fans in Portland that he was back. Then, the Oklahoma City Thunder pushed the Warriors harder than any other opponent the past two seasons, forcing him to uncork three of his four games this postseason with at least 30 points in leading the comeback from a 3-1 deficit.
Through it all, Curry had to embrace new responsibilities as an ambassador and face of the league. His pregame workouts have forced fans to show up earlier to record them on their smartphones. An instruction manual couldn't guide or assist an underdog through an unlikely rise atop the NBA hierarchy, but Curry is growing more comfortable with his mushrooming fame, even as it all can be, at times, overwhelming.
"I don't know if there's ever a point that you kind of break through, but it's all a pretty natural kind of process, I think," Curry said. "I'm pretty comfortable where I am, and I know, for me, every night I have a certain expectation for myself that's first and foremost. If I don't reach that, then I'm pretty frustrated with myself and kind of know what's coming, and you just deal with it and move on."
Curry has seemed distracted and distant with only an offseason of rest left to greet him on the other side of this series. But he actually has a chance to do himself a favor. To finally put to bed the most demanding season of his career, Curry must summon whatever he has left in the tank to ensure that this series doesn’t extend much longer. He can change his most memorable contribution from clowning on the bench, to clowning the Cavaliers on the court with the same infectious, sometimes obnoxious, joy that came to define his season before it continued to drag on. Having accepted blame for not being better, Curry has also kept his personal struggles in perspective.
"We're 2-1. We're 2-1. We're up 2- 1 right now, and the story is still unfolding," Curry said. "I just basically stick to my preparation and my kind of mental strategy of staying within myself to get myself out of a hole. One, [I'm] not panicking and not overcomplicating things and not trying to psych myself out. There's a reason that I have confidence out there and it's about how I prepare for games and for series and seasons and whatnot, so we've got to stick with that kind of thought process."