A frustrating and disappointing Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals for Stephen Curry ended in a stunning bit of history: the first ejection of the back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player's professional career, and the first ejection in a Finals game in 20 years.
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With just under 4 1/2 minutes left, Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson rebounded a missed free throw by Warriors guard Klay Thompson, and passed the ball to LeBron James with the Cavaliers holding a 12-point lead. Curry, playing with five fouls, raced in to try to knock the ball loose; he did, but James leapt, regained possession, came down on Curry's back and went to the ground, resulting in a whistle and Curry's sixth personal foul, which would disqualify him from the game.
The MVP lost his mind upon realizing he'd been whistled, ripping his now-signature mouthguard out of his mouth and chucking it toward the sideline in anger ... and it hit a fan sitting courtside:
"Yeah, I've thrown my mouthpiece before. I usually aim at the scorer's table," Curry said after the game. "I was off-aim."
After calming down, Curry sought out the fan — later identified as Andrew Forbes, son of Cavs minority owner Nate Forbes — and apologized before heading off the floor and back into the locker room.
"I definitely didn't mean to throw it at a fan, but it happened," he said. "I went over and apologized to him because that's obviously not where I was trying to take my frustration out. But the last two fouls I had I thought were — I didn't think I fouled either Kyrie [Irving] or LeBron. That's just kind of my perception of the plays and I had a reaction to it."
Curry finished with 30 points on 8-for-20 shooting, including a 6-for-13 mark from the 3-point line, two rebounds, one assist, one steal and four turnovers in 35 minutes.
"It was obviously frustrating fouling out in the fourth quarter of a clinching game and not being out there with my teammates," he said. "So it got the best of me, but I'll be all right for next game."
Curry often acted as the Warriors' lone source of offense but made poor gambles defensively, battled foul trouble throughout and was ultimately outshined by LeBron, who dominated to the tune of 41 points for the second straight game, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks and just one turnover in 42 1/2 minutes, leading the Cavaliers to a 115-101 win that evened the Finals at three games apiece, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 back at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Sunday.
After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr came to his superstar's defense.
"He had every right to be upset," Kerr said, launching into an answer that will all but demand a fine from the league office. "You know, he's the MVP of the league. He gets six fouls called on him, three of them were absolutely ridiculous. You know, he steals the ball from Kyrie [Irving] clean at one point. LeBron flops on the last one, [referee] Jason Phillips falls for that, for a flop. That's the MVP of the league we're talking about, these touch fouls in the NBA Finals.
"Let me be clear: we did not lose because of the officiating," Kerr added. "They totally outplayed us, and Cleveland deserved to win. But those three — three of the six fouls were incredibly inappropriate calls for anybody, much less the MPV of the league."
Asked if he was OK with Curry's projectile-based frustration response, Kerr doubled down.
"Yeah, I'm happy he threw his mouthpiece," Kerr said. "He should be upset. It's the Finals. Everybody's competing out there. There's fouls on every play. I just think that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — the way we run our offense, we're running and cutting through the lane, we're a rhythm offense — if they're going to let Cleveland grab and hold these guys constantly on their cuts, and then you're going to call these ticky-tack fouls on the MVP of the league to foul him out, I don't agree with that."
It remains to be seen what sort of discipline Curry will face from the NBA after throwing his mouthpiece and hitting a fan. Aaron Brooks, then of the Sacramento Kings, received a $25,000 fine for throwing his mouthpiece into the stands in November 2012; Enes Kanter, then of the Utah Jazz, received the same penalty for the same offense in December 2014.
The only similar recent incidents to result in suspension came when mouthguards were thrown in the direction of officials. That cost Miami Heat big man Udonis Haslem one game back in the opening round of the 2006 playoffs. Ditto for Amir Johnson, then of the Toronto Raptors, in December 2012.
For his part, Kerr believes Curry will suit up for Game 7.
"I'm not concerned about that," he said.
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