Stephen Curry kept getting asked about his health. He kept denying he’d need surgery.
“I’m fine. I have three months to obviously get ready for next season. So…” Curry said. Then, he shrugged. “I won’t get injured celebrating tonight.”
Curry’s sadness following the Warriors’ loss to the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday was rooted in a fundamental fact: He knows how fun it is on the other side. Teammates crashing into each other for chest bumps and hugs, champagne, boundless joy into all hours of the night – Curry lived it when Golden State won the title last year.
This year, he was reduced to watching Cleveland’s celebration after a dreadful finish.
The reigning back-to-back MVP scored no points on 0-for-5 shooting with a turnover and foul in the final six minutes.
“It’ll haunt me for a while,” Curry said.
Kyrie Irving made the game-winner over Curry, whose defense fell short throughout the series. Curry just couldn’t stick close enough to Irving, whose exceptional ball-handling made him a threat to drive.
Down three on the other end, Curry got Kevin Love switched onto him – a matchup the star guard loves. But Curry couldn’t shake Love and forced a contested long-distance miss.
“I was searching for a 3,” Curry said with a smirk that didn’t mask his pain, “and rushed and didn’t take what was there, which was probably better to go around him and try to get to the paint.”
It’s one of numerous moments Curry probably wants back from these Finals. Among them:
How did Curry go from beloved to a punch line to punchless so quickly?
Even before his late struggles, Curry made only moderate impact on Game 7. He finished with 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting with two assists, four turnovers and four fouls.
And that was the story of Curry in this series. He was fine for an average player. For an MVP, he didn’t even near the standard – much like last year, when Andre Iguodala won Finals MVP. That was just the second time someone won MVP and a title in the same year without also claiming Finals MVP (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980). If Golden State won Sunday, Curry would have become the third, with either LeBron James or Draymond Green claiming Finals MVP.
That’s now Curry’s image: great in the regular season, not in the Finals.
The Warriors’ championship and injuries to LeBron’s supporting cast masked Curry’s decline last year. This year, it was all too evident.
A fan and media darling for the last two years, Curry should face more scrutiny now.
When push comes to shove, LeBron is still the best player in the NBA. Curry – three years younger than LeBron – can sustain elite play over a far larger sample. That’s why Curry deserved MVP this year and last. He out-produced LeBron and everyone else throughout the regular season, and that helped the Warriors win a record 73 games and secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
But, as we saw, that wasn’t enough. LeBron outplayed Curry in the Finals, including Game 7 in Oakland.
Don’t mistake this for Curry playing poorly. He still set a Finals record for 3-pointers made, and he shot 40% from beyond the arc. He and Klay Thompson play off each other, and Thompson’s similar relative struggles sure didn’t help Curry. Neither did Green’s suspension. Curry’s teammates thrived at times, in part, because of all the attention Curry draws.
But if Curry wants to be recognized as the best player in the world, he must clear the highest bar. LeBron did.
Meanwhile, Curry and the Warriors fell apart late in the biggest game of their lives.
“A lot of it was kind of myself kind of leading the charge in settling too much,” Curry said.
Nearly every team – with Cleveland among the few even potential exceptions – would take Curry leading it throughout the regular season. In the Finals? The jury is still out, and that’s in deference to Curry’s large sample of excellence.
Not only was he clearly behind LeBron as the Finals’ best player, Curry wasn’t even the Finals’ best point guard. That was Irving, who grew up in front of our eyes as someone with a championship-level killer instinct.
Credit Curry for making himself into the caliber of player who receives this level of scrutiny. Also require him to meet the standard before anointing him.
I have little doubt Curry can excel on the biggest stage the way he did throughout the last two regular seasons. He has hit enough big shots in earlier playoff rounds, and the pressure can feel just as intense in the moment.
At a certain point, though, he’ll have to actually play better in the Finals to earn the highest praise.