Stephen Curry loses shooting touch, Finals and title of NBA’s best player

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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.

76ers blow 9-point lead in final :34 seconds, then hang on to beat Lakers in OT

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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It was almost a legendary comeback win for the Lakers — and a legendary blown lead for the 76ers.

Philadelphia had the game in hand, up 18 in the fourth quarter, and while Los Angeles staged a comeback the 76ers were still up by nine inside :45 seconds. And yet…

The 76ers took care of business in overtime — aided by the Lakers settling too much and going 0-of-5 outside the paint but also 1-of-5 in the paint in OT — and picked up the 133-122 win.

In a battle of two teams that have been inconsistent all season, they lived up to that billing – both teams had huge lapses and stretches of impressive play. It led to streaks, including the wild final minutes.

Joel Embiid started out hot scoring 13 of the Sixers’ first 15 points and finishing the night with 38 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 12 rebounds.

James Harden looked better than his first game back and finished with 28 points and 12 assists.

However, Philly’s breakout star of the night was DeAnthony Melton, who grew up a Clippers fan and said he wanted to take it to the Lakers — he scored 33 points with eight made 3-pointers.

Anthony Davis finished with 31 points and 12 rebounds for the night. Austin Reaves came off the bench and hit 4-of-6 from 3 on his way to 25 points, while LeBron James had 23 points on 9-of-22 shooting.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.