OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Sure, Stephen Curry heard the scrutiny. It was deafening. It was everywhere. Even the two-time reigning NBA MVP wasn’t immune.
Curry’s forgettable NBA Finals last year ended with Kyrie Irving hitting the deciding 3-pointer in his face and Curry unable to shake Kevin Love as Cleveland took Game 7 to complete a masterful comeback and steal a championship on Golden State’s home court.
A month later, Steph was stepping back again as the Warriors welcomed Kevin Durant to their star-studded roster. When the season began last fall, Curry unselfishly gave up some of his own scoring chances so Durant could seamlessly find his way, not making as many 3s – or half-court buzzer beaters for that matter – and lacking the same efficiency and flair.
Curry is fully healthy this postseason and ready to reclaim that championship that got away last June as the Finals begin with Thursday’s Game 1.
“I thought it was kind of ridiculous to be honest,” Curry said of the critics. “Ignore is probably not the word. I heard it, reacted to it as almost like, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone type of situation. Because I know what I was doing on the floor and what my job is every night on this team, so I could go to sleep at night pretty proud of the way I was playing.”
Irving winning that matchup against the MVP rallied the Cavs, fueled a comeback from a 3-1 deficit as Cleveland captured its first major team sports title in 52 years.
Now, all the focus of this Finals is on LeBron and KD. And that might be just the opening Curry needs to shine brightest again on the big stage after the struggles last year, when he shot just 40 percent in the Finals and had more turnovers (30) than assists (26).
Lately, Curry and Durant have engaged in intense shooting competitions to stay sharp and have a little fun at the same time as the Warriors wait once more. They’re the first team to begin a postseason 12-0, so it has made for plenty of rest and downtime – far different than a year ago when Golden State went seven games in the Western Conference finals to Durant’s former Oklahoma City Thunder.
It has made a big difference for Curry, who missed six playoff games in 2016 because of ankle and knee injuries and was never 100 percent after that.
“He’s pretty sharp,” said player development coach Bruce Fraser, who passes to Curry daily. “He’s been shooting it pretty well. I would rather have him like this than like he was going into the last Final. He’s competitive and he wants to win, so you can bet that he’s not happy about last year and he’s going to go after this one.”
Curry wants to take back the championship that got away, and help KD and so many other veterans without a title earn their ring.
He has scored 20 or more points in 10 straight playoff games and led the Warriors in scoring in eight of their 12 postseason contests. Twice he has dished out eight assists.
“It’s just been such better progression for Steph this postseason,” coach Steve Kerr said. “I mean last year, right from Game 1 against Houston he was injured and fighting an uphill battle. I thought he was amazing under the circumstances of his injury but to me he looks fresher, faster, stronger than he did a year ago.”
Curry made a point to do everything necessary for Durant to make a smooth transition incorporating into the offense, even if that meant his own numbers were down a year after his second MVP and another record 402 3-pointers as Golden State topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ wins record going 73-9.
He took two fewer shots per game, his scoring average dropped from a league-leading 30.1 to 25.3 and his 46.8 percent shooting was his worst since 2012-13. But he still hit 324 3s for the second most in NBA history to his 402 a year ago and paced himself so he is peaking now.
“That’s a part of maturing and getting older in this league is you’ve got to realize every year you’re a year older so you’ve got to tweak some things,” teammate David West said. “I thought he did a good job of that. He took some flak for it early from the outside noise but I just thought he was intent on making sure he was playing his best ball late. He’s put us in a great position.”
The 29-year-old Curry has remained his unflappable, playful, perfectionist self, yelling “finish strong!” to himself the other day as tried for a 10th straight made 3 from the baseline. He missed, letting out a loud “ahhhh!”
“I’m just playing aggressive, playing confident. Obviously shots are falling. I’m trying to do other things other than just scoring so I can help my team put us in the best situations to win,” Curry said. “That’s it, really. The moment is bright right now and you’ve kind of got to live up to it. This is what we live for as basketball players to be playing in these type of games that matter the most. We have four wins left, we have to do whatever we can to get them.”