It’s a pretty common strategy: If the defense is loading up on you, overplaying you, trying to turn up the heat and crank up the pressure, give it up. Move the ball, then move without the ball. Trust your teammates. Trust that you’ll get it back.
Trust that by making the right play, the smart play — even if you don’t ultimately end up making the play — good things will happen. Maybe even great things.
And so, here we are. The Golden State Warriors are NBA champions again. Kevin Durant’s the Most Valuable Player of the 2017 NBA Finals. LeBron James is still the best player in the world. And then, when you get a second to spare a thought for someone else, you arrive at Stephen Curry — the two-time MVP who winds up with supporting-actor billing in the Warriors’ return to the top after last year’s historic collapse. He’s not sweating his spot on the call sheet.
He’s smoking a cigar that someone rolled a century ago and that he put on ice a year ago. He’s enjoying listening to Durant call him “Two-Time” — as in “two-time champion.” He’s got a smile you’d need a surgeon to remove.
He’s an all-timer now, beyond doubt. One of just nine players ever to win multiple league MVP awards and multiple NBA titles.
“It’s kinda hard to argue what I’ve done and what’s going on here,” Curry said, according to Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group. “I will say that.”
As inarguable as it gets, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in only eight NBA seasons, just three months removed from his 29th birthday. And perfectly positioned to rack up even more accolades — and a $200-plus-million contract — over the next few years.
Give it up, and get it back. Get all of it back. Get everything.
After Game 5, Bob Myers was asked how many players — after winning consecutive league MVP awards, after becoming the first unanimous MVP in league history, and after limping to the finish line in a failed pursuit of a repeat — would willingly cede shots, touches, attention and at least part of the spotlight to a player as total as Durant, because that’s what would be best for the team. The Warriors’ general manager could only think of one.
“The only one I know so far is Steph Curry,” Myers said. “If you want to win, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about who scored what. It’s about winning. I think he knew that. He won a championship, and then we were close and didn’t win one. So you have a clear sense of what matters when you go through that stuff.”
Basking in the afterglow of Monday’s victory at Oracle Arena, Curry fielded questions about “that stuff” he went through last year — the Round 1 ankle tweak and knee sprain, the consistent inconsistence he displayed through the rest of the postseason, the inability to torch mismatches and drain shots when it mattered most — and how those difficulties inform his experience of title No. 2.
“It’s different just because of what happened last year to be honest,” Curry told reporters. “We went through, for lack of a better term, basketball hell, in that sense of just being so close to getting the job done and not realizing that goal, and having to think about that for an entire year and compartmentalize and just try to keep the right perspective about this season and learn the lessons that we learned.”
So he took part in the Hamptons meeting with Durant, sitting alongside Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, and letting KD know that he didn’t care if the Warriors were his team so long as they were a better team. He stayed home from the 2016 Summer Olympics, watching Durant, Green and Thompson win gold in Rio while rehabbing his ailing wheels to get himself ready to hit the ground running in October.
He shouldered the burden of authoring an encore to one of the greatest seasons the sport has ever seen, this time with the added weight of increased expectations and the individual impediment of knowing he wouldn’t get quite as many opportunities as the Warriors worked to integrate Durant. More than that: he made a concerted effort to create the space for that integration, playing off the ball more frequently to make sure the marquee new addition got a steady diet of looks in comfortable spots, even if it meant an associated drop in counting stats that led many observers to say Steph was having a “down year.”
The Warriors’ record remained sparkling, but the team hadn’t yet become more than the sum of its remarkable parts, thanks largely to its top guns acting as “forceful players playing without force,” as one Warriors coach told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. The “my turn, your turn” give-and-take led to two of the only real spots of on-court trouble the Warriors faced in this all-time season.
The first: a Christmas Day loss to the Cavs in which Durant finished with a game-high 36 points on 23 shots, while Curry managed just 15 points on 4-for-11 shooting and found himself pulled for a defensive replacement on the final possession. The second: an early-January loss in Memphis in which Curry deferred to Durant late, Durant went one-on-one instead of sticking with Golden State’s free-flowing offense, and Draymond blew his top at the Warriors getting away from their style.
After the Christmas Day game, Curry made no bones about what he felt he and the Dubs needed: “Honestly, I can’t have 11 shots. I’ve got to get more looks at the rim. That’s nobody’s fault. I’ve just got to figure out a way to be more aggressive in that respect, and keep the defense honest and use all the talent we have on this team, including my scoring ability.”
Those comments sparked discussion about where the Warriors were, where they needed to be, and how they could get there. That discussion sparked growth. That growth created a monster.
“Steph definitely took a backseat to start the season until he realized we didn’t need him to take a backseat,” Green said after Game 5. “We need you to be aggressive as you’re going to be. And when Steph turned that corner — I think it was after Christmas Day, when he turned that corner — we became almost unbeatable. That’s what we needed.”
“There’s a point where I tried to analyze and control the situation and make sure everybody was happy and getting shots and things like that,” Curry said. “But honestly, after that Christmas Day game, I kind of understood that we have such high-IQ players that if I could be aggressive, do what I do and need to do every single night, everything will kind of flow from that. I think the proof is obviously in what we were able to accomplish from that point on.”
Those accomplishments included a 56-11 record after Christmas Day — and a 5-1 mark against Cleveland, starting with a 35-point January pasting at Oracle in which Steph shined with the ball back in his hands — plus the best postseason record in NBA history, and arguably the most dominant run to a championship the game’s ever seen.
The achievements included Curry reminding everyone just how heart-stopping a playmaker he could be during the month Durant missed after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament and tibial bone bruise in his left knee. He averaged a shade under 28 points, eight assists and five rebounds in 34 minutes per game while drilling 42 percent of his 3-pointers during that 18-game stretch.
Even after Durant returned to end the regular season, Curry kept right on humming through the playoffs, producing at a rate roughly equivalent to the mind-melting clip that produced the unanimous MVP award:
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) June 2, 2017
More than any other Warrior — even Durant and Draymond — Curry remained Golden State’s most important player, its bellwether, the all-consuming shooter and ball-handler with whom opposing defenses could not for a moment lose touch and that opposing offenses sought to exploit. After a quiet Game 4 in which he went just 4-for-13 from the field while Durant put up points and the Cavs wound up bullying the Warriors — Christmas in June — Curry ramped up the aggression in Game 5.
Seven shots in the first quarter, four of them in the paint, as he drove his way to seven free-throw attempts in the opening 12 minutes, too. Penetration to draw attention and kick, setting up open 3-point shots for Green and Iguodala, or drives for Durant. Drawing out traps and hitting the popper or short-roll man, allowing Green, Iguodala and even rookie Patrick McCaw to make plays in space.
Ten assists against four turnovers in 41 minutes, a winning night in the perpetual battle against veering from carefree to careless. (“Steph only threw one left-hand pass tonight,” Iguodala cracked after the game. “That was growth.”) Refusing to settle, using the threat of his jumper and his hesitation dribble to catch defenders off balance then blow past them all the way to the rim.
And then, in the final minute, dusting off the slingshot for one last bomb to seal the title — a redemptive triple from the wing, over the outstretched arms of Kyrie Irving, the man who’d taken the trophy away from him one year ago.
— NBA (@NBA) June 13, 2017
“Fifteen free throws, 10 assists, 34 points,” Durant said after Game 5. “Say what you want about him, but he played like a big dog all series.”
Curry’s final numbers in the Finals: 26.8 points, 9.4 assists, eight rebounds and 2.2 steals in 37.7 minutes per game, shooting 44 percent from the field, 38.8 percent from deep and 89.7 percent from the free throw line. He also led the series in secondary or “hockey” assists, and assisted on one-third of Durant’s 60 buckets in the Finals.
Curry just averaged more assists than Stockton in 97 or 98 Finals, more rebounds than KG in 2010 Finals, more pts than Dirk in 2011 Finals.
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) June 13, 2017
Curry’s biggest postseason number, though, was +245. That, according to the great John Schuhmann of NBA.com, is the number of points by which the Warriors outscored their opponents this postseason with Curry on the floor — the greatest such margin of any player in any playoff run since the 1996-97 season, when the NBA started tracking play-by-play data.
“Steph is — I never seen nobody like him,” Durant said after the game. “I told him [Sunday]. I said, ‘When you play with force, like I never seen a player like you before.’ And he played with force tonight. […] 15 free throws and in a closeout game in The Finals. He’s a big dog. You better start respecting him.”
Before this season, Durant respected Curry’s game from afar. Now, though, he has a very different appreciation for what the Warriors’ star brings to the table — and to the locker room.
“The stuff you hear about Steph as far as sacrificing and being selfless and caring about his teammates, caring about other people, is real,” Durant said. “It’s not a fake. It’s not a facade. He doesn’t put on this mask or this suit every single day to come in here and fake in front of you guys. He really is like that. And it’s amazing to see a superstar who sacrifices, who doesn’t care about nothing but the group.”
That approach — that capacity to sublimate himself for the greater good — helped make Golden State excellent. But it was Curry’s willingness to change course — to realize that the greatest good Golden State’s got comes only when he’s willing himself to be great, too — that helped make them champions.
The Warriors made it look easy. They insist that it wasn’t.
“Coach always said: that’s why you spray champagne on yourselves and teammates in the locker room after you win a championship,” Curry said Monday. “Because you understand how hard it is to get this job done.”
And now that it is — now that they’re back on top of the NBA world, and have a rare opportunity to stay there — Curry’s thoughts turned immediately to beginning the next assignment.
“We’re obviously just getting started,” he said. “This is something that we want to continue to do.”
More NBA Finals coverage from Yahoo Sports:
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