OAKLAND, Calif. — Stephen Curry was too busy trying to beat the shot clock, too busy trying to sharpen his dribble to have time to think back to the time not long ago, when Kevin Love became a folk hero in Cleveland at Curry’s expense. Curry had Love tap dancing again Sunday night, but a behind-the-back dribble to his rear end had him retreating to a place where only he has proven capable of consistently connecting.
So when the shot left his hands and splashed through the nets, Curry surprised no one, amazed everyone and demoralized anyone associated with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was the eighth of the NBA-record nine 3-pointers that he would hit this night and especially sweeter since it was almost like a delayed revenge for Love’s defensive stop against Curry in the final minute of a Game 7 loss in 2016 that will always serve as motivation. Curry needed this shot, needed this game to start putting to rest one of the most annoying — and inaccurate — criticisms of the two-time MVP: that he hasn’t been a big-time performer in the NBA Finals.
For Curry, the challenge that he has faced in each of his Finals appearances is to be more spectacular than he usually is, to leave an indelible mark with a moment, or moments, that will be replayed for decades. Whether this was the moment or one of the moments that will propel him to his first Finals MVP that he has never been hard-pressed to chase won’t be determined until this series is over. But Curry is certainly moving to the front of the line for the only honor lacking from a résumé that has put him on a Hall of Fame trajectory the past four seasons.
Memories are short these days, erased with the swiftness of hitting the refresh button. All that remains are often unfair reputations that are hard to shake and truths that are harder to shape. Curry can’t make everyone remember everything that he’s done in the Finals, nor does he plan on trying.
“I could spend all day huffing and puffing about my performances over the last three years and the Finals MVP talk and all that stuff. I never let that creep into my focus of how I’m playing,” Curry told Yahoo Sports after posting his fifth 30-point game in the Finals. “It helps our team win when I’m playing well and aggressive, with confidence. As long as I keep that up, good things will happen.”
The burden of greatness is that expectations grow with the stakes, more is demanded when the most eyes are watching. Superstars can’t just be good, they have to be mind-blowing. They can’t just win rings; they have to be Finals MVP. And for Curry, he’s been placed in an unenviable position of being nothing short of breathtaking or disappointing.
In the Warriors’ first trip to the NBA Finals, Curry had a slow start but was unleashed after Kerr slid Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup. The narrative of Iguodala and his defense against LeBron James developed a life of its own. Iguodala, the Warriors’ most indispensable role player and a dogged defender, was given more credit for limiting James to just 35.8 points — once again, for the people in the back, 35.8 points — than Curry was for hitting seven 3-pointers, scoring 37 points and mean-mugging the crowd after crossing up Matthew Dellavedova in a pivotal Game 5; or closing down Quicken Loans Arena with a 25-point performance that secured the title. Curry never sweated being overlooked because capturing the Larry O’Brien Trophy was all that mattered, not some subjective award determined by a small panel.
After his second trip to the Finals, Curry told Warriors general manager Bob Myers in his exit interview that he wasn’t good enough after he had taken time to process the devastating seven-game loss. Curry flamed out in uncharacteristic, mouthpiece-tossing fashion, leaving behind the unforgettable image of James smashing his layup and turning around to share some unkind words. Though he was diminished by his recovery from a knee ailment that kept him from competing in the 2016 Olympics, Curry never used the injury as an excuse for getting torched by Kyrie Irving and failing to get by the likes of the slow-footed Love on dribble drives. The stain of that loss has been difficult to remove because it came in a season in which Curry became the first unanimous regular-season MVP.
Curry’s desire to collect more rings led him to a rented house in the Hamptons, where he was among a contingent that recruited Kevin Durant, a former MVP, to Golden State. Once Durant committed, both players essentially canceled out one another for the chance of ever winning regular-season MVP again, but it also created a situation in which Curry will be lucky if he wins every other Finals MVP. Durant devastated Cleveland and outplayed James last season, earning the individual acclaim. Curry had to again hear that he hasn’t owned the Finals, despite averaging 26.8 points, 9.4 assists and eight rebounds and closing out the Cavaliers with 34 points in the finale.
“I think the biggest thing, I’ll let other people talk about what I have or haven’t done at this stage. That chatter is always going to continue,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “Besides how 2016 ended, I’ve been pretty happy with my performance, and everybody in our locker room can tell you I’ve been playing well. That’s all that matters to me.”
Curry is averaging 31 points through the first two games of this series and is two victories from matching the best player of this generation in championships at three — with all three coming at James’ expense. This time around, Curry hasn’t had to contend with chasing around Irving because the Cavaliers sent him off to Boston in a trade that James has repeatedly said he didn’t want to happen. Irving’s absence has given Curry the legs needed in the fourth quarter. He didn’t need to remind everyone in the arena that this was his “[expletive] house” because the five 3-pointers he hit in that quarter powered the building.
The Warriors are up 2-0 on the Cavaliers for the third consecutive Finals, but Curry won’t get ahead of himself, because he knows the job is only halfway done. Curry remains haunted by what happened the first time this team was in this position. They eventually built a 3-1 lead, only to become a footnote to the greatest accomplishment of James’ career — making a 73-win team settle for second place. “It’s a distant memory but I still feel that feeling,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a good reminder of how fragile, how tough it is to win a championship. The difference between winning and losing in a Finals game is a couple of possessions here or there, a top guy not playing at his peak. Those last three games of 2016, I wasn’t great at all. It was a tough pill to swallow. I don’t want to be in that position again. It’s kind of why I just enjoy being back here again and having an opportunity to win a championship doing what I do.”
This title defense hasn’t been easy or a joyride for the Warriors, who have had to contend with their own complacency and hubris for much of this season. Curry suffered his second knee injury in the past three seasons and was forced to miss the entire first round and the first game of the second round. He’s had his share of off nights since coming back, but this series is tailor-made for him to thrive.
Breaking Ray Allen’s old record of eight 3-pointers, Curry energized the crowd in a way that Durant couldn’t with his smooth efficiency, that Klay Thompson couldn’t by gutting out a game despite what should’ve been a debilitating injury, that Shaun Livingston and JaVale McGee couldn’t with their perfect shooting nights. That three-pointer over Love had fans applauding and passing out as if they were at a religious revival. “At the end of the day, it’s about trying to get a win and doing whatever you can to make that happen,” Curry said. “So, pretty special night, and hopefully some more special things happen and we get two more wins.”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Serena aces inappropriate Trump question
• Don’t underestimate KD’s difficult postseason journey
• Why the Chiefs’ backup QB declined endorsement money
• Cubs’ weird win over Mets still leaves reason to worry