OAKLAND, Calif. — It wasn’t enough for Stephen Curry, never the consensus best player on the floor in three previous trips to the NBA Finals, to make Oracle Arena his personal playpen Sunday and become too much for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No, Curry was three-much, for this game, perhaps this series.
His love affair with the shot, a match made in hoops heaven, was the picture of beauty for the Warriors (and devastation for the Cavs) in a 122-103 Game 2 win by Golden State. Drop, drop, drop, falling like maple leafs in autumn, taken from different angles, some circus-like, those shots multiplied and avalanched the Cavs, who stuck around all night before finally caving to Curry.
He made nine buckets from deep, erasing Ray Allen from the record books for a single-game Finals total, and they were the face of the Warriors’ win. They came in a neat and timely manner, just when LeBron James and the Cavs showed a heartbeat, only to get stabbed in the chest.
And some were downright insane, including the 35-footer he took with a half-turn that seared the nets just as the buzzer blew for the shot clock. What. The. Hell?
“We played 23 1/2 good seconds of defense,” said Cavs forward Kevin Love, “and he turned around and hit a moon ball.”
Curry could only laugh and smile at his pleasure and another team’s pain, soaking up the fun and the hysterical crowd and of course the Golden State lead in the Finals, now 2-0 heading to Cleveland.
“I try all sorts of shots at one point or another,” he said.
While the Cavs might suspect this was a one-night blast from Curry, the forecast for the rest of this series actually favors him. You see, the difference in this Finals is Curry doesn’t need to burn precious energy on the other end of the floor, guarding Kyrie Irving. There is no Irving. He’s in Boston and Curry’s in a groove.
Ordinarily when a player must chase and check someone on Irving’s level, it saps energy and pushes physical limits. Freed from that nightmare, Curry’s legs are fresh and frisky for the fourth quarter, and sure enough, that’s where he did his damage Sunday, going five-for-five in the period.
His 17 3-pointers in Game 2 matched the total number of 3-point attempts by LeBron, Love, Kyle Korver and JR Smith combined.
What deflated the Cavs wasn’t just the shots he made, but the shots he made with fingers in his face. Those contested buckets can be a mental drain on a defense. What else could the Cavs do but shrug? With Cleveland players running up on him, Curry connected anyway and further built a case for him being the best shooter of this generation.
“He’s a big shot taker, big shot maker, tough shot taker, tough shot maker,” said teammate Draymond Green. “We’ve seen this before where he completely takes the game over with his scoring ability … I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but it was like, oh man, he’s really got it going.”
Clearly, this is a spirited and sprightly and, dare we add, spicy Curry we’re seeing. One moment in the fourth after the whistle, he found himself near the Cavs bench and chose to answer back to Kendrick Perkins, the official finger-poker of the Cavs. Giving away eight inches to his trash-talking agitator, Curry walked up to Perkins, nose-to-chest, and gave it right back.
When the shot’s falling, apparently you believe you can do anything.
“He seemed to hit a big shot whenever we needed one,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “We feel a lot of joy when he makes them. He was fantastic.”
Curry hasn’t always felt this alive in The Finals since this Warriors’ run began in 2014. He’s a two-time Kia MVP who doesn’t own a Finals MVP in three tries. That’s rather unusual, and to see Curry slice up the Cavs on Sunday makes it weird to know he was once owned briefly by … Matthew Dellavedova?
Yes. That happened in 2014-15, his first MVP season, when Irving was done for the series after fracturing his kneecap in the opener. Irving outplayed Curry in that game before limping off the floor. Curry’s Finals numbers were respectable (26 points, 6.3 assists, 38 percent from deep) but off from his great regular season as Andre Iguodala claimed Finals MVP honors.
In 2015-16, Curry was even worse (by his standards) against the Cavs at 22.6 points, 3.7 assists and 40 percent shooting. He couldn’t keep the Warriors from blowing a 3-1 lead. In a telling moment during the heat of the action, LeBron scolded Curry, the game’s greatest player essentially letting the first unanimous MVP know he wasn’t up to the task. Curry then was a step-slow on Irving’s Game 7 jumper in the final seconds that sealed the historic comeback.
Then last season, Curry’s Finals numbers finally approached his regular season level and he enjoyed a solid series by averaging 26.8 points and eight assists, but Kevin Durant was a beast and took Finals MVP.
The other day, when asked about possibly winning the award this time, Curry dismissed the idea: “It doesn’t make or break my career or whatever you want to say, looking back. If we win this championship and I don’t win Finals MVP, I’m going to be smiling just as wide and just as big … I’m going to play with the right energy to help my team win. Usually when I’m in that mindset, good things happen. Whether that means Finals MVP or not, who cares?”
When Curry is executing a give-and-go which ends with him sprinting to the corner and drilling a 3, who can guard that? That play is happening with increased frequency. Sometimes, as in the Houston series, a Warriors player — in this case, Jordan Bell — will pass it back between his legs to Curry and then act as a shield. In Game 2, Curry raced to the corner three times, the last when he took a pass and floated a high arching shot over Love’s fingertips and took the foul, getting a four-point play out of it.
Curry said the Warriors used that play multiple times this season and it’s only getting some light because of the microscope of the playoffs. Well, it’s catching the Cavs by surprise.
“Anytime he has it from the 3-point line, you have to try and make him shoot twos, contested 2s and do the best job from the 3-point line as well,” said Love. “No matter where you are on the floor, he has a chance to make a miraculous shot.”
And they crushed the Cavs’ spirit, as when Cleveland crept within seven points just after the fourth quarter began and Curry counterpunched by drilling a pair of 3s in a 32-second span. Cleveland never made a meaningful run again.
This was likely the Warriors’ best effort of the postseason, all things considered. They put on a show and finished strong and left no doubt. Curry scored 33 points, Durant shot 10-for-14 and had 26 points while Thompson shook off a sore ankle and added 20 points. When those three are dangerous simultaneously, there’s probably not a defense the Cavs can muster to save themselves. Plus, Green had eight rebounds and seven assists, making sure the ball moved and found the right people.
“I mean, they’re a dangerous ballclub and it starts with those four guys,” said LeBron. “It’s not something that’s surprising.”
Kerr made an adjustment from a tight Game 1 by inserting JaVale McGee in the starting lineup and McGee’s best contribution was catching the ball after being left unchecked. That’s why he shot 6-for-6.
And the Warriors just had omens in their favor. When David West hits a 3-pointer for the first time since November, you know it’s your night.
LeBron remains a massive factor, obviously, and while his Game 2 performance (29 points and one rebound shy of a triple double) didn’t quite send the same degree of fright into the Warriors as he did three days earlier, they haven’t muzzled him, and may never. He’s averaging 40 points, 10.5 assists and 8. 5 rebounds … and down 0-2.
If Curry’s playing like it, will it matter? He’s averaging 31 points, 8.5 assists and making half his 3-pointers for the series. He’s certainly not invisible. He hurt the Cavs in the fourth quarter and overtime in Game 1, then tortured them with 3s in Game 2.
Which means: Curry’s on pace to add a Finals MVP to his two regular season MVPs and a third championship trophy. A few factors are in his favor — no Kyrie — and he’s halfway there. Who’s drawing up a defense to prevent that?
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