Warriors star guard Steph Curry faces new challenge

Reigning MVP has struggled to recapture form of past two seasons, highlighted by uneven play at Cleveland

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CLEVELAND – As unsatisfying by comparison it undoubtedly will make those proverbial Tuesday-night-in-January grind-fests heading our way, the Christmas classic Sunday in which the Cavaliers roared back to beat the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena lived up to its hype.

In every way but one, anyway.

Kevin Durant wasted no time in this coming-out of sorts in showing those who’d yet to properly pay attention that he kicks the Warriors to a new offensive level. The thin man scored 36 points to shoulder his new team’s load, but got drawn into the intensifying rivalry when he couldn’t get off a shot at the game’s end. Did Richard Jefferson step on him without a whistle? “I fell,” Durant said, “and I don’t fall on my own.”

LeBron James was as fierce and relentless as ever, at one point spotting the nine other men on the court a head start the other way – he had fallen across the baseline on a drive to the hoop – yet racing back in time to obliterate a layup attempt by Golden State’s Zaza Pachulia.

Draymond Green was being Draymond, on the brink of persuading the game and league officials that his “OMG!” overreaction to questionable foul calls – sprinting the opposite direction in conspicuous disdain – is another part of his “natural shooting motion” to diagram with the groin kicks.

And Cavs guard Kyrie Irving demonstrated again that he is arguably the best shot-maker and one of the NBA’s most cold-blooded finishers with his stunning, staggering, falling-down 13-foot to win it, 109-108, with 3.4 seconds left.

From Irving’s clutch basket to the Cavaliers’ collapse-slash-Warriors’ fizzle – ever-potent Golden State blew a 14-point lead over the final 9:35 by scoring only 14 points in that stretch – a regular-season game in December was reminiscent of, and worthy of keeping company with, Cleveland’s climb from that 3-1 deficit in June to its first NBA championship.

Except for this: There were supposed to be three current or former NBA Most Valuable Player winners on the floor at The Q. Only two, Durant and James, were noticeable.

Steph Curry was an afterthought, a flickering light in a season that’s already gone dim for him, 32 games in.

Curry was one part decoy, one part bystander while Durant handled the star duties and Klay Thompson filled in as the Warriors’ second-best offensive option. Irving and Kevin Love from the other team played bigger roles than Curry, the two-time, reigning and first-ever unanimous MVP during his remarkable run the past two seasons.

Curry has been the NBA’s Everyman Sorcerer since the start of 2014-15, unassuming in appearance, spectacular in achievements. But he looked average at best with a 4-of-11 shooting performance that included 2-of-7 from 3-point range, and when he got to four fouls before he took his third shot, he was in danger of slipping below ordinary.

“We know how important he is. Without him, we don’t have this record [27-5]. Whether he’s making shots or not, nobody in our locker room takes him for granted.”

Kevin Durant on Steph Curry

The instinctive reaction, based on the body of his work, was to chalk it up as an off game. But there was more than mere randomness involved, on a number of fronts.

Curry hasn’t been himself on Christmas generally, for example, averaging 11.8 points and shooting 18.2 percent on 3-pointers in six yuletide appearances.

He also has been held in check by Cleveland in ways that will loom large should these teams clash in a third consecutive Finals. Last spring, for instance, Curry (who also was banged up by June) averaged 22.6 points in the seven games against Cleveland, with 40 percent accuracy from the arc and an effective field-goal percentage of .532. His MVP numbers during the season had been 30.1 ppg, 45.4 percent success on 3-pointers and .630 effective shooting overall.

And so it went the year before, with Curry’s scoring perking up in the 2015 Finals but his accuracy flagging against the Cavs’ defense. In the two championship rounds combined, he managed 64 assists and 58 turnovers.

Then there’s the change Curry and the Warriors foisted upon themselves this season when they took to the Hamptons to recruit Durant. Just because people have been talking plenty about the sacrifice that was going to require on other Golden State players doesn’t mean it’s not the elephant still in the room. And Curry’s move from first chair to second represents the biggest sacrifice of them all, one that remains a work in progress.

“Everybody’s usage is down a little because KD handles the ball quite a bit, as he should,” coach Steve Kerr had said before tipoff. “That takes the ball out of Steph’s hands a little bit more and out of Draymond’s hands. Klay still just shoots it every time he gets it, so that doesn’t really change for him.

“Yeah, it definitely changes the dynamics. It’s harder, in some ways, to add a star player rather than a role player. It’s a great problem to have but it’s more challenging. So we are still not where we need to be in that regard. Steph, I think, will get more and more comfortable as the season goes. But it’s a little bit of a different vibe, for sure.”

The Warriors players didn’t want to go there after Curry’s lackluster performance Sunday. Thompson said the ball simply didn’t find Curry. Durant bristled, but then, he’s the latest bright shiny object whose shadow has crept over, well, the Warriors’ previous bright shiny object.

“We know how important he is,” Durant said. “Without him, we don’t have this record [27-5]. Whether he’s making shots or not, nobody in our locker room takes him for granted. He’s going to be aggressive, he’s going to do what he does. But for the most part, guys had it going. That’s why he’s a superstar. He defers and he plays within the offense. He hit a big shot late in the game, that should have took us over the top.”

There really were only two “Steph” moments in this one. Both were 3-pointers. The first was one of those ghostly flicks of the wrist, sending it through the net from the corner in a split second. The second was Golden State’s final bucket, his hold-the-pose shot from the left wing that had the Warriors up 108-105 with 1:14 left.

That should have been enough, especially when Curry poked the ball loose from Irving on Cleveland’s next possession. But the Warriors, who had 20 turnovers in the game and six in the fourth quarter, couldn’t secure it. It wound up with Irving for a layup with 37 seconds left.

When Irving hocus-pocused in his game-winner, Curry wasn’t even on the court, subbed out in some offensive/defensive moves by Kerr. The Warriors guard didn’t much care for that.

“It’s his call, obviously,” Curry said of Kerr. “But your competitive nature, you want to be out there trying to make a play. That will never die on me.”

Curry was critical of his play after this one, for the mistakes he made with the basketball as well as for mistakes of omission.

Asked about adjusting around Durant, he said: “We’re past that. It’s kind of just, as a team, understanding our go-to plays down the stretch and we have to stick to our identity of who we are. And that balance between flair and creativity and looseness that we like to play with, and being disciplined and solid with the ball. Tonight we favored the undisciplined style that we can fall into.”

Curry went behind the back for one turnover. Draymond Green tried to thread passes not just past one defender but two or three at key moments. Not good.

When asked if he’d been aggressive enough, Curry said: “Yeah, but I’ve got to do it a different way. Honestly, you can’t have 11 shots. I’ve got to get more looks at the rim. That’s nobody’s fault. It’s just, I’ve 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. You can’t do that.”

Is this a tired Curry, in need of recharging after two rewarding but rigorous seasons? Is it the demotion to second option on most nights to which he’ll need to adapt? Is it the end of the comet who crossed the NBA heavens the past two years?

He’s averaging 24.1 points and hitting 39.9 percent of his 3-pointers, still sparkly numbers by most guys’ standards. But at this point, Curry isn’t in many discussions as a Top 5 MVP candidate and, based on James Harden’s and Russell Westbrook’s play, he might not be an all-NBA first-teamer either.

Remember, too, that while Curry drew attention from various Cavaliers, including James, it was little-known DeAndre Liggins matched up on him at tipoff.

“They’re a good defensive team,” Kerr said. “They’ve got a lot of speed. They’re doing what everybody else is doing. People are paying a lot of attention to Steph. That’s what he’s going to see every night. … There are nights when things don’t go your way. I think he can be a little smarter. I think he can make better decisions and that will help against anybody.

“I’m not worried about him missing shots. I’m more worried about just decision-making and making sure that we’re where we need to be as a group.”

The Warriors still can lay claim as the class of the West. They’re on track to give us the rubber-match Finals so many are eager to see. But this addition they did over the summer has brought some subtraction, at a most valuable spot.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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