OAKLAND — It was early in the game and things weren’t coming easy for the Warriors. The flow was more in the Cavaliers’ favor, the long-range shots weren’t falling, and Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant were on the bench with early foul trouble.
That’s when Stephen Curry went to work. He attacked the basket and lived at the free throw line. Those were tough, necessary points and Curry was more than capable of delivering them. He finished the game with 34 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds, and on any other night his redemptive story would have been the focus. On this one, Curry was merely part of the ensemble.
He’d been averaging 25 points, and better than nine assists and eight rebounds coming into Game 5. If it’s possible to be an afterthought with that kind of pedigree and those kind of gaudy numbers, then Curry was an afterthought during these Finals.
It’s been like that throughout the season. If anyone had to sacrifice to make room for Kevin Durant, it was Curry. He took fewer shots and scored less. The reigning two-time Most Valuable Player was never truly part of the discussion that dominated the regular season and the offense didn’t roll through him like it had in the past few years. If any of this bothered him he never let on, and it truly seems as if none of it did.
When Durant got hurt in early March, Curry offered a stirring reminder of just how good he really is, carrying the Warriors through the final stretch of the season and putting up those familiar MVP numbers. But when Durant came back for the playoffs, Curry was once again content to play his role. KD was the obvious choice for Finals MVP and again, none of that really mattered in Steph’s world.
“Even two years ago when he didn’t win Finals MVP there was this narrative that he didn’t have a great Finals,” Steve Kerr told me hours after it was over. “Go back and look at those Finals. He was phenomenal. There’s always going to be different storylines. What’s great about Steph is he doesn’t care. He’s happy for Kevin. He loves being part of the group.”
This is the essential ingredient in the Warriors’ success. To a man, they never doubted that adding Durant would work on the court. It wasn’t just talent that prevailed, the basketball fit was seamless on paper.
To a man, they never doubted that the personalities would work either. That’s a credit to all of them, but especially to Curry. How many players in his position would willingly cede that kind of turf on a team they helped build?
“The only one I know so far is Steph Curry,” GM Bob 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.”
His teammates took note of all of this. The public at large didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but the Warriors sure did. Especially Durant, who had to live with his own expectations and pressure. Curry could have made it harder on him. That no one expected him to do so is beside the point. He didn’t and they both thrived.
“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.”
Not that it was always seamless. Like any basketball situation, this one required a transition. Even with the best of intentions, these things take time to develop. It was their Christmas game against the Cavs that brought it all into focus.
“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.”
As Curry made his way through the phalanx of TV interviews he happily puffed on a cigar. A year ago he was living through what he called “basketball hell.” The Warriors had blown their chance at immortality and the two-time MVP took his share of abuse.
The question of whether he was physically diminished hung over everything during those Finals. To his credit then, and to his credit now, Curry never made excuses or downplayed the Cavs’ accomplishment. Even as late as Sunday’s off day, he batted away questions about his health last season.
He’s secure enough in his own abilities to know that no one really cares about all that anyway, and savvy enough to know that he won’t find any sympathies regardless. None of it matters anyway. When you lose there’s nothing you can do about it and when you win, all of that takes cares of itself.
Steph Curry is a two-time champion. That’s the only thing that matters.