CLEVELAND—After it was over, which was long after it seemed over, Stephen Curry took his long, slow walk from the Golden State Warriors’ locker room to his postgame press conference. In some arenas, this is a short, lonely walk, but random people always mill about the tight hallways of Quicken Loans Arena after a game, and so assorted Cavs fans watched Curry respectfully, saying nothing. Then a few finally expressed mock sympathy—from behind a glass door.
If Curry keeps playing as poorly as he has for much of these Finals, the critics will get closer and louder. The Cavaliers are two wins away from shocking Golden State and ending Cleveland’s championship drought, and we can give 1,000 little reasons for this, but ultimately it comes down to one: LeBron James has played like a MVP, and Curry has not.
Curry hasn’t shot well, his ballhandling has been sloppy, and he often looks like somebody stole his lucky blanket. His shoulders slump. He chews his mouthpiece. He walks like every step hurts. He looks, in other words, a lot like James looked in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, when his basketball world was collapsing around him and he didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do about it.
Curry got hot at the end of Game 3, and for a while he looked like he might even steal the game. But the Warriors need him to play like that for more than one quarter. Whether he realizes it or not, his teammates feed off him; he fuels explosive bursts that last as long as a quarter and knock out the other team.
After the Cavaliers’ 96–91 Game 3 win on Tuesday, the Warriors still seemed to think they are the better team and will figure this out. Draymond Green kept saying they will play better Thursday. He must have said the day of Game 4 a half-dozen times: Thursday … Thursday … Thursday ... as if to remind everybody he would know when to show up. Curry got more technical. He said his big fourth quarter was important, because “I think I found something when it comes to how I’m going to be able to attack their pick-and-rolls.”
The key word there is “attack.” He hasn’t done it enough. It’s like Curry showed up at the NBA Finals and forgot how good he is.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked about Curry afterward, and Kerr said, “Things aren’t going our way, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to fight through. You’ve got to bring energy. You’ve got to bring some emotion. … This is a tough series. You’ve got to compete every second.”
Does he worry about Curry’s confidence?
“Steph never loses confidence,” Kerr said. “I just thought he lost a little energy and, I don’t know, life.”
Why? Is it the Cavs’ defense? Well, I hate to interrupt the Matthew Dellavedova For President Even Though He Was Born In Australia campaign, and I know a lot of people just love a scruffy white guy, but please, please, let’s stop with this notion that Delly is stopping Curry, OK?
Matthew Dellavedova is not stopping Stephen Curry. Sure, Dellavedova is playing relentless, physical defense, he is hitting big shots, he is embracing the stage, and he is making life harder for Curry. But Steph Curry is stopping Steph Curry. He has been in his own head for long stretches of these Finals, and it’s jarring because this was not the guy we saw all year, including the first three rounds of the playoffs.
As somebody said of Curry: “I’ve never seen someone that can shoot off the dribble like him. Ever.” That was James, Tuesday night. Nobody in the league gets his shot off as quickly, or as accurately from as many different angles, as Curry. He is missing open shots. It’s hard to give Dellavedova credit for that.
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Cavaliers coach David Blatt understands. For most of the fourth quarter, he did not even have Dellavedova guard Curry. He mostly called on Iman Shumpert instead, though that may have been due to Dellavedova suffering from cramps, which the Cavaliers said forced him to the hospital after the game. The fourth was when Curry got hot, yes, but I think the biggest factor was that Golden State had fallen way behind and some of the pressure was off.
Again: Not a knock on Dellavedova. Everybody wants a guy like that on their team. But the best players in the world find a way to get theirs, no matter who is defending them.
Golden State guard Shaun Livingston said he isn’t worried about Curry’s shot; he just wants Curry to make the right play. But Curry hasn’t really done that either. He has 16 turnovers in three games. That’s ridiculous for a man who can dribble two balls quicker than half the league can dribble one.
Are there other problems? Sure. James is obviously one, but there is only so much the Warriors can do about that. He will get his, and then some.
The truth is that the Warriors should win this series even with James playing at an all-time high level. They are helping the Cavs beat them, and they know it. Green said the Warriors’ spacing was not good. Green also said Dellavedova brought a toughness that Golden State didn’t match, and he blames himself. Livingston said the Warriors lacked “a sense of urgency,” which is strange because, you know, it’s the NBA Finals. I think a better way to say it is that the Warriors are hesitant. And that starts with their best player. I’m sure he wants that title desperately, but he isn’t playing like it.
Look, I love a smoking hot efficiency stat as much as the next guy, but an NBA playoff series often comes down to sheer will. James has it. You could see it from the opening tip of Game 1. He knows the Cavs are outmanned, and he doesn’t care. He didn’t go back to Cleveland to hoist a banner listing all his teammates’ injuries. He is taking some shots he normally wouldn’t take, and missing more than he would like, because he knows his team needs him to err on the side of aggression.
Curry? He looks like Roger Federer in those rare moments, during Federer’s peak, when Federer’s opponent outplayed him. Federer often seemed baffled instead of angry, as if the game were failing him, and wasn’t that a pity? That’s Curry right now. He isn’t gutting this out like a champion.
It’s understandable. He is new to this. Maybe he needs to learn what it takes to grab the last pieces of a championship. LeBron James is happy to teach him. GALLERY: Sports Illustrated's best photos from Game 3 of NBA Finals