Stephen Curry’s mission to round into MVP form starts now
It’s dangerous to read too much into blowouts. Sometimes teams are hot. Sometimes they’re tired. Sometimes Andre Iguodala sinks his shots, LeBron James doesn’t, and Kyle Korver picks up defensive assignments usually reserved for J.R. Smith. Such things happen, especially in the regular season. What Monday’s 121–96 Warriors squashing of the Cavs portends for June, when these teams likely meet again, is anyone’s guess. In the short term, it boosted the Warriors’ confidence after four straight losses to Cleveland. It also provided a glimpse of the thermonuclear Golden State offense we were promised when Kevin Durant signed in the Bay; watching the Warriors’ furious 78-point first half was like watching an All-Star game score-a-thon, only in this case the defense was actually trying. Still, June’s a long time away.
What was more telling was the performance of Steph Curry, popularly-thought to have the most at stake on this night. Curry was limited during the Finals last season, and marginalized when the teams met this past December, finishing with 15 points on only 11 shots. Overall, his numbers are down this season, at least compared to last year’s surreal campaign—they’re actually quite similar to his first MVP season of 2015, from usage rate to ppg to FG%—leading to questions about whether Curry’s been too deferential or has maybe lost some of his mojo. Whereas once Curry made the game seem effortless, Durant was the Warrior who now made it all look easy, plucking rebounds and rising over defenders. Curry too often looked a bit disjointed, alternately rushed and passive.
Then again, the first half of the regular season can be much like a blowout: dangerous to read too much into. At the end of practice on Saturday, after Curry finished his usual routine of 100 threes—hitting 91, including his first 19 in a row—Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser, as close as exists to Steph’s shooting coach, explained Curry’s early-season play as both fatigue—mental and emotional, from two long seasons—and purposeful. “I think he came into the season trying to make the whole work, adding new pieces in KD, Zaza, and David West, and Steph was catering to all of them,” said Fraser. “He wasn’t getting his shots in his normal places, not just on the court, but in the sequence of things. I think that was a combination of him not being as aggressive mentally and also getting different looks.” Over the last month, though, Fraser says Curry has begun shooting it better in practice—“even if it didn’t’ translate yet to the game.” Now, midway through the season, Curry’s re-engaging. “Like okay, it’s been long enough, now it’s time to be aggressive.”
It showed against the Cavs. Curry came out firing, as he has for much of the new year. The first time he touched the ball, he drove at Kyrie Irving for a lefty finish. He launched pick and roll threes and attacked the Cavs’ defense repeatedly, nearly doubling his shot total from Christmas in only 31 minutes, scoring 20 points while adding 11 assists and four steals.
In the end, he still didn’t shoot great, finishing 7–20 from the field (and 5–12 on threes). He missed a number of looks he usually makes—standstill threes, a midrange after shaking Korver in the third. The fact that he was able to get these open looks, however, is itself notable. Last year against the Cavs, Curry was often swamped by double-teams early, and shadowed by one or two red shirts whenever he cut off the ball. With Durant on the floor, Curry has room to move, and can even occasionally play the role of Klay Thompson, getting the second swing pass for a tee-it-up three. Monday night, he even looked greedy, the way the team needed him to be last season, occasionally hunting for shots and seeking the moment. “I love that he took twenty shots,” Thompson said afterward, which, if you think about it, is a weird thing to say about a two-time defending MVP who averaged 30 points last season. As for Steve Kerr, he cycled through superlatives in describing Curry—“great”, “phenomenal”—which also seems a bit weird for a shooter who shot 7–20. But such was Curry’s energy, hustle, aggressiveness and defense.
After the anticlimactic finish—who expected Warriors fans to leave midway through the fourth quarter of a game like this?—Curry tried to downplay the magnitude of the game, as did most of the Warriors and Cavs (save Draymond Green, professional truthsayer, who said it was “definitely” a rivalry). Just one game in January, the chorus went. Kerr noted that when the Warriors beat the Cavs last January, everyone left Cleveland for dead and look at what happened.
Still, this one clearly meant something to Steph. When he entered the media room just after 8:15, the last Warrior to talk, he wore a shirt with a big-head caricature of Barack Obama and looked lighter on his feet than usual. He said he was pleased with his aggressive play, that it was, “a great way to start, just put the foot on the gas pedal.” He was asked if there was any motivation to ‘save your reputation’ or respond to critics. “No, I obviously wanted to play well… I didn’t shoot he ball as well as I wanted to, some shots I normally make didn’t go down, but I can live with that knowing I took care of the other stuff. Really, it’s all in my head. I definitely wanted to leave this arena tonight with a solid performance.”
A few minutes later, Curry headed out to the hallway, where he met up with security guru Ralph Walker. Then he fist-bumped a reporter, took a phone call and headed out into the cool evening. For one night at least, all felt back to normal.