Steph Curry's lackluster 2016 NBA Finals performance doesn't make him a 'choker'
"You know, if LeBron James were playing like Stephen Curry is in the NBA Finals, we'd be destroying him."
After yet another less-than-stellar performance from Curry in Game 6 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, this is the small-minded thought that lingers over the reigning MVP. For reasons simple and complex, he hasn't been himself in five of the six games in these NBA Finals. He ended up with a solid scoring effort in Thursday's loss, sure; other than that, he was rather inconsequential. Even his scoring bursts only lifted the Warriors within shouting distance of the Cavs, but never close enough.
And so far, according to the critics, Curry has skated by without a hint of criticism -- unlike LeBron, who will never hear the end of his shortcomings, even if he should win the next six consecutive NBA titles.
But since when have two wrongs made a right?
It was ridiculous when we called James a choker for coming up short against the likes of the Dallas Mavericks or suffering a cramp against the San Antonio Spurs. Here is one of the greatest basketball players we've ever seen, a man capable of things on the court that previous generations could only dream about. Yet because the game has changed -- because one player can no longer dominate in the same way as that specter who looms eternal, Mr. Michael Jordan -- the failings of James' teams came to represent his character.
A star who should dazzle us instead frustrates us to no end, which says infinitely more about us than it does LeBron or anyone else. To repeat that mistake with Curry would be absolutely absurd, particularly when his problems are so similar to those LeBron suffered. When James was at his worst in the Finals, it was the result of teams doing everything they could to prevent him from beating them. Take that 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Mavs, in which Dwyane Wade was celebrated for his aggression while LeBron was reviled for being passive.
What you probably don't remember is how much Rick Carlisle's team shifted its defense to focus three players on James at all times. That passivity was LeBron trying to figure out how best to attack. With experience, he learned how to manipulate defenses tasked with eliminating him from the game.
Curry will too, in time. For now, the Cavs continue to trap him on every possession, sending fierce doubles as soon as possible to get the ball into the hands of literally anyone else. It's a scheme infinitely more aggressive than anything Golden State faced this regular season, which is why Curry's numbers are so far below his MVP-level play. Until he has enough repetitions to be comfortable against such an approach, he'll likely struggle -- which, to be fair, apparently means scoring 30 points and going 6-for-13 on 3-pointers. What an awful game, truly.
We make this mistake time and again when we talk about professional athletes. Unless we're talking about a genuine prospect, a player can't change in our minds. He is who he is. But that's just not reality.
After all, isn't LeBron in the process of showing us how ridiculous such obstinance can be? Here is the man who lacks that incredibly important clutch gene, somehow leading his team back to a Game 7 with everything on the line. Perhaps he will come up short once again, but that's a chapter yet to be written. For now, James is showing us that a man's legacy is never set in stone, not so long as he keeps getting back up and competing.
That's not to make excuses for the Warriors point guard. Curry has played poorly -- far below the standards of an MVP. In fact, he's well on his way to one of the worst Finals performances by an MVP in the modern era. So by all means, point out the things he has done wrong. Try to figure out where he can improve. Question why he's been so bad. These are all fair criticisms.
Calling him a choker, though? Trying to say he's not clutch, like LeBron before him? That's the simplistic view of someone who doesn't want to take the time to appreciate just how hard winning a championship is.
A person can come up short -- or even choke! -- without that being what defines them, in the same way you can go for a swim without being a swimmer or get angry without being a complete jerk. You're only your actions when they become habit, after all. Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder, who watched a 3-1 lead over these Warriors in the Western Conference finals slip through their fingers. Did the Thunder choke? Yes. Does that make them chokers? Not in the slightest. They're superstars who outlasted the vast majority of the league. To be bested by the best is no great failing.
For now, Curry's not quite there. He and the Warriors have one more chance to pull their feet out of the fire and claim the title many expected to be theirs. Should they win, all of this drama will be forgotten by history. Should they fail, they'll go down as one of the NBA's greatest disappointments, and Curry will bear the brunt of the criticism. How severe that criticism will be is entirely up to us.
If how we treated LeBron is any indication, Curry's in a lot of trouble in the public eye. But he doesn't have to be. He really doesn't have to be.