Steph Curry’s chance to prove his greatness has arrived

June 17, 2016


CLEVELAND – Down 20, a pair of fouls in his pocket, his backside planted firmly on the bench and the reigning MVP had never looked so mortal. Two days after getting slapped around on his home floor, after seeing the chance to celebrate a second straight championship obliterated by a LeBron James and Kyrie Irving explosion, Stephen Curry watched in disbelief as the same two players used the first quarter in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday to run Golden State out of the gym. It was a 31-point quarter for Cleveland and a lead it would not let go in a 115-101 victory.

Down 12, just over four minutes to play, and Curry never looked so small. Finished after picking up a sixth foul, Curry’s frustration bubbled over. Out came the mouthpiece, whipped, accidentally, in the direction of a fan cheering his exit. Gone was Curry, but not before smirking in the direction of James, who followed Curry slowly down the Warriors’ end of the floor. Gone was Curry, but not before his wife, Ayesha, took to social media to bizarrely declare the game rigged – a tweet she later took down and for which she apologized.

“It got the best of me,” Stephen Curry said. “But I’ll be all right for next game.”

Curry earned a $25,000 fine for his actions. Whether he will be all right is another story. Never has a 30-point performance felt so inadequate, never had connecting on six 3-pointers felt so whatever. Maybe it was the open three Curry missed that would have cut Cleveland’s lead to eight a minute into the fourth; perhaps it was the layup that rolled out minutes later that would have whittled it to six. The final stat line was tidy. But impactful? Far from it.

Curry is the MVP, the scoring champion, but does anyone think he is the best player on the floor? James scored 41 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in a season-salvaging win over the Warriors on Monday and then topped it with a 41-point, 11-assist, eight-rebound effort days later. “He played a brilliant game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. And pushed Golden State to the brink of a historic collapse in the process. No team has recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA Finals and only three have forced a Game 7. A series the Warriors once had a stranglehold on is suddenly slipping away, salvageable only by one last stand at Oracle Arena on Sunday.

Game 7, title on the line, these are the games for which the true greats live. James has lost some, won more and the rare smile he flashed from the dais early Friday morning suggested he was ready for another. “It’s the two greatest words in the world,” James said. “’Game 7.’ I’ll play it anywhere.”

Is Curry ready? He was last month, against Oklahoma City, when he submitted a 36-point, eight-assist effort in Game 7 that helped send the Thunder home. But Curry was riding a wave of momentum then, back-to-back 31-point games that helped springboard him to his performance in the series clincher. Now? A sub-40 percent shooting night in Game 5 was followed by Thursday’s anemic fourth-quarter output. The swagger that defines this generation’s greatest shooter seems to come and go at a time when he desperately needs it.

Credit Cleveland: The Cavs have prioritized keeping a defender pressed up on Curry and have forced him to fight through waves of screens on the other end. “Just locking into him,” Tyronn Lue said. Time after time, Curry has slammed into a Tristan Thompson-shaped wall. Play after play, Curry has been forced to dig in and defend James on a switch, or pressure a resurgent Irving on the perimeter. From his barks at Curry after a blocked shot to his long stare as Curry shuffled off the floor, James appears determined to end the debate over who’s the best player.

“However he wants to celebrate or whatever he wants to do to kind of take in that moment, it is what it is,” Curry said. “I stay aggressive. [I] don’t let that try to get in my head.”

Six games down, one to go, and for Curry, this is what’s at stake: Lose, and the vultures will circle. Fail, and the debate over his place among the elite will rage. Never has Curry faced a bigger moment. James has. James’ place has been built on beatings by Boston, a Finals loss to Dallas, a thumping from San Antonio in the Finals. He has been scrutinized more than any player, savaged by social media in a way no athlete in sports history has ever been. He rose from his own rubble and, regardless of his Finals record, has established himself as the greatest player of this generation.

This is Curry’s test, his forever moment, his chance to burn his name into basketball history. Game 7, his team reeling, and Curry has an opportunity to deliver a performance of the ages on his home floor. “I can’t wait for Sunday,” Kerr said. Here’s hoping Curry can’t either.