OAKLAND — Was that a sneer? Was the angelic killer extending his range of swagger to the level of screw-you cockiness, having shiver-shaken and dribble-dazzled the sorrowfully overmatched Matthew Dellavedova over the hills and back to Moraga? The earlier portions of the NBA Finals had been unkind to Stephen Curry, who looked like anything but an MVP and was shooting so erratically that the president of the United States said, “He’s had a couple of bad games.”
Worse, Curry had to read and hear in the national and local media that he was outplayed by the scrappy, harrassing Dellavedova, which bothered him and members of the Warriors organization, though it certainly was indisputable after a 5-of-23 (2-of-15 on threes) clunker in Game 2. It was paramount for Curry, his team struggling to bury a historically depleted Cleveland team that should have been swept even with LeBron James, to rediscover his jumper, his strut, his confidence — the magic that led to his breakout as the most adorable athlete in American sports.
Sunday night, as Barack Obama also predicted, Curry finally located all of it in a 104-91 win that gave the Warriors a 3-2 series lead and places them one victory from the franchise’s first league championship in 40 years. He was exhausted and dehydrated afterward and had to lie down in the locker room, a scene that had team officials concerned until he sat up to watch highlights of his night. What an electric sequence it was in the fourth quarter. First he answered a three-pointer from another area code by James with one of his own, giving the Warriors a four-point lead. Then he delivered what may be remembered as the defining moment of a title. It came as the Warriors were pulling away from Team LeBron, with 2:44 left, and it was executed with the very panache that has men, women and children of all demographics in love with him. What he did was reduce Dellavedova to a statue with a behind-the-back, crossover, deke-and-dip move, followed by a stepback three-pointer. With Oracle Arena shaking as it never has, and 19,596 fans and millions around the world starting to sense how this series might turn out, Curry did something we’ve never seen.
He looked into the stands, over by where his wife and parents and brother sit, and he stared at them with an unforgettable sneer. Once again, he had been doubted — as he was when he was the smallest kid on his youth teams, as he was when Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams didn’t recruit him in his North Carolina backyard, as he was when the Warriors drafted him, as he was when ankle injuries threatened to prematurely end his pro career. The day before, Curry had admitted to having some self-doubt last week and wondered if he’d even have a “signature moment.”
Whoomp, there it was, as the sound system boomed at Oracle.
Not that Curry, ever savvy and smooth, was going to celebrate just yet.
“I mean, it was a fun moment,” he conceded, “but it only means something — and I’ll probably have a better answer for it — after we win the championship. Because signature moments only come for players who are holding the trophy at the end of the day. So I can sit there and talk about what a great play it was and what a turning moment it might have been, but we have to be able to back it up and finish the job. Hopefully after our next win, we can talk about all the great moments in the series.”
It’s a good thing the Warriors survived a tense night and another epic performance by James, who had 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in what will go down, win or lose, as the greatest solo performance ever in the Finals. Because had they lost, you gather LeBron would have locked down his home arena Tuesday night until he had secured his third Finals title. As it is, this would be something of an asterisk triumph for the Warriors because the Cavaliers don’t have two All-Stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and likely would have won this series if both were healthy. Still, it was Curry who responded when the alarms were demanding his MVP presence, with 17 of his 37 points coming in a fourth quarter in which he hit three of his five three-point attempts.
He refused to delve into the dialogue regarding Dellavedova, who was observed trash-talking Curry at one point in Game 5. “It’s the Finals, and there are a lot of story lines, and I’m not gonna get into the back-and-forth,” Curry said. “He’s gonna do his job, I’m gonna do my job, and we both want that trophy.” But a published report out of Cleveland said the Warriors were “pissed” and the Curry camp was miffed about the negative stories — which comes with the MVP territory, fellas. Clearly, these teams have had a chippy and physical series, and in a rather pompous post-game interview, James wasn’t willing to give Curry too much credit for his role in the victory.
“That’s not why we lost,” James said. “We gave up 18 fastbreak points. We gave up 15 second-chance points. Steph was special, obviously, but him hitting those stepback threes is not why we lost the game.”
Oh, really? “I thought he was great. You tip your hat to a guy like that,” James said. “He made seven threes. I don’t know, were any of them not contested, hand in his face, falling, stepback off the dribble? I’m OK with that. We’re OK with that. He’s the guy who can do that in our league. He’s the best shooter in our league. But that’s not why we lost.”
A minute later, James was saying of Game 6, “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.” That’s some statement after a loss, even if his performance was beyond description again. When he was seen pouting on the court in the final seconds, it seemed like he had lost the game AND the MVP war he has battled all series, saying last week that he should have won the award.
Actually, a few of Curry’s spectacular threes did come on open looks because the Warriors, back in a free-flowing groove, were releasing him with picks and ball movement. The Cavs went to their own smallball lineup to counter Steve Kerr’s continued use of it, which made it conducive for Curry to go off. “I called all those plays. Those were my genius inventions,” joked Kerr, who at least didn’t credit assistant Nick U’Ren. “No, that was just Steph taking over the game. But it was a different game, you know, because they decided to go smaller, and so the floor was more open. I thought from the very beginning when they went small and had their shooters out there, I thought, ‘This is Steph’s night. This is going to be a big one for him because he has all that room.’ He took over the game down the stretch and was fantastic.”
Kerr has learned never to doubt Curry. “I just think sooner or later, Steph’s going to get going,” he said. “He had a tough first couple of games. He got going at the end of Game 3 in the fourth quarter, and that’s all it takes. Steph makes a couple shots. He feels like he’s got it rolling, and he’s been great ever since. So it’s not really an adjustment. It’s just the law of averages are that Steph’s going to make shots.”
His teammates dismissed the Dellavedova-is-outplaying-Curry talk. “Yeah, people were saying that. I never really got into that,” said Draymond Green, who had 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists in his continuing smallball role inside but, again, had to be restrained from approaching an official. “You know, maybe Steph had an off game or two, but that’s basketball. I’m taking Steph in any matchup. So (Dellavedova) was hounding and physical, dirty. It’s a fine line, whatever you want to call it. He can do what he (does), but I was going with Steph no matter what, and I’m still rolling with Steph no matter what.”
Andre Iguodala may have lost hold on the Finals MVP award — something no one on this team cares about, by the way — but he was bullishly effective again with 14 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, no turnovers and one huge play late when he took a pass from Harrison Barnes inside, lofted a shot high off the glass and in, and then performed some sort of sashaying, monster-mash move across the court as the fans roared. He, too, didn’t want to hear any nonsense about Curry and Delly.
“The interesting thing is, we haven’t had many discussions about it. We said we know who Steph Curry is,” Iguodala said. “When guys get to that elite level, they’re going to get (players) coming at them every single night. You see it across the league. LeBron gets it night-in and night-out. Guys want to make a name by going up against the best. Steph’s going to have that, and I think he’s used to it. Tonight he did an awesome job of sticking to who he was and having a great game.”
And his signature play? “Yeah, it was the crossover play on the right wing, and he hit him with the bopbop, and the guy (Dellavedova) leaves his feet but he’s also trying to slide on defense,” Iguodala said. “He almost falls back, and Steph had that rhythm about him when he shot it, and you know it’s going in as soon as it’s leaving his hands. Steph’s been really smart this whole series of not overreacting to everything that’s around the game. He’s always stayed in that zone of what’s on his basketball court and how I can help my team win it any way possible and not getting out of myself or getting away from what the team needs to do to win. He’s just been an MVP for us, and we’re going to try to have him another MVP performance next game.”
A franchise that has waited four decades now must wait only one more day for its chance to hoist hardware. FYI: The Game 5 winner in a 2-2 Finals has gone on to win the title 20 of 28 times. “We don’t want them celebrating at all,” James harrumphed, and those throaty, wounded Clevelanders — impending doom crashing over them again in a half-century of sporting heartbreak — will try to scream the Warriors out of Game 6. But you sense now that Stephen Curry has figured it out, Steve Kerr has figured it out, Andre Iguodala has figured it out and, in one way or another, all the Warriors finally have cracked the code of beating LeBron without his leading sidekicks. The task came harder than it should have, but in the end, it happened the same way it happened all season.
“Those are plays I’ve been making all year,” Curry said. “I feel confident in them.”
At his next White House visit, he can remind the President.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.