How exquisite that he waited until the final two seconds of a playground game gone berserk before reminding everyone of his command, his swag, his Niagara Falls range, his global revolution. All weekend in Toronto, Stephen Curry had deferred — when Klay Thompson trumped him in the three-point contest, when elder Kobe Bryant was laughing through his last All-Star Game, when Russell Westbrook was jacking up just enough shots to repeat as the game’s MVP.
And then, just when Curry had become an afterthought of sorts Sunday evening … bam! … he stepped back and splashed a 42-foot layup to conclude a 196-173 ultra-farce victory for the Western Conference in a game without matadors, stop signs and anything resembling defense. Of course, he was among those applauding politely when Westbrook — who took 23 shots (17 from three-point range) in 22 minutes to score a team-high 31 points — accepted another trophy from NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“Yeah, it was a little imaginary tug of war for that ball and the decision whether to shoot or not,” Curry said of his final fling. “I think [Kevin Durant] wanted it at one point, and then the crowd got into it and wanted me to shoot. Coach [Gregg] Popovich wanted one of us to shoot, and thankfully it went in and kind of finished the game off with a bang and caused some excitement.
“Obviously, what I do best is shooting, so I was just thankful to finally make one from pretty deep out. I tried it two or three times in the game and saved the best for last, so that’s fun.”
Come May and June, when Curry repeats as the actual league MVP and encore champion of authentic competition, no one will remember the hardware he didn’t win in February. In fact, they’ll remember the event for some of the very reasons he has become the world’s most popular athlete.
Did you notice Curry’s reaction when Thompson drilled his final eight shots and beat him in the shooting festival, making President Barack Obama look prescient when he said Thompson had the “sweeter” jump shot? He raised his arms, grinned, laughed, shoulder-bumped his teammate, jumped up and down like a little kid and clapped. He was thrilled for the fellow Splash Brother who sometimes is lost in the global Curry hullabaloo, and was so comfortable with how the night went down that he’s likely retiring from these contests and won’t shoot next year in his hometown of Charlotte.
“Probably not. That might be my last run,” Curry said. “Thanks, Klay, for knocking me off my perch so I can kind of relax a little.”
Lesson: Only Steph Curry can lose and somehow win anyway, with his genuine joy for Thompson’s victory — even at his own expense, even when he is celebrated as the greatest shooter of all time — exhibiting again why a selfless team rules the NBA like few others in history.
And did you see what Curry said when the international media swarmed him during an early availability session, a perfect chance to dominate the weekend marketing buzz and send a message to James (“I know I was the MVP”) Harden, LeBron (“I’m the best player in the world”) James, Doc (“You need luck … They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs”) Rivers and all the others who’ve tried for naught to weasel into his psyche?
Before anyone could ask a question, Curry pointed to Bryant at a nearby table and said, “Kobe is talking. If anyone wants to go, he’s down there.” Then he mentioned Bryant’s 81-point outburst in 2006 and said he’ll surely never approach it, though many of us think he might sometime soon. “Just watching the game, it still doesn’t make sense. How did he do that? How did he do it?” Curry said. “I don’t think it’s even possible the way the game is going now and just how hard it is. Just think about it: 81 points and 50-something in a half. It’s special.”
Lesson: Only Steph Curry can defer and marvel and somehow win anyway, graciously refusing to allow the world’s fascination with him interfere with Bryant’s All-Star swan song.
He also shrugged, as always, when Charles Barkley took his latest dig at him. “He’s not more than a shooter. He’s just a great shooter,” Barkley told Dime magazine. At this point, all Curry can do is keep ruling the world, keep building on a 48-4 start and keep letting the loudmouths shoot spittle when he keeps shooting himself and the Warriors into the sports pantheon.
“There’s a lot more to accomplish,” Curry said. “It’s nice that I won a championship and an MVP and all that and to be here for weekends like this. I want to continue to strive for more.”
Such as, continuing to prove he’s the greatest shooter ever. “I feel like I could go toe-to-toe with pretty much anybody,” he said. “But look at the longevity of Ray Allen, Reggie Miller and what they have been able to accomplish — 16, 17 years of shooting at a very high level. That’s what I’m striving for. I’m on a pretty good pace.”
While it’s a stretch to say he was frozen out of this All-Star Game as Michael Jordan once was —Curry did shoot 18 times, making 10 (and 6 of his 13 three-point attempts) — he did stand around more than usual during his 29 minutes. On a night when records were established for total combined points, total points by the winning team and most heart palpitations among those in the coaching profession, the West set a record for most three-pointers attempted: 80. In essence, this was a tribute to Curry and the hoops ballet that the Warriors have mastered. It also was a sham to see so many fail at longball — including Durant, who went 1 for 8 and reminded us why he might crimp the Warriors’ attacking style if Joe Lacob, Bob Myers and Steve Kerr were to mistakenly break up the band to sign him this summer. Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs won’t beat the Warriors in the playoffs if he’s making only 1 for 6 on threes. Bryant went 1 of 5 in his 11-point, 4-of-11 swan song. Even Thompson struggled after his crowning performance Saturday, making only 3 of his 10 threes and joining Draymond Green (4 points in 12 minutes) among the lighter West contributors.
Want to howl? Westbrook, referencing how East star Paul George had fallen just short of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star scoring record on a 41-point night, said, “We were playing lock-up defense at the end.”
Face it, the All-Star Game is a marketing showcase. Curry was no slouch on that end, either. With Jordan in town touting his iconic shoe brand, Curry was barking the praises of Under Armour. “[Nike] had a nice template of success with Jordan’s career. We’re trying to do it our way, which is very genuine and organic to what we’re trying to do,” he said.
So don’t even begin to think he was a disappointment because he didn’t dominate the weekend. Curry didn’t want to dominate the weekend. And it’s not as if he didn’t shoot well in the championship round — he made eight in a row to start and finished with 23 points. Thompson just beat Curry at his own artform, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who grasps why the Warriors have approached perfection the last season and a half.
“I’m not going to lie. I got nervous when he hit his first eight. I didn’t think he was going to miss,” Thompson said. “You know, I’ve never been on a team with someone who shoots it better than me, so it’s a privilege to work with him every day. He makes me that much better. He’s the greatest player in the world.”
In a poetic convergence, Curry returned to the city and country where his father, Dell, once played for the Raptors. Steph played only one season, in 2002, at Queensway Christian College middle school. He led the team to an undefeated season before the family returned to Charlotte. We all remember what almost thwarted that perfect season before it started.
“I didn’t do the dishes at home, so I went to school and had to tell my team, ‘Hey, guys, I can’t play tonight, opening night of the middle school game,’” he said. “Four dirty dish plates in the sink, and I didn’t get it done. So learn priorities — and understand basketball is a privilege that can be taken away.”
He charmed them, from Thursday morning through the final prayer late Sunday night. Sometimes, that’s all a reigning MVP has to do, knowing he’ll be kicking his usual ass soon enough.
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.