You do wonder if someone, at some point, will try to thug up the angel. With an NBA Finals berth at stake, an opponent isn’t about to let Stephen Curry roam freely in his dreamy cocoon without a harsh physical reminder that this is basketball and he is merely 185 pounds. He mentioned Monday how Houston’s Trevor Ariza, the last time the teams played in late January, had walked by with intent and bumped him, shoulder on shoulder.
“A cheap shot,” Curry called it.
The episode was much more heated than that. The Rockets, coached by noted postseason elbow-thrower Kevin McHale, tried to bully Curry during a technical-foul filled third quarter in which all hell nearly broke loose at Oracle Arena. First he was harrassed by Patrick Beverley, who talked trash and leaned in aggressively. When Curry shoved back, he was whistled for a technical foul. Then came the sequence where Ariza, thinking Curry had tried to extend his leg and trip him while setting a pick, returned downcourt and bumped him, prompting Curry to chase after Ariza with enough anger that Draymond Green had to restrain him with a bearhug. As assistant coach Alvin Gentry counseled Curry on the bench about not losing his cool, Steve Kerr pointed at McHale and the officials and told them to clear Rockets players who were lingering near Curry. They were trying to wiggle inside his head, you see, even while trailing the Warriors by 22 points early in the third quarter.
This is the same Houston team in town tonight for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything,” Curry said. “We expect the intensity and just the atmosphere … Actually, there might be some chippy episodes just because we know where we are. We’re in the Western Conference finals, one step closer to the dream. So there’s one team in our way to get there. Whatever happens between games, you’ve go to keep your composure and stay focused on the mission and not get caught up in any of that stuff.”
As we mourn the demise of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors’ most bitter rivals, we forget that they also have a testy history with the Rockets. And if Curry frustrates them the same way he knocked out Memphis and New Orleans — with a stunning exhibition of outerworldly shotmaking — what stops them from resorting to desperate roughhouse tactics? Curry realizes he is soaring in rarefied air, a zone of artistry that recalls the most theatrical moments of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Pistol Pete Maravich, George Gervin and others who think they can make any shot from anywhere on the court. “All of that comes from enjoying the situation, having fun out there,” Curry reflected after practice in the team’s solar-fueled facility in downtown Oakland. “I don’t think about making some divine moment, making something crazy. It just happens in the flow of how I play the game. I never try to get ahead of myself.
“I’m sometimes kind of surprised at what happens.”
That’s good. Because the rest of us are astonished out of our minds. And at some point, as he’s plotting ways to one-up the 62-foot prayer that shut down the Grizzlies or the three-pointer as he was tackled that buried the Pelicans, the only option for the Rockets might be to take him out with hard stuff. At the very least, the Warriors know they’re going to hear some chirping in the series opener. “We’ll see. It all depends,” Green said. “No one is going out there with the motive of talking trash, but if someone is out of line, I’m sure it’ll spark back up. If they want it to be there, it’s there. I don’t really care about it. It happened a long time ago.”
Four months ago, in fact, which can’t be emphasized enough in comparing these teams. The Warriors won all four regular-season games, but Houston played two without Dwight Howard, whose resurgence should be of primary concern to any Warrior Worriers anticipating trouble in the series. I’m thinking the Warriors win in five games, despite Houston’s momentum in overcoming a 19-point lead in Game 6 to stagger the Clippers, then closing out the choking dogs Sunday. Vegas agrees, installing the Warriors as huge favorites tonight and favorites to win the NBA title. Vegas, like everyone else, is blown away by Def Steph and the defensive intensity of a team that now has won 75 games this basketball season and lost only 17.
There are a few dissenters who think this is the series where James Harden asserts himself as the true Most Valuable Player. That is nonsense. What more must Curry do to prove he deserved his trophy? And where was Harden when the Rockets returned from the dead for their historic rally? On the bench, the entire fourth quarter. “I was a cheerleader. I was one of their biggest supporters,” he said of Ariza, Howard, Josh Smith, Jason Terry and Corey Brewer. “I was so excited for those guys. The energy they brought was unbelievable.”
So how is Harden the most valuable player when his team didn’t even need him to make the comeback that extended a season? “We don’t get to this [point] if not for Trev, Brew, Josh, Dwight, and Jet,” McHale said. Harden hasn’t mentioned it lately, but he said he deserved the award days before Curry won it. Rockets owner Leslie Alexander repeated that notion Sunday. When told Houston folks still believe Harden should have won, Green couldn’t contain himself. “Nah, Steph’s the MVP, no one cares about that anymore,” he said. “Obviously, [the media] voted and thought Steph was MVP. I’m on the same page. We’re motivated to try and win a championship. If you use something like that as motivation this time of the year, you’re probably using the wrong thing to motivate you.”
Curry became particularly friendly with Harden while playing for Team USA last summer. “We have a lot of history,” he said, “but on the court, it’s different.” He seemed puzzled when reminded that Harden thought he deserved to be MVP.
“I don’t think he’ll phrase it that I shouldn’t have been. If he comes off strong, he should think that way,” Curry said. “You’ve got a guy who has confidence in the way he plays and should be proud. He had a great season. It’s not like he’s talking crazy. MVP stuff is special, and we’ll have plenty of time to reflect after the season. Right now, it’s about winning.”
Harden agrees. “This is what I was traded here for,” he said. “Me and Dwight, since we came together, we’ve been talking about this moment, to put ourselves in position to get back to the Finals, have a chance at that title.”
Klay Thompson will be mostly responsible for defending Harden, though, as always with the Warriors, it’s all hands on deck. The trick is keeping him off the foul line, with Andrew Bogut agreeing that Harden is the league’s most creative player in drawing fouls. “It’s very difficult to do, but it’s imperative,” Kerr said. “You have to be very disciplined against him. He’s very clever. You definitely have to be in the right position, take the right angles. You can’t reach. You have to be really smart.”
And who will be responsible for defending the shooting fiend with the kid face, keeping in mind that Beverley is injured and out for the season?
“Multiple guys,” Curry said.
Best of luck.
Seems not even social media can stop Curry, who deleted his Twitter account before Game 2 of the New Orleans series. He isn’t ready to pull a LeBron James and turn off his phone entirely, but all Twitter twerps should know he isn’t reading your tripe. “There was so much attention, it clutters your mind,” he said. “I really don’t want to see what people are saying about certain games and players. Got to keep a clear mind.” Because someone in a Houston uniform will be trying to enter that mind.
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.James HardenJay MariottiStephen Curry