OAKLAND — How exquisite that this Most Valuable Player debate, this maelstrom of hype and starpower and magnificent shotmaking, would conveniently drain into one final convergence of Stephen Curry and James Harden on the floor. Game 2 would whittle down so perfectly to Harden, with Houston trailing by a point, trying to finish the night the way Curry finishes nights for the Warriors: survey the situation, start the madness amid panic in the building, shoot, bang, good night, go home.
But what defines a league MVP, as well as the premier player in the Western Conference finals, is the star who makes the most meaningful, backbreaking shots and the biggest, most memorable plays. Thursday evening, as he has done throughout a season he has owned like few basketball players in time, Curry won the defining battles again, including the last one by the three-point stripe, when he and Klay Thompson trapped Harden and grabbed the ball as the buzzer sounded, preserving a frantic 99-98 victory for the Warriors.
Let the NBA office call him a flopper. Let the get-a-life ESPN commentators complain absurdly about his two-year-old daughter having fun with her daddy at a press conference. Curry overcomes all challenges, real or silly, hitting his typical series of game-swaying shots in the fourth quarter before making the ultimate defensive play at the end. Harden was tremendous, as usual, but what more do the Curry dissenters want — are any really still out there? — than Def Steph providing the takeaway moments on both ends?
All you needed to see was Harden, in all his bearded exasperation, down on all fours in frustration as the Warriors celebrated, Oracle exploded and golden-yellow confetti fell from the roof of an aged arena that never has shaken with such energy. We aren't supposed to use a certain word here in the Bay Area — epicenter — but what's happening here represents the epicenter of the sports universe, with Curry as America's conversation piece. We know he's one of the greatest shooters of all time, better than his father and his coach, who weren't bad themselves. But this night was about a defensive stop…
On the scorer he is dueling against, a premise set up in the huddle before the Warriors missed a shot that preceded Harden's aborted effort.
“We talked about it in the huddle whether we scored or not: There's going to be eight, nine seconds left on the clock, and whether they took a timeout, be ready for the attack,” Curry said. “We kind of do that in a similar situation where if you get a stop, you push it and you see what happens.”
The MVP saw the MVP runner-up put his head down as he drove headlong toward the basket, which came after Harden rebounded a missed reverse layup by Harrison Barnes. “You knew he probably wasn't going to pass in that situation, so [the idea was] just to kind of stand him up before the three-point line,” Curry said. “Klay fronted him right to me, I was able to get a body on him. He threw it away to Dwight [Howard] and threw it right back, so at that point, it's just don't let him get a shot off and be the hero. So we were able to get it done.”
So upset was Harden, he pulled down some draperies after walking through the tunnel to the locker room, where more furniture was abused. “Kicking chairs, it's frustrating,” said Harden, whose stat line — 38 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists — was more spectacular than the game result. “It's frustrating to give the game away like that for myself, but my teammates and coaches were behind me, just saying that we're going home to secure home now in Game 3. Ten out of 10 times, we'll take that play. It gave me confidence, but it's still frustrating when I know I could have at least got a shot up.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale thought Harden was home free when two Warriors were out of the play. “I could draw up a lot of plays and it wasn't going to be one guy laying on his back and one guy out of bounds, so I just let him go,” McHale said. “We'll take our best player coming downhill. And that thing, they kind of pinched him, had a little bit of a bobble. But when I glanced up and I saw two guys behind the play, there's just no way I was going to call a timeout at that point.”
Dramatic climax and all, this game was a masterpiece — not an exhibition of smallball, as seen in Game 1, but an old-school slugfest. The Warriors shot 53 percent and had 31 assists, yet the Rockets do not lay down and go away like most opponents, returning from a 17-point deficit behind Harden to take the halftime lead just as the Warriors had returned from the seeming dead two nights earlier. “This was more of a street fight, more of a traditional game, involving big guys protecting the rim and hard fouls and blocked shots,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. Andrew Bogut, an unnecessary component in the smallball win of Game 1, was hugely integral in this one. So was Houston's Dwight Howard, who decided to play with his bruised left knee and had 19 points and 17 rebounds.
This series will not be easy. I know this region hasn't experienced a conference finals in 39 years, but get used to the wildness. “I've never seen any team go through the playoffs with ease. Playoff games are hard,” Kerr said. “They have great players, and it's two great teams going head to head. It's pretty rare at this level, this deep in the playoffs, that you're going to have blowout games. Some of it was giving up that lead — some of that was our doing — but a lot of it was just their great play. We're right where we need to be, won the two at home, and now we head to Houston. But every game is probably going to be like this.”
All through the Bay Area and all through the land — even back East, where events out West don't matter — they'll be talking about Curry and Harden. “Sometimes I want to crack open a beer and get a courtside seat, because these two guys are the two best basketball players in the world,'' said Bogut, who will draw LeBron James' interest — perhaps in the next series — with that observation. “Steph knocks down a big shot and then we come down and try to stop James — and he knocks down a big shot. Unfortunately for me, I'm trying to set screens for him, but a lot of times I get caught watching him and just going crazy with the shots he makes. So it's an honor to be his teammate.”
Sitting beside Bogut on the podium, without daughter Riley this time (happy now, Skip Bayless?), Curry spoke humbly about his duel with Harden. “Nobody was getting a stop, and it was kind of high-octane offense. He's been playing well, and we've been throwing a lot of things at him. He's just making some tough shots,” Curry said. “So we've just got to stick to the program and hopefully wear him down. We're trying to get a win, so you want to do whatever you can to make that happen.”
As for his own big shooting, after Kerr left him on the bench until 7:12 were left in the final quarter, Curry spoke of his love of the game. “You put a lot of hard work into your craft, and when you rely on that work, you kind of just are in the moment, and those shots, when you rise up to take them, it feels natural, it feels normal,” he said. “I feel confident, and you just live with the results. Try not to let the moment get too big for you and just have fun out there, and that's what kind of keeps you going.”
The only concern about Curry, it seems, is fatigue. How will he hold up amid all the expectations, the pressure to win this franchise's first NBA title since 1975, the increasing media attention that included a live ESPN look-in at his entire pregame routine? The only time he has looked miffed in recent days: When he was told about the criticism of having his daughter at his press conference, which happens all the time in sports.
“I'm blessed to have a healthy baby that brings so much personality and spark to our family,” he said, in the ideal dignified answer to undignified goofs.
He walked slowly out of the interview room, six victories from the trophy that seems destined for him, knowing this night had been about 33 points but, more importantly, about preventing his celebrated rival from one-upping him. It's Memorial Day weekend, and it's still Steph Curry's MVP trophy, Steph Curry's postseason, Steph Curry's year.