HOUSTON — Outside the visitors' locker room, in a tunnel that suddenly seemed dark and desperate, Joe Lacob placed an arm around Dell Curry. “We're not taking any chances, Dell,” the Warriors' owner told the father of the dazed global darling, who nodded in agreement, knowing his son was undergoing concussion tests inside.
Right there and then, at halftime, the idea of Stephen Curry returning to play in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals should have been null and void. When he went tumbling over Houston's Trevor Ariza and plunged seven feet to the hardwood in a sickening visual, like someone falling off a roof edge or a downhiller losing his ski on a jump, it reminded us that this gigantic basketball presence in the spring of 2015 is merely 6 foot 3 and 185 pounds, if that. As he lay on the floor several minutes after landing hard on his head, neck and back, a world captivated by his magical season paused in horror. Even the rowdies inside the Toyota Center were hush.
It was a terrifying crash, for him and for us, on a wicked night when a flash flood emergency paralyzed the Houston area. Life is fleeting, right?
That Curry was able to finally get up and walk gingerly to the locker room with only a head contusion was a collective prayer answered, given the violent nature of the spill. Still, in a sports kingdom that should be fully in tune about head injuries amid football's life-and-death concussion crisis, why take any risks with a delicate situation involving a phenom who not only is the Warriors' meal ticket to years of prosperity — a new arena in San Francisco, a flourishing identity as a franchise — but also is among the biggest solo properties in basketball and sports?
They were up 3-0 in the series. They were mounting a charge without Curry, cutting what once was a 25-point deficit to seven just before intermission. And he was in the locker room in “shock” — his word, not mine. Why not let him rest and clear his head for Game 5 at Oracle Arena? Why not employ common sense?
“I just felt I was in the air for a long time and trying to brace myself — and once I hit the ground, I was kind of hearing voices from trainers and people just telling me to take my time and not rush yourself getting up,” he would say later, after the Warriors fell 128-115 in a game they weren't prepared to play from the national anthem on.
And what was he feeling in the locker room, when the doctors and trainers were testing him while his mother was in tears in her arena seat? “I was still kind of a little in shock, just from the feeling of falling because you don't go and have that happen every game,” he said. “You've got to gather yourself and kind of regroup.”
No, you don't. As Lacob said, you simply don't take chances with Curry. Maybe the Warriors come back and win one for Steph, win one without the MVP. Maybe it's a galvanizing moment, another inspirational theme in a championship run. Instead, with the third quarter underway, Warriors official Raymond Ridder asked the media to clear the hallway outside the locker room. Out came Curry, who began to run sprints. Damn, he was going back in the game, satisfied that all medical boxes were checked by the doctors. “At that point, we're just bystanders,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “We trust our doctors.”
Um, the doctors don't run the franchise. If Curry doesn't want to play, he wouldn't play. Somehow, he played, returning with 5:58 left in the quarter and the Warriors trailing 78-69. He instantly tossed up an airball, then had a three-point attempt stuffed by Ariza, then missed another trey. Less than three minutes later, the Rockets were up by 22 points again, and you realized this wasn't going to be Willis Reed rushing out of the tunnel or Michael Jordan playing sick. This was a dumb idea.
“It was the scariest one I've had,” Curry said when asked if it was his worst fall. “I've had worst symptoms and stuff like that from getting hit in the head, but that was the worst one because you're in the air for a long time and not knowing how you're going to hit the floor. In the seconds afterward, it's a scary feeling.”
He is not Superman. If this was Colin Kaepernick, wearing a helmet, we'd be asking the same questions after a similar collision of a human head with firm ground. The same logic should apply to basketball players who have no protective headgear. “Obviously, that's always scary,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, using that s-word again. “A guy hits his neck, you worry about that. Fortunately he was up, came back into the locker room with the doctors, and we checked on him at halftime, and he was going through a series of tests so that's why he didn't start the second half. We wanted to make sure he was OK, and our doctors cleared him.”
Again, they are placing the onus on the doctors when the doctors don't own the team and the doctors aren't Stephen Curry. He claimed he wasn't trying to convince them to clear him. “I was taking my time, to be honest with you, because I wanted to make sure I was OK and not put myself in danger for the rest of the series if it wasn't right for me to be back out there,” he said. “I listened to all the advice and did all the tests I needed to do. Once I got the signoff from the trainers and doctors — obviously, I wanted to play, but I wanted to make sure the process was gone about the right way so there would be no second-guessing once I got back on the floor.”
Oh, but there is second-guessing. Curry should have pulled the plug on his night. When he admitted, “I wanted to play,” that tells us who made the ultimate call — he did. That means he runs the franchise, not Lacob, which is quite fine in most cases but not when his cognitive health is the issue.
In the big picture, so much for Draymond Green worrying about having too much rest before the NBA Finals, which was not a wise comment. And so much for the NBA briefly exploring a two-day moveup for Game 1 of the Finals, concerned that the hype would wane for its TV partners and sponsors, which are not people the league should care about when the conference finals … aren't … even … over … yet.
Let this be a lesson about looking ahead. Before the Warriors play LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Finals — and that still will happen, Worriers — they will need to figure out how to slow down James Harden before Wednesday night. After his mysterious no-show in Game 3, Harden was stirring his spoon again with 45 points, on a night when the Rockets (17) and Warriors (20) set a league record for most three-pointers in a postseason game. “They won the game in the first quarter,” Kerr said. “They were ready to play, probably more ready than we were. They were making shots from all over. They were obviously coming out with some fire.”
If there is justice in the league office, that fire will be quelled with a one-game suspension of Rockets big man Dwight Howard, who somehow was hit only with a first-grade flagrant foul after a vicious elbow to Andrew Bogut's chops. The league has painted itself into a corner. Atlanta's Al Horford was ejected from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals for elbowing Cleveland's bull in a china shop, Matthew Dellavedova. How is Horford ejected for an elbow and Howard allowed to stay in the game? It should be upgraded to a Flagrant 2. Let's see if Adam Silver, the commissioner, has the guts to compromise TV ratings for the proper decision.
Today, assuming we don't drown in Houston, we'll await that news. But above all, we will be monitoring Curry's speech patterns. “It's all minor stuff compared to how it looked,” he said. “Since it happened until now, nothing has gotten worse. I expect that to continue in the hours leading up to Wednesday.”
What is he, a doctor? He may play outerworldly basketball, but last we looked, Stephen Curry is a human being who can't let a great story line get in the way of wisdom.