HOUSTON — We've reached that delirious juncture in the Steph Curry Experience where we're required to jog memories, regenerate dead brain cells and do video-game simulation. Would the Bulls slow him with Scottie Pippen's 88-inch wingspan, Dennis Rodman's freak show or even Michael Jordan himself, or would Curry be too quick for them all? Would Bill Laimbeer or Rick Mahorn thug him up, cripple him with an elbow or body slam, or would he be too clever for the Bad Boys Pistons?
Who handles Curry's handle on the '80s Lakers? Who gets a finger near his eyeballs from the same-era Celtics? Oh, to have watched Gregg Popovich try to defend him in these playoffs (instead of a Rockets team that committed consumer fraud in not arriving at Toyota Center for Game 3), but even with the sport's best defender in Kawhi Leonard, would the Spurs or anyone else — then and now — be able to contain Stephen Wardell Curry II when he holds an orange pebbled ball in his right hand and an unimpeded air stream through which to flip it into a basket?
“I don't think we've ever seen anybody shoot the ball the way Steph does off the dribble, off the catch,” Steve Kerr said.
Ever, he said.
A day rarely passes when someone doesn't use the ultimate timeframe in praise of Curry. And that includes Kerr, his coach, who played on those Jordan and Tim Duncan teams and has five championship rings to show. With a 3-0 lead in this debacle of a Western Conference finals and an impending date, 10 nights from now at Oracle Arena, for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Curry and the Warriors no longer belong solely to the Bay Area. They are a national sensation, the nightly lead on SportsCenter, the favored entertainment diversion of President Barack Obama. With those heady distinctions — and a 67-15 regular season, an 11-2 postseason and current 2-7 Vegas odds that they'll go on and win the league championship — come unavoidable historical comparisons to teams and megastars who've produced the greatest single-season performances. No one of sane mind is calling the Warriors a dynasty just yet, of course. But what's happening this season doesn't happen often, with Curry ruling magazine covers and websites much the way he and his teammates crush the competition.
And if you've been watching the Eastern Conference finals, you realize LeBron James might not be standing when he arrives in Oakland. Heroic as he was Sunday night in producing the mightiest triple-double in playoff history — 37 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists — while fighting through knee, ankle, wrist and back injuries, the fact he's playing in severe pain for an injury-depleted team doesn't bode well for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. With Curry and all other prime members of the Warriors' rotation in fine health, and with the possibility of another week and a half of rest before the next round, would LeBron even stand a chance against them?
“You name them. We can play doctor right now with how many injuries I have,” James said on TNT after the 114-111 overtime victory, which gives the Cavs a 3-0 lead over the feeble Atlanta Hawks. “There was a point I couldn't give any more, but by then, it was mind over matter. No way I could walk to the bench at that point.
“We're a desperate team, a banged-up team.”
And a team ripe to be blown out by Curry and the Warriors, who would have no reason not to run their supersonic track meet to poetic perfection. James is the most dominant player of his era, but a more elegant superstar and a spectacular system are positioned to topple him again, as San Antonio and Dallas already have done three times between them.
No longer do the biggest Warriors' off-day media questions involve strategies and series angles. Now, we're edging toward where they might stack up among the all-time teams; an ESPN geek-science site has them fourth, behind the 1995-96 Bulls, 1996-97 Bulls and 1985-86 Celtics, powerhouses that included both coaches in this series, Kerr and Houston's Kevin McHale. Both are qualified to talk on the subject and neither will at the moment, until the Rockets are ousted, though Kerr does hold those Chicago teams as sacred when he mentions their adventures to his team as teaching lessons. “Yeah, they listen, especially if I mention Michael Jordan. That seems to perk their ears up,” he said. “I think that's a big part of coaching: relay your own experiences. I've been very lucky in my career to play for some great teams and definitely play for a lot of great coaches, so I've got a few memories that I can pull up now and then.” It's a good bet Kerr will become annoyed during the Finals when asked to compare the Warriors to those teams, with this as his answer: “We haven't done anything yet.”
Curry doesn't have that luxury. His accomplishment is clear and definite: He has fascinated the masses with his dead-eye scoring, his joy for the game, his everyman profile, his underdog backstory, his famous basketball father and his interview-room sessions with his adorable 2-year-old daughter. Sunday, Curry was asked repeatedly if he grasps his place as America's foremost sports conversation piece.
And to prove that he's OK with it, he's willing to discuss it.
“I mean, it's nice to play well and be obviously where we are as a team, one win away from the Finals. It feels normal, really. I feel comfortable,” he said. “I feel ready for the moment, and I'm able to kind of just block out extracurricular stuff that could distract you from the focus on the court.”
How does he block it?
“Just not look at the avenues where you could — or the outlets where all that stuff can clog your attention,” he said, noting that he deleted his Twitter account earlier this month. “I try not to watch too much TV when it comes to sports and all that stuff. That's basically the best way I can do it.”
Does his ongoing run of superlatives represent the best stretch of play in his still-young career?
“Yeah, because the moment is bigger, and any time you play well in games that matter, it means a lot more,” he said. “Just trying to be as consistent as I've been is the most important thing for me. Not putting up crazy numbers, but consistently trying to help the team win is the biggest thing for me. It's easy for us to stay hungry because none of us have really experienced this before or accomplished really anything. We have five more wins to accomplish our main goal, so until that happens, there's no time to really lose focus or to change anything about how we've gotten here. You know, we all want to experience this for the first time, and it's a lot of fun.”
For a brief time next week, assuming the Warriors and Cavaliers close out these two lightweights, it won't be quite as fun for the simple reason that James awaits them. Even when limping, he is a Mack truck who should be fitted with a horn and 18 wheels, a force who has won two championships and knows he can't afford to lose again in the Finals before it weakens his legacy. Last time the teams played, on Feb. 26 in Cleveland, the Warriors had no answer for his 42 points and 11 rebounds in a 110-99 loss. But much has changed since then to think that even LeBron can pose much of a challenge.
He doesn't have Kevin Love, injured and out for the year. His more prominent partner in crime, Kyrie Irving, has been sidelined in the East finals with tendinitis in his left knee and probably won't regain his All-Star presence until next season. And the supporting cast? Tristan Thompson, Ivan Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith and James Jones aren't beating the Curry Flurry and the Dubs four times.
Or, perhaps, even once.