NBA Finals Preview: Basketball is broken and Stephen Curry is to blame

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images /

Late Monday night, midway through the third quarter of the Warriors’ deciding Game 7 tilt against the Oklahoma City Thunder, we witnessed one of those little moments that remind us of just how irrevocably Stephen Curry has broken the game of basketball.

The score was tied 54-54 with about 6:35 left in the period. The play began to unfold simply enough, with Festus Ezeli setting a very high screen on Russell Westbrook to create a little room for the MVP. Russ went over the screen, fighting to crowd Curry’s airspace; Ezeli’s man, Steven Adams, prepared to drop back and protect the paint as Curry began careening downhill. Adams did a fantastic job switching onto Curry, who saw no path to the basket and instead pulled the ball back out, curling around Klay Thompson to the left wing as Adams continued to pursue. The result was that Curry was all alone on the wing, isolated against Adams with the entire 7 feet, 4.5 inches of his wingspan draped all over him.

Curry dealt with this predicament by doing what no one in the world not named Stephen Curry could ever dream of doing — he simply took one small step forward, one back, crossed over and drilled a 25-foot step-back jump shot right in Adams’ big, hirsute face.

That shot gave the Warriors their first lead of the game since they led 2-0 to open; they would not relinquish that lead. The Thunder nipped back; the Warriors eventually widened the gap to five, then six, then eight, then 11 before the end of the third quarter. Twelve minutes later, they were Western Conference champs.

The shot Curry made was notable not just because it put the Warriors ahead; it was also a teachable moment about the Sisyphean challenge that guarding Stephen Curry has become. You see, Adams defended Curry perfectly on the play; he switched promptly, moved his feet to stay with Curry, successfully tracked his every movement and forced him to shoot over a massive, outstretched arm. There was nothing more that Adams could do. It just didn’t matter, though. One of the best defenders in the world did the best he could do, and it was all for naught. Curry just made the damn shot anyway.

This is the problem that Stephen Curry presents in 2016 – quite simply, that it no longer matters what anyone does against him. It’s a shame, because the league around Curry is doing a lot. Tactically, coaches are devising innovative new ways of defending pick-and-rolls. Athletically, players are evolving and becoming longer, quicker, more mentally attuned to every minute detail that goes into slowing down opposing offenses. A lot is happening, and yet nothing is mattering. Curry just makes the damn shots anyway.

Basketball has evolved a great deal in just the last decade. No matter what Charles Barkley tells you, the game is better now than it’s ever been. The players are more athletically gifted and each possession brings more sophistication than ever before. Defensively, the game’s fast pace requires quickness, length and intelligence. Offensively, it takes pacing, spacing and efficient shooting to outfox the opposing defense. The 2015-16 Warriors won 73 games because they’re both the pinnacle of all this evolution and the nuclear weapon that destroys the whole ecosystem. The Warriors have as many quick, long and smart defenders as anyone — and whenever another team threatens to match them in this department, Curry simply obliterates said team with a barrage of three-point bombs. The TNT broadcast of Game 7 repeatedly referred to the Warriors’ shooting as “the great equalizer,” but in reality it’s the opposite of that. There’s nothing more unequal than a hot-shooting Curry. It’s like playing rock-paper-scissors against a bazooka.

To capture their second title, Curry and the Warriors need to get through the Cleveland Cavaliers, which is interesting because the Cavs can legitimately claim they’ve out-Warriorsed the Warriors in this postseason. It’s Cleveland, and not Golden State, that leads the playoffs in both points per 100 possessions (119.2) and three-point field goal percentage (43.4 percent). The Dubs are a distant third in both categories. While Curry and the Warriors dispatched Cleveland in six games last year, this is an entirely different matchup. For starters, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both healthy, and moreover, the Cavs are shooting the lights out in this postseason. For comparison’s sake, Curry is shooting 40.7 percent from deep in the playoffs; the Cavs have six players — Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Irving, Richard Jefferson and Love — firing at 44 percent or more.

Still, though, it’s hard to imagine that holds up for long enough for Cleveland to beat Golden State four times in two weeks. The Cavs will have their pick of various lineups to roll out against the Warriors but they all seem destined to fail, and Curry is the reason why. The Cavs can emphasize their size and toughness, betting big on Tristan Thompson to play the Steven Adams role as all-purpose rim protector and switching juggernaut, but look how that worked out for Oklahoma City — just enough to extend the series before Steph’s shooting buried them. They can go smaller and hope that the Love and Frye-heavy lineups give them just enough shooting to win, but it’s always an uphill battle trying to beat Steph and the Warriors in their own game. Even if a small sample of playoff data implies they have a chance, it feels a little hard to believe.

We’ve already seen plenty of evidence in this postseason that when Curry is on, the Warriors are nigh impossible to beat consistently. In seven games this postseason that Curry has made five three-pointers or more, the Warriors are 6-1; in four games he hasn’t, they’re 2-2. Curry is 37-for-83 from three-point land (44.6 percent) in wins; he’s 11-for-35 (31.4 percent) in losses. There were rumblings during the Warriors’ swoon against Oklahoma City that maybe Curry was injured, but his play in the final two games of the West finals effectively silenced that noise. We have every reason to believe that in the Finals, Curry will be himself. If he’s himself for four more games, it will be tough for Cleveland to compete.

Throughout the last 25ish years, we’ve grown accustomed to witnessing a certain kind of NBA champion. He’s seven-feet tall, 250-something pounds at the very least, hulking, domineering. He’s Hakeem Olajuwon, whose post game was absolutely untouchable in his prime. He’s Shaquille O’Neal, who shattered backboards and scared even the best opposing centers shitless. He’s Tim Duncan, who never strove to rattle or intimidate, yet did so anyway with nothing but impeccable skill. The world-beaters who weren’t massive centers had the big personalities to compensate — Michael Jordan had a nastier competitive spirit than anyone, and Kobe Bryant won five rings with a bitter, vindictive temperament as his driving force. He’d sooner die than let you beat him.

Curry is none of the above. He’s not vindictive or fearsome; he’s not particularly big or strong or domineering, at least not in the traditional sense. Like Hakeem and Shaq and Duncan, he’s breaking the game, but he’s doing it in an entirely different way. In a new, innovative, fully evolved NBA, Curry is a new, innovative, fully evolved king of the league. There’s a reason that Golden State is heavily favored to win its second championship, and Curry is that reason.

Good luck, Cleveland. You will most definitely need it.

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