The Best Basketball of His Life
There was an argument heading into this year’s NBA Finals – one of the ways the media try to drum up interest in a series is by starting arguments – about whether Stephen Curry needed to win a Finals MVP (most valuable player) to fill out his resumé. The Golden State Warriors’ star player had won everything else: scoring titles, regular season MVPs (back to back), three NBA titles … but his Finals record still had a hole in it.
His teammate Andre Iguodala won the MVP during Golden State’s first championship run in 2015, partly for defending against the best player in the world, LeBron James; and Curry’s next two titles were complicated by the fact that Golden State (after losing to LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016) had added to their roster the superstar Kevin Durant, who was twice named Finals MVP over Curry.
Then Durant got hurt and left for Brooklyn, and the Warriors spent two years in the wilderness before returning this year, improbably, to another Finals, against the younger, more athletic – and probably more talented – Boston Celtics.
The view among sensible journalists was that Curry had nothing left to prove, that it was insulting even to ask the question. He had already been crowned the greatest shooter in history (for lots of measurable reasons) and was widely acknowledged to have done more than any other player of his generation to change the way the sport is played, by ushering in the three-point revolution. His legacy (basketball writers talk a lot about legacy) seemed set. But the sensible view was also wrong, and following Curry’s amazing performance in this year’s Finals, even those sensible journalists are beginning to talk about him a little differently.
Every year the NBA playoffs begin in the middle of April and finish toward the end of June, and in that time all kinds of established reputations get visibly recalibrated. Something similar happens for the world’s best strikers during a football World Cup, but the sample sizes remain relatively small (seven games at most), and the element of luck – that group-stage hat trick against a third-tier team – makes chasing the Golden Boot more like riding a wave than a carefully controlled experiment into player value.
The same holds true for any sport whose tournaments involve a knock-out stage: Champions League, FA Cup, Cricket World Cup etc. But the NBA playoffs are decided by a succession of seven-game series. And basketball, of all team sports (with the possible exception of cricket), is the one in which an individual player has the most scope to determine the outcome. Luck still plays a part, mostly in the form of injuries, but broadly speaking, if your star is better than the other team’s star, he should be able to prove it.
This year Curry proved it, and did so against the best defence in the league. The gap between the Boston Celtics’ defensive rating and that of the second-placed Phoenix Suns was roughly the same as the gap between the Suns and the team in eleventh place. Coming into the playoffs, Durant was seen as the most unstoppable scorer in the world – as the guy who could get (and make) whatever shot he wanted, whenever he wanted it.
That changed when Durant’s Nets faced Boston in the first round, and the Celtics shut him down on their way to a four-nil series sweep. Boston are long and fast and connected – they threw a lot of bodies at Durant, and in the pressure of the moment, his game broke down. He made fewer than 40 per cent of his shots and turned the ball over five times a game. The Celtics tried the same thing against Curry in the Finals and couldn’t catch him.
Basketball writers talk about the ‘gravity’ Curry exerts, because he can shoot from anywhere and never stops moving – the defence has to scramble after him as if it were a game of tag in the playground. But they also use ‘gravity’ to quantify the way he helps his team win even on his bad days, when the raw numbers don’t quite add up. In this year’s Finals the numbers all added up. He averaged over 31 points a game, shot almost 44 per cent from outside the three-point arc, and produced probably the greatest performance of his career, given the stakes, when his team was down 2-1 in the series and nobody else could score.
As the clock wound down in game six, with the series all but over, you could see Curry walking and smiling with his hands over his head, holding back tears. Two years ago, riddled with injuries, the Warriors had the worst record in the league. Now they’re champions again. But Curry also knew that something personal had shifted in the past two weeks. He had played some of the best basketball of his life at the moment when it mattered most, and you could almost see him absorbing this slightly altered new fact about himself – he was even better than we thought.