With 8:21 left in the 4th quarter, the Golden State Warriors were nursing an 11-point lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. The Oracle Arena crowd, doused in their maize “Strength in Numbers” shirts, were waiting for one last knock-out blow to be delivered by their hometown team.
When suddenly, 25 seconds later, a flurry of offensive brilliance unfolded by the 6-3, 190-pound Baby-Faced Assassin. First, a fading 29-footer to beat the shot clock. Next, a pass, a dive to the corner, and a hair-raising four-point play over the out-stretched arms of Kevin Love that sent the Warriors faithful into a state of euphoria.
Sequences like these have encapsulated two-time league MVP Stephen Curry’s legacy in the Bay area. Moments that validate his greatness. His firepower.
Because when he’s on, he’s taking shots that get others benched, making them that enthrall the masses. His seismic impact on a game, on a series, on the will of the opponent, is the greatest of them. He can, at times, be the greatest entertainer basketball has ever seen.
His averages so far in these Finals: 31 points, 8.5 assists, and 6.5 rebounds through two games, shows why he is, for now, the frontrunner for Finals MVP. He is dictating the pace, breaking down the defense and using his presence to create openings for his teammates.
However, he’s also picking his spots. Instead of forcing the action, Curry is letting the game come to him. As all of us fall victim to Curry’s electric ball-handling, wizardry passing, and sharp-shooting, we fail to realize Curry’s brilliance of simply making the right play at the right time.
This can be as simple as finding the open man in transition or shooting open looks. These plays are often taken for granted, but in the end, mean so much.
The first example of this is here. As three Cavaliers are getting back on defense after a made field goal, Curry casually brings the ball up court. Knowing how explosive Curry can get from three, one might expect him to step into a tightly guarded shot several feet behind the perimeter. And also knowing Curry, that would be viewed as a “quality shot”.
However, Curry takes a page from the 2014-15 Warriors playbook. Second to shooting, the value of passing to the open man is written in every chapter. So after somehow losing every Cavalier in transition, Shaun Livingston slips to the basket, where he’s met with a Curry chest pass.
Curry, again, exploits another breakdown from Cleveland by staying stationary. Instead of cutting to the corner after giving the ball up to Durant, Curry hangs around the perimeter and waits for the perfect time to strike. As soon as Jeff Green sags away from him and moves to Durant, just enough space is viable for Curry to let it fly.
When you run it back, the points scored remained the same, but the approach changed. Instead of swinging for the fences on every play, Curry stayed committed to the gameplan by burning the Cavaliers with base hits.
All told, fellow teammate, Kevin Durant took Curry’s approach in stride in Game 2. Unlike Curry, however, who came off of a 29-point, 9-assist and no turnover performance in Game 1, Durant limped into Game 2 shooting 8-for-22 (1/7 from 3) to go along with three turnovers. Further, rushed shots and hesitant drives stymied his production.
“I think that’s why Game 1 was more of a struggle,” Draymond Green told Tim Kawakami of the Athletic.“Because he [Durant] didn’t really have it going. Taking bad shots. Not in rhythm. He’s as important to this as anybody else. When he’s got it going … we’re tough.”
And boy did Durant get it going. How about nailing his first five shots, on his way to a quietly efficient 26-point performance on 10-of-14 shooting, including making stops on defense when it counted. Durant turned the tables by accepting a “less is more” role on offense in Game 2, fitting into the team’s flow, and taking the best shot available.
Take this play for instance. Instead of shooting a contested, inefficient shot over J.R. Smith, Durant uses his superior speed, length, and athleticism to his advantage by blowing past him.
Or how about this one? Here, Durant seeks out the mismatch from the get-go, posting up against Smith again. Although it’s a fadeaway jumper, a tough shot to knock down as it is, Durant shoots it only 6-8 feet from the basket.
Sometimes it’s all about taking what the defense gives you. In the next Warriors possession, Durant is matched up with George Hill, who is smaller in stature than Smith. Durant, once again, recognizes the advantage he has and makes it count.
Durant’s energy, mood, and performance levels are undeniable and definitive barometers to the Warriors’ success. Making simple and crisp offensive decisions go a long way with how he and Golden State operate.
“Everyone knows Steph is our engine — he’s the guy who revs everything up,” coach Steve Kerr said. “I always feel like Kevin’s the guy who puts us over the top. He carries us when we’re having trouble scoring. He keeps things moving so we have a chance. And he oftentimes puts us over the hump down the stretch.”
Kerr is right. When Durant is a full, integrated piece of the Warriors, he only adds to the already lethal core of Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson.
If Game 2 revealed anything, it’s that a team’s superstars ability to adapt and react from game-to-game is critical. Enough so, that these Warriors are on the verge from back-to-back titles, and its third in four seasons.