OAKLAND, Calif. – During his ascent to NBA stardom, Stephen Curry has always been seen as the good teammate, the model citizen, the marketer’s dream combination of lethal skill and boy-next-door charm.
That was why it was so jarring to see Curry lose his cool so completely following his sixth and disqualifying foul late in the fourth quarter of his Golden State Warriors’ 115-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday night in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. To see Curry scream at referee Jason Phillips while objecting to the call, to see him fire his trademark mouthpiece into the front row of fans and earn the first ejection of his career, to see him point at LeBron James as he walked off the court and back to the locker room — those sights were all foreign coming from the league’s ultimate good guy.
But Curry has never been pinned beneath the pressure he’s under right now. Golden State’s dream season, one seemingly destined to end in a second straight title after winning an NBA-record 73 regular season games, now hangs in the balance of one winner-take-all Game 7 Sunday night here at Oracle Arena. And standing on the opposite sideline is LeBron James, the human freight train that threatens to derail the Warriors’ once-certain title celebration.
“I’ve never been ejected before, so it was a weird feeling,” Curry said after the game. “It is a long walk because, one, you don’t want to foul out, you don’t want to be ejected, you want to be out there with your teammates. But I immediately kind of started thinking about Game 7 and just the opportunity we’ve got one game to win it all, and got to take advantage of it.”
So much of Curry’s basketball life has been a charmed existence.
Sure, there are the famous stories. How he was turned down by Virginia Tech, his father’s alma mater. How he was benched in favor of Acie Law early in his career with the Golden State Warriors and the threat of ankle injuries derailing his career. But Curry’s story – much like the story of the Warriors as a whole over the past two seasons – has been one of rapid ascent amid little gravity. Before last season, Curry had made one All-Star appearance in his career. Now he’s won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards, led the Warriors to one championship and within a win of a second, and is hailed by many as the best player in the game today.
But Curry has never endured the kind of scrutiny James has during his career. He’s never had to deal with the world’s expectations of becoming an instant legend and scrutinizing why it’s taken so long to secure such a lofty status. Because of his backstory, Curry has always been surpassing expectations, surprising people with his success. Now he’s in the NBA Finals and averaging more turnovers than assists, while James has put together back-to-back remembered-forever games to drag Cleveland within one victory of a long awaited title.
Make no mistake: James has heard all of the talk about Curry’s elevation past him, all of the buildup to Curry becoming the NBA’s first unanimous MVP this season. It has all fueled him, bursting forth in the form of two thunderous chase down blocks by James on Curry the past two games – with disdainfully jawing at Curry afterward the Game 6 swat.
“He’s made two good plays on the fast break,” Curry said. “However he wants to celebrate or whatever he wants to do to kind of take in that moment, it is what it is. I stay aggressive. Don’t let that try to get in my head. Obviously, he’s pretty athletic, so he’s capable of doing that, and we’ve got to make adjustments.”
The Warriors can make all the adjustments they want, but if they are going to come away with a victory in Game 7 they’re going to need Curry at his best. He has only shown spasms of greatness since he sprained his medial collateral ligament in Game 4 of Golden State’s first-round series in Houston, but greatness will be required Sunday.
Andrew Bogut is out injured. Harrison Barnes has forgotten how to shoot, going 2-for-22 the past two games. Andre Iguodala spent most of Game 6 clearly hindered by a bad back. The Warriors are reeling, and the Cavaliers come into Oakland riding high, and falling in line behind James’s back-to-back 41-point games.
“I don’t really get involved in that,” James said of people comparing him and Curry. “I try to be the best player I can be for this team every night, lead these guys out. But at the end of the day my whole mindset is how I can put myself in position to help these guys be successful and I could be successful as well.”
James and the Cavaliers have pushed Curry and the Warriors farther and harder than anyone during their meteoric rise to the top of the sport over the past two years. Curry snapped under the strain Thursday, flinging his mouthpiece and marching back to the locker room. When he emerges from that room to start Game 7, he will face the rare adversity of expectation, a new challenge, but also an opportunity.
The NBA’s title tilt offers the league’s MVP a chance at redemption. James has pushed him to his breaking point. Sunday will prove whether Curry can push back, or if he’ll simply break under the strain of expectations he’s never felt before.