For four quarters, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry tried to shake free from Houston Rockets’ defenders; delivering feint after feint in futility while Chris Paul and company mirrored his every step.
Under pressure from James Harden late in the second quarter, Curry dribbled in retreat to his right, delivering a beautiful nutmeg pass through Eric Gordon’s legs to…no one.
Has to be the worst bunch of unforced turnovers the Warriors have committed in a long while pic.twitter.com/Ui1InA9BZ1
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 17, 2018
Curry struggled throughout the Warriors’ 127-105 Game 2 loss, scoring 16 points on 7-for-19 shooting in 34 minutes. Whatever magic concoction Curry and Head Coach Steve Kerr created when they first joined forces appears to fade as a novelty the moment stakes rise enough to pressure Golden State’s point guard.
Kerr wrote off Curry’s lackluster performance, attributing it to a poor shooting night. (Curry was 1-for-8 from the 3-point line). But the back-to-back and first unanimous MVP in NBA history has now struggled on the big stage in two NBA Finals appearances and again last night, when the carelessness of the above turnover was eerily reminiscent of another:
— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) May 17, 2018
Chris Paul and James Harden also revisited another theme from the Warriors’ Finals struggles prior to signing Kevin Durant, targeting Curry repeatedly by forcing switches with high ball screens and dropping him from the ranks of the elite to the hardwood floor.
Look, this is your unanimous MVP?
CHRIS PAUL DID IT AGAIN OH MY LORD. pic.twitter.com/jWk67LwYmU
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) May 17, 2018
Instead of acknowledging Curry’s past struggles, which fall in line with some of the (overblown) questions surrounding him entering the NBA, the mainstream media has often covered for Curry, pointing to two knee injuries as the only reasonable explanations for any team’s ability to hamper the league’s media darling.
I don't think he has his usual burst, hasn't moved that well laterally, and the conditioning seems off. Latter issue is a testament to how HOU has targeted him imo https://t.co/Yxep0Jdcws
— Nekias Duncan (@NekiasNBA) May 17, 2018
Curry is the greatest shooter in NBA history, but there are limits to even that when a defenses and situation locks in.
Knowledgeable NBA Hall of Famers have laid down some of the blueprints to making Curry and the Warriors look mortal (if still quite good).
Being physical and getting into Curry’s comfort zone is one way to take a finesse player out of his rhythm, according to The Glove, Gary Payton. “He doesn’t want to be on the floor; it takes a toll on you,” Payton once said (per NBC Sports). “I would have to make (Curry) go to the bucket and I’d be really, really physical with him. Cleveland did a great job on him in The  Finals when they beat up on him. They got him frustrated. Then he started worrying about going against LeBron, thinking about that. They were hitting him. They were pounding him.”
Analytics Twitter loves to point to Curry’s efficiency, bowing to the altar of three-point shooting. Yes, Curry is great. But he’s also surrounded by unprecedented talent to cover his weaknesses. Draymond Green is Dennis Rodman with a passable jumper and elite playmaking skills. Klay Thompson is, perhaps, the second best shooter of all-time, and matches up on elite point guards. None of which gets taken into consideration for someone like Russell Westbrook, whose own Oklahoma City Thunder team advanced to the NBA Finals in the last season it was stocked with multiple All-NBA talents.
“In terms of what LeBron and KD can do, those guys can dominate you in all areas of the game. Rebounding, to blocking shots, to defending, to scoring. They beat you all across the board,” Scottie Pippen said of Curry during last year’s Finals [per FoxSports.com]. “He’s not the best player on either team. Even though he’s a two-time MVP, a unanimous MVP, right now he’s not the best player on his team. And he’s not a dominant player.”
Serious question: Is Steph a "great" player? How many great players are regularly the victim of isos, on purpose? And when his shot's not falling, does he really, consistently impact games in big ways? Great shooter, yes. But player? Having my doubts & it's not just about Houston
— Sean Liam (@seanwithanean) May 17, 2018
This series, Curry is shooting just 15.4 percent from the three-point line on 6.5 attempts per game, averaging 17.0 points and 7.5 assists while only getting to the free-throw line for 1.5 attempts per game.
Against Houston’s switch-heavy defense, with rugged defenders like Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker, long-armed antagonists like Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and fleet-footed center Clint Capela, the Rockets are are forcing Curry out of his comfort zone perched several feet behind the 3-point line, forcing him to finish over the top of length…which he can do.
Curry getting Capela back from Game 1 pic.twitter.com/Mz5J6ahzWA
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 17, 2018
Really, though, this is playing into Houston’s hands. Curry is quite good at most aspects of playing point guard but lacks the elite burst to the rim and physical profile of a John Wall or Westbrook (or the pick-and-roll craftsmanship of Chris Paul) to push Houston’s defense to collapse by driving. Without hedging or trapping, Houston is denying the Warriors’ offense the space it thrives on; turning Golden State into a far more conventional team reliant of Durant’s scoring.
“There have been some great shooters in the past,” Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson once said [via the Sporting News]. “But here again, when I played years ago, if you shot a shot outside and hit it, the next time I’m going to be up on top of you. I’m going to pressure you with three-quarters, half-court defense. But now they don’t do that. These coaches do not understand the game of basketball, as far as I’m concerned.”
In the previous series agains the New Orleans Pelicans, whatever physical ailments limiting Curry now didn’t seem to phase him while averaging 24.5 points per game and 44.1 percent shooting form deep against a team without enough perimeter defenders with length to disrupt him.
Curry also didn’t have to face a team with multiple playmaking threats who could batter him through screens and isolations with the floor spaced in the same manner the Warriors and Curry have used to make opposing guards look silly. Reminding all that, while being the helpful team defender like Curry is a plus, there’s something to be said for having the ability to lock into a man one-on-one.
Unclear why Curry is all out of position like this but Harden is destroying him pic.twitter.com/WJiwcOA0j6
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 15, 2018
Like all star players, Curry is capable of torching most teams on most nights on a regular basis. The Warriors’ franchise guard even does a better job of it than most, helping to lead Golden State on an unprecedented run over the past few seasons. And even if the injury is limiting him some, so what?
Every great player faces less than ideal circumstances, be it injuries to themselves or teammates. Magic Johnson took over when Kareem went down. Larry Bird dealt with back injuries throughout the latter half of his career. Michael Jordan had The Flu Game. Tim Duncan battled plantar fasciitis while also battling on of the greatest defenses in NBA history.
Stephen Curry is a great player. It’s time to stop making excuses for him when he isn’t.