We’re only two games into the NBA Finals Game 3 and the conversation has already begun to coalesce around the idea that Steph Curry is headed toward a Most Valuable Player award. This, of course, would fill in the last remaining line on Curry’s resume that already includes every other conceivable honor.
It’s a nice and tidy story arc, but this wouldn’t be a lifetime achievement award. Curry has been legitimately brilliant. He had 29 points in Game 1 and 33 in Game 2, while shooting 50 percent from behind the arc and loading up on assists and rebounds. His only real competition at the moment is from LeBron James, who is responsible for just about everything the Cavaliers do and is unarguably the most powerful force in the game.
That this is a conversation at all when we’re barely into a series that hasn’t even had a game on James’ home floor is unfair. The Cavs have played exceptionally well in Game 3s during this Finals run, and they would have won last year’s game if not for Kevin Durant’s iconic game-winning shot.
What’s fascinating about the Finals MVP conversation is that it barely involves Durant, who was arguably even better than Curry in Game 2, with 26 points on just 14 shots. Durant struggled in the opener, but was unstoppable once he settled into a groove and found his sweet spots. His Game 2 performance was much like his play in last year’s Finals, when he walked away with the MVP.
Ultimately, the fact that there’s MVP chatter after two games is indicative of the overwhelming talent advantage Golden State has in this series. After 3-plus years and 20 Finals games, there’s not a whole lot of terrain left to explore between these two teams. The Curry-Durant dynamic is really all that’s left.
If last year’s Finals were about Durant seizing his championship moment, this one is about Curry reasserting his place of pride in the Warrior hierarchy. Curry willingly took a step back last season, allowing Durant to not only assimilate, but dominate when needed. Durant, in turn, reciprocated creating an environment where both players were empowered to work their creative magic.
“There is just a sense that we’re all on the same team and nobody cares about whose team it is and all that stuff,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “Our guys just play. There have been games where KD has had to take over. There have been games where Steph takes over. And there are lots of games in between. We literally never have a conversation about who needs to take over.”
Due to injury and competitive boredom, this season has been less cohesive than last season was. Curry missed 16 of the final 17 games of the regular season and the Warriors won only six of the games he missed. Words like ‘pathetic’ and ‘embarrassing’ were thrown around. Without Curry, the Warriors weren’t the Warriors, even as Durant put together another All-NBA campaign.
“Last year was a pretty smooth ride, and we were clicking,” Kerr said earlier in the series. “I think this year, it’s just been harder overall, just because of the cumulative wear and tear of the journey. Kevin has still been great. He hasn’t probably been as consistent as he was last year, but neither have we. I would say that about every one of our guys. It’s been a little different vibe, but that’s OK. Every trip is a little different.”
On most teams, having two dominant scorers would be fraught with tension. On this one, it comes in and out of focus occasionally. Because the Warriors are so good, it only threatened to reach critical mass once, during the conference finals against the Rockets.
Houston’s switching defense forced tons of isolations, which Durant willingly took, and not always successfully. At its most vulnerable moments, Golden State only reached full flight when it was able to play its beautiful game that combines player movement with unselfish passing. Against the Rockets, there were the Durant Warriors and the Curry Warriors, and the Curry Warriors ultimately prevailed.
Houston did such a good job of switching everything,” Durant said. “And in basketball, when you switch everything — meaning pin downs, cross screens, just everything — it takes you out of your movement of your offense, and it puts the ball into the guys that create off the dribble the most. But I thought we did a good job of navigating through it all and still playing our game and just showing that we can adapt to different situations.”
That’s the luxury of having two MVP-caliber superstars in their prime. The only way to beat them is to make them choose one identity over the expense of the other. Even then it’s probably not enough because Durant and Curry are both capable of being the best player on a championship team.
The Cavs don’t present those kind of challenges because their defense is simply not in the same class as Houston’s. Like the Rockets, the Cavs have tried to switch everything and force them into playing isolation basketball. They just haven’t done it very well.
Between Cleveland’s personnel deficiencies and communication errors, the Warriors have enjoyed free reign to toggle back and forth between their twin personas. This is only a problem if the Warriors make it an issue, and as Curry put it: “We want to see each other succeed. Got a good chemistry going.”
In time, perhaps with a few more championships, this dynamic will be appreciated for what it represents. To have two superstars in their prime put ego aside and work together to create a superteam that is able to function on parallel tracks in the service of winning is the stuff of legend.
For now it speaks to the inevitability of what the Warriors have created, and there is little glory in the inevitable. The only thing that’s left is assigning credit.