OAKLAND, Calif. — Among the reasons this — “this” being the 73 wins, the back-to-back MVPs, the return to even footing in the Western Conference finals, etc. — is happening is that Stephen Curry(Stephen Curry Jersey) understands the requirements of superstardom.
Mere greatness isn’t enough. There must be something more. A Next. Always a Next. The best performances always include an encore.
Game 2 of the conference finals Wednesday night was Curry’s followup to his 17-point overtime explosion in Portland during the second round. As sequels go, it was “The Godfather, Part II” to “The Godfather.” Curry scored 15 points in a little under two minutes in the middle of the third quarter, and the Warriors had a 20-point lead they wouldn’t come close to relinquishing.
The numbers didn’t match up to that 40-point night in Portland. However, the impact of Wednesday night’s performance was so much more significant. Had the Warriors lost Game 4 to the Trail Blazers, the series would have been tied 2-2, with home-court advantage in Golden State’s favor. A loss Wednesday night would have dropped the Warriors into a 2-0 hole and required them to win at least two of a possible three games in Oklahoma City to win the series.
In the Warriors’ first moment of necessity, Curry turned the fourth quarter into a formality.
And he did it with a right elbow that had swollen to what he called the size of a tennis ball after he fell on one of the metal plates that ring the court at Oracle Arena while chasing a loose ball into the stands in the first half.
Curry wore a soft white sleeve on the elbow afterward. As he left the postgame news conference, he said he only noticed a little pressure in the elbow while he shot. That was it.
It provided a perfect segue to my next question, about the pressure he felt as the two-time MVP to rescue his squad in this situation. Curry said he didn’t necessarily feel a need to go out and score 30 points, but he did need to make an impact.
He’s focused on the task at hand right now, not his place in history. But it’s obvious that rankings matter to him, or he wouldn’t have come this far. And it’s apparent he understands that coming through when the playoff circumstances require it the most is a prerequisite to being an all-time great.
His 28 points Wednesday night weren’t even the most in the game. Kevin Durant snagged that honor with 29. Twenty-five of Durant’s points came in the first half, though. When Curry got going, Durant couldn’t turn this into a duel. His colleague Russell Westbrook, who owned the third quarter in Game 1, didn’t have an answer this time, either. This game belonged to Curry, even if the box score showed an equitable distribution of numbers among the Warriors, even if the postgame news conferences were surprisingly devoid of Steph Superlatives.
When Draymond Green was asked about Curry, the forward mentioned everything but Curry. He talked about ball movement, getting stops, defense leading to offense, stuff like that. All of that was nice. The Warriors held their own on the boards against the bigger Thunder lineups, outrebounding them 45-36. The second unit had a defensive stand against the Thunder on Oklahoma City’s first possession of the fourth quarter that ended with a blocked shot and a 24-second clock violation, signifying that there would be no miracle comeback. But Curry had already broken the Thunder’s spirit.
The only reason he played at all in the fourth quarter was because of Steve Kerr’s understandable paranoia about sitting his stars with too much time left on the clock. Kerr actually did a better job of explaining 96 seconds in the fourth quarter with a lead hovering around 30 points than he did describing Curry’s game-deciding flurry.
What was different about this one?
“Nothing,” Kerr said.
“Business as usual,” I pressed.
“Business as usual,” Kerr said. “This is what he does.”
Festus Ezeli said, simply, “Steph is going to Steph.”
Curry made it sound as simple as a byproduct of better ball movement and screens by his teammates.
If Curry has made this seem routine, it’s because he’s doing his job, fulfilling the duties of a superstar. He’s not finished, of course. Now comes the hard part. To win this series, the Warriors will have to win in Oklahoma City. The Warriors can’t count on 50 bench points on the road, which they received at Oracle Arena on Wednesday night. This is on Curry. He will need to score 30. He’ll have to go into the dragon’s lair and take the most valued possession.
“Obviously, it’s a team game,” Curry said. “But leaders have to be at their best on the road.”
He understands. He also exudes no doubt that he can live up to the requirements. One attribute that makes him the most unique superstar the game has seen: He’s the first to have higher expectations for himself than from anyone else.