LeBron James was majestic for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. He was the first player to ever lead a playoff series in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and those absurd numbers don’t even do his performance justice.
What I find funny, though, and also interesting — and at the same time kind of unnerving — is how LeBron could have put up the same all-time great stat lines, thrown all those pinpoint cross-court lasers, and defied gravity and physics and every other science we have while soaring through the air to turn away a surefire Andre Iguodala dunk.
He could have done all that, and even more. But if one more Steph Curry bomb had managed to rip through the net and one more Kyrie Irving jumper had clanked off the rim, none of it would have mattered. The Warriors would have won, meaning LeBron would have lost, meaning so many sports fans and pundits would now be labeling him a failure as opposed to a legend, even though nothing about his performance would have been any different.
It’s crazy, the way we play the results when it comes to judging athletes. There’s no logic or reasoning to it. Sure, sometimes our stars deserve at least some level of condemnation. LeBron’s no-show in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks is a perfect example. And yet even then, all the venom was misguided. It wasn’t that LeBron was missing something down in his innards that prevented him from performing on the biggest stage. In that case, he just happened to have some deficiencies — a lack of a consistent post game and jump shot — exposed. LeBron fixed those, got better, and now he has three rings, cementing his legacy as one of the five greatest players of all time.
Which brings us to Stephen Curry, who’s not quite the lone reason the Warriors aren’t celebrating another championship run. But he is the primary one.
Curry spent the 2015-16 regular season running circles around and through everyone, while also dropping bombs from all over the floor. Then in the Finals, he looked like a middle schooler who had never before seen a three-point line. He scored just 22.6 points per game after averaging 30.1 during the regular season. He also averaged more turnovers than assists and saw his field goal percentage plummet down to 40 percent. And while his overall numbers were much better in last year’s tilt against the Cavaliers — 26 points. 6.3 assists per game — this marked the second straight championship series during which, Curry, the dominant and transcendent league MVP who has single-handily changed the league, looked mortal.
Curry’s not as reviled as LeBron, and so the doubting hasn’t come out in full force. Yet. But you can feel the #Takes starting to bubble. You can sense all the souls foaming at the mouth and preparing to sink their teeth into another star. You know the South Park episodes where we learn the town offers celebrities to God as human sacrifices so that they could have a good harvest in return?
In sports, we do a similar dance. There always has to be the guy, the star who has yet to win a title and so we then bestow upon him the label of weak. Once upon a time, believe it or not, it was Michael Jordan. Then Peyton Manning. Recently, all that energy has been devoted to LeBron James. Today’s 24-hour news cycle and Twitterverse has only given us an even itchier trigger finger. And my concern is that Steph Curry is next.
So allow me to offer my preemptive counter: Curry doesn’t lack a clutch gene. Like LeBron, and every other basketball player in the world, he has some weaknesses that a great team was able to take advantage of. He treats the ball like a hot potato too frequently and is too willing to switch onto bigger opponents when defending the pick-and-roll. He commits silly fouls and prefers long jumpers over probing drives. When Curry is hobbling as he likely was this postseason, that habit only gets worse.
None of that, though, takes away from all the magic Curry is routinely able to conjure up while on the court. Is he perfect? Far from it. But he’s still the second-best basketball player in the world.
Simply put: Curry will be back in the Finals soon. Chances are high that next time he’s more prepared, too.