Today, Cleveland is still rioting (the happy kind!) and the Bay Area is still stewing in disappointment and shock. And while it’s the media’s wont to simplistically boil a complex game of interplay governed by the laws of chance and skill down to two players on opposing sides - one rising to the occasion when it mattered most, the other wilting - well, that’s kind of what happened last night.
Lebron James is still the best basketball player on the planet. 2015 and 2016 NBA MVP Steph Curry demonstrated that he still has work to do to fulfill his legend.
Over the 7 game championship series (in which Cleveland rallied from a 3-1 deficit - the first team in NBA history to do so), James led all players in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. That’s the first time a single player has led a team in those five categories in NBA Finals history. James averaged a near triple double for the series (29-9-11), played smart defense, and he elevated an inferior supporting cast into NBA champions.
Curry’s finals were problematic. NBA playoff defense isn’t regular season defense and he consistently struggled as an efficient scorer and in his role as a facilitator. Those struggles were paired with bad body language, long runs of subpar defense and a game 6 ejection. Curry shot 37% from the field during Cleveland’s three game winning run to close out the series (two of those games in Oakland) and ended the Finals with more turnovers than assists. That latter statistic is the most damning. Golden State stopped sharing the ball in key moments and Curry was a big part of the reason why. A team defined by unselfishness and the extra pass were held hostage to a star’s scoring slump. That’s not how the Warriors are supposed to work.
In the crucial 4th quarter, Curry went 1 for 6 from the field, had a bizarre behind-the-back pass turnover, was repeatedly targeted on the other end of the court (including on Kyrie Irving’s iso 3 pointer to give Cleveland the decisive lead) and generally was the weak link on both squads over the last eight minutes of the game. Mind you, Richard Jefferson was out there. As odd as it is to write, the Warriors might be NBA champions if Shaun Livingston had played Steph’s crunch time minutes. Yep, that felt odd to write.
So Believeland finally has a title. And the NBA’s fan favorite and regular season juggernaut has ash in their mouth. The good news for Curry and Golden State is that NBA narratives shift and are always written in postscript.
Lebron James was once the talented megastar who came up small in the postseason, ridiculed for making the proper basketball play instead of “taking over games”; then he was The Decision egomaniac who had to win mercenary titles with Wade and Bosh; and during the 2016 regular season he was a grousing coach killer who held teammates to an impossible standard.
The problem with narratives is that players don’t have to obey them. They can write their own. Lebron James is the best basketball player on the planet. All he needed was the chance to remind us.