OAKLAND — LeBron James came out bulldozing, determined to just overpower the Warriors. He drove the lane with all his might, flew around on defense with disruptive intentions. He was a force in the first half, with Kevin Love playing great along side him, as the visiting Cavaliers went blow-for-blow with the Warriors.
The stage was set for a second-half showdown. Moments were percolating. Narratives were forming. The entire tone of The Finals was up for grabs.
And then Stephen Curry took over.
In his unique way, Curry put the game in his hands and molded it into a sizable Warriors’ advantage. One that was too big for the Cavaliers to overcome. With seven All-Stars on the court, Curry shined brightest in the deciding quarter. His favorite quarter. The Warriors cruised the rest of the way to a 132-113 lead.
He posted his first-ever postseason triple double — 32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds — breaking down the narrative that he doesn’t play well on this stage. And this includes a rather dreadful second quarter when he put up a goose egg, had three of his eight turnovers and the Warriors were outscored by three with him on the court.
It wasn’t the usual Curry third-quarter explosion, where he goes off for 20 in a quarter with a barrage of 3-pointers. This time, he only had 12 points on six shots.
But he had seven rebounds and five assists, with just one turnover. His manipulation of the tempo, the way he attacked the Cavaliers defense, the highlights he produced — they did something for the Warriors and to the Cavaliers.
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Several stars played great on Sunday. Kevin Durant had a monster line: 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocks. LeBron James also posted a triple double: 29 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds. Love’s 27 points and seven rebounds gave James’ support despite Kyrie Irving’s struggles.
They all had stretches of brilliance. But Curry’s warped the game.
“He just generates so much force to the game,” Steve Kerr said. “Even when he’s not making shots, he’s bringing defenders all the way out to the perimeter, which opens up so much. He pushes the ball relentlessly, and obviously he got going there in the third after a poor first half. But he changes the game just by being himself and being out there and attacking.”
Curry doesn’t overpower like LeBron or make it look as easy as Durant does. Nor is his defense haunting like those two, each of whom have the task of defending a Hall of Famer in this series. For James and Durant, physical anomalies in their own right, their impact is overwhelmingly felt.
But Curry’s impact has to be understood. Perhaps that is an inferior impact per the NBA paradigm. But obvious nonetheless.
It is evident every time a Cleveland defender gives up an easy basket because they are terrified of a Curry 3. It is evident when LeBron audibles over to defend Curry, pushing his own teammates and screeners out of the way to prevent any miscommunication.
And now Curry has Durant next to him. Not even LeBron has won a title without a second star playmaker on offense. Curry has one title without such and nearly had two.
But those days of Curry having to carry the weight of the Warriors offense are gone. This is why he invited Durant. Because when he has a dreadful half like he did in Game 2, turning it over six times, it doesn’t doom them. Because the attention he draws, the underappreciated skills he has — such as setting screens and outlet passing — can be fully maximized by Durant.
“Yeah, I’m playing with a lot of energy, that’s the biggest thing,” Curry said. “Trying to be aggressive every opportunity I have. I think there’s another level that I can get to. … just trying to be aggressive and enjoy this moment, man. Just playing in The Finals and the journey is unbelievable. I want to keep it going.”
This is Curry’s answer to the critics that he can’t produce in The Finals: get a cohort to make a devastating one-two punch with. LeBron and Kyrie don’t look like much of a match for the Warriors’ duo. LeBron is exhausted trying outperform Curry and Durant while his point guard has struggled to dominate like he did last year.
Curry, he’s fresh. He’s healthy. And because of Durant’s ability to carry the load, Curry can pick his spots. So when it’s his time, he’s got some bounce in his legs.
Ask LeBron. In the third quarter, he found himself covering Curry. LeBron was determined to not let Curry score, pressing up on the Warriors’ star, smothering him. But after a series of head fakes and crossovers, Curry dribbled right around LeBron and finished the highlight with a smooth layup.
Let the narratives form.