The Unnerving Excellence of Steph Curry and the Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Through the first two games of the NBA Finals, most of America has been rooting for the Cavs. This is partly a credit to LeBron James and how enjoyable he’s become at this stage of his career, and it’s partly the natural reaction to any series in which one team is an overwhelming favorite. Also, some people just hate the Warriors. In any case: the vast majority of the Finals audience is rooting for these games to be competitive, which has meant pulling for Cleveland. It also meant, at least in Game 2 Sunday night, that we all got to experience exactly how impossible it feels to root against this Warriors team at its best.

Consider Tristan Thompson in this clip. He’s indignant with reporters who asked him if he felt “a sense of helplessness” guarding Steph Curry Sunday. As he says, “No… No. [expletive] We did a good job, I mean—I’m switched onto him, I am never helpless against no guy in the NBA. [more cursing] [ends interview and storms off].

That’s what it feels like to play against Golden State. And if Thompson sounds frustrated and angry and a little bit childish there, I’m sure there were tens of millions of fans who felt the same way during the second half Sunday night. 

Cleveland played well. LeBron didn’t score 50 again, but he finished with a near-triple double (29 points,13 assists and nine rebounds). Kevin Love added 22 points, George Hill had 15, and the Cavs fought back every time it looked like the Warriors were about to run them off the floor. Anyone worried about this Cleveland team cracking mentally after Game 1 had those questions answered early. Golden State jumped out to a nine-point lead in the first four minutes, and everyone braced for the floodgates to open. But George Hill hit a three. LeBron got to the hoop for a three-point play. J.R. Smith hit a midrange jumper. By the end of the first quarter, somehow, it was a four-point game. 

This process repeated itself in the second quarter when the Warriors jumped out to nine-point lead and the Cavs cut it back down to four. But then the Warriors went up 13 by halftime. And again in the third quarter, Cleveland fought off one of the now-infamous Warriors third-quarter barrages and cut the lead to five, only to see Klay Thompson bury a deep three before Kevin Durant hit an unguardable pull-up in the lane. Then it was a double-digit lead again—and this time it stayed that way.

The problem with playing the Warriors, or rooting against them, is that you basically need a team to be perfect to have a chance. Stars have to be dominant, role players have to knock down open looks, and the defense has to stay home on shooters while also surviving a brutal series of screens and passing that turns even the best teams inside out. It looks exhausting physically, but mentally, too. “Switching like we have been,” Kevin Love said of Cleveland’s defense in this series, “If you take one second off, or you stand up for that split second, they’re so good at cutting off the ball, or finding themselves open in transition.”  

Steph Curry ultimately took over down the stretch, but that wasn’t what won the game. Curry went off when the game was already all but decided. 

For the first three quarters, the Warriors had an answer for everything. Sometimes it was Shaun Livingston hitting demoralizing midrange jumpers to save a failed possession. Other times it was Draymond Green and Kevin Durant taking turns defending LeBron, forcing him into a game that made him look (kinda) mortal. There was also Javale McGee, who finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting, all of which were assisted. “When you try to take away Klay, Steph and Durant,” Ty Lue said afterward, “Other guys are going to be open.” 

“They’re a dangerous ballclub,” LeBron said. “It starts with those four guys, obviously, the four All-Stars. Everyone else just does their job. And they don’t miss a beat when they put someone in or they take someone out.” The Warriors finished the game shooting 80% at the rim, and 71% in the paint. 

Then there was everything Steph Curry did in the fourth quarter. I mean really, look at this: 

What do you do if you’re the Cavs and you play great defense for 23 seconds, only to end with that shot? “Tough shot taker, tough shot maker,” Draymond Green said of Curry. “The one where he was falling away was… It was like, ‘Oh man, he’s really got it going.'”

Curry finished with 33 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds. He hit a Finals record nine threes. Durant was nearly as incredible—he went for 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, added nine rebounds and seven assists, plus excellent defense on LeBron. And Klay, who was playing on a bum ankle, added 20 points of his own. The entire night was a testament to a team with a ceiling that might be as high as any we’ve ever seen.

There are two caveats to add now. First, the Warriors become arguably the most unbeatable team of all time when they’re playing at home and working with a sizable lead. Threes fall easier and momentum builds with every make, and while that’s true for any good team, it becomes particularly dangerous when you’re dealing with some of the best shooters in NBA history. Watching opponents try to cut into a second-half Warriors lead is like watching someone try to climb a mountain in the middle of an avalanche. 

But if teams beat up Steph, slow the game down, and keep things close, Golden State has nights where it looks strangely vulnerable. Threes stop falling, the passing can go from brilliant to overly cute, and clutch situations get interesting. That was Game 1. For a team this talented and intelligent on both ends of the floor, there has always been a surprising amount of room to push them in the right circumstances. Maybe another one of those games will come in Cleveland. 

Also, while Sunday was a near-flawless performance, most of their games in these playoffs have been more disjointed. Nights like Game 2 may be how this Golden State era is remembered, but at least this year, most Warriors wins have been more perfunctory than perfect. This team generally succeeds because it has too many advantages to fail, but often times the stars are operating at about 60% capacity. Focus, chemistry, and health have been ongoing issues all year. It’s been frustrating to watch at times. 

But Sunday night we got all the dominance and obscene excess that comes with the most impressive Warriors wins. Nothing looked disjointed this time, everyone hit on all cylinders, and three titles in four years is beginning to look like a foregone conclusion. 

If we’re looking at the era now, what the Warriors have built the past few years is essentially an extension of the Spurs machine that emerged around 2012. Back then, San Antonio countered the emergence of LeBron and the Heat’s superteam with great defense and an offense predicated on motion and moving the ball all over the floor. The Spurs knew they didn’t have the superstars to win iso-battles with those Heat teams. So Popovich and Duncan and Ginobili decided they would win by moving the ball, seeking out mismatches, and hitting a cascade of open looks. That’s ultimately what happened in 2014, with a Spurs title that gave us some of the best offense the Finals has ever seen. 

That was the same summer Steve Kerr took over in Golden State. He brought many of those San Antonio principles to a Warriors team that had three superstars hiding in plain sight. Steph, Draymond, and Klay won a title the very next year. The Warriors were in perpetual motion on offense, they moved the ball, hunted mismatches, and Draymond helped anchor the best defense in the league. It was so attractive and so effective, they ultimately convinced Durant to join in 2016. Now we’re watching four superstars in the middle of their prime, playing basketball in the smartest way possible. At their best, the Warriors begin to look like both the Spurs and the Heat from the 2014 Finals, with Steph Curry sprinkling in some added shooting the NBA has never seen before.

When it all clicks, nothing can be done. They are so much better than anyone else in the league, the rest of the world becomes Tristan Thompson. Stammering, frustration, and profanity is the only rational response to what the Warriors have become. 

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