By Tony Massarotti
Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have been national darlings this basketball year, the team America has wanted and the one the NBA has needed. Curry and the Warriors had 21 wins before they lost their third game this season. They have gone wire-to-wire as if saddled aboard American Pharoah.
Only here we are now, three games into the NBA Finals, and a funny thing is happening to Curry and Golden State:
They look like they’re choking.
Oh, the final score looked close following last night’s 96-91 win by LeBron James and the band of misfits known as the Cleveland Cavaliers, but do not be fooled: the high-powered Warriors closed within one point in the fourth quarter, but they never led last night. They have not led for much of this series. Golden State went 67-15 during the regular season, including 39-2 at home, but the Warriors now look like the classic frontrunner, the one that zips along without a worry in the world until someone elbows him in the throat.
Soft. Weak. Gutless.
“Whether I’m making shots or not, I’ve got to stay — I’ll use the word vibrant — just kind of having fun out there,” Curry told reporters following last night’s defeat. “The team definitely feeds off my energy and the joy for the game. So if it’s not going our way, or not going my way specifically, I’ve got to find different ways to get us going.”
What the heck is the leader of the Warriors talking about?
This isn’t about fun, Steph. It isn’t about joy. It’s about digging in and diving to the floor like Matthew Dellavedova has done, about winning for and fighting for a championship instead of being given one. It’s about playing with a snarl, not a smile. It’s about using Dellavedova like a paper towel instead of being wrapped up by him as if he were Press’n Seal.
I know what you’re thinking:
Curry was 10-of-20 from the floor last night. He was 7-of-13 from 3-point distance. He had 17 points in the fourth quarter and 24 in the second half, when he turned “American Sniper” and almost brought the Warriors all the way back from oblivion.
Great. He was also invisible until the Cavs built a 20-point lead, which proved too much for them to overcome. In the series, he now has 16 turnovers to 19 assists. Curry looked so frustrated at times last night, so downright flustered by the human tse-tse fly known as Dellavedova, that the Most Valuable Player of the NBA looked like he wanted to quit.
How else to explain that careless, foolish and too-cool-for-school behind-the-back-pass that bounced out of bounds and effectively sealed his team’s fate?
Explained Curry to reporters: “I’ve got to stay sound fundamentally in that situation. That’s one that you just make a simple pivot move and throw it to him.”
Let’s make something indisputably clear here: the Warriors have more talent in this series and they are the better team. It was true before Kyrie Irving fractured his patella and it’s even truer now. With all due respect to Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson and Cleveland’s role players of the like, the Cavs right now look like Moses Malone and his four guys from the playgrounds. James is a certifiable locomotive at times on the floor, the consummate matchup problem for anyone and everyone, but he shouldn’t be able to beat this Cavaliers team with an Aussie right-hand man who spends half his time face down on the floor and the other half looking like he’s playing rugby.
Or should he?
Of course, this is the eternal dilemma and debate for the NBA: best team against best player. Who wins? Golden State was a significant favorite entering these Finals. The Warriors had home court advantage. Curry is a 6-foot-3 point guard, not a dominant big man or a transcendental wing player, and he was drafted seventh overall, not first. By NBA standards, the Warriors are an outlier, a team built in unconventional fashion, a roster built in stages rather than one piled on the shoulders of the No. 1 overall selection in the draft.
Golden State was supposed to win this series for teams like the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and even the Boston Celtics. They were supposed to provide hope.
Instead, the Warriors are now getting their clocks cleaned, outmuscled and outhustled and generally outplayed. At one point last night, Dellavedova wheeled by Curry and drove toward the hoop, lofting a seemingly desperate shot that banked in off the backboard while drawing a foul.
Know how Klay Thompson later referred to that shot? He called it “lucky,” which may have been at least partly true. But he’s missing the point. The sight of Curry hooking Dellavedova with his arm, chasing him from behind, should have told Thompson and the rest of the Warriors everything he needed to know.
In this series, weren’t the roles on that play supposed to be reversed?
Tony Massarotti covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, and now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.