Posted June 7, 2019
Like most NBA fans, I have spent this entire season hoping that anyone, please anyone, but the Golden State Warriors would win. Their dominance has become boring, their victory inescapable. For all the good it did for player empowerment when Kevin Durant joined Golden State as a free agent, let the record show that his decision ultimately drained the league of the thing that makes sports fun: Uncertainty.
So sure Kawhi Leonard has all the charisma of a brown paper bag, and you have no real attachment to the Toronto Raptors, but you root for them anyway. Because they aren’t the Warriors.
And then Durant gets injured. Then Klay Thompson goes down too. A role player fractures a body part whose name you don’t even recognize. And suddenly the fearsome Warriors aren’t quite so fearsome anymore. The Raptors start piling points in a road game and you realize that things have changed. Now it’s Toronto whose victory is inevitable.
Except there’s that one little guy, fighting to keep Golden State in the series. He is darting through the field with the grace of a ballerina, dropping floaters and three-pointers through the net on every play, and you remember what you loved about this team in the first place.
Steph Curry is small, he is thin, and for most of his career his beard could only be described as patchy. He doesn’t look like an NBA player, he looks like the younger brother of the guy at the pickup game. The one mom made him bring who keeps chirping that he wants to play.
But Steph is not the boy who doesn’t belong. He’s the player on the court that no one can stop.
The nickname given to him and Thompson—the Splash Brothers—may not be sports’ most iconic, and yet can you think of anything more perfect? What better word to connote the way it feels when a Steph Curry shot goes through the hoop than “splash”? The ball dropping through and the net plopping up for a moment in a perfect symmetrical ripple before settling back to still like the ball was never there. It does not graze the rim as it clatters home, it rarely bangs off the backboard. Instead it falls perfectly through. Splash.
Over the last couple of years, Curry has been great. Possibly even better than before Durant arrived. But the Steph of it all has been a little muted. The absurd shots he used to take have come a bit less frequently. The one from seven feet beyond the arc or with a defender on top of him. When all around you are Hall-of-Fame players who can hit any shot, there is always a more high-percentage play available than an absurd three-pointer. And so Steph Curry has become a little less Patrick Mahomes and a little more Tom Brady. Trading the breathtaking for the efficient.
But as the team crumbled with injuries this postseason, you could feel coach Steve Kerr turning to his diminutive guard and saying, “We need you.” And back came the player we all knew before. Still there all this time, waiting to wriggle free. The fun-loving, smooth-as-butter god of audacious shots.
He darted around screens, rose up and nailed three pointers. Splash. He took bombs from deep beyond the line. Splash. A big guy closing on him with a hand in his face, he put up the shot anyway. Splash.
Most of the greats play with violence. They ram the ball through the rim, shaking the upright and even shattering the glass. But Steph is grace personified.
When he dribbles, the ball does not bang against the court, instead it skips on and off it, moving with the same gentle glide as the man bouncing it. It hangs in the air as he squares up his opponent, then the ball and the man are gone, leaving the defender guarding a Steph-shaped puff of smoke as Curry streaks to the basket.
The defense pulls toward him, and the eyes in the back of his head see the open man cutting to the hoop. Steph hurls his entire 190-pound frame into his pass to a teammate who finishes the play.
They expect the three, so he shakes off his defender, drives, then stops at the free throw line and puts up not a shot, but a 20-foot floater, and of course it goes in.
He swipes steals out of the hands of opposing players and for a second they don’t even know they’ve been robbed. The victim of a thief who’s 20 yards away by the time you realize your watch is gone.
He falls on the floor as they knock him to the ground on his three-point shot. The ref blows the whistle and he wiggles his fingers in the air in celebration. Because he knows what happens next: Free throws. Three shots from Steph Curry where the other team isn’t even allowed to guard him. What else could happen? Splash.
And through it all, there’s a smile on his face. Even when he fails, he claps his hands and shakes his head, almost chuckling to himself. The look of a man certain the impossible was possible and disappointed not that he was wrong, only that the moment couldn’t prove him right.
He has style, he has flair, and yes he has an undeniable cockiness. But it’s the infectious kind from the kid who is so damn charming that you can’t help but root for him anyway.
And as Steph became Steph, Toronto’s lead shrank. Sixteen points became seven with ten and a half minutes left. And you started hoping the Raptors would miss. Steph had done the unthinkable: He had made you root for the Yankees.
But the Warriors couldn’t overcome the numbers. Having the most impressive player on the court can only take you so far when five of the next six best guys play for the other team.
The Raptors gently pushed down on the accelerator and slowly left the Warriors in the rearview mirror. The lead grew, and the game was over. Steph had lost, though only after doing everything he could to win. Nailing every shot, diving for every loose ball, making the perfect play every time. 47 points. The seventh most ever scored in an NBA Finals game.
If Klay and KD don’t come back, and the Raptors stay healthy, this series may well be over. But I’ll be rooting for the team that I was certain I wanted to lose, because I can’t help myself. There are things more impressive to watch on a basketball court. Players more dominant, athletic feats more spectacular. But it’s possible there’s nothing more beautiful than watching Steph glide his body and the ball through traffic, find an inch of daylight, rise up to shoot and…
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