Late in the third quarter, with Cleveland deep in its Game 3 domination of Golden State, a dead ball was scooped up by Stephen Curry and he determined to try to dunk it after the whistle.
Maybe it was out of boredom. Perhaps he wasn’t taking the game seriously. Maybe it was an opportunity to remind himself what making a basket feels like.
It didn’t matter. LeBron James quickly jumped up, blocking the shot that was pointless, sending Curry humbled back to the flooring. Cleveland wasn’t going down gently into the summer. “I didn’t need him to see the ball go in,” LeBron said.
It was one more rejection, one miss, yet another night in the NBA Finals when the league’s unanimous MVP neglected to show up.
Cleveland 120, Golden State 90, and suddenly this is a series. It is still 2-1 Warriors, but Friday’s game 4 here looms large and everyone is wondering when Steph will get going.
“I need to play 100 times better than that,” Curry admitted after a 19-point attempt that saw him score just two points in the decisive first half. He’s averaging only 16 a game in the Finals (down from 30.1 in the regular season) and hasn’t cracked 20 in a game yet.
He wasn’t his usual self,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.
That means Curry and, to a lesser extent, Splash Brother Klay Thompson needs to find their ordinary selves. Neither has done much offensively in this series. Thompson is averaging only 12 a game, about half of his regular-season average. Both players are shooting well below their averages and, consequently, not getting their usual number of shots put up.
“Me and Steph haven’t shot the ball as well as we need,” Thompson said. “ That’s all right. We’re still up 2-1, and law of averages, it will all work out.”
That’s what Golden State has to work with right now, that a MVP player and a team this great can’t have a drop-off that continues too long. It didn’t matter back in Oakland, where teammates made up the difference. Here on the road, that’s a high wire act of a game plan. Stars need to shine. Or blowouts happen.
The trouble on Wednesday is it wasn’t only shooting. Neither played well defensively or on the glass, or took care of the ball. Neither was aggressive, particularly out of the gate when James took control of the match and never let up.
“We were exceptionally soft to begin the game. … A horrid way to begin.”
“They came out with a huge punch and they were playing aggressively,” Curry said.
Cavs fans spent much of the second half chanting, “MVP! MVP!” It was a show of admiration for James, whose all-around game produced a forceful 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. It was also a smack to Curry, who became the first player in league history to get every vote for MVP, yet hansn’t revealed any of it here in the Finals.
The Finals are the proving ground, though, when someone like LeBron, who can’t command the voters, can command the game.
“It ’s not about living up to a specific anticipation, apart from the one that I have for myself,” Curry maintained, brushing aside the pressure of being MVP. “I didn’t do that tonight. I’ve got to be better.”
Some of this rests on Cleveland. Perhaps the defensive game plan, which includes being particularly aggressive, was lost in the two losses in California. It was there, however, in Game 3 and successful on Thompson and Curry.
However, much of it’s on Curry.
He’s 10 of 25 from behind the arc, which is a reasonable 40 percent, but not enough from a man who averaged 5.1 made 3-pointers per game. He’s certainly out of sync.
Until the narrative shifts, the talk of this series, especially in the run-up to Friday night, will be about what’s erroneous with Steph, a far cry from the dream season.
When a team plays badly, the team deserves criticism,” Kerr said. The coach deserves criticism. The players. I tell our guys: why we get paid ‘That’s. We do shoot baskets every single day and get paid to show up. Because we’re going to get a lot of criticism.’ we get paid.
Fair enough. They’re the reigning champs. Three game in and neither Splash Brother have delivered.
Neither seemed too concerned.
One more game like this, an additional night of misfiring as LeBron gains a head of steam, and Golden State could see this series slip away.