Three games into the 2016 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors are still waiting for their best player to show up. Stephen Curry has played in all three contests against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he’s looked nothing like the player that became the league’s first unanimous MVP — or the one that lifted the Warriors past the Oklahoma City Thunder with three straight wins at the end of the Western Conference finals.
Curry’s final stat line for Golden State’s 120-90 Game 3 loss — he scored 19 points on 6-13 shooting, with three assists and one rebound — doesn’t look so bad at first glance, but it’s not representative of how poorly he played. The sharpshooter didn’t score his first basket until the 4:05 mark in the second quarter, and he was the primary defender on Kyrie Irving as the Cavs’ guard lit up the Warriors for 16 first-quarter points.
But it wasn’t just one bad game for Curry. He’s averaging 16 points per game in the finals, nearly half of what he averaged during the regular season. Curry’s also averaging 5.0 turnovers per game, and his mistakes have been so costly that head coach Steve Kerr was forced to pull his star playmaker for a brief moment in Wednesday’s second quarter.
"I would've done the same thing," Curry said after Game 3. "He's trying to figure some life and a way to get me going."
Curry insists that the injuries he suffered earlier this postseason haven’t affected his play, and he seemed to be back to his old self when he averaged 32.7 points, 7.7 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game in Games 5-7 against the Thunder. But he’s been one of Golden State’s least consistent players this series and seems to be lacking in the hot-shooting form he showed in the regular season.
When Curry returned from injury in the second round, he helped the Warriors eliminate the Portland Trail Blazers by averaging 34.5 points, 9.5 assists and seven rebounds, including a record-setting overtime performance in Game 4. As the Warriors went down 3-1 in the following series, Curry averaged just 21.5 points on 35.1 percent shooting in Game 3 and Game 4.
Even in last year’s finals, Curry got off to a bad start, shooting five-for-23 in a Game 2 loss, only finding his groove in garbage time of Game 3. He went on to average 28 points over the next three games as the Warriors closed out the Cavs.
Curry might have figured something out at the end of Wednesday’s loss, making four of his seven second-half shots and finishing with a respectable 46.2 shooting percentage for the night.
"I've got to be more assertive in my scoring and playmaking on the floor," said Curry, who earlier this week announced he won't play for Team USA at the Rio Olympics. "There's a sense of urgency knowing how big Game 4 is, and I need to be ready."
His issues haven’t been as glaring as they might have been if Golden State was trailing in the series. Golden State won comfortably despite Curry’s struggles in Game 1, which saw the Warriors get outscored when he was on the court, and the team that won 73 games in the regular season is still a significant favorite to win the title.
Even aside from Curry’s play, this year’s finals have gotten off to a strange start. None of the games have been close, with the home team winning every contest by at least 15 points. Klay Thompson has been even worse than Curry, averaging 12 points on 36.8 percent shooting. Richard Jefferson got the start in Game 3, and the Cavs seem to have a better chance of beating the Warriors with him on the court instead of Kevin Love.
It’d come as no surprise if Curry went back to being an unstoppable offensive force over the next few games, but there’s no denying his habit of coming up short in playoff games. Last year, he became only the second regular-season MVP that won the title but wasn’t named finals MVP. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980 was the other instance, and he averaged 33.4 points per game, failing to win the award because of Magic Johnson’s legendary Game 6 performance.
The way this series is going, Curry will find himself back on that list unless something drastically changes.
Cleveland certainly deserves some credit, and they’ve made it difficult for Curry to get open looks. But shots that were falling for most of the year haven’t come close to going in against the Cavaliers.
"I have to play 100 times better," Curry said.