As LeBron James raised his game to an all-time level to deliver the Cleveland Cavaliers their first ever championship, Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry never quite looked like himself on basketball’s biggest stage. Failing to come close to playing at the level he reached during the Warriors’ historic regular season, Curry has left the basketball world wondering what exactly happened to him in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Heading into Game 7, Curry told reporters that he needed to play his best game of the year. Scoring just 17 points on 6-19 shooting, he was much closer to his worst. Curry turned the ball over four times and registered just two assists, failing to come up with the big play the Warriors needed when they had a chance to seize the lead in the final minutes.
"I mean, a lot of it was kind of myself leading the charge and settling (for three-pointers) too much," Curry told reporters after Game 7. "At home in the fourth quarter, I felt like we could go for 'the dagger punch,' and I didn't really put any pressure on the defense getting to the paint and trying to force the issue that way.
"I really just settled too much. That's something that is tough to swallow with the opportunity we had in front of us."
Curry made just one of his six fourth-quarter shots as Golden State scored just 13 points in the final period, a record-low for any Game 7 in the finals. Four of those misses came in the final 4:39 after Klay Thompson tied the game at 89-89 with a layup that would turn out to be Golden State’s last basket. Kyrie Irving hit the game-winning three-pointer with 53 seconds left, draining the biggest shot of Game 7 with Curry’s hand in his face.
Curry had his opportunity to be the hero, and it looked like it might come on the possession after Irving hit his three-pointer. The Warriors got the matchup they wanted as Kevin Love was forced to guard Curry one-on-one after Draymond Green screened Irving. But Curry couldn’t shake the much taller Love, whose defense has been criticized since he was traded to Cleveland two years ago, and the two-time MVP could only muster a 26-footer that wasn't close.
It wasn’t just James that outplayed Curry in the finals, but Irving, as well. By his standards, Curry had a very underwhelming series, averaging 22.6 points per game on 40.3 percent shooting, totaling more turnovers (30) than assists (26). His best performance came in Game 4 when he scored 38 points on 25 shots, but Game 7 marked the fourth time in the finals that Curry scored fewer than 20 points. Shooting better than 50 percent from the field for the entire regular season, Curry shot better than 46.2 percent in just one finals game.
Curry missed six games this postseason with two separate ailments, and there have been rumblings that his knee likely won’t be 100 percent until he rests this offseason. But Curry has refused to use the injuries as an excuse, denying rumors that he needs surgery.
"I'm fine,” Curry said, when asked about his health. “I mean, I have three months to obviously get ready for next season. I won't get injured celebrating tonight, I can tell you that much."
Even if Curry is still hurting from the sprained MCL he suffered in the first round, that wouldn’t completely explain his poor finals performance. He went on a scoring binge in his return from the injury in the second round, averaging 35.5 points in two games against the Portland Trail Blazers. He struggled at times against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Curry still managed to average 27.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game in the Western Conference finals.
A lot of credit has to go to Cleveland and their defense, which forced Curry into taking contested shots. He certainly missed more open looks than usual, but the Cavs managed to play Curry physically when he was off the ball, much like the Thunder did. Tristan Thompson and James did a great job of containing Curry after switches on pick-and-rolls, and even Love stepped up when the team needed it most.
On offense, Cleveland did their best job to force Curry to expend energy. With Thompson tasked with the job of guarding Irving for most of the series, the Cavs looked to attack Curry, namely in Game 6, going at him after he was forced on the ball after well-executed screens.
Aside from his 4-14 shooting performance in Game 7, Curry was effective from three-point range in the finals, making 40 percent of his attempts. But his production from beyond the arc was the only real impactful part of his game against Cleveland.
Curry made just 40 percent of his two-pointers after hitting 55.3 percent of such shots in the regular season. He was careless with the ball and made costly turnovers, most notably a behind-the-back pass that ended up out of bounds when the Warriors led by one with just over five minutes remaining on Sunday. Cleveland exploited Curry when Golden State was on defense, and when his three-point attempts weren’t falling, he became just another player, looking nothing like the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP.
Indeed, there seemed to be something overall lacking in Curry, a sharpshooter with plenty of swagger, in such a critical series. ESPN pundit Stephen A. Smith described Curry as a "no show."
"It was a relatively anemic performance, as far as I'm concerned, according to Steph Curry standards," Smith said.
"I don't know if he was hurt, if he was nervous, or believe it or not the moment was too big for even him, or whether he was distracted. Something was missing. He wasn't the Steph Curry that we've come to know and love and grow accustomed to seeing."
It wasn’t just Curry that struggled. Both Splash Brothers were underwhelming in the finals. Thompson scored 14 points on 17 shots in Game 7, totaling less than 18 points for the fourth time in the series. Thompson made 35 percent of his threes against the Cavs after shooting 45 percent from distance in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
When asked why Golden State’s backcourt struggled so much in Game 7, Thompson had no answers.
"I really can't,” he said. “I'm sorry.”