Mariotti: MVP goes AWOL 

click to enlarge Warriors’ guard Stephen Curry was harassed by the Cavaliers defense during Game 2 on Sunday, shooting 5-of-23 in a stunning loss. - BEN MARGOT/AP
  • Ben Margot/AP
  • Warriors’ guard Stephen Curry was harassed by the Cavaliers defense during Game 2 on Sunday, shooting 5-of-23 in a stunning loss.

OAKLAND — Is he exhausted from all the interviews, the TV commercials, the Riley hubbub, the radical changes in what once was a peaceful, God-fearing life? Or, closer to the point here, should we simply acknowledge that Stephen Curry has not been a good shooter or player, much less the Most Valuable Player, since he slammed his head on the hardwood two weeks ago?

In what undeniably was one of the worst performances by a superstar in an NBA Finals game, the MVP was AWOL. He finally looked like the player who once upon a time was said to be too frail, too meek and not good enough for the big leagues. Sunday night, he lacked the fire and killer instinct you'd expect when facing an injury-ravaged opponent vulnerable to a four-game blowout. With Curry making only 5 of 23 shots, 2 of 15 from a three-point line he has dominated like few shooters in history, the Warriors allowed an escape hatch for LeBron James and his injury-depleted, YMCA cast in an unsightly 95-93 overtime loss in Game 2.

"It didn't feel right," Curry said of his world-famous shot. "But there is no time to really worry about that. You've got to keep shooting and try to figure it out."

But given his clanks and bricks and airballs since that night in Houston, no one should assume he'll solve these issues the next two games in hysterical Cleveland, where the LeBron worshippers will make Roaracle sound like a church. From Steve Kerr to Klay Thompson on down, everyone was saying Sunday night that Curry simply had an off night. The recent numbers say otherwise. On the night of his frightening fall against the Rockets, he shot 7 of 18, including the initial airball after returning in the third quarter. Since then, this is your shooting life, Stephen Curry:

Game 5, Western Conference finals: 7 of 21, 3 of 11 beyond the three-point stripe.

Game 1, NBA Finals: 10 of 20, 2 of 6 beyond the stripe.

Game 2, NBA Finals: 5 of 23, 2 of 15 beyond the stripe.

Do the math. On anyone's calculator, that is not a one-game hiccup. It's a full-blown slump, with opponents figuring out that Curry's three-point assault can be reduced to a popgun if he is pressured with bodies on and behind that stripe.

Does anyone now agree that Curry should not have returned to that skull-conk game? Is it fair to ask if he really did suffer a concussion and that he continues to deal with the aftereffects? He'll never tell us. The Warriors won't tell us. The NBA won't tell us, with commissioner Adam Silver convinced that the Curry-Thompson head injuries were "fluky." But how does an amazing shooter go from insane postseason performances to suddenly drab ones without us mentioning, at least, that the dividing line from sensational to struggling was his free-fall over Trevor Ariza?

It was shocking, if also disturbing, to see Curry completely shut down by Matthew Dellavedova, the St. Mary's kid with the bigger body who stayed in his grill and made it difficult for him to find the space he needs. Know how many points Curry had when the Aussie was defending him? Zero, which means the no-name who spent his college career in a Moraga dorm outplayed the global hero who lives in a palace in nearby Orinda. But more than that, it's troubling that the Warriors and Kerr's staff seem to have no clue how to respond when Curry can't make a shot. They shrunk into a flawed, sometimes listless unit that was outrebounded badly, shot 39 percent, missed a putrid 27 of 35 three-point attempts and committed 17 turnovers. Thompson showed up with 34 points, but too many players made too few contributions offensively. There is no balance when Curry is askew. Draymond Green finally showed up in overtime, but not before getting away with a couple of obvious fouls on James and generally looking like a guy unworthy of a heavy-rotation national ad for Beats headphones.

What happened to the constant motion, the blurry touch passing, the streamlined machine, the future of basketball as we know it?

Steph happened. When he misses his shots, the others stand around and say, "What do we do now?" What they should do now is this: Assume Curry is in a shooting slump and come up with a Plan B that doesn't involve Thompson firing up 28 shots. Otherwise, James will devour them in his hometown. Already, LeBron is urging the Cleveland people to outscream the Oracleists, saying as he exited the Bay Area, "If I can leave my fans with something, these fans here are pretty loud, pretty good, really good. I'm looking forward to seeing our fans and I can't wait to see our fans. I've heard our fans pretty loud before. I know we can be much, much louder than any fan base in this league."

So, much as we've all loved watching Curry, is it a certainty he rediscovers his shot in a raucous environment? Kerr isn't losing faith.

"It happens," he rationalized. "It happens to everybody, whether you're an MVP or a role player. Sometimes the shots don't go in. Sometimes things don't go your way. Steph will bounce back. He's a great player. We'll see if he can help him get into a better groove. I mean, the guy's been phenomenal in the playoffs. I've seen it with Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan. Nobody is immune. You chalk it up to a bad night and see what you can do to try to free him up and get him some open looks."

But he has had open looks. He has had them for four games.

"I don't expect to shoot like this," Curry said. "I've got to play better, find better shots and be more in a rhythm throughout the course of the game for us to really assert ourselves as a team. Shots I normally make, I knew as soon as they left my hand that they were off. That doesn't usually happen. I mean, mechanically, I don't know if there is an explanation for it, just didn't have a rhythm and didn't find one the whole game. I'm not going to let one game kind of alter my confidence. I know as a team we're not going to let one team alter our belief that we're going to win the series."

Oh, but that team has a player who already has shown these last two nights that he can shake off the loss of Kyrie Irving and, before him, Kevin Love and Anderson Varajeo. James is feeling it — he said so afterward — feeling the budding story line that he could win a championship as a one-man show with a rookie coach who has made mistakes. LeBron's legacy may not take a hit if he loses this series because he's expected to lose it, with only a modicum of help. But if he were to win and finally bring Cleveland its first major sports championship in 51 years in the first year of his homecoming? That's an all-time sports achievement.

And he was quick at the podium to plant a seed in Curry's head. Remember, LeBron is in his sixth Finals, with two championships and two Finals MVPs. Curry has played two games in the Finals. "It had everything to do with Delly," James said. "He just kept a body on Steph. He made Steph work. He was spectacular, man, defensively. We needed everything from him. When Steph shoots the ball, you just automatically think it's going in because he shoots the ball so well. Delly just did a great job. Just trying to make it tough on Steph. That's all you can do. You make it tough on him. You get a contest, and you live with the results, and I think Delly did that."

Curry didn't agree that Dellavedova had a specific impact in his poor performance. It was probably not a wise comment, unless he can back it up in Games 3 and 4 in front of a rough-house crowd that will make fun of his 2-year-old daughter, I presume. Of the man they call Delly, he said, "Nothing really, just besides playing their game plan and playing defense like every pro is supposed to. Not giving up on any possession. But I doubt this will happen again, with the adjustments I'll make once I'll look at the film. And like I said, one game is not going to make me stop shooting or alter my confidence at all."

But it isn't one game. Steph Curry hasn't played like the MVP since a Saturday night in Houston on Memorial Day weekend. "We have all the confidence in the world in Steph," Thompson said. "We know he's going to bounce back with a great night, a few great nights. It's a collective effort. It's a team sport, and obviously it really stings right now, but we've been in this situation before and we're not going to let it deflate us."

Curry also said the feeling stings. Maybe it's good for this team to be kicked in the ass again after everyone — myself included — had declared that the series already was over. "It's my first Finals appearance and my first Finals loss, so it's definitely tough," he said. "Dealing with the emotions of it and the highs and lows of this game, you try to leave it on the floor because it's a long series and you know we can come back Game 3 and really take control of the series right back. But it's frustrating because we're at home. We're supposed to win. Just got to handle it the right way and get ready for Tuesday."

Be careful what you wish for, Milk Carton MVP.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Bio:
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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