Healthy Steph Curry makes for happy Warriors

OAKLAND, Calif. — Different year, different stage of the NBA Finals, even a different side of the court. Most notably, a different Stephen Curry.

Remember the last minute of Game 7 in 2016, when Oracle Arena was still in a state of shock over Kyrie Irving‘s go-ahead 3-pointer and Curry found himself guarded by Kevin Love? Curry went behind his back with the dribble, stepped back and started to go up for a 3-pointer, retreated and passed to Draymond Green, who whipped a pass back to Curry near half court. Curry had the audacity to fake another 3 from deep, went to the dribble again, then pulled up from behind the arc to fire a closely contested jumper against Love that missed and essentially ended Golden State’s championship hopes.

Curry found himself guarded by Love again in the second quarter of Game 1 of the Finals re-rematch Thursday night. This time Curry dispensed with Love easily, crossing over from his right hand to his left with the dribble, then driving by Love for a layup.

Although the stakes were considerably lower, the implication was clear: This is a more formidable version of Curry. He’s healthier than he was at this time last year, when he rushed back from a sprained knee ligament he suffered in the first round of the playoffs. He’s better than he was even at the start of this season.

Although Curry’s 3-point shot is his greatest weapon, he values his balance and footwork as his greatest assets to get him in shooting position. He doesn’t have the speed of an Allen Iverson or Russell Westbrook to blow by defenders. He doesn’t have the strength to overpower someone who leans on him or bumps him. Where he excels is with his change of direction and quick bursts to gain separation. By March he felt he had them back.

That meant he had defenders at his mercy Thursday night. Just ask LeBron James, whom Curry disposed of with a sinister inside-out dribble to create space for one of Curry’s six 3-pointers in the Warriors’ series-opening 113-91 victory.

History remembers results, not circumstances. Cleveland’s championship banner doesn’t include a notation of Curry’s status, no more than the Warriors’ 2015 banner mentions that it came in the absence of Love and Irving. For now, the relevance of Curry’s diminished ability in the 2016 Finals is that it’s a reminder of how much more potent the Warriors are this time around.

“That’s really what it comes down to: He’s healthy,” Warriors backup guard Shaun Livingston said. “He’s quick. For him to be able to rely on his ballhandling, getting to where he wants to on the court, that’s the main thing. He’s not really hampered this year by injuries like he was in the playoffs last year. You can see the difference. He feels good.”

Of course, the biggest difference is the presence of Kevin Durant. Durant posted a line of 38-8-8 in his first Finals game with the Warriors. He dominated the discussion afterward just as much as he dominated the game. Here was evidence that, as much as Durant was willing to damage his reputation by joining the Warriors, it was Curry who took the greater risk to his all-time status. The biggest knock on Curry’s ledger is that he has not taken over either of the NBA Finals in which he has participated. Durant’s presence hurts Curry’s chances for winning the Bill Russell award for the most valuable player in the Finals, and Durant took the early lead for that honor in Game 1.

Curry still signed off on the Warriors’ pursuit of Durant and actively recruited him last summer. It was a sign that Curry valued championships more than he valued getting credit for them.

Game 1 was a demonstration that the new duo has found a way to play off each other, found room for both of them to shine. That’s something not every superstar pairing can achieve.

A notable shift in Cleveland’s defensive philosophy from last year was that the Cavaliers ran out to contest jump shots by Durant, rather than concede them as they did for his predecessor, Harrison Barnes. In the first half, that resulted in ridiculously easy dunks, as Durant blew by the oncoming defenders and no one bothered to help. When the Cavaliers adjusted at halftime and committed to crowding the paint, it meant Curry had open 3-pointers. Curry made four of them in the third quarter (the last of which he punctuated with high steps like a soldier marching in a military parade) and scored 14 points as the Warriors opened up a 24-point lead.

Curry wound up with 28 points. It meant he didn’t get to pad his already illustrious playoff record of 22-3 when he scores 30 points or more, something I brought up as he walked through the Oracle Arena hallways long after the game. Curry lamented that he blew his chance for 30 by missing so many layups in the first half. Then he wondered what the record is when he scores 28 points or more. I didn’t have it on me at the moment, but have since checked Basketball-Reference.com. Turns out it’s even better: 28-3.

Just what Cleveland needed to hear. A lower threshold for Warriors success, combined with a better version of Stephen Curry.

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