They’d been waiting on this for weeks now, ever since Stephen Curry had fallen on his head in Houston, all those geeked-up fans in yellow jerseys at Oakland’s Oracle Arena anticipating the moment when Curry would crossover with his dribble and shake Matthew Dellavedova halfway to the floor and fire up a long-range 3-pointer that would re-announce the complete and unadorned return of perhaps the greatest shooter any of us have ever seen.
It was a seven-point Golden State lead, under three minutes remaining in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, when Curry finally inserted that dagger of Valyrian steel, hitting a 3 that propelled the Warriors to a 104-91 victory over Cleveland and a 3-2 series lead, one game away from The City’s first championship in four decades. But really, it was earlier in the fourth quarter on Sunday night when Curry finally seemed to clear his throat, to let fly without even the smallest trace of self-consciousness, without any regard to the hands and elbows in his face. This was the Steph we’d come to know all season, the Steph who outplayed everyone in the league, including LeBron James; this was the undersized little guard who seemed to play this sport without any palpable fear of failure.
And so when James hit a ridiculously long 3 to put the Cavs up 80-79, it was Curry who responded with one of his own (followed by another from his backcourt mate, Klay Thompson). When the Warriors needed him most, it was Curry who conjured 17 fourth-quarter points (and 37 overall, on 13-of-23 shooting, 7-of-13 from beyond the arc) despite constant double-teams and the household pest known as Dellavedova up in his grill. And it was LeBron who finally wore down, after yet another Herculean effort (40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists), after one of the best games ever by a player who wound up losing a basketball game.
This game had a strange rhythm for most of the night, in part because both coaches, in toying with each other, had chosen to remove their big men from the floor altogether. The Warriors had done it in Game 4, going small, starting forward Andre Iguodala instead of big man Andrew Bogut; last night, Bogut didn’t play a single minute, and the Cavs responded by removing their own lumbering giant, Timofey Mozgov, who showed up for roughly nine minutes before vanishing altogether.
This, said coach David Blatt, was a matter of necessity, when questioned repeatedly and aggressively about his strategy following Game 5. It was a direct reaction to Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s small-ball move in Game 4, a game in which Mozgov put up 28 points (hence the second-guessing). And this is the problem for the Cavs: No matter what lineup they put on the floor, their seams are showing. Without the injured Kevin Love, without the injured Kyrie Irving, without the injured Anderson Varejao, what are they but a series of small satellites orbiting around the supernova that is LeBron?
There is little doubt now that James should be the MVP of this series, even if the Cavs aren’t able to force a seventh game, even if they lose Game 6 in Cleveland Tuesday night. On Sunday night, James was responsible for 70 of Cleveland’s 91 points, via scoring and assists; he became only the second player (after Jerry West) to score 40 points and have a triple-double in the NBA Finals. If you still doubt how sublime he is, if you still insist on making facile and gauzy Jordan comparisons, you’re trapped in some sort of Nineties-Era Clintonian prison of nostalgia, and you’re missing out on greatness, right before your eyes. Because sure, maybe Steph is the greatest shooter we’ve ever seen, but he’s going up against maybe the greatest all-around player we’ve ever seen. Hell, all you gotta do is ask LeBron. “I’m the best player in the world,” he said after Game 5, asked how he could still believe the Cavs had a chance to win this series. “Simple as that.”
I mean, who’s going to tell him he’s wrong at this point? The fact that the Cavs still have a chance in this series – given that the disappearing act known as J.R. Smith put up 14 points in the early-going and nothing afterward, given that Dellavedova is essentially a D-League talent who goes the extra step of playing his ass off, given that the Cavs’ second-best offensive weapon for much of the night was a professional rebounder named Tristan Thompson – is still a damned miracle. In a way, even if he loses this series, LeBron has no doubt won a newfound respect from the few who still insist on criticizing him for not somehow conjuring Iman Shumpert into Scottie Pippen…though maybe not the bellowing Oracle Arena employee who walked down the hallway after Game 5, shouting, How you like it now, LeBron?!?
The answer, of course, is that LeBron doesn’t like it very much. And LeBron is no doubt frustrated. And LeBron wishes he had teammates like Curry has, teammates like Thompson and Andre Iguodala, who at least made James work for his points while hitting several key baskets of his own.
“I’ve got to do better,” LeBron said afterward. “I don’t put a ceiling on what I’m capable of doing.”
But he may hit the ceiling anyway. He may hit it Tuesday night, because even the best player in the world can’t carry the whole planet on his shoulders.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb