Excellence, sadly, is not much of a story.
The Golden State Warriors’ pursuit of the Chicago Bulls’ historic regular season record was at its best as an event when we were all trying to figure out how they would fall short, and whether the chase itself would take a toll on them. When they notched their 73rd win on the final night of the season, we all turned instead to watch Kobe Bryant hold a gun to Father Time’s head and put up 60 points on 50 shots in his swan song.
In terms of accomplishment, excellence is excellence. That tautology means the Warriors’ 73 wins and their championship last season and Steph Curry’s back-to-back MVP awards – he won his second on Tuesday, in a historic unanimous selection – are secure and immutable. They are facts. But we as an audience like to see a little sweat, like to see excellence meet adversity.
The kind of self-assured greatness that Curry has displayed over the last several years is constantly in danger of becoming invisible, of pushing the bar so high that we start to forget there’s even a bar, start to simply accept a certain otherworldliness. Curry has four of the top seven regular seasons in terms of 3-point shots made, and his record-setting 402 threes this year were 116 more than the record he set last year. In 1988, when Curry was born, the league average was 130 3-pointers made per game – for entire teams.
It’s astounding, but Curry’s position as the bellwether for a league-wide shift toward the 3-point line can make him recede before us, even as features on his adorable, picture-perfect family in parenting magazines attempt to humanize him. The truth about us, though, is that we don’t want picture-perfect. We want blood and circus, and Curry’s injury and return in the Warriors’ overtime victory over the Portland Trail Blazers last night provided ample amounts of both.
Strictly speaking, the Warriors don’t appear to actually need Curry, at least not in the way the Oklahoma City Thunder need Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and (to a lesser extent) Serge Ibaka, injuries to each of whom have torpedoed the Thunder’s postseason hopes over the last several seasons. Following Curry’s knee injury in the series against the Houston Rockets, the Rockets not only didn’t win a game, they didn’t even win a quarter against a Golden State team missing their best player. That might say more about Houston than Curry, but the Warriors carried that “next man up” approach into their series against the Blazers, and Klay Thompson’s shooting plus Draymond Green’s expanded role as an initiator on the floor had them up 2-1 heading into last night’s game in Portland.
And were it not for Shaun Livingston’s ejection – the first of his career – with 1:36 to go in the first half and with the Warriors having cut what was a 16-point deficit down to 6 points, they might have gone up 3-1 without Curry being a factor. He missed his first nine 3-point attempts. He looked frustrated with himself and his shot, and not in the usual, slightly annoyed, “why is this video buffering, I pay for good Internet” way but in a real, genuine, “error 404 file not found” kind of way. That whiff of human frustration and mortality was all it took to set us up for a glorious fourth quarter and overtime.
Curry broke a 100-all tie with his first 3-pointer of the game with 4:35 remaining in the fourth and suddenly he wasn’t the hopelessly slick James Bond of Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan that he had been in the regular season. He was the gnarly, broken James Bond of Daniel Craig. He was Jason Bourne realizing he knows Krav Maga.
In overtime, Curry went 6-for-7 (including 3-for-3 from 3-point range), scored 17 of the Warriors’ 21 points and set a new record for most points in an overtime period – regular season or playoffs. Damian Lillard may have driven himself to new heights this season and postseason after an All-Star snub, as he’s worked to beat the Curry-less Warriors with Curry’s own game of ridiculous stepbacks, crossovers and long distance marksmanship, but he was powerless to stop the onslaught. This was Ned Stark facing Ser Arthur Dayne at the foot of the Tower of Joy. Lillard is an exquisite offensive player, but last night it was going to take a knife to the back of Curry’s neck to stop him.
Curry probably woke up sore today, human, after dreams of flying. You don’t just take a two-week layoff and come back like that without a cost. For him, it probably sucks, but he’ll just go back to work, to all that work that happens out of sight for us. We, however, yearn to know that work, to see Curry stumble and struggle like he did for three quarters last night. It helps us understand the victories. It can make the 73 wins, the MVP awards, the last championship and the next championship something more than immutable, permanent and resolute. It can make them messy, dog-eared and hard-won.