It was a low-scoring, sluggish affair. The Golden State Warriors were ahead by one against the Cleveland Cavaliers with five minutes left in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Each decision, each pass down the stretch was of extreme importance.
Stephen Curry remembers one particular pass vividly.
“I know it wasn’t a good pass,” Curry told ESPN as he shook his head from side to side. It’s a mishap he’s not proud of.
Dribbling near the sideline, the two-time MVP threw a left-handed, behind-the-back pass in the direction of Klay Thompson, but the ball’s intended recipient never had a chance. It sailed wildly out of bounds. It was an odd, careless turnover at such a crucial juncture.
And it initiated an unraveling. The Warriors didn’t score a single point in the final 4 minutes, 39 seconds of the game, and went on to lose the championship after having held a commanding 3-1 series lead.
That’s one pass he’d like to have back, but he has promised himself he won’t allow that one low moment in his career to alter his game moving forward.
“Yeah, I still think about that [turnover],” Curry told ESPN. “[But] in thinking about that game, it’s funny because I know the concept of making the right play, making a simple play, understanding that there are deciding moments in games and the difference between winning a championship or not could be one of those plays. [With that said,] I came out in preseason this year and threw a behind-the-back pass because I have confidence that I can do it and it won’t change that.”
Curry was also on the receiving end of a critical 3-point basket in Game 7 of last year’s Finals. With 53 seconds remaining, Kyrie Irving nailed a tough triple with Curry’s hand draped in his face to give the Cavaliers a three-point advantage. It was the only field goal Cleveland needed to seal the deal.
But Curry has no regrets on how he defended Irving.
“You could tell that’s a shot he’s worked on,” Curry said. “I was right there. Tried not to foul. I stayed in front and contested. He just made an amazing shot. You have to give him credit. There’s nothing I’d do differently on that play.”
This season, Curry has placed a heavy emphasis on improving his ball security. During this postseason run, he’s turning the ball over 3.3 times per game, down from 4.2 turnovers per game in last year’s playoffs. Pulling off plays with a high degree of difficulty are Curry’s specialty. But finding the right balance is what he’s striving to perfect.
“You obviously know how much that matters in the scheme of winning a championship,” Curry said. “So, for sure, I understand that when I’m out on the floor, and especially in the playoffs, if I don’t turn the ball over and we’re going to get a shot on every possession down in crunch-time situations, knowing that the ball is going to be sure in my hands, that’s the evolution of the game that I have to try to master.”
In that decisive fourth quarter of Game 7, Curry was 1-of-6 from the field. In the series as a whole, Curry posted numbers of 22.6 points per game, 40 percent shooting and 40 percent from beyond the arc. His scoring was nearly eight points below his season average, his field goal percentage was down 10 percent and his 3-point accuracy declined by 5 percent.
Some would even argue that Curry’s 2016-17 regular season didn’t live up to the lofty standards he has set.
“That’s a misconception,” Curry interjected. “It’s one I haven’t talked about much. I didn’t play well in the Finals last year, but for the most part, the last two years, I’ve been pretty proud of the way I’ve played. Just confident and aggressive, knowing that I was out there doing my job. And I’m my biggest critic, so for me to say that, I feel pretty confident in that.”
Currently, his postseason stat line is 28.6 points, 43 percent from distance and 50 percent from the field. He’s playing arguably the best basketball of anyone in the playoffs.
However, he understands his current production won’t matter if it’s not duplicated in the NBA Finals.
“Just having an opportunity to rise to the occasion knowing this is when things matter most,” he said. “But I’ve been playing pretty solid all year. Whether people notice it or not, want to talk about it or not, or praise it or not, it doesn’t really matter. Now in the bright lights is when you got to continue to do it, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Hopefully for the next three weeks I can sustain it.”
Curry may have been an afterthought for MVP consideration during the regular season, behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but he’s reintroducing himself to the world.
He said not being in the MVP discussion didn’t bother him. He has bigger goals to accomplish. If his high level of play persists and the Warriors manage to rack up four more wins, Westbrook and Harden won’t be the talk of the summer.
It will be Curry.
“You look at those guys [Harden and Westbrook], numbers-wise, they had separated themselves just on sheer numbers and stats and the wow factor of what they’re doing, and they deserve that attention because they all had amazing seasons,” Curry said. “So, it obviously helps me to say that having won a couple times, but at the end of the day, I don’t need that kind of validation to know what my role is on the team, and how I can help my team win, and being in a situation where we’re playing for championships now, so that’s the biggest thing.”