Stephen Curry makes the story so simple sometimes. In the biggest game of the NBA season, he was the best player on the court.
On Monday, Curry and the Golden State Warriors had a chance to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals. They were close to not being in this position, Curry having missed most of the first two rounds of the playoffs with injuries and the Warriors having fallen down 3-1 in the Western Conference finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder had no sympathy for their situation, but the unanimous MVP found a way to get them where they were supposed to go with a 96-88 win to set up a Finals rematch with LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
About five minutes into the game, Curry sized up Thunder center Steven Adams on the perimeter. Curry was 29 feet from the basket. When Adams didn't quite raise his arm quickly enough, Curry fired away. The ball ripped through the net. On the next play, Curry hit another 3-pointer, establishing that he was going to do whatever he could to will his team to a win.
At the end of the first half, Curry caught an inbound pass after a pair of free throws with 5.4 seconds on the clock. That was enough time for him to dribble the length of the court, past Russell Westbrook, and attack the basket. With the long arms of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka coming as close as possible to blocking his shot, Curry lofted a lefty layup high off the glass, reminding the world that he's about as good at finishing around the basket as he is at launching missiles from behind the 3-point line.
The 3s, though, were what Golden State needed most of all. In the third quarter, he made three of them in less than three minutes, finding time to assist Andre Iguodala on another one and watch Klay Thompson make a fifth. Curry's dagger, with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter, was a 27-footer. He finished with 36 points and eight assists, shooting 13 for 24 and 7 for 12 from deep.
"Steph is gonna Steph," Warriors center Festus Ezeli said after the 96-88 win, via ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "He came out and showed why he is the MVP."
That line was so good that Ezeli used it twice in the series. The first time referred to Curry's 17-point third quarter in Game 2. It is perhaps a more succinct way of expressing the same thing that Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan tried to explain. Donovan knew what he wanted his players to do against Curry, but often, regardless of your plan, Curry will do what he does best.
"Listen, we were trying as hard as we could at times with our bigs to get Curry inside the line, and he just wouldn't go there," Donovan said. "He was just shooting over us. He made some difficult shots."
Curry is most joyous when Golden State is getting stops, getting in transition and playing free. He loves destroying defenses after the ball moves from side to side. When the Warriors' offense is flowing, it looks like Curry is toying with the sport itself. There are times, though, when Golden State appears to be stuck in the mud. It happens much more often in the playoffs, and it has never been as bad as it was against the Thunder. Curry is so special because, even in those difficult circumstances, he figures it out.
Plenty of Warriors deserve credit for their historic comeback. They wouldn't have made it to Game 7 without Klay Thompson's scoring explosion or Andre Iguodala's defensive exhibition in Game 6. In the third-quarter run that swung Game 7, role players Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa made important plays. If you're looking for one reason that Golden State was able to persevere, though, you have to start with its leader.
Curry hurt his ankle in the first game of the playoffs, a blowout win over the Houston Rockets. He missed two games, then came back, slipped on some sweat and sprained his MCL. His shot looked rusty in his return more than two weeks later, then he caught fire down the stretch and scored an NBA record 17 points in overtime against the Portland Trail Blazers. He took some criticism for some solid-but-not-spectacular performances in the conference finals, then made that criticism look silly. If Golden State was going to lose to Oklahoma City, it was going to do so with Curry playing like himself.
"Just sticking with it," Curry said. "This whole playoff run has kind of been a rollercoaster ride for me specifically but for our team. And we never lost confidence and every game, just played with fearlessness and that confidence that we can get back to the finals no matter how we gotta get it done."
Warriors coach Steve Kerr told his coaching staff on Sunday that he had no doubt Curry would have a huge game. He could tell his superstar was finally moving better, and greatness is simply what's expected of him.
"The one thing with Steph is he understands that with all these accolades -- MVPs, commercials -- with all that comes great responsibility to his team, to the organization, the fans," Kerr said. "He gets that. He understands that if you play poorly, you're going to get blamed if you're the star. And he, I think he's had a rough playoff go because of the injuries. As I said, I think he finally felt right physically the last couple games. And this is who he is. Having a clutch performance in a Game 7, that's Steph Curry."