CLEVELAND -- Imagine this: What if a certain basketball player -- let's call him LeBron James -- came out in a Finals game and completely laid an egg with everything on the line.
Imagine that this fictional basketball player (let's call him LBJ for short) missed six of his first seven shots in such a game, got beat for a backdoor layup in the opening minutes, and looked generally disengaged and disconnected. Imagine that by the time he scored his second basket, his team was trailing by 19 with 5 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter.
This LeBron guy would've been eviscerated, regardless of how many championships or MVP trophies he'd won. He would've been accused of failing to show up when his team needed him most.
So the question is, does this happen to Stephen Curry now?
Probably not. But it should.
Curry, the two-time reigning MVP, was awful in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night. He was barely here. He was so bad that coach Steve Kerr had to take him off the floor outside of his usual substitution pattern to give him a pep talk and make sure he was OK.
"I would've done the same thing," Curry said after he scored only 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting in the Warriors' 120-90 loss to the Cavs.
The Cavs and that guy named LeBron James are back in the NBA Finals, trailing 2-1 with Game 4 on Friday here in Cleveland. The Warriors, who've now lost every Game 3 they've played in the postseason, have some things to sort out between now and then.
"We got bullied," Draymond Green said. "We can't get bullied, and that's on me. I'll take that one on the chin."
No chins were damaged, as far as I saw, though Klay Thompson took an elbow to the forehead from Channing Frye (a technical) and a knee to the thigh from Timofey Mozgov (which he said "seemed kinda dirty.") The Cavs beat the Warriors with physical force on Wednesday night, and once again in the Finals, they made Curry look normal.
Not like an MVP.
"I'm disappointed that I didn't do anything to help my team win tonight," Curry said. "It's not about living up to a certain expectation other than the one that I have for myself."
Ah, but it is. When you win back-to-back MVPs, and when your team beats LeBron in the Finals and gets a two-game head start on doing it again, there are responsibilities that come with that.
And in many cases, unfair and overstated expectations, too. Just ask LeBron.
"He did not start the game well," Kerr said of Curry. "Turned it over, got beat backdoor, and he was not his usual self. ... No matter who you're talking about, when a team plays poorly, the team deserves criticism. The coach deserves criticism, and the players. I always tell our guys, that's why we get paid. We don't get paid to show up and shoot baskets every day. We get paid because we're going to get a lot of criticism, and we deserve it tonight."
Curry's lowest three-game scoring output during his immaculate regular season was 50 points. Through three games in the Finals, he has 48. Overall, his statistical production in nine Finals games -- all against Cleveland -- isn't awful. He's averaging 22.7 points on 44 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent shooting from 3-point range. For most mortals, that's good. For Curry -- who averaged 30.1, 50 percent and 45 percent, respectively, during the regular season -- it's ordinary.
And unlike James, who gets torched almost no matter what he does, Curry hasn't been able to find other ways to make an impact when his scoring and shot-making are taken away.
Like last year -- when Andre Iguodala, not Curry, was named Finals MVP -- Curry has not been his team's best player on the floor in this series. And that's what he's supposed to be, the way James is supposed to be that for the Cavs.
On Wednesday night, he had six turnovers to go with his 6-for-13 shooting. James found him on every switch, took him down to the paint and punished him. At one point when Curry swooped in for a dead-ball dunk after a whistle, James spotted him, tracked him and swatted it away.
"There's a sense of urgency, knowing how big Game 4 is," Curry said, "and I need to be ready."
There's a caveat that goes with this, and that's Curry's health. There's a belief in the NBA that if a player is healthy enough to be on the floor, there are no excuses. But after spraining his knee in the Houston series, there have been times when Curry has not looked physically right. This was one of those nights.
"I'm fine," he said.
He didn't look fine.
Part of that was the Cavs' heightened physicality -- bullying, as Green put it -- and it definitely made an impact. Every time Curry made a cut or came off a screen, he was getting knocked around like a bumper car. It had to be that way, or the Cavs would've been one game away from getting swept.
"This was about one team being emotionally fired up and angry about being down 2-0," Kerr said, "and another team being comfortable."
It was also about the other team playing better, and maybe that's the real answer with both of these guys. They're both so good, and have thrilled us so much, that we expect them to be able to go into hero mode at will.
On the night Curry returned from his knee injury, he dropped 40 in Portland. Seemed to be OK then. When he went 6-for-20 in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City, maybe it had something to do with the Thunder. Maybe it wasn't a character flaw.
That's disappointing to hear, I know, but maybe it's true.
Curry didn't have more than two sub-20-point games all season; he's had three in a row against the Cavs. Defensively, they're beating up the MVP. On Wednesday night, they mugged him.
Now, the question is, what will he do about it?
"Make sharper cuts, maybe get the ref's attention a little quicker," Curry said. "But you can't go into games worrying about getting calls. They're going to play with a certain physicality, and we have to do the same on both ends of the floor and not worry about if we're going to get a call or not."
The other MVP, by the way, had 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists after playing some brutal basketball through the first two games. So not only does LeBron stay alive in these Finals, he also outruns the predictable narrative that would've engulfed him if he hadn't come through.
Now that Curry's gotten a taste of what it's like to be on that side of things, it's worth wondering: Doesn't he deserve to be held to the same standard?
If not, then it's time to re-evaluate how we judge our superstars. And frankly, I'm not holding my breath.