The greatest compliment you can give Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors is that they made this seem pretty ordinary. Over the last few seasons, the Warriors have been as snakebitten as any team in the league, felled by injuries and unable to muster enough serotonin to muscle through mid-winter midwestern road trips. But as the Warriors polished off the Boston Celtics with a 103-90 Game 6 win, all that seemed to melt away—the ghosts of previous disappointments were finally able to pass through to the other side.
In this sense, when Klay Thompson is pumping in dagger 3s, it’s easy to forget that he missed two full seasons and over 900 days with a torn ACL and a ruptured Achilles; there was once a world where Gary Payton II was prepping to join the Warriors as a video coordinator and Andrew Wiggins was a flighty near-bust, but it feels far removed from the one we live in now. For most teams, a championship requires some elusive potion of talent and luck; for the Warriors, winning seems like kismet. They were great and then they were bad and now—will you look at that!—they’re great once again. In its first post-COVID season, the NBA’s new normal looks a lot like its old normal. Real 2015 vibes, indeed.
“These last two months of the playoffs, the last three years, these last 48 hours—every bit of it has been an emotional roller coaster on and off the floor,” Curry said after the game. “And you get goosebumps just thinking about, you know, all those snapshots and episodes that we went through to get back here, individually, collectively. And that’s why I said I think this championship hits different. That’s why I have so many emotions, and still will, just because of what it took to get back here.”
While this Warriors’ championship run is painted as a story of transformation, every scintilla of Golden State’s success was enabled by Curry’s constancy. Yes, their sclerotic supporting cast from 2019 turned over and gave way to a new cast of contributors, but the Warriors reemerged as a powerhouse because of what stayed the same. Namely, everything works because Steph Curry, just as he’s done for years, makes everything work.
All the adjustments and improvements that helped lift the Warriors out of the NBA’s working class can be traced back to Curry. Even during their listless playoffs-less season last year, Curry’s individual brilliance kept them philosophically coherent, giving the likes of Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins the time and space to adapt to the Warriors’ scheme; it’s hard to imagine Wiggins morphing into an elite glue guy or Jordan Poole doing a solid Steph Curry impression without last season serving as a protracted rehearsal dinner. Curry isn’t a system player; he’s a system, player
If Curry last year provided the Warriors with a nurturing floor, his efforts in the Finals showed just how high he can raise their ceiling. Save for a Game 5 stinker, Curry was at his imperial best against the Celtics, averaging 31.2 points, six rebounds and five assists per game and taking home his first Finals MVP as a result. Pitted against the upper-case Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and a historically dominant Boston defense led by Robert Williams (the actual, lower-case defensive player of the year), Curry made them all look like chumps. Boston hung back in drop coverage against the pick-and-roll, daring Curry to beat them with pull-up threes—so he did.
This was peak Curry, blending the kinetic cutting that kick-started the Warriors’ dynasty and the on-ball assertiveness that has sustained it; he was simultaneously the best off-screen shooter and the best pull-up shooter in the playoffs. To their credit, Boston mounted an admirable effort to stem Curry’s scoring alluvia. Still, Curry is so deadly that he ensures that any minor success is a qualitative, rather than quantitative one. As Boston discovered, it doesn’t really matter if you contest shots and force Curry to hoist prayers over a seven-footer from a furlong away from the hoop because he’s still going to make them.
Accordingly, the Warriors won Game 6—and the Larry O’B—by breaking Boston in quotidien, cumulative ways. On a second by second basis, playing the Warriors is exhausting, equal parts three-card monty and boot camp obstacle course. With Curry and Thompson and Poole scampering about, defenders must be able to instinctually communicate and download instructions, toggling assignments between all five players on the fly. It’s tricky enough to do that once, let alone six times on one possession, let alone on 100 possessions during an entire game. To wit, the Warriors’ super power is their ability to compound minor mistakes into game-ending runs—a few minutes of sloppiness is enough to spark a 21-0 Golden State run; a couple of botched assignments and Curry will put you to bed with a title-clinching 13 point fourth quarter.
Now that Steph Curry has earned his first Finals MVP and secured the last piece of meaningful hardware that’s eluded him, it’s naturally time to reconsider his place in the NBA’s pantheon. At the very least, he’s graduated from some spot in the nebulous top ten discussion and entered the Secret Beef Room of true greatness alongside Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain (conversely, Klay Thompson made room for very public beef of his own). Whereas matters of “legacy” and things of that nature are a distracting sideshow, every Warrior seemed acutely aware of how important this series was to them. It was a matter of revenge against the doubters, but also redemption for both the team’s principles and its principals.
“There were a lot of tears shed,” said Thompson in a post-game interview. “I knew it was a possibility. But to see it in real time, holy cannoli.”
How sweet it is.