BOSTON — Stephen Curry, for the first time in these NBA Finals, was motionless, unsure of what to do. The man who couldn’t be stifled by the league’s best defense was suddenly paralyzed — only to be held up by his father, who made his way through the crowd and absorbed his son’s tears.
Those tears weren’t even of joy, nor relief. But disbelief.
The worst feeling of being a champion once before is knowing you won’t get back there ever again, the thought the league you helped form with your style of play was moving on without you — thanking you for your services along the way, but dismissing the notion of you playing another meaningful game.
Or, of feeling somehow, despite a sterling resume, a career could have questions or doubts.
Curry was already unassailable, his place in history secure. But what about his place in the present, among his peers?
Winning when you’re light-years ahead is one thing, but what happens when the league catches up, adopts your playbook, adapts to you, moving chess pieces across the board and runs past you?
If you’re the “Petty King,” you lick your wounds, you seethe, but you regroup and you recoup every ounce of respect that was due.
“I got three green ‘Ayesha can’t cook’ [shirts] in the locker room that I’m wearing at some point,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “I love it. The fact you’re on this stage. You give and you take it. You embrace it all. I appreciate it.”
Only Magic Johnson was able to quarterback a team to a championship win in Boston, on the parquet floor in front of the same vulgar fans Curry worked his mastery on Thursday night. It was 1985 when the Magic Man did it, and Curry performed with a similar precision in vanquishing a weary Boston Celtics team that vacillated from fatigued upstarts to competitors who had the gall to place themselves in the Golden State Warriors’ luggage back to San Francisco.
But before Curry’s tears, he had to put the haters to sleep. He helped walk down the Celtics into a corner then pelted them with haymaker after haymaker. The team that supposedly had the strongest will, the best sense of identity from the turn of the calendar year, was sent to a TKO by the squad that was unlikely to be here — not just this year, but any year.
Curry, the player teams thought could be worn down by the physicality of the game, was standing stronger as the nights wore on, confident enough to taunt the Celtics by pointing to his ring finger — in the second quarter.
The irony probably isn’t lost on him, the man who admits he hears everything from the calls of being a “system player” to analysts forming a “zero” with their index fingers and thumbs to signify how many titles he’d win after signing a max extension last year.
“You go to these last two years,” Curry said. “And conversations, narratives, we’re ‘too old,’ the parallel timelines of developing young guys and keeping our core together, all those tough decisions that we had to make, that weighs on you for as much time as we’re going through it.
“Then you get to the finish line, and that’s why I think this one is definitely different because of the three years of baggage we carried coming out of that Game 6 in 2019.”
You could hear the snickers across the NBA world on that exhausting night in 2019. Not only were the Warriors exiting their fabled Oracle Arena, but they were leaving behind all vestiges of a contender.
Kevin Durant, walking out that door.
Klay Thompson, soon to miss two full seasons.
Brand spankin’ new building, home of spankings for the foreseeable future — a fitting end for a so-called haughty organization that was high off its own supply.
But somewhere along the way, in plain sight and in the darkness of daylight, they regrouped. Curry regrouped, unaware he would ever get back here but trusting of the leadership in place. The patience of Curry’s North Star exists so the Petty King can reap all the spoils. The never-ending nature of the business of basketball put Curry on the opposite end in so many conversations — beginning with Durant being more likely to do real winning while Curry was left to parts unknown.
Getting this one, he repeatedly said, “hits different.” Unspoken in it, is doing it without Durant — just as it would if Durant reached this finish line first.
“For sure. You bookend it,” Curry told Yahoo Sports when asked if he wanted to do it without his former teammate. “That’s part of it. But nobody in October thought we’d be here. Now we are. With this group. Not compared to any group before it, so it’s pretty dope.”
Draymond Green, a man whose petty stays on All-Madden, all the time, wasn’t surprised to hear Curry let his guard down, ever-so-slightly.
“Of course,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “There’s always things you want to prove. Ultimately, when Kevin came here, the main person who has to sign off on that is Steph. So to open your door, to open your arms and accept someone with open arms, and it goes great and it’s short-lived, it’s a slap in the face.”
Green corrected himself.
“Not necessarily a slap in the face, when someone chooses to do something else. But a slap in the face like, ‘I opened my home to you. I brought you into this. I made you a part of this. I wanted you to be a part of this until we couldn’t do it no more. Then when you wanna do something else.’ No hard feelings, no ill will, want you to do great no matter what. It’s a brotherhood.
“But … you’re a competitor and the competitor in you is going to want to prove you wrong, want to show you that you made a mistake.”
It’s not a race to a ring, nor was Curry’s Finals MVP some form of validation he truly needed. The conversation needed that final check mark more than he did. But you’d better believe it meant something to him, in this moment.
“I think the thing with Steph is, you know, without him, none of this happens,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I’m happy for everybody, but I’m thrilled for Steph. To me, this is his crowning achievement in what’s already been an incredible career.”
Curry, seeing his father, the man who made him change his shooting form as a youngster so it could be the lethal weapon it is today, brought on all those emotions.
“It was surreal because you know how much you went through to get back to this stage, and nobody, unless you’ve been on that floor … ,” Curry said. “Out there on the floor, I didn’t even know he was down there, to be honest with you. I saw him, and I lost it. I just wanted to take in the moment because it was that special.”
He remembers it to the day: One year and six days ago, he started his offseason training for this season. Curry carried last year’s Warriors to a 15-5 finish before losing to the Lakers in the play-in tournament.
Think of how quick the NBA moves. Continuity only exists in the form of rookie contracts and unmovable ones. The squad the Warriors put away, the Boston Celtics, had to endure chants of breaking up their under-25 duo that seemingly gets better together every year.
LeBron James has changed teams twice since Kerr was hired to coach the Warriors, Durant has come and gone, Kawhi Leonard has played for three teams in that span, and in the last three NBA Finals, there have been six franchises in it — the first time that’s happened since 2006-08, when the league was in a much different place.
Yet, the last two champions are notable because the leaders — Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo — had the gall to trust the organizations as opposed to being shadow general managers. Influential, yes, but not controlling.
There’s a difference in understanding how responsible you have to be for setting the course and being invested in how an organization moves compared to wanting to pull all the strings, yet hiding your hands when things go awry.
“I can say it now, I don’t know how many teams could carry that as long as we have with the expectations of comparing us now to teams of past and make it to the mountaintop again,” Curry confessed.
The Petty King stands atop again, disappearing in the throng of Warriors supporters as only the golden shine of the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy signaling his path to the locker room. He’s reasserted himself among his peers, or rather, regally looking down.
Damn straight that meant something.
“That’s part of it. Not the motivation of it,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “You owe it to your core guys, Klay, Draymond and Andre. The front office put us in a position to be successful. We owe it to them first and foremost.”
At this point, basketball owes Stephen Curry.