OAKLAND, Calif. — At the end of Golden State Warriors’ practice Saturday afternoon, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant traded jump shots from the three-point arc, mostly swishes between a screamed expletive or two. At one point, Curry punted a ball inadvertently, and it headed toward media members ringing the court.
Curry dashed across the floor, retrieved the ball, apologized, passed it to an assistant coach and continued running in a circle, back to the right wing, beyond the three-point line. The coach dished him the ball, and Curry rose and fired, the end of a sequence so smooth it appeared choreographed. Curry held his hand in the air, nodded and strutted away.
Last year at this time, Curry could muster no such exuberance. Curry battled the effects of a sprained MCL in his right knee, suffered during the first round of the playoffs and felt through the NBA Finals. The wear and tear, exacerbated by a grueling, seven-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals, forced Curry to confront an uneasy narrative. He had won consecutive MVP awards, but his performance in the Finals fell far below his standard.
In Game 1 of these Finals, Curry seized a chance to change that. Fully healthy and fresh from more than a week off, Curry poured in 28 points, drilled six three-pointers and dished 10 assists. He also disallowed the Cavaliers from making him an easy defensive mark, as they had done last year while coming back from a 3-1 series deficit.
“It’s totally different,” Curry said.
The Warriors dismantled Cleveland in Game 1 in large part because Curry was the fullest version of himself. Midway through the second quarter, Curry found himself at the top of the arc, with Kevin Love switched on to him, crouching in a defensive stance. The crowd murmured in recognition of a scene they had watched before.
In the final minute of Game 7 last year, trailing by two, the Warriors created a one-on-one matchup for Curry against Love. Curry unleashed a series of dribbling moves, but he could not shake Love and passed to Draymond Green, who passed back to Curry. With another chance to beat Love, Curry pump-faked and tried to drive past Love, but Love recovered, and Curry settled for a stepback jumper. Love’s lunging contest contributed to a crucial bricked three-pointer.
On Thursday, Curry offered a vivid example of the difference between this year and last. He Euro-stepped to his right, crossed over between the legs to his left, zoomed past Love and scooped the ball off the backboard and in with his left hand. Love had the same odds of stopping Curry as a traffic cone.
“That’s really what it comes down to — he’s healthy,” Warriors reserve guard Shaun Livingston said. “He’s quick. For him to be able to rely on his ballhandling, getting to where he wants to on the court, that’s the main thing. He’s not really hampered this year by injuries like he was in the playoffs last year. You can see the difference. He feels good.”
Last year, Curry shot 40.3 percent in the Finals and averaged 22.6 points while recording more than four turnovers and fewer than four assists per game. By the end, he started to melt down. Curry whipped his mouthpiece into the stands in Game 6 and drew an ejection. He made only 6 of 19 shots in Game 7, including 4 of 14 three-pointers, finishing with just 17 points.
“He did a good job of going out there and continuing to take hits last year,” Warriors sixth man Andre Iguodala said. “He was still a force. If anything, he looks fresh. It’s the same guy I’ve always seen — attacking, making shots, making huge plays for our team.”
Many lumped Curry’s performance from last Finals in with his 2015 Finals showing, if unfairly so. Media members named Iguodala, not Curry, the Finals MVP in 2015. Curry didn’t play his best in the series, shooting 5 of 23 in Game 2. But he still averaged 26 points and 6.3 assists, and it would have been perfectly defensible for him to be named MVP.
While Curry played an exceptional offensive game Thursday night, his defensive energy may have been the clearest sign of his health. The Cavaliers last year exploited him as a defensive liability, repeatedly putting him in pick-and-rolls by having the man he guarded set a screen. They tried the same tactic in Game 1, but Curry was able to hold his own when the Cavaliers attacked him.
“They played it pretty much the same way they played it last year,” Cavaliers assistant coach Larry Drew said. “It was clear that he did not want to make the switch on to Kyrie [Irving]. So he was basically just kind of helping and trying to get back to his own guy. We did run a lot of the pick-and-roll in Game 1. I don’t think we attacked it as well as we did last year, which is something we may have to make some adjustments with.”
As the Warriors have rampaged to a 13-0 record in the postseason, Curry has managed to go somewhat overlooked. He became the NBA’s biggest sensation for two seasons, only to shrink in profile this season as Kevin Durant moved to the Bay Area. He may continue to use these Finals, then, as a reminder. At full strength, Curry remains one of the best players in the world, and he makes the Warriors nearly impossible to stop.