NBA Finals: How Steph Sealed His Place in the Pantheon of All-Time Greats
Stephen Curry is used to the feeling of winning.
It’s one that has defined his spectacular career. However, watching him to sink to the court in tears in the final seconds of the Golden State Warriors’ Game 6 victory over the Boston Celtics, it was clear Curry was not used to being quite so overcome by triumph.
The Warriors’ 103-90 win at TD Garden, sealed by Curry’s 34-point blitz, secured their fourth NBA title in eight seasons and, as Golden State revelled in returning to the mountaintop, it was tough to disagree with co-owner Joe Lacob’s assessment that this one was the most meaningful.
Curry’s outpouring of emotion upon the final buzzer illustrated as such. The Warriors’ hoisting of the Larry O’Brien Trophy capped a remarkable journey for a team many believed had reached the end of its time in the sun.
Two seasons ago, Kevin Durant had left for the Brooklyn Nets, Klay Thompson was starting the first of two injury-enforced seasons on the sideline and Curry was severely restricted after suffering a hand injury in the fourth game of the campaign. The Warriors had the worst record in the league at 15-50.
There was agony in 2020-21 as an MVP caliber season from Curry ended with defeat in the play-in tournament. Thompson was again a spectator, this time with a torn Achilles that kept him out until January 2022.
Even with Thompson’s return on the horizon, few anticipated the core of Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green would dazzle on the Finals stage in 2022. The Warriors’ decision to hold on to the draft assets they accumulated rather than packaging them to acquire a fourth star was met with skepticism in plenty of corners.
Those skeptics have now been silenced. The faith in the blend of youth and experience and the unqualified success of the trade for former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins – and Golden State’s second-best player in these Finals – played major roles in shutting up the critics, but it was Curry who ultimately sealed the lips of Golden State’s doubters.
Doubters have been a bewildering constant during Curry’s career, even as he has blossomed into the greatest shooter in NBA history, one whose seemingly unlimited range has revolutionized the game of basketball.
Curry’s resume has long since been sparkling and he has continued to embellish it. Prior to the Finals, he already had three NBA titles, two MVPs (the second of which made him the league’s first unanimous winner) and the all-time record for 3-pointers.
Still, there was never a shortage of observers who would respond to those list of achievements with “Yeah, but…”
“Yeah, but Kyrie Irving got hurt in 2015,” “Yeah, but he won two rings after they signed Durant,” “Yeah, but he doesn’t have a Finals MVP.”
Finally, the skeptics can no longer rely on their extremely pedantic excuses to deny Curry’s position among the all-time greats, which is firmly secured after finishing the regular season as the NBA leader in DRIP (our projection of a player’s contribution to a team’s plus-minus per 100 possessions) and postseason in which he was the dominant force.
Curry averaged 31.2 points – almost 10 more than second-best Jayson Tatum (21.5) – and his 31 3s were comfortably the most by any player in the series. He averaged 5.0 assists – only Tatum (7.0) and Green (6.2) had more, while he was also third in average plus-minus (5.8). The two players ahead of him on the list, Kevon Looney (8.0) and Gary Payton II (7.0), averaged 21.7 and 18.6 minutes in the series, respectively. Curry spent 37.5 minutes per game on the court.
The devastating offense provided by Curry, who supplements his devastating deep shooting by attacking the rim for layups with the same remarkable consistency, was undoubtedly the decisive factor in the series. Indeed, Curry’s production and the attention it forces defenses to commit to him had the Celtics bereft of ideas of how to stop the Warriors by Game 6. At one point in the first half, Golden State went on a 21-0 scoring run that marked the longest in the last 50 years of Finals history.
Curry’s ‘gravity’ cannot be overstated as the Warriors’ supporting cast continued to reap the benefits of the additional space the threat posed by their star point guard created.
With Curry on the court in the Finals, the Warriors averaged 111.9 points per 100 possessions. That dipped to 90.1 points when he was off the floor. Their field goal percentage with Curry in the lineup was 47.1, compared to 34.9 with him on the bench.
Illustrating his effectiveness both beyond and inside the arc, the Warriors hit on 38.3% of their 3-point field goal attempts and averaged 42.2 points in the paint per 100 possessions with Curry on the court. Without him, they connected on 30.9% on 3s and put up 21.5 points in the paint per 100.
The Warriors’ point differential in the NBA Finals per 100 possessions with Steph on the court was plus-7.6. In his absence, it was minus-6.2 – a swing of 13.8 points in a series in which Golden State’s average margin of victory in its wins was…13 points.
That plethora of evidence left Curry as the only, and indeed unanimous, selection for Finals MVP. That moves him into exalted company.
Curry is the sixth player to have won four NBA titles, multiple league MVP awards and a Finals MVP. The other five are LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan. Among players to have won at least two titles, he’s second for points averaged in championship-clinching games (32.5). Only Jordan (33.7) stands above him.
The territory Curry occupies is shared by undisputed basketball legends, and he knows his previous doubters now do not have the qualifiers with which to dispute his legacy.
“I hear all the narratives,” Curry said. “You hear everything about what we are and what we aren’t, and what I am as a player and what I’m not. I have a hard time figuring out what they’re going to say now, so this is pretty special.”
The reasons used by those who sought to keep Curry out of the NBA’s pantheon of all-time greats have always been dubious at best. Now, after a career-defining Finals performance, they are non-existent and, regardless of what else he achieves before he retires, his place is reserved for good.
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