Stephen Curry already boasts an immaculate resume, one that would guarantee him a Springfield induction even if he retired at the conclusion of the 2018 NBA Finals.
He's the greatest shooter of all time and a scoring champion, as well as the lone unanimous MVP in league history. Just for kicks, he has another Maurice Podoloff Trophy on his mantle, too. The regular-season numbers he's accumulated are staggering, and two rings adorn his fingers. A third championship might soon await after the Golden State Warriors' 124-114 overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers and a red-hot LeBron James in Game 1.
But one award has eluded him, and we're not talking about Defensive Player of the Year—unattainable for a 6'3" point guard with a shoddy stopping reputation that often overlooks his prowess as a positional defender who frequently guides his man into the right spots, as he frequently did against George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Cleveland's other guards on Thursday night.
The hardware in question is the Finals MVP award.
"It took to the second question of my first [Finals] media availability, so I'm pretty sure that narrative's going to take life, as it has since 2015," Curry said, as transcribed by Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. "But it doesn't make or break my career or whatever you want to say looking back. If we win this championship and I don't win Finals MVP, I'm going to be smiling just as wide and just as big."
Let's play along. How could we not after the show this floor general put on throughout the game's opening half and the closing minutes of regulation?
Back in 2015, when the Dubs won their first title in decades, Andre Iguodala earned the accolade for his well-rounded play and immaculate defense against James. Two years later, Kevin Durant lifted the trophy, again leaving Curry out in the cold, who was relegated to merely celebrating the title that couldn't have been won without him.
The narrative feels different in 2018, though James, even in a loss, is certainly a threat to steal away the award after a staggering 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on 19-of-32 shooting.
Curry's final line masks the true impact he had on this game. It doesn't show the savvy defensive plays he made, or the gravitational pull he exerted that opened up wide-open opportunities for his teammates under the hoop. Jordan Bell and JaVale McGee don't wind up with uncontested bunnies—which the latter still managed to miss in a surefire Shaqtin' submission—without the 1-guard drawing two defenders all on his own:
But the numbers are still present: 29 points on 11-of-23 shooting, including a 5-of-11 showing from beyond the arc. Six rebounds, including one impressive boxout of Kevin Love—the kind of play that can easily get overlooked but prevented an easy second-chance opportunity close to the hoop. Nine dimes. Perhaps most importantly, just two turnovers, which exemplified the care for the ball he displayed throughout the game, only throwing behind-the-back feeds when they were truly the right decision.
This wasn't an easy contest for the Dubs, particularly in the first half.
Klay Thompson was briefly forced to retreat to the locker room with a leg injury after JR Smith (entirely unintentionally) slipped on a closeout and rolled into his adversary's lower extremities. Durant disappeared entirely for lengthy stretches, inexplicably failing to demand the ball or exert much influence on the stopping side (and even hoisting a few air-balls). Draymond Green seemed reluctant to shoot the ball at times.
But Curry started off strong by knocking down his first few shots from the field and refusing to let Golden State fall into too large a hole during those early stages.
Then came the laser feeds:
And the remarkable running banks that require incredible precision:
And, of course, the cherry on top.
As soon as Smith made the ill-advised decision to gamble for a steal, the entire world seemed to know what was coming next. Sure enough, the buzzer-beating splash tickled twine:
Though Curry deferred to his teammates throughout the third period rather than producing another of his patented post-halftime explosions (save one three toward the end of the quarter), he wasn't done after that deep trey.
The Davidson product kept making the right plays—both of the subtle and highlight-producing varieties.
Winning Finals MVP isn't just about emerging victoriously on the NBA's biggest stage. It's not solely determined by producing the biggest numbers. A player must control the narrative of the series, and Curry bookended this tone-setting performance by doing exactly that.
Other shots in this contest were bigger, but we can't forget the nothing-but-net triple he drained after dancing on Kevin Love deep into the fourth quarter. The Cavs hadn't gone away at that point. James was still James. Some of the Cleveland role players were finally knocking down shots. The margin was tight.
Going from three to six with under five minutes remaining is a big deal, even if the Dubs would later relinquish their advantage. And then, just for good measure, Curry drove through a porous Cleveland defense with two-and-a-half minutes remaining to finish a lefty layup and negate another thunderous slam from James that had brought the margin back to a single possession.
And that still wasn't enough, so he added the and-1 drive to take the one-point advantage George Hill would equalize by splitting free throws in the final seconds:
Curry never made a true dagger in this game; he just did enough to keep the Cavaliers at bay down the stretch and get to an overtime period in spite of an inspired showing from James, who set a new career high on the Finals stage. Even without a single point from the 1-guard, Golden State ran away with the contest in those five extra minutes.
But that won't change the narrative.
Plenty of time remains in this series, which will inevitably produce more twists and turns after a remarkably entertaining opening. James got off to such a fantastic individual start that he could enter Game 2 as the overwhelming favorite for Finals MVP—assuming voters are willing to reward someone that doesn't win the title for the first time since Jerry West in 1969. Everyone will want to talk about Smith's inexplicable decision at the end of regulation, when he ran away from the basket instead of putting up a potential game-winning attempt on an offensive rebound.
Curry still set the tone for Golden State as the organizational drumbeat, while plenty of his teammates failed to shoulder their typical burdens. And if the Warriors just withstood the best shot James and the Cavaliers could deliver (not outside the realm of possibilities, considering the difficulties that go with attempted replications of a 50-point outburst), this could be a short series. In that case, the opening tone matters even more.
Regardless of whether he cares, he's never been in better position to complete his hardware collection.