Funny how the two-time reigning NBA MVP looks a little different when he’s healthy.
Last year, Stephen Curry went down with a knee injury in Game 1 of Round 1 against the Houston Rockets. Some thought it was his ACL; this was an ugly, unnatural twist of the right knee. It was later diagnosed as an MCL sprain.
Still, his Golden State Warriors beat Houston and the Portland Trail Blazers comfortably, dropping only one game to each.
Curry returned for Game 4, a 27-point thrashing of the Rockets, but wasn’t himself. In his next outing, five games later, he was slapping 40 on the Blazers in overtime and strutting around barking two words: “I’m back.”
He certainly looked back:
But Steph wasn’t back. He had his moments, for sure, eclipsing the 30-point mark five times throughout the postseason, which ended with the Cleveland Cavaliers storming back from a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals in LeBron James’ first title run in his home state.
Bravado aside, though, the Chef was clearly hobbled.
“His injury was mild on the sprain scale,” Rob Landel, a professor of clinical physical therapy at USC told STAT News’ Dylan Scott before the 2016 Finals. “But, because of what he does, it ends up having a huge impact on what he does and what he can do.”
Scott wrote that most people’s natural standing position puts pressure on the MCL. According to Landel, Curry’s sharp-turning style put an obvious amount of strain on his injury.
“With a crossover dribble, trying to get a guy to go one way and quickly change direction and go the other way, that kind of lateral move will likely stress it,” the USC professor said.
To Curry’s credit, he played through pain and never personally made it the story — though a report about his limitations came out with Golden State staring down a 3-1 deficit. Nearing elimination at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, “a source close to Curry” told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski the All-Star was playing “at 70 percent, at best.”
Wojnarowski added that the Thunder saw “no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price.” Head coach Steve Kerr (apparently) wasn’t even aware of Curry’s limited numerical capacity:
Steve Kerr dismisses chatter about Stephen Curry playing at 70 percent. pic.twitter.com/WP0LGojT6V
— Janie McCauley (@JanieMcCAP) May 26, 2016
Forget the percentage. Steph wasn’t Steph.
In the Finals, his numbers were dwindled to pedestrian for a guy who just had, by many metrics, the greatest regular season of all time. Curry scored 22.6 points on 40.3 percent shooting while hitting 40 percent of his looks from deep. He added 3.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 4.3 turnovers and 3.7 steals.
Of course, the narrative shifted from a knee injury to a metaphorical breaking problem. People thought he choked against the King.
Curry addressed that narrative shortly after losing last year’s Finals:
Could the lights have been too bright? Sure. They were in the year prior. Keep in mind that Andre Iguodala was Finals MVP after allowing LeBron to put up these numbers without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love:
LeBron's 2015 Finals stats ???? pic.twitter.com/urmGi45gU0
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) June 3, 2016
Even with the 2014-15 letdown in mind, it’s lazy to discount Curry’s health in the 2016 run.
Need proof of what he can do when in fine fettle? Look no further than the 2017 playoffs.
Here’s his line through 10 games, all wins:
- 28.6 points
- 5.8 assists
- 5.6 rebounds
- 2.9 turnovers
- .489 shooting percentage
- .437 three-point percentage
Last year, he said it. This year, Steph really is back:
— NBA (@NBA) May 17, 2017
Golden State, now leading the San Antonio Spurs 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals, could enter the Finals (likely against Cleveland) undefeated. That’s after losing a top-three NBA talent (Kevin Durant) for two games and getting a hobbled KD for another in Round 1. The Dubs didn’t miss a beat. Not one.
That’s on Curry.
After sliding into the passenger seat so KD could drive the regular-season offense, Curry has looked like his MVP self this postseason, regardless of Durant’s presence. NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate (PIE) lists Curry as the Warriors’ top dog during the 2017 playoffs. He also tops the Net Rating chart for players averaging over 16.5 minutes.
Perhaps last year is still on the 29-year-old’s mind.
“I only think about things I could’ve done differently to help my team win, knowing I gave everything I had and obviously came up short. I want to try to redeem myself,” Curry told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears on April 14.
With a green health bar — as opposed to last year’s yellow, at best — there’s a good chance he will.