CLEVELAND (AP) — Turns out, Stephen Curry has not entered some level of basketball infallibility.
His unanimous MVP selection, the record 3-point total, the league scoring title, all those accolades while he was leading the Golden State Warriors to an NBA-record 73 regular-season wins may have made it seem like he was in some sort of permanent video-game mode.
And then came the NBA Finals.
The MVP is struggling, and what once looked like a Golden State stranglehold on a repeat title no longer does. Curry has been held to 16 points per game in the first three matchups in this series against Cleveland, which resumes when the Cavaliers play host to Game 4 on Friday night.
“We can definitely help Steph out and we will,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Thursday. “We can put him in better position. ... The coaching staff has to figure out the best lineups and the best looks. Players have to perform. It’s on all of us to be better.”
Curry averaged 30 points per game in the regular season, but it’s been a perfect storm in the finals for struggle: He missed shots he ordinarily makes in Game 1, got himself into foul trouble in Game 2, and endured a combination of more foul trouble and smothering, grabby, invasive Cleveland defense in Game 3.
Golden State leads the series 2-1, so it’s not exactly a dire situation the Warriors are facing. But if the Warriors are going to repeat, Curry probably needs to get somewhere closer to normal soon.
“Last night was a struggle,” Curry said. “Just, again, foul trouble and kind of dealing with that, but also not being as aggressive as I needed to be. I don’t know what the reason was for that, and it won’t be that in Game 4.”
The Cavaliers made sure Curry felt them everywhere he went in Game 3. When he tried to get into the lane, there would be someone waiting to bump him. Baseline cut, someone would make sure to impede his path. Flash toward the ball, and Kyrie Irving or another Cavalier was often there to take a little swipe at him — not enough for a foul, but more than enough to pester.
“That’s for all of their guys, not just Steph,” Cavaliers forward LeBron James said. “They do a great job of the ball moving, and when you allow those guys to move with freedom of space, they’re very dangerous. They’re already dangerous enough. So when you allow them to run around and not feel any pressure or any physicality or anything, you know, they’re able to just be even more comfortable.”
The 30-point romp in Game 3 might make it seem like the Cavaliers control the series, but they still need to win three of the next four games against a team that isn’t prone to slides of any significant length. Kevin Love appeared to be making strides Thursday toward a return from his concussion, but if he plays on Friday— and in what role — remain unanswered questions.
Down 0-2, the Cavs had no choice but to be desperate. After a 30-point win, James wants to see that same desperation.
“We can’t afford to go down 3-1 and go into their building and give them confidence going back,” James said. “So it’s a do-or-die game for us still.”
To knot the series, it almost certainly means the Cavaliers can’t let Curry or his backcourt mate Klay Thompson — and definitely not the both of them — have big games. Draymond Green leads the Warriors in scoring through three games of this series, which is probably more than Cleveland could have hoped for coming into the matchup.
“You’ve got to be so locked in where you’re almost in a matrix, locked in a zone,” Cleveland forward Tristan Thompson said when asked about how the Cavaliers guard Curry. “Because, really, if you relax for one second, Steph’s on the other side of the court and he’s getting the open 3 in the corner.”
Kerr played alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s, so he’s seen what players who are the faces of the league — like Curry basically is now — endure when they struggle. Kerr said he rarely even has to give Curry advice on such matters, and poked fun at the notion that the Warriors suddenly went from strutting to sputtering.
“All we have to do is take stock,” Kerr said. “We’re up 2-1. We’re in pretty good shape. We haven’t played that well. Let’s play better.”
Curry offered similar sentiments.
“I like our chances,” Curry said, “of being able to figure it out.”