OAKLAND, Calif. -- They didn’t have to guard each other for it to feel like a personal duel between Stephen Curry and James Harden. Sharing the same court was more than enough to turn Game 1 of the Western Conference finals into a referendum on the 2014-15 NBA Most Valuable Player award and for the outcome to validate Curry as the trophy’s recipient.
It’s the 22nd time the MVP winner and runner-up have met in a playoff series, and this game turned into a microcosm of the season. Harden had the superior stats and did an admirable job keeping his team in contention while playing half of the time without injured teammate Dwight Howard, but Curry had the plays that stuck in your mind and his team had the victory.
What they both did was deliver. They made their cases, made it easy to tell advocates for either side: “Yeah, I see your point.” Harden began with four assists in the first quarter, Curry made four of his first six shots. Harden scored 21 points in the second half, 28 for the game, and nearly had a triple-double with 11 rebounds and nine assists, forcing the Golden State Warriors to hold on until the last minute for their 110-106 victory over the Houston Rockets. Curry made 6 of 11 3-pointers to propel him to 34 points, with six rebounds and five assists.
So even though Curry didn’t take a shot against Harden, and Harden fired off only one against Curry, this was very much a back-and-forth between the two. It was great theater, getting off to a much better start than the Rockets-Clippers series, and providing a rare delivery of a superstar matchup that lived up to the hype.
“It’s entertaining basketball, but we’re both supposed to help our team win and do what we can to impact the game,” Curry said.
“It’s a lot more fun to watch Steph do it than James,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said with a smile that acknowledged his obviously biased perspective.
Neutral observers would feel the same way. There’s a drudgery to Harden’s game when he’s at his best, because when he’s most effective is when he draws fouls and lives at the free-throw line. Harden topped the 40-point mark nine times this season, and made a total of 134 free throws in the process. Curry had only three games of 40-plus points -- but he never needed double-digit free throws in any of them, and made only 20 free throws total in the three.
Voting Curry for MVP might have been as much about aesthetics as it was about his team's 67 victories. Curry’s style isn’t just what we think basketball is becoming, it’s about what we’d like basketball to be: a breathtaking display of skills, with some audacity mixed in. Curry is a better fit for the Vine highlight age, preferably with the sound turned up to hear the ball rip through the net.
Where style meets substance is his knack for making the big play when it’s needed most. Two shots stood out in Game 1: a stepback jumper that put the Warriors ahead by three just before the end of a first half in which the Rockets had led by as many as 16 points, and a jackknife 3-pointer that gave the Warriors some long-sought breathing room with a nine-point lead with three minutes left in the game. Both brought out all of the energy from the Oracle Arena fans, that magical power to summon the dragon that Curry possesses more than any player in the league right now.
He’s the star among stars at the moment. When he was taking practice jumpers before Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies, a voice called over from the baseline: “Steph, do you need me to show you how to do that?”
Curry looked over to the source. It was Joe Montana, who was already offering a handshake and a congratulations on receiving the MVP award the day before. The notion of Montana offering Curry shooting tips is ludicrous, but Curry would be wise to hit up the beloved former 49er for advice on handling the pros and cons of being the Bay Area’s superstar.
Meanwhile, there’s the lesson of another great quarterback that Curry is carrying. Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry once was at a golf event with Dan Marino, who recounted his oft-told tale about losing in the Super Bowl in his second season in Miami, thinking it would be the first of many trips, not realizing at the time that he’d never get there again. Gentry wanted to be sure Curry seized this opportunity, a year that has come together in unprecedented fashion for the Warriors' franchise, a year filled with accolades and largely devoid of injuries.
Curry has taken nothing for granted. He drained that 3-pointer in New Orleans when the worst thing that could have happened if he missed was a 2-1 lead in the series while retaining home-court advantage. He sank a 3-pointer in a ridiculous shot from three quarters of the court to break the backs of the Grizzlies.
This is why the regular season's singular honor belonged to Curry, and why he's the man of the moment in the playoffs. It’s not that he’s helping the Warriors win games. It’s that he isn’t letting them lose.