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Warriors hoping Steph Curry saves best for last

Saturday was the rare news conference where Stephen Curry had to act as something of a White House press secretary. Pratfalls needed explaining. Worries needed new lives as reassurances.

Curry put the onus on himself, perhaps to a strange degree when declaring, "I need to play my best game of the year, if not my career."

It is often argued that Curry gets something of a free pass in these situations, as posited by the hypothetical, "But if LeBron James did that ..." The idea is that Curry is treated with kid gloves compared to the superstar in the other jersey, with varying hypotheses as to why.

There's no real way to quantify whether that's true, but this notion is certain: Curry, for all the preceding accolades going into these playoffs, is feeling the heat. It's not at the level of LeBron in 2011, but it represents a personal career high for negative media coverage.

First, there's the on-court aspect fueling all of this. Curry is averaging fewer assists than turnovers in this series, and he's scoring nearly seven fewer points than his regular-season average of 30.1. He's getting constantly targeted in pick-and-rolls, which has resulted in team defensive breakdowns and foul trouble for the two-time MVP.

Normally an ace finisher around the rim, Curry has shot 45.5 percent inside 5 feet this series, illustrative of how he hasn't been able to scoot by and punish Tristan Thompson when the big man leaps out on switches. And subjectively, Curry just hasn't delivered his usual quotient of magical plays in which he conjures some creativity out of seeming chaos.

In short, Curry has been reduced to a 3-point shooter -- albeit still an all-time great one. It's how, despite his issues in the paint, he has still managed to maintain the best true shooting percentage (.603) among Finals starters. That's something, but it's not enough to reflect the control of games he once so casually exerted, and nowhere near the level of control LeBron has held.

After Curry proclaimed the need to play his best game, he added, "That doesn't mean scoring 50 points, though. That means controlling the tempo of the game."

He's right about that. He hasn't been able to take over beyond his bombing from deep. That's been easy to ignore because Curry is defined by his 3-point shooting, but the absence of his slash-and-dish game matters.

So those are the issues on the court, between the lines, that are stoking something of a Curry backlash in mainstream and social media. His entire personal brand is on trial right now. The second MVP season and 73-win chase signaled a changing of the guard from LeBron to Steph. Thousands were flocking to Curry's warm-up routine to see a new kind of superstar, someone kids imagined themselves to be because he appeared kid-like compared to his larger-than-life rivals.

But the taller a reputation gets, the more easily it teeters.

Curry isn't playing up to those high expectations. It doesn't help his reputation that LeBron has been his brilliant best. Curry's MCL injury might be the prosaic reason for the gap between them here, but excuses aren't part of the superstar deal. The tacit understanding is that "superstar" means "superhuman," a man impervious to physical issues. Somehow, some way, James manages to play in all postseason games, more or less looking like LeBron. And right now, he's only gaining steam as Steph looks for his old form.

That discrepancy has not played well on the Internet for Curry. The MVP's all-white Curry 2 low Under Armour shoe was mercilessly mocked into memedom, right after he played poorly in a Game 3 loss.

In Game 6, the targeting of Curry in screen-and-rolls led to an eventual foul out and subsequent ejection in which he lost his cool and threw his mouthpiece.

Shortly before that, LeBron swatted Curry's layup and sneered downward at his smaller rival. It was something between a venus flytrap making its prey disappear and Hakeem Olajuwon dream-shaking the MVP trophy out of David Robinson's jersey.

On top of everything else, there was Ayesha Curry's tweet about how the NBA is either "rigged for money or ratings." In the past, a family member's thoughts on the legitimacy of officiating wouldn't be headline news. In this era, during the Finals, it's gasoline and a fire all at once.

When asked whether he shakes his head at the current level of scrutiny, Curry said on Saturday, "Yes, I guess, because the stuff that I hear is probably 10 times worse than the stuff that I don't hear. You've got to love that scrutiny and the praise, positive or negative, because of the stage that we're on. If we're in the Finals every year and playing for a championship and that's what you have to deal with, I'm cool with it."

Little of the scrutiny really has much to do with Steph Curry, the actual person, which might be why he seems unaffected. "He understands the good and bad aspects of fame, and gets how fickle it is," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of his point guard.

As has been written in this space, Bruce Fraser, the sanguine Golden State assistant who oversees Curry's shooting routine, has said Curry goes out there "without fear of judgment." If that's actually true, it might explain an aspect of his ascent.

Back in December, ESPN Stats & Info sent Michael Schwartz out to Boston to chart Curry's pregame warm-up routine. What surprised readers wasn't how many shots Curry made; it was how many he missed. Though performing sans defenders, Curry shot 61.1 percent in the routine and 50 percent from deep -- impressive for a game, but not at all impressive for an NBA player in warm-ups. To be fair, many of the misses were casually thrown, ridiculous shots, but that laid-back approach also speaks to something. Curry has married a perfectionist's work ethic to a gunslinger's equanimity. His brilliant plays are as whimsical as his turnovers are maddeningly casual. "Casual" is perhaps Curry's greatest strength, as well as his greatest weakness.

That might be why the team, players and coaches keep conveying a certain expectation: They think Curry goes off in Game 7. They believe the difference between great Steph Curry and bad Steph Curry is often just a matter of focus. When the stakes rise, the focus narrows.

The voluble Marreese Speights made a private team sentiment public, putting it on The Player's Tribune: "I wouldn't be surprised if he comes out and scores 50. With all the things the media's been saying about him, and everything on Twitter, I know he's going to respond. I know it."

Maybe the Warriors are talking with their hopes. Nobody can see the future, and theoretically, the stakes were also fairly high in Game 6. Where was the big game then?

Still, this team believes it's on the horizon, right at the very moment it's absolutely necessary. The Warriors trust in something deeply as the rest of the Bay Area gets queasy at the prospect of disaster. With all hell breaking loose, they place faith in their maligned superstar as the accusatory, negative noise blares around him.

They've seen him conjure necessary greatness before. They expect Steph Curry to finally break through again. They know it.

Related Video
Curry: Need to play best game of my career
Curry: Need to play best game of my career
Steph Curry explains the type of game he needs to play in Game 7 and says the Warriors will be very disappointed if they don't win the championship.

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