OAKLAND -- The debate over Stephen Curry’s gifts and merits on the basketball court never seems to end, with the most recent over whether he needs to win a Finals MVP as some form of validation.
He doesn’t, of course, but he’ll be in line for one if the Warriors, in their physically compromised state, are able to get past the Raptors in the NBA Finals, which resume with Game 3 on Wednesday night at Oracle Arena.
Even if Curry wins the Bill Russell Award, the court of opinion will remain in session. People will argue. The final argument must conclude with a question that should convince even the most skeptical juror.
Is there a more feared player in the NBA?
The evidence indicates the answer is “no,” which ought to close the case.
This is not to say others are not feared. LeBron James once frightened opponents. Kevin Durant still does. James Harden has his moments, as does Kawhi Leonard. Kobe Bryant was feared, too, almost as much as Shaquille O’Neal, perhaps the last player feared as much Curry is now.
With Shaq, the fear was based on sheer physicality. He was the biggest man on the court, using brute force to do as he pleased. So, teams resorted to fouling him, forcing him to shoot free throws, which he missed nearly as often as he made.
That won’t fly with Curry, a career 90 percent shooter from the line, so coaches defend him differently than any other player. They’d rather he lofted a 10-footer than launch from 30.
Curry is the only player who consistently dictates the actions of the entire defense. He is such an imposing offensive force that coaches routinely install game plans specifically designed to keep him from taking over the game.
Call it “Stephaphobia.” It can help Curry and definitely help his teammates.
In Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Raptors coach Nick Nurse went full preposterous in an effort to contain Curry. He unleashed a box-and-1 defense, assigning one player, usually the redoubtable Fred VanVleet, to shadow Curry’s every movement while other Raptors were responsible for specific spaces on the court. The idea is that Curry will have one defender at all times, with a second defender a few feet away.
This was the highest possible honor for Curry, the equivalent of a baseball manager deciding to intentionally walk a batter despite the bases being loaded or a football coach opting to assign two cornerbacks to face-guard one wideout.
Nurse was ridiculed for his extreme measure -- as if he’s the only NBA coach with a severe case of Stephaphobia.
But get this: Nurse consulted with his players in the fourth quarter, and they agreed.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I'm thinking about going box-and-1. What do you guys think?' " Nurse said Tuesday. “And they were like, 'Well, what does that look like?’ I drew the box up and who would be where. They kind of liked the looks of Marc [Gasol] and Kawhi [Leonard] being down, and Kyle [Lowry] up and Fred chasing.
“Kyle was kind of the one that said, ‘Yeah, man, that will work. Let's go.’ ”
Lowry also was saying, perhaps under his breath, “Cool. Better Fred than me.”
We’ve seen the Clippers, under the direction of coach Doc Rivers, use “top-locking,” which is designed to keep a dangerous shooter from fully using screens and pin-downs to get a clear shot. The Clippers applied it, with a degree of success, in the first round of the playoffs against Curry and Klay Thompson.
Curry was “limited” to 50 percent shooting from the field, and from deep, against LA.
Teams have tried doubling, tried trapping, tried blitzing, tried crowding, clutching and bumping. Nothing seems to work against the man whom Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle believes transcends basketball.
“You’re talking a guy that, it’s a little bit like what Steve Jobs has done to our everyday life,” Carlisle told reporters a few years ago. “He’s changed the way we live. He and Bill Gates have done that. Steph Curry is changing the way the game will be played in the future.”
When the Warriors and Raptors meet Wednesday night for Game 3, Curry will have the biggest job on the floor, especially if Thompson (hamstring strain) can’t play. Durant won’t play. The primary focus of Toronto’s defense will be on Curry. He will have to figure out a way to make the Raptors pay for whatever they have in mind.
Maybe the best way is to utilize the teammates he does have. The side effect of Stephaphobia is, after all, that it tends to make the game easier for whoever shares the floor with Curry.