Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have a hard road ahead if they are going to repeat as NBA champions. They must first beat Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals – the series is tied 1-1 and resumes Sunday at 8 p.m. (TNT) – and then they likely will have to play Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
With two-time Most Valuable Player Curry dominating much of the sports conversation these days, I spoke with his former college coach, Bob McKillop of Davidson, about the most famous player he has ever coached. What follows is a transcript edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: So first Curry wins the MVP award last season, and then he has a dramatically better season this year and wins it again – this time unanimously. What surprised you the most about that jump?
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A: Stephen has never surprised me, but the magnitude of how magnificent this season was? That’s unparalleled. I knew he could get better, but to have that kind of magnificence? To get all those votes for Most Improved Player, too?
There’s this old song from the late 1960s that Lou Rawls sang so well that goes: “They don’t give medals to yesterday’s heroes.” It’s like Steph is listening to that over and over. His quest for excellence continues. That’s his character. There’s no entitlement, none whatsoever. Credit Dell and Sonya for raising him like that.
Q: There have been a lot of great moments from Curry this season: the 38-foot game-winner against Oklahoma City in the regular season, the 17 points in a single overtime period in the playoffs when he shouted “I’m back!” at the Portland crowd – what’s been your favorite so far?
A: Within a week or two in May, he graces the cover of “Parents” magazine (Curry and his two daughters were on the June 2016 cover) and he’s also named the unanimous MVP. That is the combination that exists in his life – freedom and discipline. It’s rare to find someone with that kind of success and that kind of balance. When you become very successful, there are two paths you choose from, arrogance or confidence. With Steph, because humility is so important in his life, he chose the pathway of confidence.
Q: When you have Steph Curry on your team, how does that make an imprint on the rest of the players?
A: He stamped character on us, and a similar thing is unfolding at Golden State. I thought it was very revealing that in the first game back after one injury, he enters the game and all of a sudden the joy that is part of Golden State – that joy that seemed to disappear in the loss they had just had without him – was back. That joy was like a blanket that covered everything. Everyone had a hop in their step, joy in their faces, joy on their bench.
And of course there’s also a lot of joy exuded in a two-minute stretch like Wednesday night (when Curry scored 15 points in two minutes of Wednesday night’s Game 2 win over Oklahoma City). That doesn’t hurt.
Q: Will the Warriors get out of this Western Conference final and win another NBA title?
A: I’m confident they will beat Oklahoma City, even though it will be very hard-fought. And then with the way Cleveland’s playing? You have three teams head and shoulders above everybody else.
I like the way Golden State responded after Oklahoma City had that big Game 1 win. In the first game, I remember Steph had Enes Kanter who switched onto him on a ball screen. Steph had him sized up, but then he made the unselfish pass to an open guy who missed the three. In Game 2, you saw Steph becoming more and more assertive and taking more shots.
Q: That reminds me of something I have wondered about. In 2008, against Kansas in the Elite Eight in the final seconds, Steph did a similar thing. You were down two. Steph made the unselfish pass out of a double-team to an open teammate who missed a three-pointer that would have won the game.
Has Steph now evolved to the point where he would take that shot he didn’t take at Davidson, even against a double team, because the bottom line is that shot would be his team’s best chance to win?
A: I don’t want to think about that one. Hey, we got a great shot on that.
Q: The physicality question has always come up with Curry. Is his body breaking down in these playoffs, or is what we’re seeing right now a durable athlete who has played in at least 78 regular-season games for four straight seasons but who has had some bad breaks in this postseason?
A: Think about the way he’s being guarded: Roughed up. Denied. Getting hit all the time. It’s been happening since Davidson, but now bigger and stronger guys are delivering a blow. Yet he makes more than 68 percent of his layups, leading the NBA, so he’s as fearless as ever going inside.
He doesn’t hesitate, which is good, because I think hesitation invites injury. He was injured (the knee injury) in pursuit of a loose ball. ... If the floor isn’t wet, he doesn’t slip. I don’t think it’s his body. I think it’s unfortunate circumstances.