Watching Steph Curry’s fall last night (and the endless replays ESPN showed) was horrifying. Watching the reactions of the Curry family* was even more difficult.
*The shots of Steph’s mom, Sonya Curry, saying “you’re alright baby” and “get up” were about as emotional as it gets watching a sporting event.
With Steph’s health verified and his ability to produce the magic only Chef Curry can create confirmed, I want to dive into what Steph’s fall said about pursuing a NBA Title. Why? Because I believe that moment was telling in the fact that winning a championship is shaped by luck, just as it’s shaped by the skill, drive, and any other adjective ABC will use in its NBA Finals promo.
All it took was one terrifying fall. Four decades up build-up, five years of reconstruction, and a season worthy of genuine title aspirations, all brought to a temporary halt by one play which almost ended the Warriors’ championship dreams.
For half a decade the Warriors have done almost everything right. They’ve hit on their draft choices, shrewdly managed the team’s salary cap, and performed the NBA’s most successful coaching change in the face of massive public criticism. All of those scouting reports, salary cap spreadsheets, and sleepless nights have coalesced into a team who should (yes, should) win the NBA Title. Yet, all it takes is one moment. One injury, one miscommunication, one shot-clock malfunction, one whatever, to crush a franchise’s dreams. This is the fragility of sports. This is the fickle nature of chasing a NBA Title.
The only predictable part about these unforeseeable events, is that they will happen. Let’s take a tour through recent NBA playoff unpredictability…
In last year’s NBA Finals, the Heat were arguably an air-conditioning unit away from returning to Miami up 2-0 on the Spurs. Instead, the sweltering heat of San Antonio’s arena (eclipsing 80 degrees) gave Lebron James cramps with four minutes left. When Lebron exited the Heat were down two; they would go on to lose by 15. Lebron’s cramps didn’t directly correlate to Miami’s loss, but it played a huge role. The event was unpredictable and was accompanied by drastic implications. Lebron’s cramping tilted the NBA Finals, and may have cost Miami one more year of Lebron. All from one unimaginable event.
There may be no better example of sports’ fickle nature than Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals: Spurs vs Heat. Everybody will remember Ray Allen’s game-tying corner three -and deservedly so, it’s in the all-time shot pantheon with Jordan over Bryon Russell to win his 6th title and Robert Horry vs the Kings in 2002- but it was the Heat’s possession before the Allen shot which, for me, demonstrated the unforeseeable nature of this game we love. With 28 seconds left and the Heat down five, Lebron fires up a three. Four Spurs have three Heat players boxed out in a perfect square -Coach Popovich couldn’t have dreamed of a better team rebounding formation. But Lebron’s shot is an absolute brick, and caroms off the backboard like a tennis ball off a racket. This is Miami’s first break. Luckily for San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard, his 7’3” wingspan, almost one-foot wide hands*, and fast twitch reaction timing is in a perfect position to grab the rebound. But somehow Leonard, one of the league’s best pound-for-pound rebounders, fumbles it. This is Miami’s second break. Leonard, Manu Ginobili, and Boris Diaw would all pursue and even tip the ball at one point, yet it lands in the hands of Lebron who would nails a three. That Spurs possession cost them a title. It was inexplicable in every way.
*Of the 293 players whose hand width has been measured at the Draft Combine since 2010, only four have bigger claws than Leonard. And he’s a small forward…
If your looking for a case study in NBA fragility, look no further than the OKC Thunder. As the 1st seed in the 2013 playoffs, the Thunder lost Russell Westbrook to a knee injury and flamed out in the 2nd round vs the Memphis Grizzlies. As the 2nd seed in the 2014 playoffs, Serge Ibaka injured his calf and missed the first two games of the Conference Finals vs San Antonio -the Thunder would lose in six. 2015 brought the season from hell, as Ibaka, Durant, and Westbrook all missed significant time. Three seasons straight, injuries disabled a contending team from even reaching the Finals. That’s part of the no-guarantees league the Warriors inhabit.
A NBA Title run is a pursuit inherently unpredictable, inexplicable, and fickle. Franchises will spend decades chasing a ring when all it takes is one unforeseeable moment to decimate years of work. This is why we love sports. This is why we hate sports. Lifetimes of preparation can come down to how lucky you are.
Last night the Warriors were lucky Steph wasn’t injured. Luck, there may be no better trait to have while in pursuit of a ring.