As a Raptors fan, there is, alongside all the dread, pleasure to be found in seeing your team be part of one of the great spectacles in the history of the game
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to watch a comet streaking toward the earth and to be aware, in the moments before your certain death, that you are watching something incredibly rare and incredibly beautiful that will nonetheless be incredibly fatal to you and everyone you care about, then I would invite you to watch Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry for a single offensive possession, any possession really, as a fan of the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals.
It won’t be easy. Curry can disappear on court like no other star. He’ll pass early, loop, draw defenders, get the ball back, pass again, cut, get the ball again, pass one more time then drift out of sight. Even if you’re trying to follow him, and only him, your eyes will eventually slip. By the time you find him again, he’ll be open, somehow, and either unleashing the greatest jump shot in history or cutting another pass into the endless space created by all of his movement.
“There is this constant feeling of fullness and potential when he’s on the floor,” said Nathaniel Friedman, who writes about basketball for GQ. It is like nothing else in the game. It warps the geography of the court. “You are acutely aware of the fact that something aesthetically powerful but also game changing … could just happen at any moment,” Friedman said.
On Sunday, Curry and the Warriors beat Toronto in a halting and ugly game to tie the finals at one game a piece. It was the kind of loss, at home, against a vulnerable titan missing several stars that seemed designed to leave nervy Raptors fans overflowing with bile. But amid all that nausea there were moments of grudging wonder and joy. “He mesmerizes me,” said Jack Armstrong, the longtime Raptors colour man for TSN, about Curry. It’s okay to be a Raptors fan and accept that he mesmerizes us all.
The NBA Finals will be over in less than two weeks. The Raptors will win or they won’t. But the joys of the experience shouldn’t be lost either way. No matter what else happens, Raptors fans are getting to see, alongside the gritty intensity and push of their own team, a show that demonstrates the best of what basketball can be. They are getting to see Curry, a virtuoso in a beautiful game, forced, for the first time since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors three years ago, to test how great he can be.
It is admittedly a mixed pleasure as an opposing fan — like admiring the skill of a cat burglar who stole your sectional couch without even opening your door. But it is a thrill nonetheless. Even when he isn’t hitting shots — Curry finished Sunday’s game just 6 for 17 — he alters everything around him. “He just makes the defence do weird things, unlike anybody else in the league,” said Marcus Thompson, who covers the Warriors for The Athletic and wrote a book about Curry’s rise. “They’re so terrified of him making threes that they do stupid stuff.”
That terror is what iced the game for the Warriors Sunday.
On the final possession, with Golden State up by two, the Raptors blitzed Curry with two defenders, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. With his back to the basket and VanVleet’s hand literally on the ball, Curry spun away from both men, almost fell, kept himself upright with a hand on the floor, cut back again between VanVleet and Siakam and launched the ball two-handed to Shaun Livingston.
As Curry ran toward the basket, three Raptors followed him, while a fourth, Marc Gasol, stayed in the lane. With all the attention on Curry, Livingston passed the ball to an open Andre Iguodala who had a full second and a half to shoot. He hit the three, his first of the series, and the game was done.
Afterward, Curry said it was disrespectful of the Raptors to leave Iguodala that open. But it wasn’t. It was just respectful of everything Curry is and that he can do. “The thing with Curry,” said Friedman, “is that it does feel like anything is possible for that team with him on the floor.”
The Warriors aren’t better without Durant. The Raptors will have a much harder time if and when he returns. But that’s not really the point. Sport is not just about achievement, about stacking stars until wins feel inevitable. It’s about conflict and struggle. At its best, it’s about watching the already brilliant forced to push up against the edges of what that brilliance can be.
That’s what Curry is having to do in this series. “When Durant’s on the floor, they’re splitting a baby,” said Thompson. Alone as a leader, with a cast of injured and aging sidekicks, Curry is testing the limits of what his unique and wonderful game can achieve. As a Raptors fan, there is, alongside all the dread, some pleasure to be found in watching that, in seeing your team be part of one of the great spectacles in the history of the game. There is no contradiction in admitting that and still hoping that he fails.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019