How time flies. It’s only a week into the Cavaliers reign as champs and yet it already seems that their victory was in the distant past. The draft and some incredible trades have already got the offseason underway with a bang. But, let’s wind the clocks back. Back to that weird, but ultimately thrilling final series. In fact, let’s take it back further. Let’s go back to February.
If you can recall, whilst the world doted on the incredible play of Stephen Curry, one man remained less than impressed - Oscar Robertson.
The hall of famer and only player in league history to average a triple-double over an entire season, spoke frankly on ESPN’s Mike and Mike show, indirectly suggesting that perhaps Curry would have struggled in Robertson’s own era. After sharing his perspective on the state of modern basketball, The Big O was met with a wave a criticism. But was there an air of truth to his comments?
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Despite being belittled as a nostalgic old man who recalls his era through rose tinted lenses, something Robertson said has stuck with me for the past few months and was noticeably accurate during the Finals:
“When I played years ago, if you shot a shot outside and hit it, the next time I'm going to be up on top of you. I'm going to pressure you with three-quarters, half-court defense. But now they don't do that.” Oscar Robertson, 27 February 2016.
The Warriors had their historic ride to repeat as NBA Champions cut short by LeBron James' Cavs. And though the series went the full seven games and ended in a nail biting four point victory for Cleveland, overall, it was one of the strangest series I can recall witnessing.
Asides from game seven, no game was within single digits and two were thirty point (or more) blow outs. And yet games 4 through 7 were relatively competitive. For the first time in history, we saw a franchise overturn a 3-1 deficit to win a Finals series. LeBron stole the moment and, against all odds, delivered the city of Cleveland their first ever NBA title.
Amongst all of this, it was also the first time we have seen an MVP fall so short of our expectations. In series full of inconsistencies, Curry’s underwhelming production may have been the single constant. I accept that Steph dropped 38 in game four. And 30 in game six. But, for the league’s leading scorer (30.1ppg), performances with 11, 18, 19 and 17 points is just not good enough (I’m willing to overlook his 25 in game five).
It was clear from the watching the series that Curry was not comfortable and out of rhythm. We know he was hurt – after 82 games and three rounds of playoffs, he was not alone. His ankle, his knee and even his elbow all contributed to his physical status throughout the playoffs but they don’t alone hold the key to his under-performance.
Curry is a finesse player – the polar opposite of LeBron. Part of his commercial marketability is his “normal” appearance, he is not physically intimidating. People like that. People buy that. And under the magnifying glass of playoff defense, this was the weakness the Cavs targeted in their strategy to stop him.
At times Curry struggles with the physicality of the game. We’ve seen it in the regular season with the Clippers’ Chris Paul matching up against him in some heated battles. Playoff basketball is a different beast to the regular season. It’s winning time. Your season is on the line and the lights are shining the brightest. The physicality of the game steps up in a big way.
Referees are more lenient and defenders get away with a lot more contact. This blue print for stopping Curry was highlighted in the Conference Finals by the Thunder. A collective effort to bump the MVP off his screens both physically wearing him down and mentally frustrating him.
The Cavs followed OKC’s lead – vexing the star and infuriating him to the point he literally spat his dummy out (well, gum shield) in game six. His perception was that the Cavs were getting away with contact that he, himself, was being whistled for.
But, what about Oscar?
In spite of the increased physicality of the playoffs, it is universally known that the NBA is not the “tough” league it used to be. Rule tweaks and changes have been implemented to both protect players and create an attractive on-court product.
Which makes The Big O’s comments ring even truer. How would Steph have coped without the protection of the current NBA rules? Without restrictions on post-ups or arm-bars. Without the protection of flagrant one and two fouls.
Now this gives us an interesting paradox. How much of Steph’s rise to prominence and glory has been a product of circumstance? And, perhaps even more so, what could some players from the past have been able produce on-court had they been born a few decades later?
Of course these are never-ending arguments, but the next time you hear an ex-player make a statement that sounds ludicrous, take a breath before debunking it. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.