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Forgotten MVP Stephen Curry has returned to boost the Warriors

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Last year’s unanimous MVP has not received much attention for his incredible performances during the 2017 NBA Playoffs.

2017 NBA Finals - Game Two
Stephen Curry acknowledges the fans.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Two games into the 2017 NBA Finals, the Warriors lead the Cavaliers two games to none. And the sports pundits, analysts and fans have been clear: the reason is Kevin Durant.

It’s a convenient conclusion: last year, the Warriors lost the Finals in seven games without him.

But with him, the team has been transformed. Durant is scoring in transition, on isolation plays, at the rim and from the perimeter. The Slim Reaper has been a beast on defense, too, protecting the rim and yanking rebounds out of orbit, drawing them into his gaping maw.

Most importantly, he’s taking on the challenge of facing LeBron James — and he’s delivering. After years of almost-but-not-quite in Oklahoma City, including a gentlemen’s sweep at the hands of James’ 2012 Miami Heat, Durant is finally having his time in the sun. He is ascendant, and he is tearing the championship from LeBron’s hands before our eyes.

A great narrative, but it has some major plot holes.

Sunday, Stephen Curry posted 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists on just 17 shots, earning him the first triple-double of his Playoffs career. That comes on the heels of his Game 1 performance: 28 points, 6 rebounds and 10 assists on 11-of-22 shooting. In any other Finals, a reigning MVP averaging 30-10.5-8.5 while shooting efficiently is winning hardware.

This year, he’s barely getting considered outside of the Interstate-880 corridor.

It’s a perverse outcome for a guy who was maligned for failing to show up in the 2016 Finals after sustaining an injury some expected would sideline him for the postseason. It’s sadder, still, considering the Warriors have always played as well as their baby-faced assassin — with or without Kevin Durant.

The first leg of this Finals was instructive.

In Game 1, J.R. Smith back-peddled in transition defense, at first looking to stop Durant before sprinting out to close out on Curry on the wing. He chose to give up an uncontested Durant dunk instead of a Curry wing three. It was a glaring example, but it was actually typical. Durant had a career-high six dunks in the first half of Game 1 alone — some in transition and some in the half court.

But while most fans count those 12 points as the most important element of the game, we should be able to see past that. Curry, in addition to leading the series in assists with 10 per game, is additionally leading the series in hockey assists (the pass leading to the assist), with four per game. (Iguodala is second at 1.5, and Durant and James are tied at 0.5 per game.)

This isn’t a fluke.

Curry also led the NBA Playoffs with 2.4 hockey assists per game, and he led the entire league in the regular season as well. Our base-10 fascination with points, rebounds and assists completely blinds us to the true value of an assist. The value of the stat is that it results in created points, not additional assists. It’s the points that count, and that’s precisely why the Warriors keep playing so incredibly well whenever Curry is on the court and doing his thing — whether he registers an assist or not.

It’s why Curry, and not Durant, leads the NBA in playoffs net rating (per stats.nba.com). He is, and always has been, the engine that makes the Warriors go, and the team will continue to win as long as he continues to go.

The Cavaliers love to blitz Curry in the half court. They trap, they hedge hard, they crowd him and they do anything they can to put multiple bodies on him. It’s not a new strategy: for each of the Cavaliers-Warriors’ Finals, Cleveland warped its defense to Curry in an effort to make the rest of the team beat them. Durant and Klay Thompson can and should be able to beat them. But what’s truly spectacular is that Curry is still beating them anyway.

In addition to the immense gravitational pull of the “beige hole,” distorting and twisting the already compromised Cavaliers’ defense like time and space, Curry is also playing well enough to win without an upgraded supporting cast. Simply put, Curry is doing exactly what made him a unanimous MVP — and that player should win titles.

Yes, Kevin Durant is great. In fact, he may be even better than that. But he’s not the only reason the Warriors are winning. He’s not the reason the Warriors are up 2-0. There are many reasons why these Golden State Warriors are up in the series through two games, and chief among them is their two-time MVP.

We should give Curry his due.

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