As bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers looked going down 2-0 against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, the tables were turned in Cleveland’s 120-90 Game 3 rout. Just about everything that had gone poorly for the Cavs in the series’ first two games — from horrific shooting to porous defense — reversed itself, proving once again how hard it is for one NBA team to dominate another consistently at this stage of the playoffs.
The Dubs probably shouldn’t fret too much over the 30-point loss; our prediction model still gives Golden State a 77 percent chance of winning the series in the end. But if there is a source of concern for Warriors fans, it might be the ongoing struggles of the team’s best player, league MVP and offensive demigod Stephen Curry.
During the regular season, Curry averaged a Game Score (John Hollinger’s method for gauging a player’s performance in any given outing) of 24.6, which led all NBA players. He cracked a Game Score of 20 — and I should note that the scale for Game Score is a lot like points per game, so 20 (games like this or this for Steph) is the benchmark for a good performance — 57 times in 79 appearances, and was held below 10 (like this) only four times.
In these NBA Finals, however, Curry is averaging 16 points, 5 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 30.7 minutes per game, and hasn’t broken 20 in Game Score even once, though he’s dipped to single digits twice in three games. In fact, his 8.7 average Game Score for the series is easily the worst three-game start to an NBA Finals by a league MVP since at least 1984:1
The Cavs are slightly better than the typical finals opponent that an MVP faces — at least according to the Elo ratings, our pet metric for estimating team strength — but strength of schedule only explains a fraction of Curry’s statistical downturn.
In the finals thus far, Curry’s famous ability to create and make shots he has no business knocking down has been on the fritz. First, he’s “only” shooting for an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) 9 points higher than we’d expect based on the quality of his shots, a subpar showing by his usual standards. (He hit for an eFG% 13 points higher than expected during the regular season, tops in the NBA.) And about that shot quality: According to player-tracking data, the Cavs’ defense has also forced Curry into his fifth-worst three-game stretch of shot selection all season long.
Curry’s game revolves around his shooting, so any dip there will have an outsize impact on his effectiveness. But perhaps more than the drop-off in shot making and shot quality when Curry’s number does get called, the Warriors have suffered because he simply hasn’t been able to make many plays for himself or others these past three games. Curry has seen both his usage and assist rates drop precipitously in the finals, and his turnovers are through the roof — more than double his regular-season average, on a per-possession basis.
Is it all about Cleveland’s D? Well, Curry has been guarded most frequently by Kyrie Irving, one of the weakest defensive guards in the league, but the Cavs have also switched Irving off of Curry on plenty of screens, in favor of more capable defenders such as LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and even Tristan Thompson (at least on one memorable contested step-back in Game 3). But just as much of Curry’s weak performance in the finals thus far can also be pinned on his own poor decision-making and a lack of support from teammates, like on this ill-fated drive:
The good news for Golden State is that Curry has bounced back from games worse than Wednesday night’s in these very playoffs. And Game 3 aside, the Warriors have often been well-rounded enough in these finals not just to beat Cleveland but to rout them, despite down performances from Curry. But even if it’s just with an eye towards the series MVP derby — will Steph really post two league MVP-NBA championship doubles with zero finals MVPs? — it’s an open question whether Curry will be able to regain his usual form down the home stretch of the series.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.